Forest cleansing: racial oppression in scientific nature conservation

Forest cleansing: racial oppression in scientific nature conservation

Why forest conservation in upland Thailand is ethnically divisive and racist

Article looks at a specific case of racial oppression manifesting itself within development programs. At a more general level, the article looks at how ecological project can become politicised.

An example of this is South-East Asia, where valley-based states have regularly attempted to sedentarize or repress hill-dwelling ethnic minorities. Racist patterns and processes in the region have been sustained and strengthened through the activities of international environmentalists and developmentalists. The potential for racial violence in the region is exemplified by a current conflict over water and forests in Chom Thong, a district in Chiang Mai province of Northern Thailand. Here, over the past decade, elite conservationists, state bureaucracies and politicians have helped each other exploit, rework and augment a legacy of highland-lowland ethnic tensions in the course of pressing for resettlement of mountain communities on "environmental" grounds and for greater elite and state control over mountain resources.

The establishment by Thai elites, under the tutelage of US and other international conservationists, of parks and wildlife reserves has helped to entrench an upland vs lowland ethnic grid. A simplified people-vs.-trees narrative of forest decline was superimposed on the realities of forest history, making it possible to reinterpret the character and persistence of highland forests as a result of the relative absence of human influence rather than of human stewardship or commercial inaccessibility. In an irony often noted by minority observers, the disproportionate survival of good forest in minority-occupied areas was transformed into a reason for evicting minorities.

Physical violence against mountain minorities, much of it unreported, has been an integral part of their increased stigmatization and scapegoating. The violence is directed, again following the standard racist dualism, at either removal or assimilation.

Certain conservation organisations involved in this issue have mobilised ethnic divisions in the service of "forest conseration" and centralisation through:

  • Physical exclusion
  • Conceptual exclusion from the Thai nation
  • Division of minority groups from each other
  • Dissemination of racial stereotypes
      • Throughout their existence, campaigns to dispossess hill-dwelling minorities in Thailand have tapped the power of international racist science and development discourse
      • Understanding environmental racism means paying attention both to the uniqueness of particular cases and to wider parallels. Examples such as the one explored in this article provide rich materials for understanding evolving patterns of ethnic violence and their links both to local and regional inter-class politics and resource competition and to structures of racism embedded in international science and mainstream environmentalism

  1. How good is this research?

    Assessing the quality of research can be a tricky business. This blog from our editor offers some tools and tips.