On the Politics of Nature Conservation in Thailand

Pinkaew Laungaramsri


Conflict in late twentieth century Thailand among state agencies, local people, urban conservationists, and community-rights NGOs over the issue of protected areas and people is strikingly complex and multi-faceted. The conflict has culminated in debate on the draft Community Forest Bill proposed by 50,000 local villagers and passed by the parliament in 2000. However, in March 2002, when the Bill was sent to the senate, several significant articles were amended, including Article 18, which would allow community forest to be incorporated within “protected forest areas,” such as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and classified watershed areas. The reason given for the amendment was that “pristine nature” within “protected areas” should be left intact without “disturbance” by local communities. As one senator put it, “Local people are like weevils, they eat up all the wood. If we pass this bill [unamended], it is like we open all the protected forests to all the communities.”

“Pristine nature” is a paradoxical notion, an invented idea that calls for human non-interference in a certain kind of “nature,” which yet requires the protection and management of human beings through man-made laws and regulations to guarantee its viability. Human power selects and decides the places where wilderness must be protected or allowed to recover from human disturbance. Of course, not all humans have the power of selection. Only state and urban elites acquire the privilege of incorporating “nature” into their realm of existence and enjoying its maximum benefits.

In this essay I discuss the process of social production of “nature” within the changing political economy of Thailand. By historicizing nature, I argue that a so-called untouchable, self-regulating, human-free “nature” has primarily been a product of constant state intervention in forest and natural landscapes since the turn of the twentieth century. This making of “first nature” has been an intimate part of the process of state-building, in which nature as economic capital is no less important than nature as “symbolic capital” (Bourdieu 1977)—a signifier of the modern and civilized nation-state.

Furthermore, the adoption of North American wilderness thinking by the modernizing Thai state within the country’s particular stage of capital accumulation has resulted in an ambivalence between “nature conservation” and “economic development.” The Thai deployment of “wilderness” actually reverses the original. Unlike the romantically-conceived model of the North American national park, Thai wilderness thinking stands inside the heart of modernity and omits the key characteristic of the wilderness. Used as a tool to modernize the country and its people, Thai “nature conservation” abandons the wild freedom of areas once beyond the reach of the state and assigns new functions to the landscape now designated as “protected.” Most crucially, this process has been integral to the capitalization of natural resources through the “development” paradigm.

Modernizing Nature

The logging ban of January 1989 is often viewed, by state agencies and environmental groups alike, as a turning point in forestry in Thailand—a watershed for the new era of conservation. Following the logging ban, in 1992, the Thai government revised its 1985 Thai National Forestry Policy (TNFP) which had allocated 25 percent of the country’s total forest area for production and 15 percent for conservation. The new TNFP aimed to increase conservation areas by converting forest reserves into national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. The new forestry policy designated 25 percent of the total land area of Thailand as protected areas, reducing forest for production to 15 percent.

The expansion of protected areas throughout the country is meant to return “nature” to an original state of untouched wilderness under the absolute protection of the Royal Forestry Department (RFD); such conservation is deemed the only way to save “nature” from “threats.” In the north of Thailand, for example, 1,760,000 ha of national reserve forests are to be annexed to forty national parks, and the following “threats” and “obstacles” to the natural ecosystem are to be removed—the local communities living and farming inside national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and class 1A watersheds. Over the past decade, then the forest has been successfully portrayed as fragile, vulnerable, and susceptible to extinction, while swidden fields and village settlements are depicted as forest bulldozers. This alarmist and apocalyptic rhetoric has gained widespread public and media support. Forest conservation is no longer the RFD’s agenda alone, but the responsibility of every Thai citizen; people who violate the law of conservation are deemed destroyers of the nation. Such a conservation mentality has resulted in tension between local people and forest officials in many protected areas, particularly in North Thailand. Popular resentment and resistance as an expression of local people’s distinctive ideas of conservation and forest use have emerged throughout the northern region.


From Pa (Forest) to Sappayakon Pamai (Forest Resource)

Changing perceptions of the forest and the development of nature conservation ideas in Thailand are products of socio-economic transformation closely linked to the modernization of the country. They reflect not only shifting state attitudes and practices, but the complex forces circumscribing the technologies of state resource control. Shaped and made possible by colonial and neo-colonial administration, these forces are both complementary and contradictory, as well as mediated by the political economy of modernity, resource competition, and scientific knowledge.

