[The following review of Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers: The Politics of Environmental Knowledge in Northern Thailand by Tim Forsyth and Andrew Walker appeared in the Bangkok Post on Monday 1 September 2008.]

‘Trees do not create water’
An iconoclastic and provocative study of forests, science and politics in Thailand

Chris Baker

In the key passage of this resolutely iconoclastic book, Forsyth and Walker target a foundational truth of Thai environmentalism – that trees create water. According to the gospel version, forests help create rainfall, save more of it in their spongy earth, and release it in measured fashion. Deforestation means less rainfall, more drought and more flash flooding. Conserving the forest is thus a national priority, and the debate is only over how that should be achieved.

Forsyth and Walker trawl the scientific evidence. There is no statistical link between the amount of forest and the amount of rainfall. Much of the rain falling on forests gets evaporated from the leaves or transpired through the roots. Forest soils are no better than cultivated fields at retaining and releasing moisture. In short, the idea that trees make water is a myth. A Mien highlander said the traditional way to increase water supply was to cut down big trees around the village.

By targeting this and other gospel truths, Walker and Forsyth hope to change the terms of debate over the environment in Thailand, and especially over the role of forests in the North. They argue that there has been one dominating story: Forest cover on the highlands is vital because it generates and regulates the water supply for the lowlands; this forest cover is under threat by deforestation, settlement of hill tribes, increasing commercial agriculture, soil erosion and more agrochemicals; the result is a “crisis” marked by declining water supply to the lowlands, more contamination and sedimentation, and loss of biodiversity. This idea of a “crisis” justifies the Royal Forestry Department taking control of the highlands as “A1 watershed”. It has also reduced the environmental debate to one fiercely contested issue: Do highlanders living in the forests act as “guardians” or “destroyers”? One side of the debate points a demonising finger at Hmong cabbage farmers, and demands their ejection. The other side points a romanticising finger at the Karen, and suggests they are better guardians than forestry officials so should be allowed to stay.

Forsyth and Walker do a brilliant job of summarising the technical research in a way that allows lay readers access to the issue. They suggest that the “science” underlying the forestry issue is very shaky. Findings from elsewhere have been imported and used uncritically. Local research is rather sparse. Unwelcome findings are simply ignored. Forsyth and Walker pick through what local research there has been, and perform a lot of mythbusting. Rainfall patterns are made by the monsoons over the sea, not by the forests on the highlands. The Forestry Department’s new tree plantations are probably hopeless at storing water. Roads are a much worse cause of erosion than highlanders’ sloping fields. Agrochemicals aren’t carried downhill in streams. The levels of sediment are surprisingly low. Hysterical claims about the decline in biodiversity are not borne out of careful studies of local environments.

Forsyth and Walker are not trying to argue that there are no problems in the northern uplands. Rather, they are pointing out that scientific findings are being selected and assembled to produce a very specific story. They call this a “narrative”, which is constructed to lead unerringly towards a certain conclusion. Trees make water. Therefore watersheds are vital for the nation. Therefore the highlanders are a threat to the nation and must be removed. Therefore the Forestry Department has a duty of guardianship.

Also, other issues are being screened away. Forsyth and Walker spend a lot of time on the famous dispute in Chomthong, where lowlanders complain that Hmong farmers upstream on the highlands are taking their water. A “dark green” NGO seized land that the Hmong had been using. The issue became internationalised and even Prince Charles felt compelled to condemn the Hmong. But Forsyth and Walker show that, in this and similar cases, the volume of water used by the upstream farmers is very small. The problem is not declining supply, but increasing demand. The lowland farmers have planted lychee plantations, and started growing soybeans in the dry season. The Irrigation Department has built devices to facilitate these enterprises. The volume of water being used downstream has increased far more than any decline in supply, but this factor is not part of the debate. Forsyth and Walker’s point is that the usage of water needs to be managed all along the watershed, but this is not happening because of the way that the problem is being framed.

How do these “narratives” get created? Forsyth and Walker show that a lot of people contribute. NGOs need a cause. Journalists need a catchy argument. Academics need a topic of research. Among the population as a whole, and especially in the new middle class, the image of the forest has changed from something wild and uncivilised into something exotic and valuable. But the presiding genius that Forsyth and Walker detect behind the production of this “narrative” is the state itself. Hills tend to be near borders and are easily occupied by communists, smugglers, opium-growers or illegal immigrants. The narrative of a forest crisis provides a rationale for controlling this unruly territory.

How to reach beyond these “narratives”? Forsyth and Walker admit this is not easy. More research would help, but research is often framed to confirm old ideas. More participatory styles of research and of land-use planning are important, but often “participation” is only for show. Reform of government agencies is needed, but will take time. Most of all, Forsyth and Walker argue that debate over the northern forests needs to be more open and fair. Give the highlanders a bigger voice, stop demonising the Hmong, and pay attention to the research that challenges the simple “truths”, are some of the solutions offered by the authors.

This is a deliberately provocative book. A lot of people will dislike it intensely. Some will feel it beats down more than it builds up. It tilts against all sides in the environmental debate and thus risks uniting them all in opposition. Its demolition of the scientific orthodoxy is sometimes convincing but at other times a bit thin. It argues for a more complex and “nuanced” approach but sometimes simple ideas are needed to unlock action. Some will find the book politically naive and even dangerous, given the fierceness of many battles over the forest.

And what is Forsyth and Walker’s own “narrative”? They don’t apply their technique to themselves, but it can be done. They are generally sceptical of state controls. They note that commercialisation is already far advanced in the highlands. They think this is by and large a good thing because it improves people’s livelihoods. They are sceptical of those who value the Karen as protectors of the forest because they are simply romanticising backwardness. They welcome more use of agrochemicals because they increase yields and hence economise on land use. In short, they think that commercialisation is undeniable and is probably beneficial. Policies for the highlands need to be built around this reality rather than myths of wilderness and natural economies. Forsyth and Walker promote a sort of neoliberal environmentalism.

Like it or hate it, this book cannot be ignored.