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Year : 2014  |  Volume : 12  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 425-436

Thai Forest Debates and the Unequal Appropriation of Spatial Knowledge Tools

School of International Development and Globalization, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada; and Canada Chair of Asian Research, Université de Montréal, Montreal, Canada

Correspondence Address:
Jean-Philippe Leblond
School of International Development and Globalization, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada; and Canada Chair of Asian Research, Université de Montréal, Montreal, Canada

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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0972-4923.155588

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Date of Web Publication21-Apr-2015


The illegal occupation of legal forest land has been at the centre of prolonged and often violent conflicts in Thailand. Since 1990, forest debates have been characterised by an intense polarisation between a conservation-oriented perspective (called 'dark green') and a counter perspective (called 'light green') supporting both the rights and interests of forest occupants as well as forest conservation. Cartographic and remote sensing tools have come to play an immense role in this debate. However, their use has been mostly concentrated in the hands of forest authorities and other dark green actors. Through an analysis of knowledge claims made by the two coalitions, I discuss how the low involvement of light green groups with spatial information tools contributed to their uncritical acceptance of problematic dark green truth claims of the environmental efficacy of conservation measures and the non-existence of recent positive forest cover change. In light of the emergence of multiple claims of 'forest transitions' in developing countries and the recent push towards the establishment of schemes that financially reward reforestation and avoided deforestation, light green groups and, by extension, sympathetic political ecologists, should carefully analyse the implications of their incomplete involvement with cartographic and remote sensing tools.

Keywords: knowledge production, environmental conflicts, forest conservation, cartography, remote sensing, Thailand

How to cite this article:
Leblond JP. Thai Forest Debates and the Unequal Appropriation of Spatial Knowledge Tools. Conservat Soc 2014;12:425-36

How to cite this URL:
Leblond JP. Thai Forest Debates and the Unequal Appropriation of Spatial Knowledge Tools. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2014 [cited 2022 Dec 5];12:425-36. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2014/12/4/425/155588

   Introduction Top

Political ecologists and other scholars have critically analysed various conflicts and political debates over forest conservation and environmental management at local, national, and global scales. Authors have notably documented how contests over the production, legitimation, and use of key environmental knowledge claims must be understood in relation to unequal power relations and political economic interests (Bryant 1998; Forsyth and Walker 2008). While state and international organisations typically have the upper hand in the production and legitimation of environmental knowledge, including spatial environmental knowledge, political ecologists, activists, and others have attempted to counter their claims. Various methodological and political strategies have been used, including the appropriation of recent advances in ecological and hydrological sciences to contest common environmental narratives (Turner 1993; Forsyth and Walker 2008), and the use of natural sciences measurements, such as erosion assessments (Forsyth 1996). With regard to spatial environmental knowledge, several political ecologists and NGOs have advocated and demonstrated the need for, and utility of, greater critical engagement with cartographic, remote sensing, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools for both critical inquiry and political campaigning (see, for example, Turner and Taylor 2003). These tools have been used at various scales to contest claims pertaining to the documentation of environmental change, the identification of the causes of environmental problems, or the existence of marginal or abandoned land available for large-scale plantation development (Turner 1993; Fairhead and Leach 1995; Peluso 1995; Forsyth 1996; Robbins 2001, 2003; Turner and Taylor 2003; Forsyth and Walker 2008; Nalepa and Bauer 2012). One key area where scholars, NGOs, and local communities have appropriated the spatial knowledge production tools of the state is counter-mapping. Although some counter-mapping efforts have proved politically useful in communicating claims to resources, documenting environmentally friendly practices and, at times, successfully blocking specific development or conservation projects (Poole 1995; Fox 1998; Li, 2007), their use is not without problems. Counter-mapping has been found to lead to local conflicts, to facilitate state access to important knowledge, and to produce other potential 'ironic' and counter-productive effects (Peluso 1995; Fox et al. 2005). Also, although counter-mapping has been at times conducted over large areas (see Peluso 1995; Poole 1995), most efforts took the form of community mapping over limited areas. As a result, large-scale mapping activities influential in conservation debates such as country or state-wide assessments of forest cover evolution have remained within the hands of forest authorities, teams of remote sensing and GIS scholars, as well as national and international conservation NGOs. International conservation NGOs, for example, have increasingly conducted or financed independent forest assessments, in particular in areas characterised by both extensive tropical rainforests and high rates of deforestation and forest degradation (e.g., Baker and Williamson 2006; SarVision 2011; Butler 2013; Eyes on the forest 2013). Through the examination of forest debates in Thailand, I will show how a lack of engagement with spatial information tools on the part of NGOs opposed to coerced conservation undermines their capacity to criticise and effectively respond to key knowledge claims made by conservation actors.

