Visitors to the Commons
Approaching Thailand’s “Environmental” Struggles from a Western Starting Point

by Larry Lohmann

first published 1 April 1994


Answering the question “What are Thai social movements all about?” means also answering the question “According to whom?” There is nothing wrong with Westerners approaching such movements armed with Western dichotomies such as state/market, public/private, jobs/environment, theory/practice, pragmatic/radical, militant/non-militant or moral/self-interested. But effective intercultural work entails being prepared to see those dichotomies “placed” and challenged by Thai activists.

This essay was written as a chapter (pp109-126) in Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism, a book edited by Bron Raymond Taylor and published in 1995 by State University of New York Press based in Albany, NY.



The Western Discovery of Thai "Environmentalism"

Two decades ago, it was possible for people in the industrialized West to perceive environmentalism as a Western or Western-originated phenomenon. These days it's not so easy. Today, newspapers, books, and trade journals in North America and Europe are full of references -- sometimes worried, more often laudatory -- to all sorts of Southern "environmentalists": Brazilian defenders of the Amazon, Kenyan tree-planters, Argentinian anti-nuclear activists, Indian anti-dam demonstrators and so on. Confrontations between Southern activists and the World Bank or transnational mining or manufacturing firms in courts, streets and universities are meanwhile increasingly being reported in the Western press as "environmental disputes". Among many progressive groups in the West, the image of Southern farmers, too, is changing from one of largely passive individuals in need of Western tutelage about resource management to one of people with detailed environmental awareness gleaned from long struggles to ensure themselves and their descendants supplies of flowing water, forest products and fertile soil.

Increasing Western awareness of "environmentalism" in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand may well have played some small part in such changes of perception. In 1988, many environmental campaigners in industrialized countries were heartened by a victory achieved by the residents of Kanchanaburi province in alliance with Bangkok intellectuals, conservationists, students and newspapers in forcing the Thai government to cancel the Nam Choan hydroelectric dam, which would have flooded the heart of the largest contiguous area of intact forest in mainland Southeast Asia. In the following year, in the wake of nationwide protests against timber concessions, catastrophic logging-related flooding in the South of the country, and timber agreements with Burma, logging was banned nationwide. The first such national ban to be instituted in an Asian country, the new law immediately and dramatically reduced timber removals from the country's forests. Thai farmers' demonstrations against the spread of commercial eucalyptus plantations beginning in the late 1980s have proved more difficult to understand for those outside observers to whom all tree-planting sounds like a good thing, but have also attracted interest from Northern environmentalists who share a concern over ecologically dangerous monocultures.

The new awareness in the West of "environmental" action and thinking in Thailand and other Southern countries is in many ways a useful antidote to the common Western picture of the South as self-destructive and irrational, inhabited largely by mindlessly proliferating "slash and burn" agriculturalists and tinpot dictators, lacking brains, knowledge, initiative and creativity, and in general too poor and downtrodden to be concerned about the environment. This awareness also helps reassure Western environmentalists, many of whom have only slowly begun to increase their contacts with Third World colleagues, that they have many allies abroad. It may even be helping, in some cases, to reinforce the message that most of the people who are striving to preserve land, air, forests and water live in the South and not in the overproducing, overconsuming industrialized societies.

But before toasts are proposed to a new era of global green consciousness and action, it would perhaps be prudent to back up for a moment and ask why Westerners are suddenly noticing, and celebrating as "environmental", various social movements in the South. Such movements, after all, have been around for a long time. In Thailand, for example, what would today be called "environmental" conflicts -- which typically have pitted ordinary villagers against central authorities over rights to, and degradation of, forests, land and water -- date back to well before the Thai words for "environment" and "environmentalist" (singwaetlawm and naksingwaetlawm, terms which appear to be literal translations from the English) entered common usage. Contemporary battles over the centralization of control of forests under the Royal Forest Department and its concessionaires are continuations of a conflict which began nearly a century ago; depletion of coastal fisheries has been an issue between small fisherpeople and trawler-operators for decades; and strife over rural water pollution from mills and commercial plantations existed long before "nature" and "ecology" became all the rage.

