The tragedy of the tropical tree


By K Sivaramakrishnan
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

FORESTS have always been the object of cornucopian myth-making. Their very location, usually on the margins of settled agriculture reinforced this identity.

Nancy Peluso takes us into a realm where ambivalent Western cultural constructs came into contact with their non-Western counterparts in a colonial framework of power relations. The myth of "traditional", closed, corporate Javanese villages "was created by the Dutch colonial state and has been perpetuated by the modern Indonesian state to facilitate land classification and to legitimate state control of land -- including forest land". In the tropical world, the most diverse and valuable forests struggle to survive along with the most impoverished and disenfranchised forest-dependent people.

Peluso's basic argument is that in Java the state made customary forest access rights criminal in the colonial period in order to establish monopoly rights over valuable teak resources. She divides this process into several phases: the United East India Company period; the establishment of the colonial state and bureaucratic forestry almost parallel to similar developments in India by the middle of the 19th century; Japanese wartime rapacity; and the more recent market economy, with its export thrust.

The research methodology -- a combination of historical and anthropological methods -- enables the author to unearth rich material on class differentiation. The author's study of forest use by the people of Kalianjat reveals how forest dependence varies according to the class composition of the village. It is rightly pointed out that even social forestry was conceived as a way of excluding people from the forest.

From different perceptions and pressures that operate at various levels of the forest service hierarchy, we get the beginnings of a sociology of power -- the ethnography of the state. Peluso brings out very well the circumstantial factors influencing variations in ideology and practice, first between local and state interests, and then within them.

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