 In premodern Thai society, pa (forest, also pa dong, thuan, phong phrai, wana) stood external to and distant from the civilized sphere of muang (city or domain). Pa was perceived as an unpopulated, raw, disorderly realm of trees and animals peripheral to the humane, cultivated, and organized muang. It was a wild and barren area that needed to be remade into human habitation. The state thus knew as little about the forest as it knew about its inhabitants. The Mangraisastra, or Mangrai Law written by King Mangrai of the Lanna Kingdom (1259-1317), rewarded people whose sweat and tears turned forested area and barren fields into cultivated fields, orchards, and towns by exempting from levee (tax) the product of that land for three years. The idea that people who hak lang thang phong (clear the forest to make land) were good citizens remained prevalent until the mid-twentieth century.

Renowned Thai historian Srisakra Vallibhotama notes that the term pa reflects a deeper socio-cultural connotation than its usual English translation as “forest” (Srisakra 1989:269). Beyond the general sense of pa as an un-ordered forested area is the connotation of a mystic arena—the super-natural and spiritual territory which exists beyond human control. This does not mean that human beings were totally disconnected from pa. Thai literature shows that ordinary people viewed pa as mysterious and transcending the human order, but a special kind of human being residing in pa, such as a hermit, could attain ultimate magic powers through struggle against material and emotional temptations. As a refuge from the “worldly” world, pa also represented a peaceful sanctuary for Buddhist monks in pursuit of an ascetic path, as well as an escape and illicit repository beyond state control. Thus the premodern Thai pa signified a landscape which was “savage” and “untamed,” peripheral to the center of human power—a sacred, enchanted place made distant from human beings by feelings of fear, mysticism, and reverence.

By the end of the nineteenth century, this conception of pa had changed. The isolated mysterious place once perceived as external to the realm of muang had turned into a precious asset. The change began with the expansion of the British colonial logging industry from Mon territory into the adjacent forest of northern Thailand. Hardwood trees, especially teak, became unexpectedly valuable, leading to fierce competition among Burmese Mon teak traders. To gain logging concessions, these traders bribed the northern lords of Lanna who, despite their subservience to Bangkok, maintained independent rights of control over forest land (Saratsawatdi 1996:336-7; Shalardchai 1979). The competition and bribery also resulted in overlapping concessions. In 1873 alone, an estimated forty-two cases were filed in the Bangkok court to sort out disputes between British-Burmese Mon and Chiang Mai lords. In one significant case, the Chiang Mai lord Inthawichayanon lost and was fined 466,015 rupiah. This amount was beyond his ability to pay, so the Bangkok government helped him on the condition that Inthawichayanon repay the amount within seven years (Saratsawadi 1996). After this case, legislation implemented in 1874 and 1883 required the central government’s approval of any contracts between foreigners and northern lords and prohibited overlapping concessions (Royal Forestry Department 1958:2). To ensure enforcement, a representative from the Ministry of Interior was assigned to look after forest businesses in northern principalities.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the teak forest in northwestern Thailand had become economically significant and thus politically sensitive. Constant disputes and threats by British colonials to intrude into the northern territory prompted Bangkok to take more effective control of these forests. The Royal Forestry Department was established in 1896 after a survey of northern teak forests by Castensjold and Slade (a Dane and Briton, respectively). Prince Damrong Rachanuphap, the founder of the modern Ministry of Interior under which the RFD was first placed, hoped that the Royal Forestry Department would help “separate forestry from politics and contribute to the preservation of teak forest and the increase of government’s benefit from forests” (Ministry of Interior 1992:48-49).

The establishment of the RFD marked the end of the northern lords’ control over the forests, but unfortunately not the end of politics over forestry. During its first five decades, the RFD was tossed between several ministries, including Interior, Economics (Finance), and Agriculture. Such mobility reflected the political instability of the organization itself, but also the unsure capacity of the state to manage this new “resource,” whose economic value would always be subject to politics due to the enormous commercial benefits of timber-harvesting. Even after the RFD was permanently placed in the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives in 1941, the organization, its policies, and its high ranking positions continued to be strongly influenced by the leading political party of the government.

