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Thai Forestry – a critical review

August 23, 2011

Ann Danaiya Usher is a Thai-Canadian journalist who wrote the book ‘Thai Forestry – a critical history’ 2009. 188 pages plus 50 pages with notes, literature and index. No illustrations. Silk Worm Books. 625 Baht, available at Suriwong Bookstore downtown Chiang Mai.

This subject is so vast I first thought I should separate the book review into several sections, but then the holistic approach would be lost. It has been a hard task for Ann to write a fluent text based on so many diverse newspaper articles and interviews, and so it is hard to find a logical framework or a chronology with milestones, and many stories are told several times. Nevertheless, Ann manages to engage the reader and she provides many interesting fragments inspiring deeper studies. Most importantly, somebody has tried to write a book on this topic.

Since the book is written from an anthropological perspective rather than biological or economical, we need to make three definitions to understand the book:

Racist (related to phrenologists and astrologists): A racist thinks he can judge a person’s character based on passport, ear size or birth date. The racist will not even consider criticism. The racist often takes for granted his own culture is superior. The racist has not discovered the scientific method. The driving force is aversion. Most people are more or less racist.

Savagist (from ‘bon sauvage‘): A savagist thinks any statement of a poor, superstitious and uneducated person provides exceptional wisdom. The savagist will reject any criticism of such a person’s view as racism. The savagist often expresses shame of his own culture. The savagist has not discovered the scientific method. The driving force is compassion. These people are rare.

Liberal: A liberal tries to evaluate each person and each statement. He is interested in all cultures but is not afraid of saying that cannibalism is bad. The liberal takes criticism as a challenge and frequently accepts new ideas if convinced by facts and logical reasoning. The liberal tries to suppress his natural instincts and applies the scientific method. The driving force is the quest for truth. These people are rare.

Sometimes I get the feeling Ann is a savagist and therefore I shall do my best to test Ann’s statements. Showing compassion is a good thing, but the cause might be lost if people discover some facts have been omitted. What is the cause? In my case it is preserved biodiversity, while I think, in Ann’s case, it is preserved cultural diversity. Hopefully the two causes can be achieved, a goal I share with Ann. My comments or details are added below in italic.

Forestry until 1885. Traditionally the Kings of Siam and Lanna (today’s northern Thailand) defined their power by the people who had to pay tax to them, rather than geographical boundaries (the two kingdoms merged into one kingdom in 1899). The kings could give and withdraw land rights at their own wish. The forests were so vast and the populations so small there was no reason to create boundaries there. If logs were needed that was settled within each village. There were still nomadic hunting tribes and small slash and burn societies. Until Britain reached the borders of Siam it used the teaks of India and Burma. A German forester, Dietrich Brandis, was in charge of the Burmese forest service since 1856. Ann emphasises how crazy it was to transfer European forestry practices to the tropics, with such a multitude of tree species. I agree it would have been crazy, had it been done in Siam, but it seems from Ann’s own book neither the clearcutting nor the monoculture plantations were practiced in any great scale. Clearing land for agriculture was another story. The view that a forest was solely a source of timber was of course a European forestry view, becoming obsolete today.

Forestry between 1885 and 1896. France and England started to ask for logging rights in 1885. According to Dr Ongsakul the British became involved in logging in Chiang Mai already during the reign of Phraya Phuttawong (1826-1846). The reason the colonial powers wanted exotic wood, was that European forests were depleted of oak, the main building material for ships and railroads. One naval ship demanded 2000 oak trees, and lasted for about 20 years. In 1891 England occupied Siamese/Lanna territory by annexing land east of the Salween river.

At this time, Siamese forestry was all about teak. Scouts would survey forests for teak (they do not grow many together in a natural forest), girdle them so they died and dried, and then loggers would two years later go in and log and take them to the nearest river for shipment to the coast. Until 1896 logging was unregulated and local princes in Lanna (northern Thailand) made big money on playing out logging companies against each other, sometimes cheating by double-leasing and by hiding logging figures from Siam. There was a big trade with all teak sizes, even small ones, and a Siamese concern about unsustainable harvesting was raised. In 1896 the Siamese The Royal Forestry Department (RFD) was established and Herbert Slade from England became conservator. The new law stated that trees below 2.13 meters in diameter at breast height must not be felled. All loggers needed a permit from the Siamese government. Forestry was defined as teak logging, and other uses were not considered. Fire was considered a menace by most foresters, except Slade who claimed that a fire was of benefit to teak, killing all other plants. The local people and their illegal teak logging were considered a menace.

