The Politic of Nature Conservation in Thailand

The Politic of Nature Conservation in Thailand

Karen villagers from Bang Kloy village inside Kang Krachan National Park at the court hearing, September 7, 2016

Tension between parks and people has long characterized the trajectory of nature conservation since its inception. On the one end stands nature conservationists who ally themselves with park authorities and assert that “nature” in its pure and primordial essence exists outside or even above the realm of human beings and thus should be untouched and left intact. The quote by a prominent nature conservationist during the height of conservation conflict in mid 1990s is a good illustration of this position.

“To review this issue, I would like to first wipe the slate clean. Forget for the moment state and common laws, cultured and tradition. Put aside the present situation and all the man-made matters. Instead we should begin with the law of nature—as far as we understand it— because it is the only sacred law we are all subjected to, and unlike others, this law cannot be changed.” (The Nation, May 22, 1995)

On the other end is forest dwellers and community-based activists who, in their struggle towards legal recognition of indigenous right to claim that indigenous peoples and nature are “intimate partners”. Nature, or in Thai “Thammachat” according to the community right advocates, has often coexisted with people and co-evolved through time.

Indeed, the idea of “nature” as a coherent essence external to the realm of human beings has been but a recent modern imagination. In the course towards modernization, the making of “the first nature” has been an integral part of the process of nation-building in which “nature” as economic capital is as important as “symbolic capital” of the modern and civilized Thai nation-state”.

What I would like to do today is to trace the process of the production of nature within the changing political economy of Thailand. By historizing nature, I argue that the “nature” perceived as an untouchable, self-regulating and dehumanized entity, has been primarily a product of constant state intervention with forest and natural landscape since the colonial era in the early twentieth century and the adoption of North American wilderness thinking by the modern Thai state in the 1960s. But unlike the romantically-conceived model of the North American national park, the Thai imitation in its deployment of “wilderness”, reverse its original. Contrary to the idea of sacred law of nature that nature conservationists have often claim, protected areas in Thailand has been free from and in fact an an intrinsic part of the capitalization of natural resources through a development paradigm.

The structure of this talk is as follows:

1. Commercializing Nature: The Transformation of “ Pa” (forest) to Sappayakon Pamai (forest resource)
2. Civilizing Nature: National Park and Nation-building
3. The Hierarchical Division of Nature
4. Conclusion

1. From Pa (forest) to Sappayakon Pamai (forest resource)

In pre-modern Thai society, pa (forest, also padong, thuan,phong phrai, wana) stood in contrast to maung (city). Pa was perceived as an unpopulated, raw, and disorderly realm of trees and animals peripheral to the humane, cultivated, and organized mango, the city or domain It was the wild and barren area that needed to be remade into human habitation. The state knowledge of forest was, thus, as scanty as that of its inhabitants. In the Mangrai Law written by King Mangrai of the Lanna Kingdom (1259-1317), the people who offered their sweat and tears in “turning forested area and barren fields into orchards and towns were exempt from levee (tax) charged from the product of the land for three years”, in order to “ease the life of such devoted people”. The idea of praising people who clear the forest to make a land (hak lang thang phong) as good commoners remained prevalent until the mid-twentieth century.

Himavanta or Himmaphan Forest (forest which surrounds the base of Mount Meru in Hindu mythology)

But pa also reflects a deeper socio-cultural connotation than its usual Western translation of “forest”. In general sense, pa means a forested area which is not well ordered. However, it also connotes a mystic arena more powerful than human—the supernatural and spiritual territory which exists beyond human control. Yet, this does not mean that in Thai perception human beings are totally disconnected from pa. There was a special kind of human residing in pa such as hermits who through their struggle against material and emotional temptations came to attain ultimate magic powers.

Meditation in forest

Pa also represents a peaceful sanctuary for Buddhist monks in pursuit of an ascetic path, and a shelter for escape and illicit repository beyond the state control. In this sense, pa in premodern thinking of the Thai signified both the landscape of untamed peripheral to the center of the state power as much as a sacred, enchanted place, made distant from human beings by the auto of fear, mysticism, and reverence.

Colonial timber industry that expand from the Mon territory into the adjacent forest in northern Thailand at the turn of the twentieth century had significantly changed the idea of pa. The Royal Forestry Department (RFD) was established in 1896 after a survey on teak forests in the north by a Danishman, Castensjold, and then by an English man, H.A.Slade. The first director of RFD, H.A. Slade resolved that forests in Thailand would now be considered as the “country’s capital” to which the benefits belong.