In this article, I analyse enduring national debates and conflicts in Thailand pertaining to forest management and conservation. For several decades, these debates and conflicts have revolved around the question of the illegal occupation of legal forest land. In the 1980s, it was commonly estimated that several million people lived or cultivated land in national forest reserves and protected areas. 1 Their presence can be explained by the expeditious nature of the establishment process of demarcated forest land and by the existence of an informal forest policy that traded forest conservation for development and geopolitical objectives. Geopolitical objectives included the need to defeat communist insurgents (Hirsch 1987; Vandergeest 1996). Since the demise of the communist insurgency in the 1980s, various Thai governments attempted to solve the problem of illegal occupancy either through coerced conservation (e.g., at least 55,000 people displaced between 1986 and 2005) or the granting of partial or complete land rights to hundreds of thousands of households (Leblond 2010). As a result, it is now estimated that 'only' two million people illegally live in demarcated forests, many of which are ethnic minorities and reside in upland areas often labelled as 'ecologically sensitive' (Leblond 2010).

Debates concerning the fate of these two million people have stalled (Unger and Siroros 2011). They are now deeply polarised between two groups that are unable to unequivocally defeat the opponent or reach a compromise. The strongly conservation-oriented 'dark green' perspective is well represented in state forest organisations and some environmental NGOs (e.g., The Dhammanaat Foundation). Their proponents present upland rural dwellers as forest destroyers that can only be controlled by the strict application of forest laws by forest authorities. As such, they have frequently called for the depopulation of ecologically sensitive upland areas (see Leblond 2010). In reaction, and as in other contexts (e.g., Li 2007) a counter 'light green' coalition emerged. It is mostly driven by social sciences-oriented NGOs and scholars (including many political ecologists) who favour some form of 'people-friendly' forest conservation. Light green environmentalists portray some upland dwellers-namely members of traditional and long established communities-as the true guardians of the forests.

In this article, I analyse Thai forest debates at the national level from the perspective of the production and partial contestation of environmental knowledge, and in particular of spatial environmental knowledge. I advance the following points: First, while many scholars, activists, and journalists emphasise the conflicting nature of knowledge claims made by the light green and dark green coalitions, these coalitions agree on crucial aspects of the debates, namely on the existence of continuing deforestation and on the identification of deforestation as a major hydrological problem. The main area of contention thus pertains to the nature of the causes of, and solutions to, the problem.

Second, I identify two areas where problematic knowledge claims have been accepted-or at least have not been explicitly challenged. The first instance pertains to the evolution of forest cover, where recent evidences suggest that reforestation has apparently become increasingly important and was, at least at the turn of the twenty-first century, the dominant trend. The second instance discussed refers to unsubstantiated claims to the 'environmental efficacy' of key dark green policy prescriptions. Third, I argue that the acceptance of these knowledge claims by light green actors-or their lack of contestation-is a reflection of the partial engagement of light green actors with spatial information technology.

The article is divided as follows. In the next section, I discuss the history of modern forest knowledge in Thailand. Three key areas are analysed, namely the mapping and measurement of forest cover change, the construction and framing of the problem of deforestation, and the identification of the causes of, and solutions to, deforestation. This section mainly draws from the available literature. Based primarily on the results of my doctoral research (Leblond 2011), I then highlight two specific areas where an engagement with these tools could have been used to challenge important claims, or assumptions, that appear problematic. The last section concludes the article.

   History of Knowledge Production in National Forest Debates Top

Mapping and measuring deforestation

During the first half of the twentieth century, the capacity of the Thai state to produce precise statistical and cartographic knowledge on several key aspects of its territory and population was highly limited (e.g., Feeny 1988). Forest surveys, let alone a complete forest inventory, were rare and focussed on teak forests, where complete enumeration of exploitable teak trees was conducted every 30 years (Witt 1905; Loetsch 1956; Pye 2005a). Following World War II, the state's capacity to produce scientific and cartographic knowledge pertaining to forest management rapidly improved. First, several efforts were made to produce statistical and cartographic information on the state of forest resources. The Thai Government requested the help of experts from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to produce proper forest inventories (e.g., Loetsch 1956). During the same decade, the Thai Government followed the advice of the FAO experts and, with the financial and logistical help of the Government of the USA, started to devote serious attention to the use of aerial photographs in the production of topographic, forest, and land-use maps (Thailand 1961; Vandergeest and Peluso 2006). The Royal Thai Survey Department produced the 1961 forest survey, the first to be included in the official forest cover data series published in the Royal Forest Department (RFD) and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) statistical yearbooks. A major shift occurred in the 1970s with the adoption of satellite imagery-a move facilitated by the Government of the USA (Muscat et al. 1983; Baker 1987). The availability of low-cost satellite images (as compared to aerial photos) allowed a substantial acceleration of the production of forest maps by forest authorities and Kasetsart University forest researchers. As a result, since 1961, 15 national 'existing forest' surveys have been published (but at least 18 were produced). The adoption of satellite imagery by the RFD and the acceleration in the production of national forest surveys it permitted is credited as having played an important political role, for it allowed the RFD to clearly illustrate and map the extent of deforestation and thus help bring to the fore the issue of deforestation (Muscat et al. 1983). It also helped justify the intensification of forest conservation measures.

