Some New Mandala readers may be interested in our exchange with Nicholas Tapp (our colleague here at the ANU) over the paper we published in 2008 on the “Specter of Eviction in Northern Thailand.” (Previous New Mandala discussion is here and here.) In brief, our paper argued “very few evictions have in fact taken place [in northern Thailand] since the early 1980s and the threat of eviction in accounts written over the past two decades is exaggerated.”

Tapp responded, in a letter to Critical Asian Studies, that we had missed a crucially important point: fear.

What I am afraid Farrelly and Walker have failed to realize is that a Specter is not just a Specter for the academics and activists they consider, but also for people on the ground. To live in the constant fear of harassment or eviction is arguably a worse state of affairs than to be actually evicted. … [T]here is an atmosphere of fear that evictions may take place at any time, which is deliberately propagated and which allows local officials to take unfair advantage of villagers in the uplands.

In our response we acknolwedge that the issue of fear is not directly addressed in our paper. However, we are cautious about drawing the same conclusion as Tapp:

Unlike Tapp, however, we are reluctant to assume that the statistically small risk of eviction automatically creates a widespread atmosphere of fear. Our own reading and observation suggest that local responses are likely to range from outright fear, to concern, occasional anxiety, nonchalance, and even assertive confidence. To assume that fear is the most likely, or even natural, response is to disregard the great potential for local variation in relationships between upland communities, forest regulators, and other state agencies. The assumption of fear also ignores the cultural, social, and institutional strategies that upland residents use to creatively manage the risks they face in all aspects of their lives.

We also suggest that more consideration could be given to the fear-creating effect of those NGOs and academics who constantly write about the risk of eviction when, in fact, the actual risk is very low.

A very important recent contribution to this discussion is provided in this superb paper by Jean-Philippe Leblond. In general terms, Leblond supports the statistical thrust of our argument in relation to northern Thailand, but he provides a depth and breadth of empirical analysis that goes well beyond our original paper.