Logging of Krayaloei (non-teak) trees

Pa, the wild and mystic land had become visible and valuable to the maung, the center of the country—thanks to the German model of the scientific forestry followed by British colonialism. The term pa (forest) was replaced by pa mai (forest-wood) analogous to nature with nature-resources, the utilitarian discourse in which the focus is on those aspects of nature that can be appropriated for commercial use. With forestry science and its capacity to transform the real, disorderly, chaotic forest into rationally ordered arrangement of trees, the state has been able to develop new strategies of controlling forest. The natural forest or pa has thus been remade into the administrative forest.

Teak logging

The establishment of RFD was part of a modernization project and a means to reduce the British monopoly of teak business in the northern region. Ironically, such attempts were carried out with the assistance of the British colonials. Even though, pa was rendered visible and commercially valuable, the state lacked knowledge and expertise to transform such visible valuables into exportable goods and revenue. It took RFD almost three decades before this new institute would have its first Thai Director-General.

The “forest” thus entered the modern world of Siam in the form of a mere commodity bereft of all its cultural and spiritual values. High quality Siamese teak became the nation’s most valuable export item, second only to rice.

National Income during the reign of King Rama V

The equivalence of forest with teak forest (pa maisak) was fundamental to the development of Siamese forestry in which the forest was managed on the basis of “mono-species”. The center of losing activities, forest control, and forestry schooling was concentrated in the northern part of the country, the home of natural teak forests.

Waterproof flaps were built in order to elevate the water level to transport logs downstream.
Denny, Mott & Dickson Timber Company, Bangkok. The sawmill is on the right.

The first railway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai was completed in 1921 under British supervision and foreign loans to facilitate the transportation of teak from the north to Bangkok.

Several other railways to facilitate logging were also built by the European concessionaires crossing watersheds through difficult terrain such as Ing, Yom, and Li river basins.

Old railroad tracks built by a logging company in Sri Tia, Ban Hong district, Lampun Province

The teak era under European colonialism ended after the WWII as the concession period was over with no further extension grated by the Thai government. However, the logging of non-teak trees classified as main krayaloei (miscellaneous wood excluding teak) by the Thai companies followed the early model. Commercial logging continued to be the predominant form of Thailand’s forest exploitation until it was banned nation wide in 1989 following massive local protests against clear-felling of trees in south that had caused huge mudslides, flooding, and severe damage to property and the deaths of hundreds of villagers. However, the productive function of the forest still persists, but in other form, such as tree plantations.

East Asiatic Company (Danish) office in Bangkok. This company operated their logging business in Phrae province.

2. Civilizing Nature: National Park and Nation-building

Western forestry practice has continued its influence despite the withdrawal of European timber companies in the mid-twentieth century. In Thailand, as well as other Third World country, Western power remained in the form of advisory functions.

In 1948, the first group of forest experts from FAO, led by G.N. Danholf, a Dutch forester in Indonesia, came to Thailand to provide advice and assistance on natural resource management. The major problems of forestry in Thailand as pointed out by the FAO team were lack of knowledge, technology, man-power and financial support for forest management. The report by this team pointed to the fact that the forest in Thailand was managed in an unprofessional and inefficient way and the the problem of forest encroachment and poaching was caused by shifting cultivators. FAO recommended 40% of the total land area of the country should be preserved for protected areas.

George Ruhle, an American national expert from the US National Park Service did a survey from 1959 and a report in 1964 for IUCN as well as the American Committee for International Wildlife Protection which became the basis for the establishment of park management in Thailand. Rulhe made a remark that

“Few Thai recognize that native plant and animal life, geological features, and scenery are precious natural resources. Few realize that abuse and inappropriate usage destroy the many economic, social, political, and spiritual values that are inherent attributes of unspoiled nature. Few comprehend that the scientific, educational, and aesthetic benefits from an area far exceed material returns. Few know that wilderness is a fragile quality, only too easily dissipated, that can be restored-if at all—only with the utmost difficulty and extreme slowness. These are deficiencies which are shared with other peoples of the world. (George Ruhle 1964)

Western guidance coincided with the desire of a newly modernized state such as Thailand. During the reign of Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat (1959-1963), national parks, as well as the monarchy and the Thai language began to be seen as ideal national symbols. The establishment of a national park system, a landmark of modern civilization, came to represent on of the key elements of the modern Thai nation-state, while forest destruction was perceived as a criminal act to destroy the country. Sarit took up the new idea of ‘national forest’ and politicize/militarize it. As he stated,

“Forests are significant natural resources for the lives of Thai people and the existence of Thailand. Those who destroy the forests are the enemy who destroy the national’s security”. A communist and forest people now came t occupy a similar vulnerable position of national threat.

As a post-war product imported from the US, it came in as a development package offered by the American government. The US not only provided advisory assistance on national park establishment, but also funded Thai government official’s trip to Yellowstone, American’s first national park. This development assistance can be understood as an attempt to halt the so-called influence of communist Indochina. Economic development and natural resource management were major aspects of the development model the Thai government imported from the US.

