Culture and the Question of Rights: Forests, Coasts, and Seas in Southeast Asia

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This collection of ethnographic and interpretive essays fundamentally alters the debate over indigenous land claims in Southeast Asia and beyond. Based on fieldwork conducted in Malaysia and Indonesia during the 1980s and 1990s, these studies explore new terrain at the intersection of environmental justice, nature conservation, cultural performance, and the politics of making and interpreting claims.
Calling for radical redefinitions of development and ownership and for new understandings of the translation of culture and rights in politically dangerous contexts—natural resource frontiers—this volume links social injustice and the degradation of Southeast Asian environments. Charles Zerner and his colleagues show how geographical areas once viewed as wild and undeveloped are actually cultural artifacts shaped by complex interactions with human societies. Drawing on richly varied sources of evidence and interpretation—from trance dances, court proceedings, tree planting patterns, marine and forest rituals, erotic poems, and codifications of customary law, Culture and the Question of Rights reveals the ironies, complexities, and histories of contemporary communities’ struggles to retain their gardens, forests, fishing territories, and graveyards. The contributors examine how these cultural activities work to both construct and to lay claim to nature. These essays open up new avenues for negotiating indigenous rights against a background of violence, proliferating markets, and global ideas of biodiversity and threatened habitat.

Contributors. Jane Atkinson, Don Brenneis, Stephanie Fried, Nancy Peluso, Marina Roseman, Anna Tsing, Charles Zerner

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A timely and exciting volume. Its cutting-edge scholarship goes to the heart of debates about the relations among land, people, and what is problematically called ‘culture.’ While offering no easy answers, the contributors’ voices together bring home the point that local farmers and fishers, scholars, activists, and development workers all need to rethink their ideas about rights and claims to seas, forests, and other resources.”—Laurie J. Sears, University of Washington

“An enormously important volume that is sure to provoke a great deal of discussion about the discourse of indigenous rights. Without question one of the most original interventions into the issue in recent years, it shifts the ground of the debate, providing a way for us to think about the issue of rights in ways that are polyphonic, aesthetic, and performative.”—J. Peter Brosius, University of Georgia

“In this valuable and important book, we see villagers articulating their relationship to the natural environment, not through cadastral surveys and claims of right but through songs, speeches, poems, prayers, and spells. Too often, government officials and other ‘experts’ tend to ignore such practices and impose rigid conceptions of law, space, and time. These remarkable essays remind us of the extent of the loss that can accompany the triumph of law.”—David M. Engel, University of Buffalo

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822328131
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Zerner is Barbara B. and Bertram J. Cohn Professor of Environmental Studies at Sarah Lawrence College.

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Read an Excerpt

Culture & the Question-CL

By Charles Zerner

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2003 Charles Zerner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780822328025

Chapter One

Cultivating the Wild: Honey-Hunting and Forest Management in Southeast Kalimantan Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

Chopping tumeric, crushing tumeric Chopping on a bamban leaf. Ladies don't sting us, For aren't we together in the forest?

Clinging to a tree branch high above the ground in the pitch dark of a moonless night, a Meratus honey hunter raises his voice to sing verses like these to charm and calm the bees. In the Meratus Mountains of southeastern Kalimantan, Indonesia, migratory bees make their combs under the carefully cleaned branches of great rainforest trees, perhaps one hundred or more feet off the forest floor. Brave young men scale the trees to harvest the combs in the dark of moonless nights. Before they approach the comb, while perched in the dark high above the ground, they sing to the bees to keep them from stinging. Between the danger, the song, the beauty of the fireworks' sparks that drive away the bees, and the sweetness of the honey afterward, these were nights for all of us there to anticipate and remember.

The excitement of honey hunting involves more than a good story. The excitement reminds us that we are dealing not just with things but with meanings. Popular and scholarly economists and ecologistshave worked hard to obscure the fact that resource use is always a matter of aesthetics in its broadest sense: feelings, sensibility , moral vision. Instead, economic production and environmental resource use are said to be neutral matters of efficiency, natural capacity, and profit margins. This convention of thinking hides, but does not stop, the making and affirming of cultural frameworks in all human activities. It also hides attempts to export particular cultural frameworks globally under the guise of neutral knowledge. In this essay, I am concerned with a powerful set of conceptual frameworks through which the environment is explored, managed, converted, and conserved. I argue that these frameworks get in the way of understanding not just Meratus honey hunting, but also Meratus-and other-alternatives for creating long-term associations between people and forests. In the process, I must theorize both the excitement of those Meratus nights and the blinding magic of the international economic and ecological projects that separate scientists, activists, and policymakers from Meratus insights.

When European naturalists walked into the great forests of Borneo in the last part of the nineteenth century, they thought they had found a profoundly stable natural resource that would remain in all its immensity for as long as they could imagine. Their predictions, perhaps unwittingly, played a small part in legitimating a now still-accelerating process of forest destruction. A century later, environmental scientists and advocates have found these same forests dwindling, precarious, and fragile. Plywood and construction-wood timbering take down vast tracts daily. Plantation and peasant agricultural expansion clear many hectares of new fields. Hydroelectric power dams flood once-forested valleys. Transmigration and resettlement projects gnaw at the remaining edges of the forest. Conservationists fight to save a few forest parks, as national policymakers remind them of the human needs forest conversion serves. But only recently has international attention been drawn to both the social needs and the ecological knowledge of the communities of shifting cultivators and foragers who have lived in these forests for a very long time.

