Seeking Environmental Justice in Southeast Asia

Laura Meitzner Yoder

My American undergraduate students and I emerge from taking tree measurements and doing species counts alongside local village residents in a closed-canopy, ten-year fallow forest in northern Thailand. A woman is waiting by the edge of the path, motioning urgently for our group to follow her up a hill. As we slip and scramble up the steep trail, I wonder what she wants to show us. Reaching the top, she sits down to watch. A moment later, we see smoke billowing up from the bottom of the mountain opposite us, then another wisp from the center, and a third at the top of the mountain. She has beckoned us up here to watch the pre-planting burning of a cut, dried fallowed forest much like the one we just measured, in this region’s most common agricultural system — a practice variously known as swidden, or shifting cultivation, or slash-and-burn, depending on what one wishes to convey about this farming practice.


Photo: Preparing a swidden field with fire.

Moments later, we see three lines of raging flames converge toward the center of the mountainside, hear the din of popping bamboo and crackling branches, and feel a wall of heat strong enough to physically knock us backward from across the valley. Yellow and grey plumes of smoke billow upward, and soon we can see the charred tree trunks in the wake of the self-extinguishing fire. Just twenty-two minutes after our arrival, the entire mountainside opposite us is burned out, with only a few wisps of smoke still rising from the area. The fire clears the leaf and branch litter enough to enable planting, and the ash provides short-lived fertilizer.

In more than a decade of working in areas of Southeast Asia where this agricultural practice dominates, I had never seen a field-forest burned quite like this. My first personal experience with swidden farmers was while working with an Indonesian state university’s community development program in Papua, Indonesia, on the rugged, rainforested island of New Guinea. A young woman named Domi, perhaps fifteen years old, wanted to show off her forest garden, and invited me to go with her. After several hours walking through the dark forest, we arrived at a tiny garden opening, where she had planted root crops, bananas, hot peppers, and a range of local leaf vegetables. She had worked incredibly hard to clear this little patch herself with her machete, and she laughed as she told me about the “burning” process—waiting for a respite in the near-constant rain, and trying to set little clusters of damp vegetation alight, only to have rain put out the little fires. “Slash-and-burn” in this area could more accurately be termed “slash-and-rot,” I thought.

I later conducted my dissertation research in the northern drylands of Timor island, on customary (the system of local kings and ritual authorities) and government institutions involved in land and forest regulation. The vegetation cover in this region was so sparse that burning a cut swidden field consisted of setting small fires all around the prepared area, and walking around in the burning field dragging any dried material across the ground with a palm leaf in a desperate attempt to scrape together enough leaves and stems to produce enough ash fertilizer to harvest a crop of maize, upland rice, and native grains intercropped with a diverse array of vegetables. I marvel at the challenges these farmers encounter, and the creativity they muster to make their livelihoods in these difficult environments.


Photo: This is in northwest Thailand. The forest in the background was a rice field like the one in the foreground about 20 years ago.

I began working in tropical agriculture as a young scientist, eager to combine my passions for plants and conservation in an academic discipline that could bring fullness of life to people living in situations of malnutrition and food insecurity. God has special concern for the vulnerable at society’s margins, and I wanted to focus my professional energies on understanding and addressing basic, critical human needs. Small-scale tropical farmers live a precarious existence in nutritional and economic terms, and their diverse livelihoods are often intertwined with using common forest resources, so I focused my attention at this level. I sought practical training in the technical and community development aspects of such agricultural work, and I anticipated that most of my time would be spent with farmers — around their fields, learning about their issues and aspirations, and assisting them in finding ecologically and economically sustainable ways to grow food. Early on, I assumed that most constraints to adequate food supply were agronomic. I did not critically examine the socioeconomic circumstances that led people to farm in extremely marginal conditions in the first place.

Among the first assignments I received in Indonesia was to teach interior, upland Papuan villagers like Domi to grow carrots, a rare and high-value product in the lowland hot tropics. To help me with my assignment, I visited various government agencies around town to learn what projects and resources they had for the valley where I was to teach carrot-growing. This was an enlightening, valuable exercise: one department planned a plywood factory; another had ambitions for a state-owned cattle ranch; one program hoped to relocate the native residents and bring in outside workers for a planned oil palm plantation; and since the area was designated a national park, one official informed me that no people actually lived in the region. To my astonishment, not one government agency had any plans for the region that acknowledged or included the presence of the local people who had well-defined, clan-level claims to all the land and forest in that region. When I asked why the official map for the area did not show the eleven dispersed villages that were home to the 1500 people with whom I was to work, an administrator calmly told me that there were no villages, and that no people lived in the region.