Official surveys have been challenged broadly by both light green and dark green groups as painting too rosy a picture of forest cover change. These criticisms have been politically influential. Since the 1980s, they notably led to the production and use of numerous counter-estimates of forest cover (Leblond and Pham 2014). 2 In the case of members of the light green coalition, counter-estimates have been produced based on unknown methodologies and used as a means to discredit forest authorities and their management practices. As such, the strategy has never been to challenge the state's claims of the existence of massive deforestation, even if it sometimes used grossly exaggerated figures (see Charasdamrong 1992).

Counter-estimates have unclear methodological underpinnings and are probably based on an ad hoc adjustment of official figures to account for their presumed optimistic bias (Leblond 2011). The belief that significant bias exists is mostly based on anecdotal observations, plausible hypotheses, and common knowledge (Leblond and Pham 2014). Specialists have sometimes produced alternative remote sensing surveys covering specific areas or, more rarely, the entire country. However, alternative surveys have failed to play an important role in the discussion of official forest statistics biases. In fact, among 39 recent land use and forest remote sensing surveys discussed in Leblond and Pham (2014), none compared their results with official forest maps. When discussing this research strategy, Thai remote sensing specialists warned that conducting such research might jeopardize future research collaboration with state organizations producing forest maps. Also, Thai and international environmental NGOs have not conducted their own forest mapping exercise to evaluate (and potentially challenge) official maps, although this strategy is relatively common in other tropical regions.

The political salience of the optimistic bias criticism of official statistics could be seen in the interpretation of recent published forest surveys suggesting the existence of two spectacular reforestation episodes, the first in 1998-2000 (from 25.3 to 33.2% forest cover) and the second in 2006-2009 (from 30.9 to 33.6%), between which deforestation was documented. The first episode has been widely discussed and, without serious attempts to evaluate its validity, its existence was widely dismissed by both coalitions as a methodological artefact (e.g., Samabuddhi 2004; FAO 2005a, 2010; see section "Unrecognised forest and agricultural trends"). 3

Constructing and framing the problem

Deforestation only recently emerged as a major preoccupation. From the state's point of view, forest and forest land have been valued following three broad perspectives. First, forests and forest land were seen in light of geopolitical threats. These threats came from British authorities dissatisfied by disorganised teak exploitation in the late nineteenth century, communist insurgents during the 1970s and early 1980s, and former communist insurgents thereafter (see Barton and Bennett 2010; Leblond 2010).

Second, until the conservation turn of the 1980s, forests and forest land were valued in economic or commercial terms, either for the timber resources they contained or the agricultural potential of the land on which they grew. 4 For example, in the 1950s, foresters identified as a problem the depletion of the stock of valuable species in accessible forests, documented in forest inventories (Samapuddhi 1958; Loetsch 1956). At least in part, the RFD understood the problem as a result of the extremely narrow range of commercial species. The solution was to conduct research with the help of FAO experts on 'minor' species in order to increase the geographical and botanical reach of commercial forest exploitation (Samapuddhi 1958). In the same period, deforestation was at times seen as a problem, but only in terms of the negative impacts of deforestation on the profitability, and ultimately the existence of commercial logging (e.g., Banijbatana 1962; Samapuddhi 1974).

Third, forests have come to be valued from an ecological and, most importantly, a hydrological perspective. This transformation, whose seeds were sown in the 1950s and 1960s, revolutionised Thailand's forest politics in the 1980s. In fact, while North American and middle-class ideals emphasising the value of wilderness and the preservation of grandiose landscapes made some headway in Thailand in the second half of the twentieth century (Laungaramsri 2002), it could be argued that strong popular support for forest conservation in Thailand only materialised when forests became valued for their watershed services to lowland society. 5 As such, popular environmentalism in Thailand appears to be based more on materialist values of the 'poor' (preservation of agricultural livelihoods in the lowlands), rather than on postmaterialist and ecocentric values generally associated with middle and upper classes.

How exactly deforestation became defined as a watershed problem remains partly obscure. Following World War II, FAO forest experts were heavily present in Thailand (Vandergeest and Peluso 2006). They emphasised the destruction of upper watershed forests by shifting cultivation and its potentially disastrous impacts on lowland agricultural and hydro-electrical activities through increased erosion, sedimentation in lowland waterways, as well as the destruction of the capacity of the forest to regulate waterflow and rainfall (IBRD 1959: 82; Vandergeest and Peluso 2006). In the same period, these ideas became increasingly present in government documents (e.g., NEDB 1964) and the government began to finance research projects pertaining to the ecological and hydrological consequences of deforestation (Boonkird et al. 1960; Samapuddhi 1958, 1966). They involved, for example, the collection of data on waterflow, erosion, and sedimentation charge. Given the rapidity with which the hydrological views portrayed in FAO publications were integrated into key policy documents, it appears Thai-based researches were not crucial in the development of forest policy. A World Bank report stated the government should not wait for the completion of research projects on the subject to modify its forest policies (IBRD 1959: 82).

