Social Aspects of Forestry in Southeast Asia: A Review of Postwar Trends in the Scholarly Literature

By Peluso, Nancy Lee; Vandergeest, Peter et al. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Social Aspects of Forestry in Southeast Asia: A Review of Postwar Trends in the Scholarly Literature


Peluso, Nancy Lee, Vandergeest, Peter, Potter, Lesley, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


This paper examines the major trends since the 1950s in social science writing on forest management in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is simultaneously rich in and dependent on natural resources, both for local and national use or sale. Among renewable resources, forest products have played critical roles in the region's national, provincial, and local economies before, during, and after colonialism - for as long as two millennia. Their importance in international trade illustrates that Southeast Asia's forests linked the region to other parts of the world for quite some time, dispelling myths that parts of the region such as Borneo were "remote", "primitive", or "pristine".(1)

Though only 12 per cent of the world's tropical rainforests lie in Southeast Asia, mostly in the Philippines, Sumatra, and Borneo,(2) Indonesia and Malaysia share some 80 per cent of the global tropical timber trade.(3) Since the colonial period, forest products and forested land have helped fuel economic growth in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Particularly since the end of World War II, the exploitation of Southeast Asian tropical timbers used for construction, framery and plywood, most from the Dipterocarpaceae family,(4) has stimulated periodic booms in many Southeast Asian economies.(5) Luxury woods such as rosewood (Dalbergia spp.), teak (Tectona grandis), ebony (Diospyors ebonaster), and mahogany (Switenia spp.) have been traded in international markets from colonial times, generating considerable revenue for both colonial and contemporary states. Regionally important non-timber forest and agro-forestry products include rattans, fruit, bamboos, natural latexes, gums, resins, birds nests, incense woods, camphor, and animal skins, meat, other animal body parts, and living wildlife. Throughout Southeast Asia, forest products of all types have also played a role in financing resistance movements and revolutions, or helping people subsist during social upheaval.

Because of their local and regional importance, many groups have staked claims and managed forest resources in Southeast Asia. Local people throughout the region cultivate, encourage, or protect products crucial to their livelihoods, despite some perceptions that they simply extract a "subsidy from nature".(6) The urge to control and produce these valuable products has also had a major influence on states' land use policies throughout the region.(7) For example, the Royal Forestry Department in Thailand, which controls land rights in almost half the national territory, was created to control production and the extraction of teak. While most of Java's teak production is sold on the domestic market, government teak plantations occupy some eight per cent of the Java's total land area. Nearly a quarter of this densely populated, rapidly developing island is under government forest of one kind or another.(8) State control of forest lands here is both a legacy of the colonial period and a clear indicator of the wealth contained in the region's forests.

The myths that forested areas are remote and primitive derive in part from the distinction often made between so-called lowland and upland areas in Southeast Asia. The major states - those with which European, Chinese, Arab and Indian traders had the most immediate contacts - were based on lowland wet-rice agriculture and control of access to river trade. Upland areas were understood as forested and less accessible regions. In fact, lowland forests have been important throughout Southeast Asia, and in insular Southeast Asia many of the remaining forests are still in the lowlands. Both colonial and postwar state-building efforts included major programmes by lowland-based states to take control of upland and forested areas. States sought this control in order to claim and use resources to finance colonialism and economic development, and in some cases, to neutralize potential security threats from upland peoples. …

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