This experience with officials denying the existence and relevance of local people transformed me from an agronomist brimming with ideas on how to improve local farming systems into a political ecologist/environmental anthropologist concerned with how questions of land and forest access played out in remote landscapes. Though swidden farmers get a large measure of the public blame for forest loss in Southeast Asia, the lion’s share of deforestation in many areas is linked to plantation agriculture and associated large-scale extraction industries. In the Papuan case, this refocused my duties to working with sympathetic university and government authorities and a local legal aid society to take advantage of brand-new laws that recognize forest dwellers’ existing claims to land. Later, during my dissertation work in the new nation of Timor Leste, this commitment to resource justice led me to work with legislators drafting land laws that recognize rural people’s access to land and forests, where their livelihoods were dependent on natural resource use. While still focused on addressing human needs in tropical agriculture, my work shifted from working in fields to offices, from alongside farmers to interacting with officials and lawyers.

Much research demonstrates that exemplary forest use and conservation is that which substantively includes — rather than vilifying or excluding — local residents in land use planning and practices. At present, I teach about agricultural systems and forest resources in university-level courses termed “Political Ecology of Forests” and “Human-Environment Interactions.” A goal in my teaching is to bring issues of resource justice to the forefront, in circumstances that students have not considered. My eagerness to bring my students along this path of understanding has come from my own professional conversion as a budding environmentalist, very concerned about protecting the world’s forest cover from a technical standpoint, to striving to incorporate larger issues of land justice.

In my classes we examine agricultural systems on various levels, beginning with a comparison of factors students consider important components of sustainability in their own food — locally produced, free from reliance on commercial fertilizers and pesticides, perhaps using minimum tillage methods of soil management. On these counts, swidden agriculture usually comes out ecologically ahead of what my American students know of their own food systems. We then query the land and forest access issues of most swidden farmers, finding that they are among the most economically and politically vulnerable people in society — often officially deemed “squatters” in recently established government-designated conservation areas, without recognized political status or citizenship, and at risk for being relocated if a more powerful party wants access to the timber, water, minerals, or other resources in the area they have inhabited for generations. Students also learn that for soil fertility to be naturally replenished in swidden systems, the fallow periods need to be sufficiently long (usually eight years or more), but that state agencies may lay claim to long-fallowed land as conservation areas, thus forcing farmers to practice shorter, less sustainable swidden rotations.

Most of my environmental studies students come to the course with a clear sense of ecological catastrophe wrought by slash-and-burn farming in the tropics. Expanding the window through which they view this issue to include matters of political and economic justice alongside comparison to the sustainability of their own lifestyles tempers their wholly negative perception of swidden agriculture. Swidden forest farming of this type is declining among the villages in Thailand where I currently perform research and lead groups of undergraduates, as many villagers expect that their children will get urban-based jobs. However, there is still much to learn from an agricultural lifestyle so intimately connected to forest use.

My professional challenge and the challenge I give to my students is that we may do justice and love mercy (Micah 6:8) as we strive to understand and to bridge the worlds of marginal farmers and officials in politically contentious areas of forest control.

Laura Meitzner Yoder taught in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at ISDSI (International Sustainable Development Studies Institute), which offers semester-long programs in sustainability studies to U.S. undergraduate students. Her educational background includes a BA in Biology from Messiah College, an MPS in International Agriculture and Rural Development from Cornell University, and a PhD in Forestry and Environmental Studies from Yale University.

3 comments

Great to read Laura...thanks

Dec 15, 2010 10:47PM by Peter C

Fascinating indeed! You have expanded my knowledge of sustainable agriculture and land justice; and have provided me with a new perspective regarding slash-and-burn farming. Thank you for sharing this!

Dec 8, 2010 7:46PM by Charlton

What a great description of what you do! Very enlightening.

Dec 7, 2010 5:59PM by Margaret

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