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Beyond the Sacred Forest: Complicating Conservation in Southeast Asia

Beyond the Sacred Forest: Complicating Conservation in Southeast Asia

by Michael R. Dove (Editor), Percy E. Sajise (Editor), Amity A. Doolittle (Editor), Arturo Escobar (Editor), Dianne Rocheleau (Editor)

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Reflecting new thinking about conservation in Southeast Asia, Beyond the Sacred Forest is the product of a unique, decade-long, interdisciplinary collaboration involving research in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Scholars from these countries and the United States rethink the translation of environmental concepts between East and West,


Reflecting new thinking about conservation in Southeast Asia, Beyond the Sacred Forest is the product of a unique, decade-long, interdisciplinary collaboration involving research in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Scholars from these countries and the United States rethink the translation of environmental concepts between East and West, particularly ideas of nature and culture; the meaning of conservation; and the ways that conservation policy is applied and transformed in the everyday landscapes of Southeast Asia. The contributors focus more on folk, community, and vernacular conservation discourses than on those of formal institutions and the state. They reject the notion that conservation only takes place in bounded, static, otherworldly spaces such as protected areas or sacred forests. Thick with ethnographic detail, their essays move beyond the forest to agriculture and other land uses, leave behind orthodox notions of the sacred, discard outdated ideas of environmental harmony and stasis, and reject views of the environment that seek to avoid or escape politics. Natural-resource managers and policymakers who work with this more complicated vision of nature and culture are likely to enjoy more enduring success than those who simply seek to remove the influence and impact of humans from conserved landscapes. As many of the essays suggest, this requires the ability to manage contradictions, to relinquish orthodox ideas of what conservation looks like, and to practice continuously adaptive management techniques.

Contributors. Upik Djalins, Amity A. Doolittle, Michael R. Dove, Levita Duhaylungsod, Emily E. Harwell, Jeyamalar Kathirithamby-Wells, Lye Tuck-Po, Percy E. Sajise, Endah Sulistyawati, Yunita T. Winarto

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Complicating Conservation in Southeast Asia is a sophisticated and thoughtful engagement with fundamental conceptual pillars of modern-day conservation politics. Based on sustained and systematic field-based studies enriched by deep theoretical development, this book’s ideas will educate students and decision makers alike as they grapple with the meanings of progress, justice, and sustainability as shaped via the complex interplay among nature, power, and culture.”—Arun Agrawal, author of Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects
Anthropological Forum - Sarinda Singh
Beyond the Sacred Forest offers an admirable interdisciplinary and collaborative effort focussed on conservation in the Southeast Asian region. The overarching argument is that attention to social, political, historical and economic issues is critical to understanding outcomes from conservation initiatives. . . . Overall, this collection will stand on the strength of its impressive interdisciplinarity and collaborative effort, which will offer a solid resource and research model for scholars of the region as well as for resource managers and development practitioners.”
Southeast Asian Studies - Andreas Neef
“Most chapters in this volume provide an empirically rich and theoretically grounded account of the complexity of national and local environmental politics at the interface of forest and agriculture in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and will be welcomed by many scholars, students and decision-makers in the field of natural resource conservation.”
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies - Tim Forsyth
“This dense and rich book reminds readers that conservation is difficult to reduce to predefined concepts of social agency or environmental quality. The obvious readers will be scholars of political ecology, development and anthropology. But its message should be communicated more broadly: simplistic approaches to conservation lack accuracy; and transferable lessons can be drawn from contextual work.”
Asian Anthropologist - Henry Chan
“Beyond the Sacred Forest: Complicating Conservation in Southeast Asia presents an extensive and well researched critique on conservation strategies in Southeast Asia. ... [It] is a commendable book for students and managers of conservation and sustainable development programs.”
Pacific Affairs - Wolfram Dressler
“Beyond the Sacred Forest develops new perspectives and insights about how conservation policy and practice can no longer afford to achieve its objectives by reinvesting in older, dualistic categories that oversimplify the process and outcomes of local interventions. The book represents an excellent attempt to move conservation thinking and practice beyond its colonial-era hangover.”
Sojourn - Derek Hall
“The overall quality of the scholarship and the writing in Beyond the Sacred Forest is very high, and the book will be of interest to scholars and practitioners working on conservation, natural resource management, and agrarian political economy in Southeast Asia and beyond. . . .  In setting up the volume, the editors do not give their contributors a set of marching orders; rather, they lay out the broad contours of a field of research and allow the chapters to take their places within it. This approach to framing the chapters complements the book’s commitment to interdisciplinarity and its argument that deviations from master plans, skepticism about equilibrium states, and conflict are all potentially positive and productive.”

