‘Guardians of the forest’: local knowledge and environmental policy in a northern Thai national park


Nguyen Quang Dung

PhD defended at: 

National University of Singapore


My dissertation is about a community of uplanders in a National Park in Northern Thailand. The Lahu have been living in a forested area in the province of Tak called the Muser Hills for a long time since the mid-1940s. The Thai nation state has created national parks over much of northern Thailand, including traditional Lahu lands. This has led to the Lahu having to rethink their definitions of located-ness in Tak’s forests. In my thesis, I highlight the ways the Lahu respond to the Thai state’s ecological management program. The Lahu have worked to adapt to state-imposed environmental constraints through a creative integration of traditional concepts and contemporary discourses about the environment. Conservation stories I heard from the Lahu indicate that, in these nationally protected areas, conflicts over environmental discourses cannot be reduced to a simple standoff between two opposing sides - the state and indigenous communities - but rather be seen as a process of compromise, combination and negotiation among many discourses. Marginalized ethnically, demographically and culturally in a modern Thailand, Tak’s Lahu also pursue and capitalize on their community’s spatial locatedness to generate sympathies and alliances. My work, thus, explores how this small community exerts a powerful sense of agency in the face of rigid national policies that are often not in their favour. By identifying and analyzing their complex responses to these policies, I argue that state environmental discourses have been responsible for a new way of being Lahu. By asserting their position as the rightful residents and guardians of the forest, they appropriate and transform the ‘protected forest zones’ into sites of ethnic and cultural production.