The Global in the Local: Contested Resource-Use Systems of the Karen and Hmong in Northern Thailand

By Tomforde, Maren | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Global in the Local: Contested Resource-Use Systems of the Karen and Hmong in Northern Thailand


Tomforde, Maren, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Through globalisation, rapid mass communication systems and experiences of pollution crossing national boundaries, people have become sensitised to the global scale of locally produced environmental problems. It is an important assumption of global environmentalist discourse that, in accordance with the United Nations, environmental problems must necessarily be viewed on a global scale, even though major disagreements exist over appropriate policies to tackle ecological problems and over the role of economic development in specific local contexts. In this article--keeping in mind that environmentalism as an analytical concept covers a large range of meanings--it is understood not only as a collective response to environmental degradation but also, given the wide range of socio-political interests and value systems involved, as a multifaceted social and political phenomenon. Environmentalism is a discourse which involves a struggle over crucial natural resources as well as over the symbolic power to define how environmental problems should be solved. As a discourse, it both reflects and influences social, economic and political processes. (1)

In Thailand, environmentalist debate and policy are clearly influenced--though not necessarily determined--by the rhetoric and interests of the global discourse led by governments, international organisations and movements which are still mostly dominated by, when they are not actually located in, European or North American countries. Environmentalism in its existing varieties is centred around conflicting perceptions of ecological problems as well as their causes and solutions and the parties responsible. (2) The global debate influences Thai environmentalism in many ways, such as ideas, information, political demands and, last but not least, financial resources. However, the global discourse is also affected by 'regional discourses' such as Thai environmentalism, and there is little doubt that Thai scholars have contributed to a 'global' social scientific understanding of the relationship between environmental policies and social or ethnic identification processes. Due to the geographically and socially unequal distribution of costs relating to ecological problems, environmentalism in Thailand has become highly politicised and inscribed within the broader political debate over ethnic minority rights. (3)

Ethnic minority groups inhabit many parts of Thailand which have been turned into protected areas by the state over the last three decades and are thus particularly affected by local environmentalist discourse. However, minorities such as the Karen and Hmong have only limited access to political power and thus to ways of actively influencing Thai environmental policies according to their own ideas of a viable future. Instead, their local farming practices involving the use of forests and forest products have been marginalised as a result of state control over forest areas. As a consequence, local groups have been attempting to regain control over their natural resources through a people-oriented Community Forest Bill. (4)

It is important to consider environmental politics in their global context, but much of a country's everyday environmental politics are shaped and played out in regional and local arenas. The objective of this article is to examine the concrete impact of global and Thai environmentalist discourse at the local level, namely on the living conditions of mountain minorities such as the Karen and Hmong. This impact is explored by focusing on their resource-use systems and the diverse ways adopted by each group in response to externally-induced requirements for sustainable development. As will be shown, environmental protection measures are not uniformly applicable around the world. Rather, they need to be adjusted to local conditions on a case-by-case basis in order to build on the potential found in local cultures and to avoid creating unwanted disincentives for sustainable resource use. …

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