An awareness is growing among environmentalists, scholars, and progressive policymakers that the indigenous inhabitants of forest environments deserve a great deal more recognition than they have been getting: first, they have established rights to forest resources, which national governments and transnational corporations must learn to acknowledge; and second, they know a lot about the long-term coexistence of people and forests, which policymakers and environmental scholars could well afford to learn from before all the forests are gone. Indeed, these two elements of recognition are inseparable since one must appreciate local forest-use practices to understand local resource claims. But because governments, corporations, policymakers, and scientists are best trained to absorb information through already familiar frameworks, the question of how to acknowledge the resource rights and learn from the knowledge of forest-living communities is not a simple one. If we do not want to impose inappropriate cultural standards and their associated environmental practices (And haven't these so often proved destructive?), we must take very seriously other ways of understanding and making "rights" and "forests." Yet this stimulates the difficult process of self-reflection in which we glimpse the limits of our most familiar assumptions about humans and nature. This chapter crafts tools to build respectful multicultural conversations on long-term human management of tropical forests.

My approach works to avoid two analytic pitfalls that characterize much recent literature on the knowledge of indigenous peoples of the rainforest. One could call these pitfalls a "dematerialized aestheticism" and a "deaestheticized materialism." The former approach contrasts the values of forest-living peoples-taken as a bloc-and those of "modern," industrial peoples; too often, it only reaffirms conventional urban prejudices (positive or negative) that forest-living peoples, like forested nature, are holistic and spiritual against an imagined technical and instrumental modern consciousness. It exoticizes and romanticizes the wild. In contrast, the latter approach treats forest landscapes as sites of nonculturally defined natural resources that are to be managed rationally, as commodities on the world market. Forest-living people and urban people are assumed to be the same in their desire to maximize benefits from natural resources; if the former have some useful know-how, it should be easy for the latter to mine this technical information. This approach discourages its experts from considering how diverse groups of people conceptualize natural resources and economic values. In this, it over-generalizes from familiar cultural values and then pretends those values do not exist. To avoid these pitfalls, we must formulate new ways of addressing both where to look and how to look at human-forest relationships.

Where to Look: Between Systems and Resources

Sometimes a small ecological detail can illuminate a broad field of inquiry. For Meratus Dayaks of South Kalimantan, honey-hunting, while not unimportant, is only one of many ways to use, transform, and conserve forest resources. Meratus Dayaks are shifting cultivators whose major crop is rice. In focusing on the cultural ecology of a minor forest product, my approach here contrasts with scholarly attempts to capture the total cultural and ecological systems of forest-living peoples. Such "total systems" approaches can overemphasize a group's major subsistence activity and neglect the historical particularities of other subsistence forms.

My approach also contrasts with the other pole of scholarly insight: the universalization of market economy definitions of resource elements. In contrast to studies of major subsistence systems, most studies of cash crops and forest products define resources through their entry into networks of world trade. These studies have paid too little attention to the local meanings and practices in which crops and forest products are defined and renegotiated as they make their way to local, regional, and international markets; instead, resources are described as nonsocially determined natural objects, prefit as world-market commodities. Yet natural resources are cultural resources; commodities are both cultural and natural objects. Trade involves forest-living communities in cultural negotiations with other resource managers. Their interactions define and create conflicting environmental technologies of knowledge and use.

For centuries, Meratus Dayaks have sold forest products and cash crops (including, in various eras, rattan, rubber, resins, incense woods, bamboo, peanuts, pepper, and much more) at regional markets, from which the products have been transported to globally dispersed buyers. Honey and beeswax, which I describe here mainly as they circulate without monetary value among Meratus, are also sold to regional buyers when they are plentiful enough. Yet products do not become commodities in the same way in New York, Jakarta, and the Meratus Mountains. Commodities are made within local as well as global economies. Histories of trade, as well as of forest administration and coercion, are also histories of cultural and political negotiation. Trade does not create homogeneous cultural worlds or egalitarian political positions. The challenge for both advocates and scholars is to create a fuller recognition for the local cultural processes obscured by the imagined naturalness and universality of the market.

How to Look: Evading Powerful Tendencies in Thinking about Forests

Two powerful tendencies in popular and scholarly ecological thinking about forests correspond in some ways to the pitfalls of "dematerialized aestheticism" and "deaestheticized materialism." In the first tendency, forests are outside the realm of human culture and cultivation: forests are wild-and thus mysterious, unpredictable, Other to human knowledge. It is the wildness of forests that makes for the strength of agendas to tame and convert-and thus destroy-forests for human uses; it is also wildness that environmentalists want to protect. In the other tendency, forests are like any other set of resources available for human use; forests are a storehouse of natural commodities. Commodities are owned, traded, conserved, or converted, according to their market value, and thus forest protection or destruction is a market question. These two tendencies affect environmental scholarship and policymaking because they draw upon long-standing traditions in European and North American thinking about nature. Yet neither of these ways of understanding forests allows us to understand the ecological knowledges and practices that have allowed people to live in forests over long periods-at least those people I know best.