It is true, of course, that such battles may be sharper and more visible to outsiders today than they were in the past. In a context in which the "escape hatch" once provided to ordinary people by the forest frontier has disappeared, growing trends toward centralization of control of land and water under the state and the world market -- through dams and diversion projects, commercial trawling, forest zoning plans, the expansion of industrial parks, and so on -- are provoking increasingly open conflicts between central authorities and local people over the issue of what farmland, forests, rivers and fisheries belong to whom. Yet the essential characteristics of the struggles have not changed radically.

Many of the country's more recent political conflicts, too, while they may look from outside to reflect an abrupt flowering of Thai "enviromental consciousness", are generally seen by the participants as involving more longstanding concerns. When, in April 1973, military officers were discovered to be using government equipment to hunt rare animals in an untouched forest near the Burmese border, for example, the issue was seized upon by activists not only because it was an outrage against "nature" but also because it was a symptom of the broader abuses of the dictatorship of the era; in this guise, the incident helped fuel the resentment that resulted in the student-led democratic overthrow of the government in October 1973. When the student movement later forced the government to withdraw mining concessions in Southern Thailand which had been illegally given to the Union-Carbide-dominated Thailand Exploration and Mining Company, the issue was seen within the country largely as one of nationalism and anti-imperialism, and not simply "environmentalism". Similarly, an incident in July 1986, in which a mob of local residents burned down a nearly-completed factory in Phuket set up to process tin-mining residues into tantalum, was not, as it has sometimes been portrayed, an instance of North American-style "ecotage", but rather stemmed from public fears of loss of tourism income due to pollution, as well as complex rivalries between different corporate and political groups (Hirsch and Lohmann 1989). And the current struggle over commercial Eucalyptus camaldulensis plantations, like the agrarian struggles of the 1970s in which the word "environment" was never mentioned, is essentially a conflict over land rights. What farmers object to about the plantations is not simply the biological properties and effects of the Australian tree, nor even the fact that its proliferation in Thailand is partly to secure fiber supplies for heavy Japanese consumption of pulp and paper, although both of these are certainly issues, but rather that the expansion of eucalyptus plantations usurps farmland, pastures, and community forests they consider to be theirs and on which they rely for a livelihood (Lohmann 1991, Lohmann 1993a).

The lack of radical novelty in the Thai movements which now commonly go under the name "environmentalist" suggests that the surging interest which Westerners display in "Thai environmentalism" may say as much about the current state of the debate in the West -- and the West's attempts to represent, assimilate and subvert other societies -- as about Thailand. To Northern governments and corporations, Thai and other Third World "environmental" movements are of growing interest because they meet a need for intelligence about potential threats to resource access or investments and for information about opportunities for export of new "green" products and services. To some Western environmental lobbyists, Thai "environmental" movements are another constituency to "represent". To UN agencies, they offer an excuse for expanding funding and staff for "environmental" programs. To some Western academics, information about Thai and other Third World "environmentalism" is, among other things, valuable intellectual raw material for shaping into essays or debating points which will impress teachers or colleagues in new "environmental studies" departments in universities. To some Western greens, discovering "environmentalism" in Thailand and elsewhere in the South is important because it seems to demonstrate the "universality" of ecological politics or helps to deflect the criticism that environmentalism is "middle-class". To more self-consciously political Westerners, "Thai environmentalism" may be an appealing idea because it suggests new paths toward international movement cooperation on social issues generally.

This is not to say that Thai villagers and middle-class activists have not also played an active part in the discovery of Thai "environmentalism" by the West. Indeed, they have been only too willing to emphasize or construct "environmental" aspects of their movements -- for both domestic and foreign audiences -- on occasions when this has proved politically advantageous. In the struggle against logging concessions and eucalyptus plantations it has not been uncommon to see farmers' organizations concerned with ensuring access to local forests appropriating environmentalist language even in their names (for example, chomrom anurak thammachaat [Nature Conservation Club]). Thai social movements have also occasionally liaised, when this bears fruit, with urban-based conservation organizations -- some of them Northern -- although they are constantly wary lest "foreign" liaisons discredit them with a nationalistic Thai public.