The modernization of pa through the RFD brought a new conceptualization to the once peripheral area. As the first director of the RFD, H.A. Slade resolved that forests in Thailand would be the “country’s capital” and that annual timber growth would be exploited as the “country’s interest” (RFD 1958:5). Pa, the wild and mystical land, had become visible and valuable to muang, in reality Bangkok, which came to represent the entire country to which the benefits belonged. This process was made possible by the scientific forestry of British colonialism, through a model derived from German forestry (Chamaichom 1978:89-90). The term pa (forest) was replaced by pa mai (forest-wood), analogous to “nature” becoming “natural resources,” a utilitarian discourse which focused on those aspects of nature with commercial value. The capacity of forestry science to transform the real, disorderly, chaotic forest into a rationally ordered arrangement of trees enabled the state to develop new possibilities of control. The natural forest or pa was thus remade into the administrative forest.

The state capitalization of nature/forest was a part of a modernization project which required centralized power to control forest resources, maximize the benefit of the timber trade, and reduce the British monopoly in the northern teak business. But although pa was rendered visible and valuable, the state lacked the knowledge and knowledge users to transform visible value into exportable goods and revenue. Ironically, the initial stage required the assistance of British subjects, who supplied the first three directors-general (first called Chief Conservator of Forest). It was almost three decades before the RFD had its first Thai director-general, Phraya Daruphan Phithak, who completed forestry training in England. Even then, technical knowledge, such as forest inventory and plantation, still relied heavily on foreign expertise. With limited knowledge and technology, the role of the state in commercial forestry was initially revenue extraction from tax collection and stump commission, while the major timber concessionaire with the most power and control of teak and trade within the Chao Phraya River Basin was a British company. The first experimental teak logging operation by the RFD started in 1912 in Phrae province and expanded to Chiang Mai’s Mae Chaem and Tak in 1913 and 1922 respectively (Chamaichom 1978).

The “forest” thus entered modern Siam in a partial and commoditized form, in which the utilitarian Siamese state saw only the commercial trees, namely teak. Annual average exports of high quality teak nearly doubled in the decade before the RDF was founded—from 29,538 tons in 1888 to 49,690 tons in 1896—making teak second only to rice as the nation’s most valuable export item. This equivalence of pa (forest) with pa maisak (teak forest) was fundamental to the development of Siamese forestry along the lines of “mono-species” management.

Teak also furthered centralization. While logging activities, forest control, and forestry schooling were concentrated in the north, home of the natural teak forests, infrastructure soon facilitated teak’s transportation to Bangkok. The first railway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai was completed in 1921 under British supervision with foreign loans. Several other logging railways were built by European concessionaires through the difficult terrain of the Ing, Yom, and Li river basins. (Graham 1912). King Chulalongkorn considered railroad development to be an important tool in centralizing the country, stating that “by bringing the different parts of the country within close communication the railway renders possible that close and beneficial supervision which is necessary to effective administration” (Graham 1912:145).

The teak era under European colonialism ended after World War II when the concession period was completed and the Thai government granted no further extensions. But logging by Thai companies of non-teak trees, classified as mai krayaloei (miscellaneous wood excluding teak), continued to follow the earlier model. The massive expansion of logging roads opened routes for landless farmers to seek new prospects in abandoned, exhausted concession forests which were never reforested as required by the licenses. With export-oriented agriculture being promoted by the government and the World Bank from the late 1960s, these former concession areas, as well as other fertile forests in the North and Northeast, were cleared for cash crop expansion (Shalardchai 1979). Commercial logging continued to be Thailand’s predominant form of forest exploitation until it was banned nationwide in 1989. The ban followed massive local protests against clear-felling of trees in the south that caused mudslides, flooding, and severe damage to hundreds of families. However, the logging ban did not end timber extraction from natural forests. The productive function of the forest persists in large-scale commercial tree plantations, as the state merely shifted its mono-species focus from “in situ” tree extraction to “ex situ” tree harvesting. Teak remains dominant along with fast-growing species such as Eucalyptus. The wood industry’s sawmills and timber factories have continued to operate as well, supplied by illegal logging and logs from neighboring Burma and Cambodia (Pinkaew and Petchmala 1992).


Civilizing Nature

The influence of colonial forestry practice has continued despite the withdrawal of western timber companies in the mid-twentieth century. In Thailand, as in other Third World countries, colonial power remained in the form of advisory functions. From the end of the 1940s to the end of the 1960s many international institutions emerged—the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Bank (WB), International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), United Nations (UN), and United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—whose missions were to guide and transfer the development model from industrialized to underdeveloped countries.