Over the last decades, and in particular since the 1980s, simplistic generalisations pertaining to forest hydrology have been produced and disseminated in the public sphere. It has been repeatedly claimed that major catastrophic phenomena in the lowlands such as droughts, landslides, and flooding were a result of deforestation in upper watersheds. This was done based on scientific knowledge mentioned above, as well as lay observations, notably in local communities (e.g., Wittayapak and Dearden 1999). These truth claims were produced by actors from all walks of life, including members of the light green and dark green coalitions (Forsyth and Walker 2008: chapter 4), as well as people in the highest echelon of Thai society. In fact, the King, Queen, and Queen Mother became heavily involved in upper watershed management and deforestation issues, mostly from the 1980s onwards.

Importantly, the Thai state drew on this hydrological knowledge and used mapping tools to regulate land use. This can be seen in the efforts in the 1960s to demarcate legal forest land and protected areas according to topographic features, position in the watersheds, and land capability (Vandergeest 1996). The most important exercise of this nature came with the classification of watersheds into six classes in the 1980s. 6 This classification has come to play an important role in the justification of conservation or reforestation projects as well as in the resolution of national and local conflicts over access to land and forest resources within legal forest land.

To counter the impacts of coerced conservation on upland ethnic minorities, independent scholars produced various alternative causal discourses. Relying on Thai and foreign research (e.g., Bruijnzeel 2004; CIFOR and FAO 2005), they challenged the universal and mechanistic discourse automatically blaming deforestation and upland agriculture for hydrological problems in the lowlands such as flooding and water scarcity (e.g., Gua 1975; Forsyth and Walker 2008). Importantly, this knowledge has remained somewhat peripheral to political debates in Thailand (Forsyth and Walker 2008). It should nevertheless be noted, first, that some light green activists attempted to broaden watershed debates by emphasising the problems posed by increasing water use or faulty drainage in the lowlands (see Luangaramsi 1998). Second, the state watershed classification has been contested both by international scholars and Thai light green activists. This criticism is based mostly on the use of a simplistic and imprecise GIS methodology (e.g., Liengsakul et al. 1993).

Identifying the causes and solutions to deforestation

As the existence of deforestation and its framing as an hydrological problem have not been politically challenged, the key debates pertain to the identity of the culprits (who's to blame?), the reasons or causes of their actions, and the best solutions to the deforestation crisis. For the most part, the dark green explanation of deforestation has focused on the direct agents of deforestation and encroachment of legal forest land. The culprits were rapidly identified as being shifting cultivators and upland ethnic minorities (Gua 1975; Pungprasert 1989; Delang 2002). Given that dark green actors typically focused on direct agents, and not on the processes that led to deforestation or on the role of indirect actors, their solutions were easily drawn-a strict application of forest laws and the creation of depopulated forest landscapes notably through the establishment of protected areas and the displacement of occupants. In their understanding of the causes and solutions to deforestation, dark green actors relied on knowledge produced at a distance, in particular from cartographic and remote sensing tools as well as from common generalisations produced by Thai and foreign forestry and conservation experts (see Laungaramsri 2002).

The development, by the state, of statistical and cartographic knowledge pertaining to the agents of deforestation has been slow. In a context where state officials had poor access to remote areas and where agricultural expansion and migration was proceeding rapidly, information on the distribution, demography, and livelihood practices of the rural population living at the forest margins has long been poor both in quantity and quality (see Feeny 1988). For example, for many decades the state relied on crude methods to estimate the number of 'shifting cultivators' and upland ethnic minorities as well as their role in deforestation (e.g., ADB 1969). Progressively, statistical and cartographic information on upland ethnic minorities and other occupants of legal forest land became more detailed. A census of upland ethnic minorities was conducted from 1985 to 1988, and the state increased its efforts to produce information on the number and location of illegal occupants, at least in protected areas. The gross estimates of the 1980s were replaced by the statistics of much greater precision (e.g., FCPF 2009). Importantly, with the decreasing costs of GPS and GIS, foresters have recently moved towards the mapping of individual fields and the identification of their known occupants (pers. obs. 2008, Phitsanulok province; Rakyutidharm 2009: 276). This procedure, with which some communities and NGOs collaborated (Roth 2008; Rakyutidharm 2009: 132), can be seen as an attempt to microdemarcate forest from agricultural areas.