Since the early 1970s, the US model of protected areas has come to represent forest conservation in Thailand supported financially and technically by international agencies including IUCN, FAO, UNDP, USAID, and WWF. Wildlife Conservation Act was enacted in 1960 and the National Park in 1962. The first national park in Thailand was officially declared at Khao Yai in 1962 covering the areas in four provinces of Saraburi, Nakon Nayok, Prachin Buri and Nakorn Ratchasima, followed by the first wildlife sanctuary, Salak Phra in 1965 in Kanchanaburi. For Thailand, the American concept of national park has come to represent a means to enable the country to board the ship of western civilization. As Dr. Boonsong Lekhakul, the father of the modern conservation movement in Thailand stated.

“The establishment of the Wildlife Conservation Law and national parks in Thailand has pointed to the world that Thai people have moved beyond the barbarism of people who are aware only food for stomach, to the era of civilization. It is time now to know the food for eyes, for ears, and for the brain.” (Boonsong Lekhakul 1992:12)

But which group of people does these new forms of resource management refer to? The answer is clearly illustrated in the statement by a National Park Committee member:

“We need to focus on the Thai who comprise the core group of people that is, the educated. I believe that almost 100% (of the educated) see the importance of national parks. On the contrary, villagers who are close to the national parks do not accept the idea of parks. This is because it seems the government has cut their access into the area where they used to utilize for themselves or for the capitalists who hired them…
Urban people whose livelihood does not rely directly on the national parks tend to appreciate that beauty and aestheticism of national parks more than village people.” (A forest academic at Kasetsat University, 1995)

The underlying assumptions of such statement are twofold. First, the pre-requisite to enter into the regime of national park is “formal education”. Without such modern orientation, the appreciation and understanding of the value of national park is deemed impossible. Second, the distance between nature and human beings presumes the neutral and disinterested position of people towards nature. Thus, the more intimate the relationship between human livelihood and nature, the more untenable the newly distanced, neutral relationship will be. Such assumptions reveal a fundamental belief of scientific forestry which has continued its influence over Thai foresters since the nineteenth century. Here again, national park is a particular kind of object of knowledge which can be acquired only through an institutionalized form of “state” education. The discourse of state education functions as a tool not only to undermine the pre-existing connection between local livelihood and forest, but also to provide legitimacy and justification to the outside urban middle class over local people in their relationship with these particular forest area.

It is worth noting that the politic of nature aestheticism in Thailand is not exclusive. Neumann (1998:19-25) observes that in European history, the spatial separation which divides landscapes of production from consumption is essential for the establishment of national parks. This process was advanced as a product of transition to industrial capitalism in which nature appreciation had become the marker of education and good breeding of “proper” bourgeoisie. Urban middle class appreciation or consumption of nature takes the form of temporary observation, yet demands inclusive control over a landscape, regardless of any necessary engagement in the sphere of production. Neumann maintains that the duality of insider and outsider or practical and aesthetic is fundamental to the social construction of the sense of ownership and control over the landscape. Central to the problem is thus not whether local villagers are short in taste and appreciation of nature, but the fact that direct local reliance on forest also mens direct access and control over national park resources, all of which must be dismantled if a new type of landscape, a new division of labor, and a new form of authority by the middle class are to be established: the consumptive landscape as separate from productive landscape managed for recreation and contemplation.

3. Selecting Pristine Nature: The Hierarchical Division of Nature

Not every type of natural forest has come under the protected area system, nor have all diverse ecological systems and distinctive fauna and flora been granted equal status within the national park system. The basis of selecting national parks in Thailand comprises two components: first, outstanding natural elements—mega-fauna and distinguished characteristics, and second, large areas with then assigned value and ranking. Some forests are given superior value, while some ecosystem are completely set apart from protection. Thailand’s 128 national parks and 57 wildlife sanctuaries comprise mostly large mountainous forests, beaches and islands, which are valued highly for tourism and the conservation of large mammals.

Khao Yai National Park

Aestheticism of nature under the national park system is also often cut across by industrial interest. Interestingly, even though wetland and mangrove despite the significant ecosystem, have not been classified as national parks. This has been the case even after the government banned logging concessions and increased the number of nationals from 57 to 128. In fact, the feeling of mangrove forests for the charcoal industry was exempt from the logging ban. In addition, between 1970-1990s, nearly 200,000 ha of mangroves have been destroyed to make way for shrimp farms.

Here’s the explanation from a former wildlife sanctuary forester.

“There are two main reasons why wetlands and lowland riverine forests have neglected by he national park technocrats. First, these areas are not large; most of the mangrove areas distributed along the coast are viewed as trivial and unimportant. Second, and most important, they are viewed as lacking in the scenic value desired for tourism compared to the natural drylands forests”.