Academic ecological science, while it has never motivated, dominated or determined the direction of a social movement to defend forests or rivers in Thailand, also often plays an important subordinate role, as a counter to the usually-questionable claims of government or corporate "experts". In the recent campaign over the World Bank-supported Pak Mun hydroelectric dam in Ubon Ratchatanee province, for example, local villagers' concerns about the dam's effect on local fishery livelihoods were buttressed by the testimony of internationally-respected experts on the fauna of the Mekong river system, who helped demolish the Bank's amateurish reassurances about the dam's possible effects on the little-studied but immense biodiversity of the system. (Woodruff et al. 1993).

Over the past five years, too, nearly all Thailand's voluntary organizations committed to rural development and human rights have come to present "environmental work" as one of their main focuses. To some extent this is due to a genuine change in the nature of that work. The pace of corporate and state takeover of land and river valleys for projects ranging from irrigation dams to tourist resorts, as well as the rising toll of pollution from power plants, commercial salt mining, sugar and pulp mills, and other industrial installations, has driven these organizations to focus more and more on campaigns to get the state to recognize local rights to water and land and less and less on (for example) the promotion of rice banks or credit groups. In another, more fundamental sense, however, these voluntary organizations are doing what they have always done. They are not taking up the standard of a new enviromentalist philosophy which has burst upon a startled Thailand from the West, but rather are continuing to try to support rural peoples in their battles against oppression and exploitation.

Western Dichotomies

Whatever motivates Western discussions of Thai "environmentalism", and whatever they are used for, they are inevitably couched in language which owes a good deal to Western concepts and Western experience. This is only natural. All interpretations must begin somewhere, and people brought up in highly industrialized societies, including the writer of this chapter and most of its readers, can only start, like everyone else, with the frameworks and models which they know and which have proved useful in familiar contexts. As philosopher Hilary Putnam inquires wryly in another context, "We should use somebody else's conceptual scheme?"

To Western industrialists and environmentalists alike, a number of dichotomies seem almost inevitable in any description of "environmental" action. These include the following. Society is dominated either by the state or by the market. Land management, to avoid anarchy, must be either public or private. Attitudes toward nature are either anthropocentric (human-centered) or ecocentric (nature-centered). Actions tend to be inspired either by religious and moral or by self-interested motives. Policies can favor either jobs or environment, and environmental action can be either pragmatic or radical. Countries are either overpopulated or underpopulated. Environmental action is based on putting ecological theory (which may include religion, objectives, techniques or science) into practice through first laying out a plan or set of laws and then implementing them. This action can be either legal or illegal, militant or nonmilitant.

Not all Western environmentalists, of course, take all of these dichotomies for granted. But most will unreflectively assume the validity of at least a few of them. Thus it is not uncommon for American environmentalists to presume without thinking that their counterparts in Thailand must be faced with the job of "reconciling livelihood and environment", or to suppose that the task for "environmentalists" in a country without strong central authority like Laos is one of helping the government and the private sector establish firmer control over how land, forests and water are used. Other American environmentalists may find it natural to assume that (say) the divisions in India's Chipko movement are parallel to the anthropocentric/ecocentric distinction familiar in Western industrialized societies, or that the major religions originating in India express moral sentiments which are "shared by the philosophy now called 'deep ecology'" (Taylor et al. 1992). The presupposition, in short, is likely to be that the societies, cultures and individuals of less industrialized nations, as well as their "environmental movements", are in many important respects similar to their counterparts in the West.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this assumption. Indeed, as mentioned above, as a first move in dialogue with members of other societies it may be unavoidable. The application to Southern countries of the dichotomies that I have mentioned, however, can provoke resistance among those whom they are supposed to describe. This has proved to be the case in Thailand as well as in many other Southern countries. Western activists who lecture their Thai counterparts on the need to take a "scientific" or a "market" approach to environmental problems, for example, or to "apply Buddhism" to them, or to "take overpopulation seriously", or to "stop being so confrontational with the state", or to act as Westerners' lieutenants in initiatives to change international institutions, may find themselves quietly dismissed by many of their Thai counterparts as contemptuous, ignorant, or politically naïve. Cooperation between the two sides may suffer as a result.