Dark green actors' claims pertaining to the nature of the causes of, and solutions to, deforestation have been challenged by opponents. Several researchers, activists, and journalists proposed an alternative understanding of the origins of the deforestation crisis. First, many researchers and activists pointed out that most of the deforestation occurred away from the uplands of the North and thus could not have been caused by the activities of upland ethnic minorities (e.g., Hirsch 1987; Delang 2002). These statements were firmly based on empirical data and logic, but nevertheless missed the point as, for many dark green actors, the problem was not deforestation per se, but deforestation in upper watersheds. A more potent line of argument was developed, namely that agricultural expansion and short fallow shifting cultivation practised by lowlanders were responsible for the majority of the deforestation in the uplands (Bruneau 1979; Forsyth and Walker 2008). Again, this view was supported by empirical data, some of which was produced by the state (see Bruneau 1979).

Another important line of argument has been to shift the focus from the current occupants of forest land towards the complex processes that initially led to forest land occupation. This took the form of a strong critique of the role of state economic and geopolitical strategies pursued in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., Hirsch 1987). It also involved an attack on forest authorities and other state organisations as being too prone to corruption and unprofessional behaviour to be trusted with forest conservation (e.g., Ekachai 2005). A different and fundamental strategy has been to emphasise the ecological value of the knowledge and traditional cultural and agricultural practices of rural people, including (some) upland ethnic minorities living in traditional communities, and which were relatively less involved in commercial cultivation using agrochemicals (Vandergeest 2003; Forsyth and Walker 2008). Through anthropological fieldwork and, in some instances, counter-mapping exercises, traditional and recently emerged community-based forest management and ecologically benign agricultural practices were documented. Reportedly, these counter-mapping efforts were meant less as an exact depiction of a complex reality than as communication and political devices (Rakyutidharm 2009: 128-129)-an attitude understandable given the common critical stance in light green circles towards the simplifications necessarily involved in land use cartography. Light green activists and researchers used these research endeavours to present these communities as guardians of the forests who deserve to maintain their livelihoods (Forsyth and Walker 2008). The use of modern cartographic knowledge was instrumental in granting access to community forests in some local conflicts (Luangaramsi 1998).

This discourse gained important political coverage and legitimacy, perhaps in part because it was partly compatible with concerns raised by dark green environmentalists with regard to the impacts of commercial and chemical-intensive upland agriculture practised by upland minorities, in particular Hmong (e.g., Pungprasert 1989; Dearden 1995). It also played on a long established distinction between 'good' and 'bad' upland minorities (Vandergeest 2003). The first, often exemplified by Karen, were long present in the country, traditionally practised subsistence rotational shifting cultivation at mid elevation, cultivate rice in paddy fields in intermountain valleys and generally avoided involvement in the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). 'Bad' ethnic minorities, often represented by Hmong, are depicted as being recent inhabitants of Thailand's highlands who traditionally practised pioneer shifting cultivation and were involved in commercial opium production as well as in the CPT. The light green argumentation proved also to be in line with the influential royal discourse on sufficiency economy. This discourse notably criticises monocrop commercial cultivation for global markets and promotes agricultural production for local consumption.

The light green discourse and the fact that it partially overlapped with conservationist knowledge claims, have had important indirect consequences. First, it helped establish or perpetuate the vision according to which the legitimacy of the knowledge, livelihoods, political demands, and rights of legal forestland occupants largely rests on their ecological credentials, and not simply on the respect of their human and constitutional rights (Johnson and Forsyth 2002; Walker and Farrelly 2008). Second, it seems to have reinforced-or at least imperfectly challenged-the racialisation of forest debates in Thailand and the distinction between good and bad ethnic groups.

   Untested Knowledge Claims and The Partial Use of Cartographic and Remote Sensing Tools Top

In the previous section, I discussed the production and use of knowledge in Thai national forest debates, noting at the same time that while cartographic and remote tools have come to play an important role in these debates, they have been unequally and partially used by the light green coalition. This situation, I would argue, makes it easier for forest authorities and dark green actors to see their viewpoints and interpretations accepted, even when they are demonstrably faulty or are insufficiently substantiated.

Unrecognised forest and agricultural trends

Over the last three decades, forest debates have been based on a sense of urgency which largely derives from observations, maps, and statistics describing the massive deforestation that occurred mostly in the four decades that followed World War II. Yet, it seems major actors involved in forest politics failed to pay attention to recent evidence suggesting that the situation has significantly changed, in the pace, the nature, and the causes of forest cover change. Evidences of these changes are drawn from statistical and cartographic government data as well as independent case studies using qualitative and quantitative methods.

The first group of evidence pertains to the evolution of forest cover. 7 Official forest surveys show two spectacular reforestation episodes (1998-2000 and 2006-2009; [Figure 1]). The first reforestation episode has been dismissed based on the unsubstantiated claim that it was caused by three methodological changes: 1) the change of the scale at which the data source (satellite images) and the end result (forest maps) are analysed, namely from 1:250,000 to 1:50,000; 2) the passage from dot sampling to GIS for area calculation; and 3) the enlargement of the definition of forests to include young secondary forests. The first two methodological changes facilitate the detection of small forest and non-forest patches and hence can lead to both an upward and downward bias. The existence of the third methodological change is contested. A critical analysis of recent state forest data and independent case studies show the following.
Figure 1: Evolution of forest areas and agricultural land in Thailandaccording to various government sources, 1961-2009

Click here to view

First, in 1999, 2001, and 2003, official forest surveys were conducted, but their results unpublished. According to the 1999 survey, which was conducted just before methodological changes occurred (FCPF 2009), forest cover stood at 29.1%, at an intermediate position between the result in 1998 (25.3%) and 2000 (33.2%). These results demonstrate that the official interpretation is partly invalid, as reforestation between 1998 and 1999 cannot be explained by a methodological artefact, and that it rests on the selective publication of forest survey results.

