The good sense of villagers in southeast Asia is regularly betrayed by the NGOs that claim to represent them.

Earlier this week, I was amused to read about an expected outbreak of “tree ordination” in Laos (thanks to Holly for bringing this to my attention).

Phongsaly forest ordination to preserve natural resources
Vientiane Times, 22 February 2008

The Phongsaly Women’s Union plans to ordain a section of coniferous forest near Phiengxay village in Bounneua district next month to encourage natural resource preservation. This is an objective of the Women’s Economic Empowerment Project to preserve the wildlife, biodiversity and water resources in the area for future generations.

“At the ceremony, there will be an alms offering in the village in the morning, followed by a baci ceremony in the forest and celebrations in the evening,” said the head of the provincial Women’s Union , Ms Pang Or-rakhan yesterday. She said that there will also be a fair and displays of traditional art from the province’s many ethnic groups.

This forest is important for village life as it is rich in natural resources, but these resources are being depleted due to over hunting and illegal logging, she said.

Ms Pang claimed that the ceremony will help revitalise the forest by teaching the local people to respect the land and maintain their Buddhist respect for all forms of life. “During the ceremony we will invite all the monks, authorities and members involved with the project to participate, and afterwards organise a committee to establish guidelines for the people to better manage their forests,” she said.

In response to this outbreak of tree worship in Laos a number of emails have been circulating seeking clarification from interested observers. Here is one response from an NGO worker in Thailand:

[The] Forest Movement in Thailand has been using ‘Forest Ordination’ for a long time as a symbol of forest protection by applying religion and belief into natural resources management. Forest ordination is one of the tools for public campaign on Community Forest Movement that people can live in the forest, since conflict among up stream and down stream people had been happened in Thailand. Community Forest Bill has just passed last year after almost 20 years of People Movement. But still, many things have to be done after the law and policy has passed.

Many communities have their own way to conserve their forest particularly Karen which conservation is integrated with their livelihood and spirits. There are many types of traditional protected forest in their community. Most of them are Buddhist that still practise animism and some have been converted to be Christians. I just attended a Stream Ordination for fish sanctuary in a Karen village where there are Buddhists, Christians and Animist people, so all of ceremonies were practiced together. The trees along the stream were ordained as well.

Forest is protected as well as solidarity is built up among them as one of the most important things in the long run.

I can understand why state officials or pseudo-state organisations (such as the Lao Women’s Union) may want to be involved in this sort of instructional theatre. But I continue to be amazed at the willingness of NGO activists to buy into it. As Tim Forsyth and I have argued at length in our recent book, images of “forest guardianship” may seem superficially empowering but, ultimately, they end up buying into the narrowly conservationist discourse promoted by state agencies. Forest ordination is very much an NGO invention that demonstrates a limited understanding of the diverse and pragmatic ways in which villagers relate to natural resources. It is a tactic that will contribute to the ongoing exoticisation, disempowerment and marginalisation of the socially and economically vulnerable people living in Southeast Asia’s forested upland zones.