There have been a few recent reviews of Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers: The Politics of Environmental Knowledge in Northern Thailand, which I wrote with Tim Forsyth of the London School of Economics. Here are some of the critical highlights …

… from Phil Hirsch’s review:

There is much that is exciting and refreshing in this book. Any analysis that takes sacred cows of environmental knowledge by the horns, for example the notion that trees somehow create (rather than consume) water, is to be welcomed. The inadvertent marginalisation of the very same groups that many NGOs are seeking to empower is a similarly poignant message. The more inclusive, open and openminded approach to the creation, employment and questioning of environmental knowledge that is recommended in the closing chapter is similarly to be applauded, although the very same forces that are the subject of much of the book’s critique clearly need to be overcome in ways that the analysis leaves largely unaddressed. …

At a more fundamental level, the authors’ demonising of environmental narratives raises questions regarding the target of critique. From their work elsewhere, both the authors could be expected to be among the first to recognise such narratives to be an integral, and normal, element of society-environment relations. At a quasi-functional level, moreover, such narratives are a crucial part of building coalitions for collective action to address real problems. Where the narratives become a problem in themselves is when they take phoney science and victimise innocent groups who are marked out as culprits. Clearly this use of narratives is what the authors have in mind as their own main target, but the exposition in the book tends to dwell on narrative per se as the evil to be expunged from environmental science, politics and policy.

… from Oliver Pye’s review:

The book is full of detailed case studies and draws on a large amount of research to uncover the complex reality of environmental change in the North. By examining different but interrelated issues, the authors carefully dissect a narrative that simplifies them into one “environmental crisis.” The interdisciplinary approach, using knowledge from natural sciences in a creative way informed by social sciences as well as a combination of empirical studies with a more abstract level of analysis makes this a thoughtful work. A key theme of the book is a view of upland farmers as rational human beings who make informed decisions about how they manage their land and who have a right to grow crops and a right to development.

In order to back up their own “narrative” of the existence of one converging and false narrative of environmental crisis, however, Forsyth and Walker often overstate their case. In their discussion of the climatic effects of forests, for example, they neglect the effects of evapotranspiration on local and regional climate. In the chapter on agrochemicals they talk of a “backlash against agrochemicals” (181), which is a grossly exaggerated warning given the hitherto niche existence of organic farming. Rather naively, they claim that “agrochemicals have played a role in supporting vulnerable livelihoods, encouraging the transition away from opium production, and reducing pressures to clear forested areas for cultivation” (182). Later, however, they reveal that thousands of upland farmers have been seriously poisoned by agrochemical use. In general, the authors seem to have a bias against environmentalists, as shown by their attack on James D. Fahn’s book, A Land on Fire: The Environmental Consequences of the Southeast Asian Boom (Basic Books, 2003).

… from Pinkaew Laungaramsri’s review:

The thesis put forward by the book is undoubtedly thought provoking. Its critique of environmental knowledge is a must read for scholars, policy makers, and NGOs who are involved in environmental issues. However, the book is not without problems. Framing environmental politics only through lenses of ‘narratives’ has certain limitations. As environmental narratives are by no means produced in a vacuum but developed out of the specificity of cultural politics and historical context, it is this particularity that the book pays little attention to. The authors’ critique of NGOs and scholar activists as being non-critical of the dichotomy between forest and agriculture, antithetical to upland commercialisation, and perpetuating the Edenic narrative of pristine forest is overstated. While works cited to support this critique are outdated, recent research and publications by NGOs and social scientists relating to issues of dynamics of right and access to agricultural land and changing forms of farming in the uplands are unfortunately missed out from this book. Fixed description and division of the so-called ‘people-oriented’ versus conservationist positions also obscures complex and diverse strands of thinking that might not necessary fit the two sets of ideological camps defined by the authors.

These are the sort of thoughtful and critically engaged reviews that add much to the pleasure of academic writing.