Second, some forest officers reported that as part of a pre-2000 forest survey, results showing net forest expansion in some provinces were met with criticism. These results were deemed impossible and officials were asked to revise their work. Albeit unconfirmed, this information suggests that official forest survey results are assessed, interpreted, and plausibly published based on the perception of the 'veracity' of their results. It also suggests that critiques of official data can no longer assume that any bias in the data would be towards an overestimation of forest cover.

Third, a critical evaluation of the impacts of the three methodological changes that occurred between 1998 and 2000 strongly suggests these changes could only explain a minor portion of the apparent reforestation. A simulation of the first methodological change (greater spatial resolution of data source and end product) showed that this change likely had a remarkably small positive impact on reported forest cover. Using a plausible minimum mapping unit, the effect represented only 200,000 ha (0.4% of the country), while the apparent reforestation covers an area of 4 million ha (or 7.9% of the country). 8 Also, due to the lack of crucial information on the nature of the dot sampling methodology used for area calculation prior to 2000, it was impossible to directly evaluate the impact of the second methodological change. It is clear, however, that the use of standard sampling methodology lead to minor sampling errors (largely inferior to 1%; see for example FAO 2005b). Lastly, the existence of a change of the definition of forest to include secondary forests is contested by Thongchai Charuppat (2003, pers. comm.), former forest survey official at the RFD. In any case, such change would likely have only led to a modest bias of less than 300,000 ha (0.55% of the country). Overall, the three methodological changes appear unable to account for the totality, let alone the majority, of the difference between the 1998 and 2000 forest survey results.

Fourth, recent reforestation has also been documented in various subnational remote sensing case studies. Out of 42 recent remote sensing case studies analysed (extracted from 39 published and unpublished reports), 18 cases (43%) showed a positive evolution, defined as a net expansion of forests (including tree plantations) or a reversal from deforestation to reforestation. Of the 21 studies in which at least one period studied started in 1995 or after, almost half (10) reported a positive evolution of forest areas (Leblond and Pham 2014). My doctoral field research in Phetchabun province generally confirmed the existence of reforestation in areas mapped by recent official forest surveys. 9 This reforestation was explained by increased land confiscation by the state and "spontaneous" land abandonment. The latter was caused by increased economic problems in non-irrigated corn cultivation (Leblond 2008 and 2011).

Fifth, although forest officials have used forest surveys results since 2000 to claim the continuation of deforestation (e.g., FAO 2005a, 2010), an examination of both published and unpublished survey results suggest a more complex evolution, with deforestation being recorded in 2000-2001 and 2004-2006, and reforestation in 2001-2004 and 2006-2009 ([Figure 1]). There are no indications that methodological changes occurred during this period. While these rapid shifts could be partly due to theforest surveys' imprecision, they could reflect the existence of contradictory processes and land use trajectories which include reforestation and whose intensity varies across space and time (from year to year).

A second group of evidence suggesting important trajectory changes pertains to agricultural land data. They suggest that there is no longer a unique trajectory towards agricultural expansion. Farmholding surveys of the Office of Agricultural Economics (OAE), agricultural censuses of the National Statistical Office (NSO), and land use maps of the Land Development Department (LDD) clearly show that total agricultural land levelled off in the 1990s ([Figure 1]; see Leblond 2008 and 2011). They also suggest that, since then, agricultural land declined at the national level, albeit this phenomenon could be small (OAE data) and could have been reversed in the late 2000s (OAE and LDD data). The retreat of cultivated areas has spread across the country and cannot be entirely explained by urbanisation (Leblond 2008).

Forest clearing for agricultural endeavours did not completely disappear. In my study area in Phetchabun, most if not all forest clearings occurred on previously cultivated land that was (temporarily) abandoned and was thus covered in secondary forests. In other words, it constituted a form of agricultural re-expansion, and did not affect biodiversity-rich primary forests. Also, contrary to previous periods when capital-poor smallholders were spearheading most agricultural clearing, capital-rich farmers and urban investors played a key role in these activities, a phenomenon also reported in other contexts by dark green actors (e.g., Pongrai 2012). This could signal a departure in the nature of key deforestation processes and the identity of the direct actors involved, at least in some contexts in Thailand.