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Beyond the Sacred Forest


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4796-5

Chapter One

Lye Tuck-Po


This essay's title is an explicit acknowledgment of ideological issues in protected-areas management. The ethnographic focus is a specific national park, the 4,343 square kilometers of Taman Negara in peninsular Malaysia. My fieldwork has uncovered a range of problems, primarily in the relationship between managers (officers and rangers of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks; hereafter DWNP) and the resident community (the forest-dwelling hunting-and-gathering Batek of Pahang state). In earlier writings (Lye 1997, 2002, 2005), I regarded park administration as an imposition on the culture of the forest people. Here, with the people in the background, my concern is more with the DWNP and the broader context of managing wildlife and habitat.

A key characteristic of the Taman Negara administration is its ambivalence regarding the place of people in the park. The people are recognized as belonging there and having a visible presence, but there is no administrative procedure for dealing with the implications of that presence. I will argue that the administrative ambivalence reflects a deeper cognitive unease with the relationships among people, the forest, and wildlife. Of most concern to me is how and why certain places, peoples, and times are defined as wild or tame and how such definitions are woven through the administration of the national park. The most familiar definition that comes to mind, as legitimized in scientific conservation, draws on Euro-American conceptions of the "wilderness," which often deny that landscapes have different use values for different peoples and therefore are social rather than natural spaces (Cronon 1996). Though the tension between scientific and local conservation practices exists in peninsular Malaysia (hereafter the Peninsula), of more interest are the local variations on the concept of "wild."

One issue that will become clear (see Lye 2002) is the artificiality of boundaries between folk/local and scientific/global. For the "local" in this case is both Batek, the people in the park, and Malay, the people running the park and the country. Protected-areas management may appear to be global in its managerial and scientific orientation, but it is filtered through embedded Malay understandings of forest-people relations. And, in a mutually reciprocal process, Malay understandings are filtered through what can be observed of the forest peoples' behavior and environmental relations. As such, the ideological context is extremely complex, and the problem for this essay will be to trace how different symbolic representations come together and are enshrined in official policy.

Protected-areas establishment (and similar resource-management projects) has come in for much criticism, as well as for proposals for improvement. Ongoing issues include the rights of resident populations in protected areas (Colchester and Erni 1999), the failure of parks to improve local livelihoods (Ghimire and Pimbert 1997) and/or to protect biodiversity (Brandon, Redford, and Sanderson 1998), and doubts about the effectiveness of co-management in widening access to resources and decision making (Brosius, Tsing, and Zerner 2005; Colfer, Wadley, and Venkateswarlu 1999; Leach and Fairhead 2001). Concurrently, other critiques (e.g., those of the "cultural construction of nature" approach) look critically at the relations of power and ideas that support resource-management regimes; these demonstrate that the ideas are historically contingent, even in the place of origin, socially specific, and often elitist, and that they may be based on an erroneous understanding of culture-nature relations (Dwyer 1996; Neumann 1998).

My approach in this essay draws from these various strands of discussion. While acknowledging the need to integrate conservation with socialpolitical interests, I maintain that these are only surface problems. There are underlying ideological issues that ultimately shape how managers' objectives are defined, interpreted, and realized in practice. Why reality is constructed one way rather than another is a function of contentions between systems of ideas and values that change over time. Because these ideas are deeply embedded, they will not be dislodged with bureaucratic reform. I am not, however, arguing for the opposite position, a paradigm shift. Rather, the question is how ideology—expressed here as symbolic representations of the forest, people, and wildlife—intersects with the management of a national park, and what are the political consequences of viewing the world in a certain way.

The Founding of the Park

The DWNP and Taman Negara originated in the 1930s, long before the current environmental crisis. As an inheritance from the colonial era, it is a product of pre–Second World War concerns rather than today's. If Malaysians wish to congratulate themselves, they can cite Taman Negara as an example of an environmental achievement. But in view of the park's colonial origins, we must ask how the authorities today perceive the park and its people and how colonial images of nature continue to shape the administration.

My point of departure is to investigate what problems and assumptions brought the DWNP and Taman Negara into existence. The relevant context was the agricultural expansion and forest clearance activities in the decades leading up to the Second World War (H. Burkill 1971: 207). Consonant with the establishment of early forestry departments, tentative efforts were made —from the 1880s onward—to set land aside as timber reserves. Related to the largely unplanned growth of the commercial sector were planters' (especially rubber growers') perceptions of animals: to them, "wild life was all right in its place, but if it caused damage to crops, it should be ruthlessly controlled" (W. Stevens 1968: 11). Alarm over the impact of agriculture on animals, especially the larger fauna like elephants and tigers, led to early attempts at conservation. The first game laws—isolated interventions at the state level without wide applicability—emerged around this time, with the first game reserve (Chior in Perak State) not created until 1902 (Hubback 1932: 2:15–16). H. Burkill (1971) claimed that wildlife protection was the culmination of a rising swell of public opinion, but the evidence is not conclusive. For example, as judged by evidence collected in the Wild Life Commission Report (Hubback 1932, see below), opinions about conservation measures were sharply divided across communities, with restrictions on commerce and livelihood activities (e.g., hunting and trading restrictions, and land excision for wildlife sanctuaries) generating much suspicion and heated debate.

