Working Group

Socio-economics of Forest Use in the Tropics and Subtropics

Dr. Reiner Buergin en | de Thung Yai Naresuan
World Heritage Site





Institute of Forest Sciences, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

FreiDok plus Universitätsbibliothek Freiburg


Local change and cultural identity in a global heritage:

Pwo Karen communities in the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary,

a World Heritage Site in Western Thailand,

in the context of
national modernization and global environmental discourses

Global environmental crisis, modernity and protected areas

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.

Tropical forests, deforestation, and the loss of biological diversity do play an important role in scientific and political debates, as well as public perceptions of the global environmental crisis. A dominant approach to tackle these problems, since the end of the 19th century, has been the demarcation of protected areas for the protection of 'nature'. Frequently, the remaining 'natural' areas suitable for nature conservation are, at the same time, living spaces of non-modern peoples. Conflicts between conservation interests and ideologies on the one hand, and local interests of 'indigenous' or 'traditional' people living in or using resources from these areas on the other hand, often have resulted in the eviction of people from protected areas. The 'classical' modern concept of protected areas is based on ideas of an inherent antagonism between human exploitation of natural resources and the conservation of nature. In the context of the modernisation paradigm, the rise in population and poverty - supposed to be characteristic for non-modern, 'traditional' groups -, as well as the aspired modernisation of these groups, jeopardises the natural resources and the biodiversity of their 'natural' living places. In this framing of the problem, to protect 'nature' requires the removal of people out of areas designated for nature conservation. Only if non-modern people are virtually identified with 'nature' or assumed to be close to it they may qualify to remain in protected areas - provided they are not striving for 'development' -, even becoming themselves worthy of preservation.

The poor balance of this 'classical' approach to preserve nature in protected areas, resistance from affected local people, as well as a growing awareness for the rights of the people living in or close to protected areas have induced a revision of this approach since the 1980s. In the international discourses on protected areas, a new utility-oriented approach has gained rather broad acceptance which is based on a conservation strategy that takes into account the interests of local populations in resources and services of protected areas and areas close to it.

In practice, the establishment and management of protected areas is often far away from the standards of this revised protected area concept, and, specifically in third world countries, is predominantly closer to the 'classical' model. Furthermore, the new utility-oriented conservation approach has not only provoked a counter-movement within the conservation community, but also has to confront a critical localist approach to nature conservation in the context of the globalisation discourse since the 1990s. In this perspective, the utility oriented new conservation approach is part of a dominant globalist management strategy finally leading to the expropriation and incapacitation of local people. In alternative localist approaches, local resource control and self-determination are crucial elements towards the global environmental crisis and problems of identity and justice encountered in the processes of globalisation.

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.

Location of Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary and Western Forest Complex

Research area and villages

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.

Pictures from Thung Yai

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.

Land use of all villages in the research area

Land use of Sanepong, Gosadeng, Gomongta

Land use of Laiwo, Salawa, Tilaipa

Land use of Washuku, Gaenoae, Laikontae

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:

Approach and methods

The complex 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.
The analytical levels range from the individuals, households and communities up to the regional, national and international level, with an emphasis on the household and community level regarding data coverage and analysis.
The methodological approach of a complex contextualisation relies on a variety of methods and triangulation to try to access the complexity of actors and relations.
Data have been gathered in a comprehensive household survey in the nine villages of the western part of the sanctuary, using a standardised questionnaire. Semistructured interviews on specific topics were also conducted and participant observation was used to get familiar with everyday life and problems in the villages, to reveal important aspects and factors, and to validate data gathered with the questionnaire. On the regional and national level, representatives of government agencies and NGOs were interviewed. Aerial photographs were used to validate the mapping of the land use system carried out by local people.

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.




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SEFUT Working Papers



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Reiner Buergin, March 2021