Through the example of the Merapi volcano in Central Java in Indonesia, this talk will explore different practices and conceptions related to the comprehension and the communication with this uncertain environment. Merapi volcano is located in the “ring of fire” where Indo-Australian plate meets the Eurasian plate. At almost 3000 meter above the sea level, it is considered as permanently active. The volcano stands at 30 kilometers from the city of Yogyakarta, capital city of the eponym province. In the region, population density is quite high with 7000 inhabitant/km2 in the city and around 1000 inhabitant/km2 in the rural areas of Merapi’s south flank.
This reflection is a part of an anthropological research about the post-disaster resettlement (relokasi) of a village (dusun) located in the Merapi volcano’s south flank. Totally destroyed by the 2010 eruption of Merapi, the 81 household of the studied village was removed 5 kilometers downstream of its original location, through a post disaster governmental reconstruction program.
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
Anthropology has been recently shaken by a so-called “ontological turn” that amends the central idea of sociocultural perspective of “one world, many worldviews” to invest the networking and the articulation of multiple worlds! Drawing on my ethnography of uncanny games in which animals are the cornerstone, I would like to show that this alternative approach can give groundbreaking understandings of the relation Southeast Asian societies build with their environment, the new worlds they elaborate from within their milieu should I say in order to explicit the kind of methodological shift I advocate on the basis of pioneer works the like of Philippe Descola’s. As we shall see, his hypothetico-deductive apparatus can prove very valuable when it comes to specify that animals can act along human agents to participate to a community, a localized nature.
In order to start I would like to cite another very inspiring researcher, namely Gregory Bateson, whose thinking have been recently coined as a prelude to ontological anthropology by Tim Ingold. I am myself also very indebted to Bateson’s conception of communication. As he puts it in Steps to an Ecology of Mind,
“ Consider a blind man with a stick. Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick? These questions are nonsense, because the stick is a pathway along which differences are transmitted under transformation, so that to draw a delimiting line across this pathway is to cut off a part of the systemic circuit which determines the blind man’s locomotion”. (in “The Cybernetics of “Self”: A Theory of Alcoholism”)
What is the echo of Descola’s work in Southeast Asia?
Descola’s anthropology of nature opens new horizons to review Southeast Asian ethnographic materials:
To question the place of Hindo-Buddhist societies in regard to the ontological typology he proposes. A question he did not elaborate in his comparative approach and master piece Beyond Nature and Culture1.
To question the modes of dwelling the diverse landscapes of Southeast Asia: highland forest, plains, river deltas, sea coasts and cities.
To question the overlapping of ontologies and knowledge systems linked to environmental management in contemporary societies.
I won’t answer these questions here, but rather give some paths for reflection linked to my own researches in Thailand and with Karen highlanders. I will :
Question the analogical dimension of the Hindo-Buddhist concept of thammachat, which is the vernacular word used to translate the notion of nature in the Thaï context.
Explore the overlapping between analogism and animism through the articulation between Buddhism and land spirits cults in Southeast Asia.
The objective of this seminar is to study the relations between natures and societies in Southeast Asia in the light of the work of the French anthropologist Philippe Descola. The expressions Beyond nature and culture1 refers to the title of his master piece which is a deconstruction of the idea of a universal nature. It means that we will attempt thought this seminar :
To transcend the Western dualism that opposes nature and society as two different and separate realms of beings.
To include in our study the relation between human and non-humans – gods, spirits, plants, animals, objects.
To explore the diversity of natures in Southeast Asia.
In this first part, I will present Philippe Descola and the big lines of the his thought.
In the second part, I will develop through examples how his theoretical propositions could be adapted to Southeast Asian ethnographic materials.