In 1948, the first group of forest experts from the FAO, led by Dutch forester G.N. Danhof, came to Thailand to advise and assist with natural resource management. The FAO team identified the major problems of forestry in Thailand as lack of knowledge, technology, manpower, and financial support for forest management. The report also asserted that the forest in Thailand was managed in an unprofessional and inefficient way and that forest encroachment and poaching were caused by shifting cultivators (Royal Forestry Department 1971:86). The FAO’s recommendation was to preserve 40 percent of the total land area as forest cover and to use aerial maps for forest management. One way to preserve such large areas was to establish a national park system.

The national park, as a post-war product of modern development ideology, coincided with the aims of the modernizing Thai state under Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat (1959-1963). Like the monarchy and the Thai language, the national park became an ideal national symbol. But further, a national park system was a landmark of modern civilization, a key element of the modern Thai nation-state, rendering forest destruction equivalent to destroying the nation. In Sarit’s words: “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 nation’s security” (Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives 1980, cited in Atthachak Sattayarak 1999). In 1958, the state initiated legislation on national parks, marking the first step towards modernizing the peripheral landscape of Thailand.

The ideal model, and assistance toward achieving it, came particularly from the United States. As part of the postwar attempt to halt the so-called influence of communist Indochina, American development assistance to Thailand included economic aid and advisory assistance on national park establishment. In 1955, through the US-Thai Cooperation Program, the American government sponsored visits by two groups of Thai bureaucrats, forestry academics, engineers, and policy makers to the US. The first group went to the Tennessee Valley Authority, an inter-state water resources development agency, to learn about American hydroelectric dam technology for developing water resources. The second group visited Yellowstone National Park, America’s first national park. Since then, the US model of dams and national parks has become an ambitious ideal of modern development for the Thai state.

In 1959, at the Thai government’s request, the Switzerland-based IUCN sent George Ruhle of the US National Park Service to assist the RFD in selecting suitable protected areas and writing laws to constitute and administer them. However, the transformation of Thai behavior towards “nature,” this step toward “civilization” and modern nationhood, was not easy. Ruhle noticed that untouched wilderness where human use was strictly prohibited seemed out of place in the Thai context: “terms such as ‘invasion of wilderness’ and ‘impairment of natural values’ are without meaning to the Thai at present. The idea that any area can best serve education, science, and posterity if left undisturbed seems naive indeed” (Ruhle 1964:24).

Nevertheless, legal mechanisms for enforcing conservation were enacted through the Wildlife Conservation Act of 1960 and the National Park Act of 1962. Thailand’s first national park, Khao Yai, in northern Thailand, was officially created on September 18, 1962, followed by the first wildlife sanctuary, Salak Phra, on December 31, 1965. Subsequently, the US model of protected areas has come to represent forest conservation in Thailand, supported financially and technically by international agencies including IUCN, FAO, United Nations for Development Program (UNDP), USAID, and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The American concept of “protected areas” initially emerged as an environmental ethic in which humans allowed the free self-determination of nature. For Thailand, the concept has been a means to board the ship of western civilization. Indeed, Dr. Boonsong Lekhakul, the father of the modern conservation movement in Thailand, cherished this idea throughout his life:

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 of food for stomach, to the era of civilization. It is time now to know of the food for eyes, for ears, and for the brain (Boonsong 1992:12).

Motivated by their desire to enhance progress and civilization, state officials allied with forestry technocrats and conservation groups have shaped forest conservation with these goals in mind. Protected areas are valued not so much as natural ecosystems but as part of a new technology enabling the modernization of the country. Natural ecosystems are classified into “national parks” (utthayan haeng chat) and “wildlife sanctuaries” (khet raksa phan sat pa) to be protected for the aesthetic, educational, and recreational needs of the people.

But which people are “natural resources” managed for? A member of the National Park Committee answers this question clearly:

 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. That 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 the beauty and aestheticism of national parks more than village people.

The underlying assumptions of this statement are twofold. First, the prerequisite for entering into the regime of the national park is formal education. Without this modern orientation, proper appreciation and understanding of the national park’s value are deemed impossible. Second, the modern stance of human beings toward nature is distance, presuming a neutral, disinterested, and non-invested position. The more intimate the relationship between human livelihood and nature, the more unlikely it is to achieve this distanced, neutral relationship. Such assumptions reveal a fundamental belief in scientific forestry, in which the “national park” is an object of knowledge acquired only through institutionalized education. This discourse of education has been used to disqualify and exclude undesired groups of people from national park management, to undermine the pre-existing connection between local livelihood and the forest, and to legitimize the dominance of the urban middle class over local people in their relationship with the forest.