Western environmentalists who are interested in understanding and building solidarity with Thai social movements, by contrast, will learn to recognize and take seriously Thai hesitations about, or objections to, being described by the dichotomies I have mentioned. Instead of treating these dichotomies as universal, using them to pronounce ex cathedra on what Thai environmentalism is or should be, and insisting that resistance to their use must be due to trivial "disagreements over semantics", "lack of self-understanding", or "stubbornness", they will devote time to learning where and when to drop or modify these dichotomies. In the process they will find out how to cooperate with their Thai counterparts in a more practically effective way.

In what follows, I will consider briefly why many Thai activists might find certain Western dichotomies to be of limited use to them, and in what directions a more acceptable approach might lie.

Dichotomies of Limited Relevance

Some Western dichotomies used to describe Thai "environmentalism" are based on assumptions which, while not necessarily false, seem to me nevertheless to be less than crucial to many Thai movements, to impose systems of thought which many Thai activists might find unfruitful, or to imply criteria of success and failure which many Thai analysts may not share.

The distinction between legal and illegal action, for example, is probably on the whole less important for movements in Thailand than for those in the US or European countries. This is due largely to the fact that, in Thailand, orally-mediated customary norms involving personalized structures of authority and obligation often carry greater moral weight than written statutes. In some cases in which a community feels that its informally-recognized rights to land or water have been ignored, it will take action regardless of the law, often in some confidence of a sympathetic public reaction. By the same token, it may strongly censor actions which are not formally illegal. Judges may meanwhile try to head off acrimonious litigation through avuncular efforts at informal compromise, and official study commissions may be appointed never to be heard from again. Many high officials and notables, for their part, regularly and openly flout the laws whether they are building tourist resorts in protected areas, polluting rivers, or dealing in drugs. Perhaps the best index of the significance (or lack of it) of the legal/illegal distinction in Thai "environmental" politics, however, is the fact that approximately 11 million rural residents, or between 15 and 20 per cent of the country's people, are officially classified as "illegal squatters" because they are living on land which has been gazetted as National Reserve Forest. While this legal fact is often dragged out as a pretext for threatening or evicting particular communities whose land is coveted by the plantation industry or the Royal Forest Department, no one has yet suggested putting the 11 million in jail.

The Western militant/non-militant distinction is also misleading when applied to contemporary Thailand. Since the beginning of the 1980s, no Thai movement which outsiders would call "environmental" has ever identified itself by means of a word which could be translated as "militant". This is not because such movements never display what Westerners would call ""militant tactics". They do -- often as a last-ditch and politically double-edged response to persistent trickery or brutal ploys on the part of the police, the army or other bureaucracies. Indeed, Western observers misled by stereotypes of "Oriental passivity" are often dazed at the extent of openly defiant public action in Thailand in defense of land, as farmers rip out eucalyptus saplings in commercial plantations, lie down in front of bulldozers to prevent a village in a national park from being destroyed, or organize mass marches on Bangkok to protest eviction plans. But in a context in which flexibility, community feeling, and popular legitimacy are at a premium, such movements do not and cannot tie themselves to a strategic notion as rigid, abstract, and morally suspect as "militancy". During the country's current water shortage and the resulting opportunistic information blitz by the government about the supposed necessity for high-tech river management, even mere slogans such as "no more dams" can discredit the activists who adopt them because of their unreasonably "militant" ring in the ears of the Thai public.