Into this scenario moved a rather unusual individual, T. R. (Theodore) Hubback. He was, in H. S. Barlow's estimation, "the first genuine conservationist in the modern sense of the term" (2000: 21). An engineer by training, he was a well-known big game hunter turned gamekeeper who first came to Malaya to join the Selangor state government: "He bounced round the civil service, never staying for long in any one job" (H. Barlow 2000: 20). He seems to have been something of a misfit and eventually settled in Kuala Lipis, Pahang (the former state capital and original headquarters of the national park). In 1922 he was confirmed as the honorary (i.e., unsalaried) game warden of Pahang, and in 1930 he was appointed by the governor of the Straits Settlements to head the Wild Life Commission of Malaya. We have no information on why the commission was formed, but it was at least partially an attempt to address the impact of animals on agricultural expansion, rather than a move toward conservation as such. Specifically, the commission was tasked to examine the existing game laws, investigate reports of wildlife damage to agriculture, suggest methods to deal with the problem, and, finally, to inquire how regulations to preserve wildlife might be organized (Hubback 1932: 1:1–10). Hubback's appointment was controversial, especially to the powerful Rubber Growers' Association (H. Barlow 2000: 22; see, e.g., Hubback 1932: 3:276, 293), which blamed conservation for an increase in wildlife depredations on crops and doubted that Hubback, a noted conservationist, would be sympathetic to their interests.

The three-volume Report was perhaps Hubback's (1932) most lasting contribution to posterity. A fascinating document, it contains evidence taken from over 550 witnesses from various socioeconomic sectors and all social strata, presented in transcript or tabular form (on methodology, see Hubback 1932: 1:12–13, 23–24). In light of today's concerns with representation (see, e.g., Brosius 1997a; Leach and Fairhead 2001), we should note how the goal of broad inclusivity was belied by actual practice. As Hubback phrased it: "Evidence was taken from anyone who wished to come forward, from High Government Officials to Sakai" (Hubback 1932: 1:12). Yet "Sakai" (i.e., Orang Asli) voices remain largely absent from the resulting document. Though the aboriginals were spoken about by others (both Malays and colonials), particularly to consider whether their subsistence practices caused damage to wildlife, and though a document was submitted on behalf of the Sakai of Pahang East (Hubback 1932: 1:378–79), the Report shows little evidence of consultation with them. Despite the strategic territorial importance of the Batek (termed "Pangan"), they appear only as Hubback's informants on trails and geography (e.g., Hubback 1932: 2:138). One problem was, perhaps, the unfamiliarity of the consultative process. More significantly, suspicion toward the work of the commission evoked another problem, an unwillingness to speak openly and the misrepresentation of facts and opinions (Hubback 1932: 1:12–13). It is also possible that aboriginal communities were just too remote to be aware of the proceedings and that the commission had neither the resources nor the time to approach them directly. Whatever the reason, the ideology of wildlife conservation had at the outset selective origins. Wherever attention was paid to the aboriginals, their activities and concerns were viewed through external frames of reference, especially that of species conservation.

These limitations aside, the Report was indeed a watershed in advancing the first systematic program of wildlife management for the Peninsula. The recommendations, as summarized by Barlow (2000: 22), were: standardize the game laws, have one central agency to administer the laws, establish "inviolable sanctuaries," enforce closed seasons for the hunting of animals and birds, and conserve river fish. With some refinements and adjustments, these recommendations form essentially the core of the program that exists today and the raison d'être of the DWNP.

Hubback stressed the need to bring local regulations in line with "those basic principles of conservation that are now generally accepted throughout the civilized world" (Hubback 1932: 2:7). One of these, a reflection of his admiration for the American model (Gordon Means, personal communication), was to complement the existing system of sanctuaries with a national park, "where the larger animals can breed without disturbance and the smaller fauna can be sure of freedom from the continual harassing that has been their lot" (Hubback 1932: 2:139). He first proposed the Tahan Game Reserve as the national park location in 1927. By 1930, as shown in the commission letters (e.g., Hubback 1932: 1:3), the idea had gained sanction, and Hubback was tasked to investigate whether an expanded area around the game reserve would be suitable for the purpose. It is difficult to uncover an ecological justification for that location above any other in the Peninsula. The most important consideration may have been land availability: the Tahan Game Reserve had the advantage of habitat diversity, a sizable tract of unbroken forest, and low population density: "None of this land is occupied by any sort of permanent settlement, although there are a few wild tribes [the Batek or "Pangan Tanah" in his terminology] which wander through its jungles" (Hubback 1932: 2:133). In H. M. Burkill's words, the area "was too remote to fall under the avaricious eyes of commerce so that its land was not coveted" (1971: 206–7). Finally, in 1938 and 1939, the state enactments that established King George V National Park (the original name of Taman Negara) were passed, and Hubback became the first chief game warden. His story ends here, for he disappeared during the war, just a few years later.