It is interesting to note, however, that even urban middle-class appreciation of nature is not consistently and neutrally defined, though industrial interests are always elevated over those of local people. Vested in the uneven socio-economic structure, the value of national parks as consumptive landscapes has shifted over time. Throughout the history of constructing “forest conservation,” responses to the ecotourism market, industrial demand, and the desire to maintain the forest authority have variously shaped the development of protected areas in Thailand.


Selecting Pristine Nature: The Hierarchy of Forests

The RFD’s model of protected areas is based on the definition of the IUCN Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas:

Relatively large areas which contain representative samples of major natural regions, features or scenery where plant and animal species, geomorphologic sites, and habitats are of special scientific, educational, and recreational interest. They contain one or several entire ecosystems that are not materially altered by human exploitation and occupation. The highest competent authority of the country having jurisdiction over the area has taken steps to prevent or eliminate as soon as possible exploitation or occupation in the area (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

But 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. In the process of selecting national parks in Thailand, outstanding natural elements, mega-fauna, and large forest areas are given importance; national parks are then distinguished by their natural characteristics and assigned value and ranking. Some ecosystems are given superior value, while others are completely set apart from protection. Thailand’s eighty-one national parks and thirty-seven wildlife sanctuaries comprise mostly large mountainous forests, beaches, and islands valued highly for tourism and the conservation of large mammals.

Aestheticism of nature under the national park system is frequently undermined by industrial interest. With the exception of To Daeng wetland forest in Narathiwat province in southern Thailand—established under royal patronage as a wildlife sanctuary in 1993—none of the ecologically significant wetland forests, including mangrove, lowland riverine, and seasonally flooded forests, have been classified as national parks. Even after the government banned logging concessions and increased the number of national parks from fifty-seven to seventy-nine, the felling of mangrove forests for the charcoal industry was exempt from the ban. And nearly 200,000 ha of mangroves have been destroyed to make way for shrimp farms over the past three decades.

A former chief of one of Thailand’s wildlife sanctuaries explains the low ranking of wetlands within the forestry department’s protected area system:

There are two main reasons why wetlands and lowland riverine forests have been neglected by the 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 dryland forests.

Within the protected areas system, therefore, natural ecosystems are assessed not for their ecological significance but for their constructed aesthetic and economic value. Southern mangrove forests, unfortunately aesthetically unattractive, can only be productively valuable for charcoal and shrimp farming, while their ecological and functional value for local fishing communities is ignored. This differentiation creates further problems. Selecting national parks for their unique qualities has led to the creation of “green islands” surrounded by larger deforested areas (Ghimire 1994). Drawing a boundary around a desirable, protected area, the authorities render the forest beyond the boundary unqualified for protection by National Parks legislation. In the absence of local community rights to the surrounding forest, they are often illegally logged and cleared for other purposes.

The “green island” effect is evident at Khao Yai, Thailand’s first national park, which is now surrounded by resorts, golf courses, and industrial agriculture estates which adversely affect the ecological integrity and wildlife of the forest. The hierarchy created by deeming one forest area “core,” “pristine,” and protected, ironically undervalues the “peripheral” forest as less “natural” and “ecologically of no value,” therefore open to use by state and private interests. Over the past decade, the “green island model” has been amended by conservation authorities into a concept known as khet kan chon (buffer zone or egg white) in which the core pristine forest (egg yoke) is protected by zoning an area at its edge for use by communities resettled out of the core. One aim of buffer zones is to reduce opposition to eviction by local people by giving them a designated area nearby in which to live. This of course ignores the ecological mosaic that connects the “core” and “peripheral” areas.

Quite apart from the degradation of forests outside protected areas, it is questionable whether protected areas necessarily preserve the natural ecosystems within their boundaries. What is often obscured by the image of conservation is an important function of protected areas in Thailand—to support the country’s economic development.


Consuming Nature

As a principle underlying conservation in Thailand and elsewhere, the ideal of untouched wilderness is observed only conditionally. Thailand originally accepted the IUCN definition of protected areas as those “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).” The premise of protected areas as wilderness that can be preserved untouched and undisturbed, however, has largely proven to be a myth.