The widespread Western presupposition that environmental action consists in first identifying on a theoretical basis "what has to be done" and then "getting others to understand and join in" has also, I think, proved an obstacle to Westerners' attempts to come to grips with Thai movements. Such a top-down conception ignores the fact that much environmental knowledge and action, in Thailand as elsewhere, is locally-specific, dependent on a constant, fluid interplay between theory and practice, and embedded in the democratically-evolving practices of ordinary people. It also ignores the fact that no neutral conceptual framework or physical forum exists in which all sides can agree on "what has to be done". In disputes about Thai forests, for example, any particular conceptual or physical arena -- "science", Parliament, a subdistrict council meeting, the national Forestry Sector Master Plan, the Royal Forest Department, the main national forestry faculty, or a seminar arranged by environmental organizations -- will favor some interest groups over others. Indeed, such arenas are typically chosen precisely so that certain groups can get an advantage over others. To insist that a discussion on forests be conducted exclusively in the terms of academic science, for example, tends to disadvantage and disempower ordinary villagers. This is not only because they may have difficulty arguing using its terminology, and because to appeal to science is to delegitimize local (often unwritten) knowledge, but also because dividing the world among forestry, limnology, agronomy, geology, demography and so forth automatically encourages a centralized, bureaucratic approach at odds with local subsistence interests. In particular, it directs attention to a fuzzy picture of the aggregate production of discrete, countrywide sectors -- forestry, agriculture, mining -- instead of to a sharply-focused picture of the highly localized, integrated forest conservation/irrigation/pasturage/rice farming/fruit growing systems to which many villagers are accustomed and in which distinctions between sectors are difficult to make (Lohmann 1993b). By the same token, the frequently-heard Western suggestion that social movements protesting dams or plantations have an obligation, before they take action, to propose "alternatives" which meet conditions Westerners consider important -- such as satisfying national or international electricity or pulp "demand" -- is misplaced when addressed to villagers and other activists in Thailand who do not recognize the validity or importance of those conditions.

The related notion that environmental action is to be evaluated according to how well it achieves some narrow, pre-set theoretical or technical goal also violates the sense of many Thai activists of what is important. The Nam Choan dam struggle is considered successful, for example, not only because it stopped a dam, but also because it helped build new political alliances and democratizing strategies among varied groups which have been crucial in other "environmental" battles since. Similarly, the simplistic claim frequently made by Western observers that the 1989 logging ban has "failed" because some illegal logging still takes place, or because Thai sawmills and furniture factories are now being fed with timber from Burma, ignores the way in which the ban has legitimated the political struggle which led up to it, provided a precedent for bans in other countries, and supplied local villagers with a court of appeal which it will be difficult for private firms or the government to undermine in the future.

So far I have been discussing dichotomies whose significance for Thai "environmental" activism is merely dubious. Other dichotomies -- between state and market, public and private, jobs and environment, pragmatism and radicalism, and anthropocentrism and ecocentrism -- are based on assumptions which, in Thailand, seem quite straightforwardly false. It is with these that I will be mainly concerned in the rest of this chapter.

Resisting the state/market and public/private dichotomies

Western and Japanese "aid" agencies, when they come to Thailand, typically presuppose that the main actors who will be able to implement solutions to the country's "environmental problems" are the government and the private sector. Thus a Forestry Master Plan for Thailand financed by FINNIDA, the Finnish bilateral aid agency, suggests that deforestation can be checked only by dividing forests into essentially two categories: those which are managed for commercial production and those which are off limits to human interference. Although the Plan recognizes some rights of rural communities to use forests for subsistence goods, the communities are envisaged essentially as temporary lieutenants of commercial interests, first to be "organized and instructed" by government and corporate representatives, then to be gradually moved to the cities as they are assimilated into the market system and lose their land to commercial interests (Jaakko Pöyry Oy 1993). Similarly, the proposed Global Environmental Facility program for conserving the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary near the Burmese border (the site of the defeated Nam Choan dam) assumes almost automatically that, if the Sanctuary is to be protected, thousands of residents belonging to the Karen ethnic group must be evicted from it in order to ensure that it comes under the total control of government forest rangers (MIDAS et al. 1993). In the same vein, Caroline Sargent, a forester with the British-based International Institute for Environment and Development, laments in a recent book that the 1989 logging ban brought about a state of affairs in which there were "no longer loggers to defend the forests and prevent encroachment on forest land which was held under concession -- and thus the natural forest continues to diminish" (Sargent and Bass 1992: 20). This focus on, and faith in, the resource management of the public and private sectors is not confined to members of the international environmental establishment. Even unofficial environmentalist visitors to Thailand often make a beeline for bureaucracies or policy think-tanks such as the National Environment Board, Thai Development Research Institute or Royal Forestry Department on the assumption that, even given the failures of such institutions in the past, that is where the action is and where the new, more successful plans which will save the country's environment will originate.