This hypothesis as well as the evidence presented earlier deserves to be further examined by actors involved in forest debates, as it challenges key assumptions and images that underlie forest debates and helps legitimise current conservation practices and policy prescriptions. I refer notably to the idea that forest change is still uniquely characterised by rapid deforestation, that recent deforestation necessarily involved the disappearance of lush 'pristine' forest (and not secondary forest growing on abandoned or fallow fields), or that smallholders are still the key agents of deforestation (as opposed to urban and local capital-rich investors).

Evaluating the effectiveness of policy prescriptions

Demonstrating the 'environmental effectiveness' of specific policy interventions is notoriously difficult, as it involves, first, taking into account a large number of confounding factors, including 'leakage' or the displacement of deforestation to other areas, and second, estimating both actual and avoided changes in forest cover (or forest quality). Conservationists have shown great criticism towards the policy prescriptions of the light green groups. They forced light green groups to devote much energy in producing various form of research and knowledge that documented community forestry practices and showed how they could constitute, at least in some cases, an efficient rampart against forest degradation and deforestation.

In this policy debate, it is striking that conservationists were able to argue that protected areas, population displacements, and other drastic measures are effective in preventing deforestation and promoting reforestation based solely on theoretical and foreign-based forestry and conservation knowledge. Light green groups did not attempt to independently and systematically evaluate the efficacy of conservationists' prescriptions and thus effectively force conservationists in proving their claims. As a result, there is remarkably little reliable hard data allowing an evaluation of the 'environmental efficacy' of conservationists' policy prescriptions. Regarding the effect of population displacement projects, while anecdotal and partial evidence can be found in support of the idea that they can lead to reforestation (e.g., Duengkae et al. 2006), the reverse is also true. For example, the relocation of ethnic minorities in Kamphaeng Phet province in 1986 was immediately followed by forest destruction caused by forest and military officers (Kesmanee 1995). In other instances, relocation projects directly or indirectly led to leakage (e.g., Bangkok Post 1991; Ketanond, 1998; Pye 2005b). Elsewhere, efforts to remove populations and reforest land failed due to strong resistance by the affected population (e.g., Kuaycharoen and Rajesh 2005). Importantly, there has been no attempt to systematically document land use changes in areas where large displacement or land confiscation projects occurred. Yet, a rapid observation of official forest maps as well as Landsat MSS, TM, and ETM+ images showing the region where the most important relocation project in Thailand was conducted (Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary) showed no sign that the displacement of approximately 10,000 people led to forest expansion (see Leblond 2010). This form of research would clearly be highly policy-relevant.

On the effectiveness of protected areas, some researchers documented, through remote sensing, more positive (or less negative) forest cover changes within Thai protected areas than in their immediate surroundings (e.g., Hossain et al. 2009). However, such researches do not take into account confounding factors, such as the fact that protected areas are typically established in areas less attractive to farmers or that negative indirect effects can occur, such as leakage or the pre-emptive reclamation of abandoned fields during the establishment phase (Andam et al. 2008; Roth 2008). To my knowledge, only two research projects, both led by American researchers and focusing on portions of the country, attempted to take into account some confounding factors (Cropper et al. 2001; Sims 2008). Their results suggest that parcels within wildlife sanctuaries, and to a lesser extent within national parks, have a higher probability to be forested. Albeit innovative, these works do not elucidate the precise mechanisms at play and the deforestation agents affected. As such, they do not prove that protected areas' apparent effectiveness is explained by strict policing measures against existing small-scale encroachers. Other processes or factors could explain the results of Sims (2008) and Cropper et al. (2001). For example, the apparent effectiveness of protected areas could be partly due to the emergence of informal collaboration between communities and authorities, and not necessarily due to the use of a forceful, coerced, approach to conservation. Also, Roth (2008) and I (pers. obs. in two protected areas in Phetchabun and Phitsanulok) observed how small cleared patches and their surroundings are at times excluded from protected areas during or after their establishment phase. This leads to a 'swiss-cheese' model of protected areas where enclaves of land already cleared (or which are likely to be cleared) are excluded from protected areas. As a result of these micro-exclusions, the effectiveness of protected areas could be overestimated in quantitative studies. Lastly, Sims' (2008) and Cropper et al.'s (2001) studies do not rule out the possibility that protected areas lead to leakages, that is the transfer of deforestation activities to less protected regions. In northern Phetchabun province, I documented how large clearings of secondary forests were financed by investors who concentrated their activities in zones where forest regulation enforcement was expected to be poor or absent, such as national forest reserves and non-demarcated legal forests (Leblond 2011: chapter 10). Overall, it thus appears that another important aspect of forest debates, namely the 'environmental effectiveness' of dark green policy prescriptions has not been critically assessed-a phenomenon which, I would argue, was facilitated by the incomplete critical analysis by light green groups of their opponents' claims and the relative lack of engagement of the former with modern cartographic and remote sensing tools.