I believe the law restricting logging was good, and the practice of taking out individual trees rather than clear-cutting was excellent, but the problem was that due to corruption the law had no effect in reality. I agree with Ann that at this time the locals’ illegal use of teak was simply considered economical losses for the companies and the state, like to bugs, not to fellow citizens. Ann claims this is a western view. I claim this is a human view, also found among Chinese emperors and even King Ao who was king of Lanna 1856-1870 (Ao, means ‘take’, as he was famous for ordering decapitation).

Ann believes that since so many hill tribes burn the woodlands it is a good practice, and she uses Slade’s argument and the argument that fuel builds up to prove that statement. Teak is a pioneer species and adapted to a naturally fire prone habitat. Seedlings will die just like Slade said, but after a few years the teaks will stand fire easily. As a biodiversity spokesman, my argue against the practice is that many of the other 1100 tree species and many more plants, butterfly pupae and reptiles will succumb too. In the west controlled burning of national parks is sometimes part of the management, but an annual burning of the same spot is catastrophic and suppresses the natural regeneration.

As to the building up of fuel, my observations indicate that here in the tropics termites are very good at quickly removing any litter containing cellulose, almost too good as the forest’s need to regenerate the water holding carbon content of the soils takes too long. Other parts of Thailand such as Esan has indeed adopted the governmental advice of reducing fires with great results, showing air pollution indexes as clean as Europe’s. Since I am not a racist I do not believe that northern Thailand’s people are dumber than in the rest of Thailand, but it seems their detrimental habits are encouraged by the numerous savagists operating here, sabotaging the Thai government’s pedagogic efforts via courses.

Forestry in 1897-1906. In 1897 King Chulalongkorn visited the interior of northern Sweden to study Scandinavian forestry. In 1906 a law was passed, demanding all logging companies to plant new teak trees. During the 83 years this law was effective, the entire surface of plantations equals one single year of logging in the 1960’s. This complete failure is due to the corruption. As Ann rightfully argues, planting a monoculture of say teak, is not replacing a forest, but creating something else, a factory forest, or what I call a plank plantation. Biodiversity wise it is not much better than rubber or corn. A forest like the one of Doi Suthep contains 2500 plant species, birds, mammals, butterflies and mushrooms, that is a forest. However, with such plantations today, or even many years earlier, the pressure on the national parks would have been smaller.

Ann argues that today’s overpopulation and today’s forest use by hill tribes is not a problem, because they were active also at the end of the 19th century, and that did not harm the forests.

This is one of my main problems with Ann’s arguing. Thailand’s population has increased tenfold since the year 1900, from an estimate of 6.3 million until today’s 67 million (July 2011), and at the same time the forest land has decreased from 75% to just below 20% (depending on what you define as forest). The Siamese citizen of the year 1900 had 40 times more forest than the Thai citizen of 2011, the per capita ratio is 1000 trees versus 25.

I do not agree with Ann that today’s concern for the pressure on the national parks is due to the same racist views as in the late 19th century, nor that racism was imported from America. I can willingly admit that when I came to Thailand in 2006 I mostly shared Ann’s current views. After many years in both the field and among villagers in forest lands, I have seen so much cruelty to animals, illegal hunting for food and for fun, illegal trade with orchids and timber, land encroachment and disrespect of laws, I must admit that there are enough either bad or uneducated people in the nearby villages that they do constitute a severe threat to the forest. I reached this conclusion totally unaware that the RFD shared it, I thought they just did not care about dogs, cows, hunters, fires and thieves inside the national parks. Now I understand they walk a balance between the law, biodiversity concern and violent villagers. The slash and burn tactics by Hmong in Nan may very well have been with the help of the US army, I do not know, but we have to look at today’s situation, and the Hmong (not the Americans) do invade the very last fragment of original forest. I have seen their burns of national park hillsides which should have been forested by endemic and highly endangered species. I have talked to elders who proudly brag about shooting the last leopard, but I have also spoken to true forest lovers/villagers who hate the fires as much as myself. The mistake a savagist does when arguing we must never fence out a forest dweller, is that the forest dweller’s culture will be lost anyhow, when the last orchid and the last leopard is gone. I prefer helping the hilltribers now and saving their last forest fragment, rather than letting them destroying the last fragment and then deal with the human catastrophe!