Many Thai villagers and other activists find such assumptions questionable. They point out that while in Western countries it may very well be the case that stewardship of land, water and forests rests preponderantly either with governments or with individual private owners and companies integrated into a monetized and centralized modern market system, this is simply not the case in Thailand. Here, a third type of authority, that of the village community exercising its own type of stewardship over common land, forests and water, is also important; and it is the undermining of this authority by state or market that typically results in disorder and degradation (Fairlie et al. 1993).

One example of such commons regimes is the muang faai rice irrigation/forest conservation system used in most regions of Northern Thailand (Chatchawan and Lohmann 1991). In this system the local community builds (and periodically adjusts and rebuilds) a small reservoir and canal system to conduct water from a hill forest through rice fields in the valley below. Both the forest and the canal system are preserved and maintained as a unit by the community as a way of ensuring a minimum rice crop for everyone each year, through a complex system of organization of labor and time which relies on constant face-to-face discussion, homegrown materials, and local enforcement and mutual adjustments. Such commons can be found throughout Thailand, ranging from various kinds of community forests, which provide free vegetables, fruit, game, fodder, bamboo and firewood as well as burial grounds; to communal pastures used for grazing cows and buffaloes; to coastal fisheries (Pinkaew and Rajesh 1992).

Such commons regimes cannot be run from afar by the state since their maintenance requires highly flexible, democratic responses to local circumstances and needs and is finely dependent on local knowledge, materials, personalities, and senses of responsibility (Apffel Marglin and Marglin 1990, Apffel Marglin and Marglin 1994). Nor can they be run by a private corporation, since they are oriented toward community subsistence and cooperation rather than the profit maximization of individuals considered apart from the community. Here it is instructive to look at the answer which a Karen villager in a remote village in Chiang Mai recently gave to a foreign consultant who put a hypothetical choice to him about how to manage a local pine forest, used by the villagers for many years mainly for subsistence, for commercial gain. Two of the choices the consultant suggested were, first, for individual families to be assigned rights to separate forest plots, and second, for government officials to oversee the management of the forest as a whole. The villager rejected the consultant's entire approach. First, he objected to the manner in which the choice was put to him. If such matters were to be considered, he said, they could only be considered as a community, not through approaches to people like him as individuals. Second, he said, putting the forest in the hands of discrete individuals would destroy community cooperation and thus the forest itself; while putting it in the hands of government officials would lead to power imbalances, corruption, and again the destruction of the forest. The way to preserve the forest, the villager maintained, was to leave it defined by the local people's customary relationship to it.

Indeed, commons regimes such as muang faai, as Thai activists and villagers point out, have generally proved to be more effective in Thailand in protecting what Westerners call the "environment" than either the state or the private sector. The Royal Forest and Irrigation Departments, for example, prodded by foreign agencies, timber firms and the export economy, have presided over nearly a century of inefficient water use and degradation of forests and land -- degradation which accelerated precipitously after 1960 as state control was extended over more and more of the countryside. Pace Caroline Sargent, in Thailand timber concessionaires have never "defended the forests and prevented encroachment"". On the contrary, in virtually none of the roughly 300 concessions active when logging was banned had regulations calling for rotational cutting or prevention of clearance ever been observed. State promotion of commercial agriculture for export, meanwhile, has resulted in the clearance of tens of thousands of square kilometers of forests for upland crops such as corn, cassava and pineapple in the space of a few decades. Even the state's policy of demarcating protected areas, in effect since the 1960s, has often resulted in degradation, when villagers are evicted from protected areas to which they are well-adapted and forced to pursue more ecologically-destructive careers elsewhere. Muang faai, on the other hand -- to take only one example of commons regime -- has resulted in the preservation of forests in most areas of Northern Thailand, as well as a consistently efficient and sustainable use of available water, for upwards of 700 years. Small wonder, then, that it strikes many activists and researchers who are acquainted with the facts on the ground as ludicrous that power over forests and land is so seldom entrusted to village communities and is instead turned over to the government and its concessionaires, often following the advice of international agencies, as being the "only shows in town".

