Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Local Agency in Development, Market, and Forest Conservation Interventions in Lao PDR's Northern Uplands

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Local Agency in Development, Market, and Forest Conservation Interventions in Lao PDR's Northern Uplands

Article excerpt

I Introduction

To be an agent means to be capable of exerting some degree of control over the social relations in which one is enmeshed, which in turn implies the ability to transform those social relations to some degree. (Sewell 1992, 20)

The structure-agency dichotomy is a deep-rooted theme across most disciplines of the social sciences, depicting "the tension between individual freedom and social constraint" (Rigg 2007, 24). Though much theoretical debate in this vein functions at some degree of abstraction, agency is fundamental to more immediate discourse surrounding inclusion, empowerment, and participation-terms that have proliferated over several decades in relation to bottom-up approaches to development, and more recently in natural resource governance (Parkins and Mitchell 2005), to the point of becoming "institutional imperatives" (Agarwal 2001). Local participation in projects is "argued to exert a strong impact on development outcomes," often associated with perceived positive impacts of empowerment on governance, inclusive policies, and equitable access to markets, though these claims are not always empirically substantiated (Ibrahim and Alkire 2007, 395). A key focus of participatory or empowering development approaches is "inclusion in decision making of those most affected by the proposed intervention," with effective participation sometimes considered on a collective rather than an individual basis (Agarwal 2001, 1623). One example of this is the widespread policy trend toward participatory or community-based forest management in developing countries (Islam et al. 2015), implying "a designation of power over forest resources to local people . . . to decide how their forests will be managed and for what purposes" (Tole 2010, 1312). While both support for and skepticism toward community-based forest management have emerged over recent decades, there is mounting evidence that participation of communities and benefits to local livelihoods are "more likely to contribute to conservation effectiveness than conservation without local participation" (Martin et al. 2018, 93).

Contradictions nevertheless arise where external actors attempt to impose ideals of participation and inclusion, whose realization rests on the extent that expression of agency is constrained by entrenched social structures (Sesan 2014). Even where legal mandates for public participation are in place, it is often the case in environment-related interventions that those with crucial local knowledge are limited in their ability to contribute to policy design by the nature of institutional procedures (Simmons 2007, 136). Understanding these dynamics is arguably central to idealized inclusive development in general, as well as more effective and equitable forest policies, in which agency is often entangled in local-level power relations and differentiated access to resources and infor- mation (Brockhaus et al. 2014a; Gallemore et al. 2014; Kailio et al. 2016). "Inclusion" in such processes therefore implies the enablement of agency on the part of forest-dwelling communities to inform and influence how the policies and measures that affect them are shaped at different levels.

With this said, agency can often appear as something of a forgotten predecessor to participatory and inclusive notions of development, and is more commonly associated with decision-making in applied research or resistance in Marxian-influenced scholarship in agrarian contexts. In the research presented here, we seek to contribute to debates on participation in rural development and environmental conservation by returning to the structure-agency dichotomy that underpins these concepts, and assembling a nuanced understanding of people's lived experiences of different forms of intervention. We argue that analysis of individual agency in response to social constraints remains highly relevant to understanding how such interventions are experienced, negotiated, adopted, or indeed rejected by those affected, particularly with respect to those interventions which aim to be participatory or inclusive. …

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