The good news is that from an annual population growth rate of 3%, Thailand is now down at 0.5%. The disappearance of poverty will lower the population size which in turn will lower the pressure on nature, and with widespread education the concern for nature will increase. The children of the forest dwellers will have better education than their parents and they will not accept hard work for 200 Baht a day, and so they will move out of the forest villages, just like in the west. This is a promising development, but we need to assure that today’s 2 million forest dwellers (Ann’s data) do not damage the very vulnerable fragment that is left. The endangered species must endure another 20 years, and creatures like Javan rhinoceros and Gurneys’ pitta are already lost.

Forestry 1907-1959. The lowest accepted girth for teak logging kept decreasing with decreasing number of teaks and woodlands, until it was down at 90 cm (from 2.1 m). Boonsong Lekagul established the Association for the Conservation of Wildlife in 1947, Asia’s first environmental organization. He admired the hunters’ code of honour (minimize suffering, avoid killing females and their young, hunt for subsistence and not for sport or profit). It sounds Buddhist to me. I have not met a single hunter in Thailand with such an honour. They might have become as rare as the tigers.

Loggers came in waves. The logging around the year 1900 did not seem too bad if the law had been obeyed, but subsequent logging of smaller sizes and the switch to other hardwoods kept ruining the Thai forests. I am frankly unclear if and when true clearcuts were introduced as a forestry method, other than in plantations. It seems complete clearcuts were only done when the increasing farming population transformed already degraded forests to arable land or charcoal, an issue not discussed by Ann. Today’s secondary forests seem even-aged, which I took for granted was due to recovery from a clearcut. If anyone knows, please share!

Forestry 1960-1988. All foreign logging licenses ended in 1960 and the Thai Forestry Industry Organization held 75% of the teak concessions. Although forest and biodiversity decline continued, The Wildlife Conservation Act of 1960 allowed for territories where human activity is restricted to scientific research, and The National Parks Law of 1961 combined protection with ecotourism in designated areas. One man who helped creating these laws and national parks was George Ruhle from USA, and Ann does her best to show that he and even John Muir were racists and that national parks should include forest dwellers. As a biologist I believe Ruhle did a good job in Thailand of reasons I described above.

Ruhle stated that ‘Thai people seemed to think of national parks as amusement parks, or resorts for drawing huge money-spending crowds’. In my opinion, this is still the case. When you ask somebody at the information desk at a Thai national park (if anyone present at all) you get no information. The head of a big national park visiting Dokmai Garden asked me if I seriously believed anyone was interested in learning about plants.

In 1960 Dr Lekagul joined a Khao Yai national park meeting together with directors and the Minister of Agriculture. An Italian firm had requested to build a road into the national park and to build a hotel and a casino on 5000 rai (800 ha) of land. Dr Lekagul said that anyone willing to sell Khao Yai to these foreigners should be incarcerated and used as a target practice. Of course our hero was excluded from the next meeting and two years later the world was blessed with another golf course in the centre of a world heritage monument. Oh, I look so much forward to plowing that vulgar golf course and planting some Fangorn trees, adorned with native orchids and silver pheasants!

Update 1: a recent but unconfirmed report from two of our readers is that rock concerts are held annually in the national park. Imagine the roaring noise and its impact on nature! For many Thais, making noise was and is traditionally a way of scaring away evil spirits, which they believe reside in the forest. A fascinating cultural view according to savagists, a terrible example of how superstition and ignorance shatters a Thai monument according to liberals. Update 2: Recent newspaper articles indicate the Thai government seriously considers cutting the national park in pieces by allowing a road encroach national park lands. If the road is built UNESCO threatens to remove it from the world heritage list!

Ann refers many times in the book to the green movement and massive environmental protests. During my years here I have tried my best to connect with such movements. They hardly exist, and are mostly interested in fund raising. Ann cites herself that the rare environmentalist Seub Nakhasatien concluded ‘I am alone’ before committing suicide.

Ann also talks about massive support of eco-tourism. I can not see any such governmental efforts. The Chiang Mai tourist association still keeps the mantra ‘tourists come to see temples and elephants, and to do shopping’. Eco-tourism is a niche, and apart from the four most famous national parks, the others are empty of tourists, rangers, information and marketing. The  marginal eco-tourism promoted is purely private initiatives, but I believe this is the future and that it is something good if regulated, like in Australia or New Zealand. One perverted form of eco-tourism is the weed watching in Mae Hong Son.