What are the implications of thinking of forests as "wild"? In much European and North American writing about forests, whether literary or scientific, forests are wild spaces as opposed to settled spaces; forests are wild plants harboring wild animals, as opposed to the domesticated products and places of agriculture and stock-raising. Forests are nature as opposed to human creation. The sets of contrasts that make forests wild are multifaceted, particular, and sometimes contradictory. Forest wildness takes on idiosyncratic, unexpected shapes as it is negotiated in specific projects of environmental scholarship and policy. Yet familiar wild-settled distinctions reemerge across the globe as they are carried with international projects of "civilization" and "development." In Kalimantan, forests are timbered, converted to permanent farmland, or flooded in dam projects precisely because they are wild nature, waiting for development. The logic of development requires raw nature to be turned to the purposes of progress, culture, and human well-being. Kalimantan forests, from the perspective of national development planners, are that raw nature.

This classificatory framework has a long history in the region. European merchants, settlers, and colonial agents differentiated environments and peoples they considered settled versus wild and dealt rather differently with each. Postcolonial governments have tended to follow colonial precedence in creating different policies for settled versus wild peoples and places. In late-twentieth-century Indonesia, the "wild" people were masyarakat terasing, "isolated populations," who were (and are) targets of coerced resettlement and "guidance" into state-approved norms of civilization. The wild places were mainly hutan, "forests," which, by virtue of such classification were controlled by the national government and managed by the Ministry of Forestry. Until recent environmentalist-led contests, community forest use and management have been constrained by the dominance of national resource priorities over customary and community-based claims; from the perspective of national managers, these are wild places. Yet the process of making forests appropriately wild has not been simple. In the Meratus Mountains, for example, mapping practices in the 1970s,when the country was "opened" to investment, overestimated primary forest; logging company reports from this period found all their territories uninhabited. Classified as masyarakat terasing, the local forest-living people, the Meratus Dayaks, became "nomads" with no political rights or land claims. Through such processes, forests became officially nonsettled, wild. This is a framework that disenfranchised forest-living peoples, denying their very existence except as ragged refugees headed for resettlement camps.

The classification of forests as wild does not always operate as a legitimation for forest destruction. Environmentalists have championed the protection of wild places; forest conservation is high on environmentalist agendas. But perhaps commitments to this framework help explain why it has taken environmentalists so long to recognize the dilemmas facing forest-living peoples. Many powerful conservation organizations still consider people who live in or near forests to be the main enemies of the wild. Furthermore, advocates for forest-living peoples have been sorely tempted to portray "natives" with the same vulnerable and big-eyed endearment with which conservationists portray endangered animals. Yet the need for new frameworks has become apparent. Environmentalists have increasingly begun to look for new ways to imagine forests that are not just "wild" but instead accommodate human uses.

The most easily available tools to do so are those of an equally problematic framework: the classification of forest resources as natural commodities. Like the concept of wildness, the concept of natural commodities does not automatically disenfranchise people like the Meratus Dayaks. Many activists and policymakers have tried to extend commodity-oriented property rights over natural resources, and even knowledge about natural resources, to include forest-living peoples. However, this task is not simple, because resources as natural commodities (like wildness) are created within a particular cultural and economic system. To the extent that Meratus are excluded or marginalized from this system, and to the extent that they have different understandings and practices involving nature, there are different kinds of cultural-natural objects in Meratus forests. The claims over these objects are not commodity-property claims. If we take the idea of the rights of forest-living people seriously,we must stretch our ideas about resource claims rather than look for easy matches with familiar international conventions.

Commodity standards for resource claims are taken for granted by most environmentalists, scholars, and policymakers. Their attributes seem so "natural" as to seem almost silly to bring up at all-until one thinks about just whom they exclude. Governments build commodity standards into their legal systems of property ownership, thus creating new, state-enforced objects: commodity-property. Claims on resources must take this particular form for state protection.


Excerpted from Culture & the Question-CL by Charles Zerner Copyright © 2003 by Charles Zerner. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures
Introduction: Moving Translations: Poetics, Performance, and Property in Indonesia and Malaysia 1
Cultivating the Wild: Honey-Hunting and Forest Management in Southeast Kalimantan 24
Sounding the Makassar Strait: The Poetics and Politics of an Indonesian Marine Environment 56
Singers of the Landscape: Song, History, and Property Rights in the Malaysian Rainforest 109
Writing for Their Lives: Bentian Dayak Authors and Indonesian Development Discourse 142
Fruit Trees and Family Trees in an Anthropogenic Forest: Property Zones, Resource Access, and Environmental Change in Indonesia 184
Reflections: Toward New Conceptions of Rights 219
Afterword: By Land and By Sea: Reflections on Claims and Communities in the Malay Archipelago 235
Works Cited 249
List of Contributors 275
Index 277
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