To return to the main themes of this essay, the national park formed the centerpiece of the proposed network of "inviolable sanctuaries." The idea of these sanctuaries was a brilliant solution that advanced something new while essentially leaving the commercial establishment intact. It was a radical initiative for the times, but it was also pro-establishment. In view of the planters' perceptions of agricultural pests, the sanctuary idea left planters free to dispose of pests (with restrictions) while, in a metaphorical sense, "shepherding" remaining wildlife into designated sanctuaries (various versions of this position are enunciated throughout the Report). Setting land aside for animal protection was politically marginal to the needs of and for capital. Sixty years later, the same problems and assumptions remain.

Some animals would be sacrificed and some protected through systematic management. Certainly an idea for wildlife protection was born. There was now an official perception of what the place of animals was and how to keep them there. And, of course, there was also a new perception of the forest and how it could be used. Parts of the forest would be taken out of the hands of commerce and would come to be defined by the presence of animals and the laws maintaining them there; no wonder that Hubback represented such a threat to the rubber growers.

He was also a threat to local Malay villagers. At least one settlement he encountered on the fringe of the national park area was "occupied by persons who do not like the restrictions placed on them by rules and regulations and who find that they can live easier and with less effort in such [remote] places" (Hubback 1932: 2:138). In drawing up the park boundaries, Hubback appears to have taken pains to leave such settlements out of the proposed area, but he did not provide for their larger extractive zones. Communities that were accustomed to exploiting forest resources with impunity were now locked out of a huge swathes of forestland and saw their activities criminalized under the new conservation regulations (drafted in, for example, Hubback 1932: 2:153–57). It is not hard to imagine the responses to such restrictions. Kuala Tahan villagers were, indeed, expressing their resentment to me in the early 1990s, and poaching and encroachment remain a big problem in Taman Negara. But therein lies an important duality, for the "wild tribes," the ancestors of today's Batek, were allowed to remain in the park. Officially, "the Taman Negara Enactments make no reference to the aboriginal population that naturally inhabit the Park" (DWNP 1987: 24). The unofficial picture, as gleaned from the Report, is more complex.

Hubback was undoubtedly sympathetic to the aborigines: he was also (informally) the protector of aborigines for the Pahang River (Gordon Means, personal communication). He used the medium of the Wild Life Commission inquiry to investigate whether the protection of aboriginal interests could be accommodated with the protection of wildlife: "Would the Game Reserves supply a suitable location for these aborigines?" The question was posed to Fetherstonhaugh, Pahang's assistant game warden, who replied: "Yes, most suitable.... It should be the duty of the Game Warden to see that the aboriginals have a place where they may evolve on natural lines; to supply them with medical assistance; to ensure that their work is justly remunerated; and to assist them to form more settled habits and generally to improve their mode of life, free from fear of exploitation" (Hubback 1932: 1:317). This was the most explicit response reproduced in the Report, but it was a minority position. Nevertheless, Theodore Hubback and Gerald Hawkins, the commission's assessor, did try to submit a case for it. Hawkins summarized thus:

The aborigines, Sakai, Jakun and Negrito should have some protection and might be settled in a portion of a large game reserve where they could slowly evolve instead of falling victims to a civilisation for which many centuries of seclusion have made them for the present unsuited.... The aborigines should have, not only special reservations, but also an area large enough to permit them the satisfaction of their nomadic habits. Such areas can only be found in Wild Life Sanctuaries or National Parks, the administrator of which should have as part of his duties the promotion of the gradual evolution of these Wild People, as well as the work of protecting them from exploitation by other races." (Hubback 1932: 1:28–29)


Excerpted from Beyond the Sacred Forest Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael R. Dove is the Margaret K. Musser Professor of Social Ecology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Director of the Tropical Resources Institute, and Professor of Anthropology, at Yale University.

Percy E. Sajise is an Honorary Research Fellow of Biodiversity International, an Adjunct Fellow at the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Philippines), and Adjunct Professor in the School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of the Philippines, Los Baños.

Amity A. Doolittle is a Lecturer and Associate Research Scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

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