Practices of national park management in Third World countries, Thailand included, therefore follow two principles of US wilderness thinking: “the monumentalism belief that wilderness has to be “big”, continuous wilderness, and the claim that all human intervention is bad for the retention of diversity (Guha 1997:19).

Natural ecosystems are therefore viewed not as much in their ecological significant as in their constructed aesthetic and thus economic value. Southern mangrove forests in their unfortunately unattractive outlook can only become productively valuable as a site for charcoal and shrimp farming, while their ecological value and functions are ignored.

Mangrove forest in Chantaburi Province

If “hands of nature” is believed to be one of the two principles underlying the conservation in Thailand and elsewhere, it is conditional and hypocritical. Originally, Thailand accepted the IUCN definition of protected areas which are “not materially altered by human exploitation and occupation, and where the highest competent authority of the country has taken steps to prevent or eliminate as soon as possible the exploitation in the area” (IUCN 1969). This definition in the case of Thailand is proven to be a myth.

Chiew Lan or Ratchaprapa Dam

Since 1960, the Thai government has approved mining operations, the construction of dams and military security roads, and pharmaceutical research by private companies inside national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and watershed area though out the country. For instance, the construction of six large dams inundated more than 200,000 ha of forests—all within areas classified as “protected”. One of these, the Chiew Larn dam in Surat Thani province flooded 16,080 ha of forest ecosystem within the Klong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary and Khao Sok National Park, destroying the habitat of 338 species of wildlife, 14 of which are endangered and 32 threatened.

Interestingly, in the eyes of the Thai state as well as some foresters, dams are considered to be a type of “watershed conservation” necessary for the country’s resource management. They are not a destructive component, but instead an indispensable part of protected areas. As one senior forest academic puts it,

“The conservation concept comprises eight elements: utilization, store, repair, rehabilitation, development, protection, prevention, and preservation. A dam and its reservoir is significant for storing water. But to ensure the consistency of water in the reservoir; we need to make sure that the watershed forest above the reservoir is well preserved. That’s why the conservation of watershed forest is significant.”

Indeed, the flooding of vast areas of forest, destroying numerous habitats of flora and fauna, will soon be forgotten as the landscape will soon be turned into a magnificent reservoir furnished with a splendid modern infrastructure and facilities including resorts, golf course, and restaurants. With a lit bit of investment, the reservoir will once again function as a tourist site to suit the aesthetic objectives of a national park as the area sunk below its waters used to do.

A tourist resort on Ratchaprapa Dam

What we have here is twofold. On the one hand, the capitalizing nature be it fake or not, goes hand in hand with the growing bourgeois community and its increasingly intense lifestyle in big cities which need a way to add new amenity and aesthetic goals and desire to their earlier preoccupation with necessities and convenience. On the other hand, “nature” which is made to be fragile and susceptible also requires protection. And a powerful protection apparatus cannot be designed without the existence of a “threat”. Within the history of “forestry” in Thailand, the politics of threat-making has long been an intimate part of the protected area ideology. Certainly, the most perilous “threat” to the national forest repeatedly constructed and reproduced by the state is not dams, roads, tourists or other development intervention, but “hill tribes” and their agricultural activities. Hill people and their existence are always presented as dark side of a certain nature. The assumption need not be professional, once something has been defined as a threat it is left no room for existence. This is epitomized in the statement by the Director-General of the National Park Department in his defense of the burning of Karen houses by the park authority inside the Kang Kachan National Park.

“At the present, most Karen reside in the area provided by the National Park. But some of them still illegally use the land outside the designated area. The park officials then went to explain and moved them down. Otherwise, the forest will be destroyed by them. In the area (where houses were burned), the Kang Krachan National Park has already made it clear that no one is allowed to live there. As for the reason why park authorities set fire to the house and people’s properties, this was to prevent the spreading of epidemic and malaria diseases. It was also to prevent the Burmese immigrants who illegally came to area to grow marihuana”
Sunan Arunnopparat, August 18, 2016


What I have done in this talk is to bring into light the representational practices that (re)shape the multiple ways in which “nature” is known, used, abandoned, and protected. It is a practice of intervention which involves the very process of naturalization and normalization of knowledge, perception, and recognition. Thus, it is of no surprise that the long history of colonial domination of forestry and the Americanization of nature in the form of national pars, and capitalization of nature in the name of development are never regarded by the state as human interference in the wilderness. Yet, in spite of its fallacy, the prevailing idea of nature as untouched wilderness has managed to maintain its efficacy in guiding the way that protected areas in Thailand are administered and defined.

Pinkaew Laungaramsri

Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University

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Author: Pinkaew Laungaramsri

Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University

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