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

Continue reading “The Politic of Nature Conservation in Thailand”

Pinkaew Laungaramsri

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

More Posts

Play on ontologies – Beetle contests in Thailand

Beetle Market. (Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)


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”)

And as I shall try to develop, human are kind of quite blind in the perceived worlds of animals such as beetles, birds, fish … and reciprocally! Continue reading “Play on ontologies – Beetle contests in Thailand”

Introduction session part 2 : Overlapping cosmologies and systems of knowledge


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:

  1.  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.
  2.  To question the modes of dwelling the diverse landscapes  of Southeast Asia: highland forest, plains, river deltas, sea coasts and cities.
  3.  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 :

  1. 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.
  2. Explore the overlapping between analogism and animism through the articulation between Buddhism and land spirits cults in Southeast Asia.

Continue reading “Introduction session part 2 : Overlapping cosmologies and systems of knowledge”

  1. DESCOLA Philippe, Beyond Nature and Culture, Translated by Janet Lloyd Foreword by Marshall Sahlins, University of Chicago Press, 2013 [2005], 488 p. []

Societies and Environments in Southeast Asia

This blog aims to discuss the relationship between Southeast Asian societies and the natural environment using an anthropological approach and considering contemporary socio-political challenges.
Using a holistic and comparative approach, this seminar hopes to intertwine academic knowledge with environmental risk management.
In light of Philippe Descola’s inspiring work Beyond Nature and Culture , the seminar’s first approach would be to ask ourselves how each of the various societies of Southeast Asia articulates or manipulates the concepts of “nature” and “culture” developed by the West. What are their vernacular equivalents? How are these concepts locally re-appropriated and politically invested within modern nation-states? And, finally, how may we understand the diversity of modes of interaction between humans and non-humans — gods, plants, animals, spirits — in the context of Southeast Asia?
The second approach, which complements the first, would consist of examining how the relationships between society and the environment are reformulated and reshaped under the impact of development practices and policies of adaptation to contemporary environmental challenges — global warming, deforestation, ecosystem preservation, and energy resource and environmental risk management.
Our proposal consists of articulating these approaches through the study of three complementary areas of research:

1.    Buddhism and Environment
The deeply embedded “holistic” view of “nature” in the Hindu-Buddhist societies of Southeast Asia emphasises the relationship between all the beings that inhabit the cosmos. This concept of a “chain of beings” — all of whom are different, interdependent, and hierarchically ordered — calls into questions the methods implemented to ensure harmony between very diverse entities and to constantly readjust the relationships between territorialised social microcosms and the more encompassing macrocosmic order. Our proposal is to explore the forms that connect the social to the cosmic order through practices as diverse as astrology, possession, shamanism, agricultural and royal rituals, architecture, etc.

2.    The Politics of Nature
Another area that would need to be explored is the relationship between nature and politics. This issue would be studied through the review of economic and environmental projects that  are the subjects of local controversy, the “haze” and other forms of pollution, “national parks”, real estate law, dams construction, in order to better understand how the environment issue invites itself and unfolds in the political arena. This line of research would also seek to explore various forms of technical and social innovations designed to change behaviour in production, consumption and trade. It would also look at how development practices and research innovations can mobilise, confront or hybridise different knowledge systems and actions on nature: hard science, traditional knowledge, digital technology, etc.

3.    Climate Risk Management
Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most exposed regions in terms of climate change — decreased river flow of large basins, increased flooding from rivers or the sea — and natural disasters — typhoons, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis. This line of research would aim to explore local reactions and responses to these natural changes, as well as the various policies and projects put in place to prevent environmental risk or to deal with the consequences  thereof (displacement, seismic construction).