Forestry 1989-2007. Due to severe flooding and many deaths as a consequence of logging, and due to the low percentage of forests and their poor state (hardly no virgin forests left, hardly not teak left, hardly no wildlife left, hardly no orchids left) a logging ban was passed in 1989.

The powerful Shinawatra family was accused of land encroachment and of transforming governmental forest land into a mango plantation as a cover for a resort. A school teacher leading the protests against felling massive trees, soil erosion and canal clogging was jailed and mysteriously murdered a day after being released. 

Experiments with Eucalyptus as a source of pulp began but affected water levels and nearby farming due to the immense water consumption. On one side of the conflict were ten million people who simply confiscated forest land from the government, cleared the land from forest and turned it into corn and tapioca fields. These people had no legal rights to the land and were indeed hated by other Thai citizens who lawfully bought their land. On the other side were companies and the government who tried to use heavily degraded forest lands to build up the nation. Force were used to move encroachers, often without success. Lawfully the situation was clear, but in reality millions of angry people may cause too much trouble, and from a biologist’s point of view these lands were already destroyed.

Thai forestry in 2007-2011. The community forest bill was passed in 2007. This law allows communities within governmental land to use and manage forests, although not undertake logging. I think this is a generous and compassionate solution by the government. 

Ann Danaiya Usher published her book in 2009.

The Thai government used satellite pictures in 2011 and discovered a lot of large scale land encroachment in several national parks. Local land offices and village heads are accused of fraud. For environmentalists this governmental crackdown shows courage and gives us hope. If anyone knows the name of the brave person in charge of saving the Thai heritage from organized crime, we should be happy to acknowledge this person by making him or her immortal (naming a plant after him or her).

Update: One reader remarks that an aspect which was not treated thoroughly by Ann was the huge opium production in the forest lands. This was another reason for moving many villages. The entire village was in the hands of opium lords, and they were safer somewhere where they could get protection and help via the successful Hilltribe Support Royal Project. What Ann also should have mentioned is that opium growers are still active. Two rangers have been recently murdered in a Thai wildlife sanctuary. The Thai government has many good reasons to regulate human activities in such areas!

In conclusion, this book deserves attention but should be read with a critical mind, and so I hope this book will cause a lot of constructive debate.

Eric Danell

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2011 9:09 AM

    Just back from Nan & Phrae yesterday and witnessing Eucalypus die back over several provinces. Somewhat less severe it appears in the degraded hills coming into Lampang from Phrae.

    What might the cause be? No sign of insect attack on this exotic unpalatable species. It is said there is only one species of native bird that will consider nesting in a Eucy so not say parrots tearing off leaves and flowers as seen in Australia. No sign of widespread ring barking and hardly likely there is a campaign to poison the trees.

    Well what is different this year that may be the culprit. If my mother were still alive she would surely blame the weather. This year has seen the longest wet season in my 12 years in Thailand, with good rains in May, excellent for planting native trees. One might expect the Eucalyptus camaldulensis, also known as the River Red Gum to be prospering. Yes they love to grow near rivers and around swamps and flooding spreads their seed but the Red Gum is also drought tolerant and like Teak needs a period when the ground is dry.

    Australia, the land of the Eucalyptus, has seen widespread death from causes as diverse as insect attack and soil compaction by cattle, but the most insidious has been the root fungus Phytophthora cinnamoni which is spread by water in the ground. Can we have advice from a tree pathologist in Thailand?

    These comments also posted at :

    • August 28, 2011 12:19 PM

      A very interesting observation Ricky! It reminds us that planting one species over huge areas is dangerous, ecologically as well as economically. The cause of widespread death would be most interesting to know. Fungal attack due to the rains is a good hypothesis. Indeed this La Nina year has been rainy. No hot dry season, the rains began in March. So far in August alone we have had 267 mm. The indigenous trees at Dokmai Garden seem unaffected. Monsoon trees are fit to stand the extremes, although individuals may succumb during ongoing selection, tuning and maintaining this trait.


  2. August 28, 2011 12:50 PM

    Although most governments in the tropics are terribly corrupt (do you follow the current corruption discussions in the Indian parliament?), some individuals try to make a difference. Support Daan Vreugdenhil’s initiative ‘Adopt a Ranger’:

    Eric & Ketsanee

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