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