Much of what might be labeled by outsiders as "enviromentalist" resistance, too, has been led not by government officials nor urban-based intellectuals, but by commoners with firsthand experience of what is happening to their land and commons. When, for example, in the 1970s and 1980s, farmers began to block logging roads and march on local government offices in protest against timber concessions the Royal Forest Department had given out to local companies, their objective was not to save rare bird species nor halt global warming nor gain commercial profit from the forests themselves, but rather to safeguard part of the commons they relied on for water, vegetables, mushrooms, medicine, firewood and game. The attempt of Ubon Ratchatanee villagers to stop the Pak Mun dam, similarly, was rooted partly in fears, later proved justified, that the project would result in a decline in household fish catches in the Mun River (Project for Ecological Recovery 1993). None of this is to suggest that the state has not taken positive steps to safeguard land, forests and water. The logging ban is one example, and a recent decision to curb roadbuilding in protected areas another. But when such steps have been taken, they have invariably followed and not preceded popular action.

Resisting the jobs/environment and pragmatism/radicalism dichotomies

Unsurprisingly, Thai villagers and activists find the jobs/enviroment and pragmatism/radicalism dichotomies which seem common sense to many Northern environmentalists to be often inappropriate or incomprehensible when applied to Thailand. They point out that to a majority of Thais, secure livelihood depends not, as it does to a majority in North America or Europe, on the availability of permanent paid employment in the industrial, service or state sectors, but rather on the sustained availability of local land, water and forests to rural communities. In Thailand, the commercial forces which are damaging the "environment" are thus also destroying, in a sense, "jobs". For every temporary construction job created by dam construction, for example, several farming and fishing livelihoods may be permanently lost. Similarly, even if Northeastern farmers wanted jobs on the plantations which threaten to replace their farms, they would not be able to find nearly enough of them year-round to make up for the subsistence losses plantations entail (Lohmann 1991). For rural Thais, then, there is not necessarily anything "pragmatic" about acquiescing in a development project which advertises itself as "creating" a handful of jobs. Rather, such projects are likely to appear, as they often in fact are, dangerously idealistic, radical, and utopian, uninformed by history and by the facts on the ground and, for local people, no substitute for the solid guarantee of secure land and water.

In Thailand, in short, pragmatism and what an outsider would call "environmentalism" very often coincide. The struggle for livelihood very often is a struggle for the "environment". One leader of a Muslim fishing community in South Thailand was recently entertaining some environmentalist visitors who were curious about why the villagers, after years of providing labor for a local charcoal factory which was cutting the coastal mangrove forests, decided to try to halt the logging and establish community forest zones off limits to the factory. The community leader explained that, since the mangroves served as nursery grounds for fish, the logging had resulted in declining catches by the village's fisherpeople, and that the villagers had finally decided that this had to be stopped. After a few years of efforts at limiting the charcoal factory's depredations, catches were again rising, and the community's future looked more secure. "I'm not interested in wildlife conservation," the village leader concluded, "but the sea is my rice bowl [mau khaaw]."

Resisting the anthropocentric/ecocentric dichotomy

Rural people in Thailand, including those who have been most prominent in fighting to preserve the "environment", have typically looked at forests, streams and wild animals largely in the light of their connection to agriculture, fishing, hunting and gathering. Although wilderness, like community forests, has been a source of certain spiritual values (Tambiah 1984), to some extent rural people have even shared the traditional attitude of Thai elites that the wilderness is a menace until it is brought within the sphere of a polity dominated by the royal city or muang through clearance (Stott 1991).

