Dr. Reiner Buergin
Local change and cultural identity in a global heritage
Karen communities in the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary,
Since the 1960s,
the capability of humans to change and deteriorate their own
natural environments, even on a global scale, has become
increasingly perceptible and problematic. Causes for the real and
potential risks and threats of what has come to be conceived of
as a global environmental crisis are, on the one hand,
technological and socio-cultural developments in modern
industrial societies, and, on the other hand, population dynamics
and development options in the countries of the so-called third
world. These causes point to a close connection between the
global environmental crisis and a developmental crisis, in which
modern concepts of 'development' and 'progress' have become
dubious in 'developing' as well as in 'developed' countries. In
this context, both environmental relations of modern societies as
well as their relations to non-modern, 'traditional' groups are
called into question. In this regard, the global environmental
and developmental crisis not only threatens the wellbeing of
present and future human populations, but also reflects a crisis
of modernity. In this crisis, the relations of the culture of
modernity towards 'nature' and the 'traditional' - the two
constitutive 'Others' of modernity - have become problematic and
need to be reconsidered.
Research area and problem
Against this background, the study is concerned with the conflicts and debates involving local communities of the Karen ethnic minority group living in the Wildlife Sanctuary and World Heritage Site Thung Yai Naresuan in Western Thailand. It analyses the social organization and transformations of several Karen villages in Thung Yai with a focus on their forest and land use system, in the context of the political conflict concerning these villages and the debate on 'people and forests' in Thailand and globally. However, this research not only explores the concrete local case of conflict within its encompassing national and international contexts of deforestation, nature conservation, indigenous rights, etc., but also intends to reflect this conflict and the research on it with regard to the self-conceptualisation of modern science and my own cultural context, the culture of modernity.
The Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1974. It extends along the Thai-Burmese border north of Sangklaburi in the province of Kanchanaburi on an area covering some 3600 km². In 1991, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO together with the adjacent Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. The two sanctuaries form the core of the so called 'Western Forest Complex' (WFC), constituting Thailand's largest remaining forest area of about 18,700 km². The WFC is composed of several wildlife sanctuaries and national parks and is of considerable importance with respect to forest and wildlife conservation in Thailand and mainland Southeast Asia, as well as for global biodiversity conservation.
People of the Karen ethnic minority group have been living in the area now designated a World Heritage Site for at least 200 years. The immigration of Karen people into mainland Southeast Asia is estimated to have occurred in the first millennium AD and preceded the arrival of ethnic Burmese and Tai people in Southeast Asia. Historically, the Three Pagodas Pass in the Southwest of Thung Yai has been an important link between the states of Burma and Siam. The territorial incorporation of the Thung Yai area into the Siamese (Thai) state occurred towards the end of the 19th century. All the villages in the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary have been established in their present location before the designation of the sanctuary in 1974. Some of them do have a history of more than a hundred years at the same place.
Until today, the Karen in Thung Yai predominantly grow rice on swidden fields for subsistence needs supplemented by rice grown on paddy fields. Their traditional rotational swidden system, under a communal resource management regime, relies on short cultivation periods - generally 1 year - and long fallow periods from 7-15 (and more) years. Besides different varieties of rice, a great variety of other crops is grown on the swidden fields and fallow areas.
Since the establishment of the sanctuary, the resettlement of the Karen has been discussed and villages have been removed by state authorities at different times. Specifically with the declaration as a World Heritage Site, the remaining Karen villages became a political issue. Their livelihoods and existence in the sanctuary are very much at risk. The legal status of their villages is ambiguous regarding Thai legislation, while the Royal Forest Department (RFD) and politicians frequently request their resettlement and impose restrictions on their traditional land use system. Since 1999, the situation of the Karen in the sanctuary has worsened once again, as the RFD and the Military are trying to induce them to resettle 'voluntarily' using violence and terror. At the same time, within the present discourse on 'people and forests' in Thailand, the Karen in Thung Yai are quoted for the position that human forest use and conservation of forests may well go hand in hand.
Objectives and research questions of the study
This Ph.D. project originated within the DFG Graduate College Socio-Economics of Forest Use in the Tropics and Subtropics. This research focused on processes of local change within the Karen communities, as well as on the political conflicts regarding the villages in the sanctuary. Both aspects only become comprehensible within the broader context of national and international processes of modernisation and environmental discourse. The dynamic cultural identity of the Karen in Thung Yai, which is essentially related to their specific place of living, is crucial for their adaptability towards these external changes and challenges, but also for their resistance towards the threats regarding their existence in Thung Yai.
The research project was aimed to:
General questions guiding the research have been:
character of these questions required a comprehensive analytical
framework facilitating the description and analysis of Karen
forest and land use in the context of their own cultural system,
as well as in its interdependence with their broader 'natural'
and 'socio-cultural' environments.
Results and conclusions
Karen people, with their 'traditional' way of life and specifically their forest and land use system, have shaped and helped to maintain what has become a Wildlife Sanctuary and a World Heritage Site with its rich floral, faunal, and ecosystem diversity. Population growth and their established swidden system are not the main problems regarding the resources and conservation objectives of the sanctuary, and can most likely be managed in the future. Restrictions of the Royal Forest Department regarding the use of fallow areas put at risk the subsistence oriented forest and land use system, forcing villagers increasingly into market dependency and cash cropping. Changes of the economic system to a more market and cash crop-oriented economy are in varying degrees taking place in some villages and households. These changes, propagated and supported by some government agencies and NGOs, are more likely to be critical regarding the objectives of the sanctuary. Whereas a minority of the villagers profits from these changes and partly appreciates or at least is willing to adapt to the external interests and influences, the vast majority perceives them as a threat to their traditional way of life, their values and their homeland which they consider crucial to their identity.
Presently, the most important threats to the sanctuary stem from external interests such as:
Resettlement of the Karen will not support the protection of the sanctuary, but rather create disadvantages and new problems such as:
The way the Thai state sees itself - as expressed in its constitution and its commitment toward democracy and human rights - rather seems to suggest a 'culture conservation approach' as well. A solution to the 'problem' Karen in Thung Yai which does justice to this self-conception and commitments, and is aiming to improve the problematic relation between state agencies and Karen communities in Thung Yai, has to seriously consider the following measures:
By means of
supporting the adapted and sustainable land use system of the
Karen and mobilising their competence and resources for the
protection of the area, as well as improving the implementation
of decisions regarding the sanctuary, these measures, at the same
time, support the conservation objectives. Furthermore, they are
also suitable to strengthen the loyalty of the Karen and further
their integration into the nation state.