Since 1960, the 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 areas throughout the country. For instance, the construction of six large dams inundated more than 200,000 ha of forests—all within areas classified as “protected” (Nart Tantiwiroon and P. Samootsakorn 1986). 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, fourteen of which are endangered and thirty-two of which are threatened (Sueb 1987).

Development has been and continues to be a significant aspect of protected area configuration. The construction of dams is considered a type of “watershed conservation” necessary for the country’s resource management—not destructive, but indispensable. A senior forest academic explains: “The conservation concept comprises eight elements: utilization, storage, 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.”

This seems to contradict the very idea of the protected area as an untouched wilderness in which human intervention and destructive activity are proscribed. The Thai version of “wilderness” has departed from the ideal by allowing intervention as long as it is institutionalized, controlled, and regulated by the state and it “serves the benefit of the country.” Interestingly, the ecological destruction caused by development schemes is well-acknowledged by most state authorities. One former RFD director-general acknowledged that “development requires some losses,” but such losses are viewed as temporary and recoverable. The flooding of vast areas of forest, destroying numerous habitats of flora and fauna, will allow the development of a magnificent reservoir equipped with a splendid infrastructure and facilities including resorts, a golf course, and restaurants. With a little bit of investment, the reservoir will function as a tourist site to meet certain objectives of a national park, as the area sunk below its waters used to do in quite a different manner.

While development within protected areas is considered positive and manageable, local interaction with conservation forests is perceived otherwise. The latter, as one forest academic states, “is circumscribed by growth and greed”; “with permanent settlement, it will lead to an excessive uncontrollable destruction of forest” and therefore “should not be allowed to co-exist with forests.” Such a perception reflects the environmental discrimination and even racism entrenched within forestry thinking. Uncontrollable consumption is a behavior deemed inherent to and embedded in local livelihood, which is portrayed as endlessly harming the forest. This image, however, is never applied to “development” or to urban industrial lifestyles.

The de-politicization of development (Ferguson 1990) has not only rendered development authority an integral part of the conservation structure, but has also become a significant tool in blending productive and consumptive landscapes in a protected area. The 1989 logging ban in Thailand left the RFD and its ideal of productive forest momentarily idle. With the growth of eco-tourism in the 1990s, the “productive” function of the forest has been revived and national parks are again viewed as a promising source of income generation. The rapid expansion of national parks throughout Thailand, particularly concentrated in the north, has excessively augmented the parks authority, which has set aside the IUCN criterion of park establishment. Park management through concession has become omnipresent and profit making a priority that determines the way park resources and facilities are used. Commodifying nature through the promotion of “natural wonders” has been the key marketing strategy of the tourism industry.

Commodifying nature goes hand in hand with the growth of urban middle-class society and its increasingly intense lifestyle in big cities. As Guha points out, “the enjoyment of nature is an integral part of the consumer society” (1994:287). The growing urge for wilderness by urbanites is neither a reversion to the primitive, nor an abandonment of machine-like livelihoods. It is, rather, a way to “add new ‘amenity’ and ‘aesthetic’ goals and desires to their earlier preoccupation with necessities and conveniences” (Samuel Hays 1982:21 cited in Guha 1994:287). The urban middle-class need for “unspoiled” nature can be easily satisfied by excellent park facilities and accommodations in a snap-shot tour of the jungle, but it requires certain significant components through which a pure nature can be conceptualized. Wild animals, long ranges of mountainous forests, and waterfalls are common images used by media and state publications to symbolize the “nature” of protected areas.

“Unspoiled nature” is built upon the social construction of a regulated natural sphere construed as fragile and requiring protection. And a powerful protection apparatus requires the existence of a “threat.” In 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 natural forest constructed and reproduced by the state has been the agricultural activities of the “hill tribes.” The discourses of “greed” and “growth” are always powerful in raising this alarm. The fact that the rate of tourism in protected areas increasingly exceeds that of village population growth goes unremarked. Hill tribes and their existence are presented as the dark side of nature. Once something has been defined as a threat, it is left no room for existence.

Pinkaew Laungaramsri
Pinkaew Laungaramsri is lecturer at the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University. She is the author of Redefining Nature: Karen Ecological Knowledge and the Challenge to the Modern Conservation Paradigm.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 2 (October 2002). Disaster and Rehabilitation


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