Such attitudes can make visiting Western deep ecologists slightly uneasy. While they applaud Thai villagers' activism in defense of local forests and streams and are intrigued by the Buddhist tradition of respect for the rights of animals and indeed all living things (Yenchai 1989), they cannot help but look down their noses a bit at what they see as an essentially "instrumental" attitude toward nature. Thai farmers, they feel, are regrettably "anthropocentric", and their preoccupation with agriculture and ambivalence toward "wild nature" suggest a lack of appreciation of the intrinsic value of plants and animals. Even if they agree with Guha (1989) that deep ecology "is of very little use in understanding the dynamics of environmental degradation", and of equally little use in explaining the real-life motivations of the most powerful local social movements aimed at halting that degradation, they still worry that Thai activists lack sufficient reverence for untouched nature and awareness of the importance of wilderness areas. This remains so even when they are reminded of the mixed practical record of the American model of wilderness preservation in Thailand.

Thai villagers and activists are unlikely to be completely unsympathetic to the deep ecologists' concerns. At the same time, however, it would be easy for them to point out that the attitude of (say) muang faai villagers toward forests, streams, rice and animals, when more closely examined, is not comfortably categorized as either anthropocentric or ecocentric.

On the one hand that attitude is highly practical. The villagers assuredly do not leave forests, streams, animals or rice alone, nor contemplate them from afar in the manner of middle-class backpackers pondering the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, nor devote their energies to ensuring that they survive after the end of civilization. Instead, they alter and use them for the necessities of life.

It does not follow, however, that muang faai villagers treat forests, streams, animals or rice as instruments. Nor does it follow from the fact that the villagers use and alter these things that they place humans at the center of the universe (cf. Collier 1994). Rather, forests, streams, animals and rice are valued for themselves, treated as things which have intrinsic value and in some sense even as persons who can benefit humans but who if abused will also punish them. At annual meetings of the committees responsible for maintenance of muang faai systems, for example, farmers offer food to the spirits of the irrigation system and the forest and to the lords of the water and ask through an incantation that water be plentiful and the harvest good during the coming year, that the water users be happy and untroubled by disease, and that the muang faai repairs take place without injury to anyone. Taking care to inform the spirits of what they intend to do, the villagers simultaneously beg pardon for their actions, reflecting their submission to, respect for, and friendship with nature, rather than an attempt to master it. There is even a spirit of the rice. Muang faai farmers, in short, do not treat nature as a means to an end which is separated from nature, any more than Westerners, when they have a conversation with their friends to try to change their minds, treat those friends as a means to their own ends. Muang faai thus offers a counterexample to the presuppositions of many deep ecologists (which are also presuppositions of industrialists and neoclassical economists) that all practical reasoning and action must be instrumental, and that recognizing something's intrinsic value entails leaving it alone.

Insofar as they have avoided concrete experience of the specific human/environment and self-interest/community interest dichotomies which the West has created in recent centuries, Thai villagers cannot be expected to be much moved by deep ecologists' rather strained suggestions about how to paper over these constructed gaps with abstract "feelings of kinship with everything else in the universe" or an abstract view of "nonhuman life as intrinsically valuable"". Indeed, bringing muang faai into juxtaposition with deep ecology helps show just how much the latter -- despite its pretences of being connected to all sorts of Eastern and Native American thought -- is in fact a historical artefact of the middle class in industrialized societies and remains addressed to the concerns of that group.

For deep ecologists to become more self-conscious about this historical boundedness could be a positive step toward political solidarity. It could enable them to recognize that the ambivalence they may feel toward the type of activism they find in Thailand is largely a result of mistakenly reading the pattern of Western industrial agriculture -- which does tend to be more instrumentalist -- into commons regimes such as muang faai. Once such regimes are seen more on their own terms, and the Western obsession with dividing attitudes into anthropocentric and ecocentric is left behind, some of this ambivalence could well vanish.


In trying to describe certain Thai social movements from a Western point of view, and mainly for Western readers, this chapter has, of necessity, started from a conceptual framework which Westerners are likely to share. But because one of its motivations is to foster intercultural dialogue between movements -- to ask not only "What are Thai 'environmental movements' all about?" but also "According to whom?" -- it has also tried to make this Western framework itself into a subject for scrutiny and criticism, and to suggest that it be located carefully within its own history and culture. This has been done neither from a Thai point of view nor, probably, using the words that Thai activists would use, but rather from the point of view of a Westerner looking forward to seeing closer practical engagement between Western and Thai social activists.


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