   Conclusions Top

In this article, I analysed Thai forest debates from the perspective of the production and partial contestation of environmental knowledge by the dark green and the light green coalitions. I made the following three points. First, while most observers emphasise the conflicting nature of knowledge claims, I documented how dark green and light green actors have come to agree on important aspects of the debate, namely on the existence of continuing deforestation and on the identification of deforestation as a major hydrological problem. As such, the main area of contention pertains to the nature of the actors and forces responsible for deforestation and the solutions to the problem. Second, I argued that some non-contentious knowledge claims are in fact problematic. I illustrated this situation through an analysis of knowledge claims pertaining to forest change, and the effectiveness of some dark green policy prescriptions. In the first case, I presented evidence which notably challenges the idea that no significant reforestation has recently occurred. In the second case, I argued that the environmental efficacy of some dark green policy prescriptions, namely protected areas and population displacements projects, has yet to be fully demonstrated. Third, I argued that the acceptance of these knowledge claims by light green actors-or their lack of contestation-is a reflection of the partial engagement of light green actors with spatial information technology in national forest debates. This prevents a thorough critical analysis of state environmental knowledge deriving from cartographic, remote sensing, and GIS tools. Such analysis could be used in various ways to challenge key underlying assumptions in current Thai forest debates, and thus help open up the debate which remains stalled and deeply polarised along relatively simple lines.

Light green groups and allies have not shied away from all use of spatial knowledge tools, as evidenced by the number of community and counter-mapping exercises conducted at the local scale (Isager and Broge 2007; Roth 2008; Di Gessa 2008). The utilisation of this knowledge proved at times politically useful in discussions with forest authorities. However, its production and diffusion can have important drawbacks as they can exacerbate intra- and inter-village conflicts and give precise information to outsiders, who can then use it in ways contradictory to the interests of members of the community, a phenomenon well described in Thailand and elsewhere (Peluso 1995; Fox et al. 2005; Roth 2008).

What could explain the light green groups' relative lack of appropriation of spatial knowledge tools in national debates, where the risks involved in the diffusion of information on specific villages and households can be plausibly reduced? Various factors could be proposed. First, it is evident that engagement with spatial knowledge tools at the national scale would require substantial financial and human resources. These needs could be reduced by collaboration or the sharing of data with scholars or larger organisations. However, Thai forest authorities are reluctant to share key data with perceived opponents. Also, while remote sensing scholars have produced many local land-use and land-cover evaluations, they have not compared their results with official forest maps. Similarly, although large environmental NGOs have produced alternative remote sensing forest mapping over large areas, they have typically done so in major tropical (and boreal) forest regions of the world and not in Thailand (e.g., Eyes on the Forest 2013). In one rare instance where a large NGO attempted to produce alternative forest cover change maps, it used an apparently problematic methodology and did not compare the results with the official Thai forest statistics and maps (WWF-Greater Mekong 2013). 10

Strategic reasons could also be invoked. Indeed, the widespread usage of these tools promotes certain values and a specific conception of space alien to traditional rural culture, albeit this is perhaps not necessary so (Roth 2009). It can also help legitimise a knowledge production strategy in which forest authorities have a structural advantage. Moreover, such strategy could lead to conflicts within the light green coalition as 1) it could necessitate a departure from both their typically community-oriented realm of intervention and their former critical epistemological stance towards these tools, and in particular remote sensing 11 , 2) it could potentially lead to the adoption of a formal definition of forests which could prove at odds with both local definitions of forests (Wong et al. 2007) and rotational shifting cultivation practices, and thus 3) it could contribute to increased conservation pressure on the very communities that light green groups wish to defend.

A last set of plausible factors of broader significance have a nature akin to path dependency. On the one hand, light green groups have emerged in part from the anti-logging campaign of the 1980s, in which a key element was the idea that official statistics overestimated forest cover. Over time, this belief became entrenched. From their standpoint, conducting alternative national-scale mapping activities can only reveal that the deforestation crisis is worse than official statistics suggest. Producing more credible knowledge claims to that effect has little value to light green actors. First, numerous light green and dark green actors already believe official statistics are overly optimistic. Second, insisting that rapid deforestation is taking place could hurt the aims of light green groups by increasing the resolve of dark green actors to enforce coerced conservation measures. On the other hand, while light green NGOs devote most of their energy towards highland communities, recent reforestation has often been found at lower elevations, in areas outside their typical area of interest. As such, the unequal spatial distribution of light green NGOs' attention as well as the self-perpetuating nature of environmental narratives could have prevented light green groups from both acknowledging the possibility of recent positive forest trends (at least in some parts of the country) and exploring its political implications.

The case of Thailand forest debates explored in this article is not exceptional. The dichotomy between conservation and community-oriented NGOs is common (e.g., Kothari et al. 1995; Wittmer and Birner 2005; Li 2007), as is the greater appropriation of spatial knowledge tools by conservation interests and the need to go beyond relatively local-scale counter-mapping and engage in large-scale independent assessments of both the efficacy of conservation prescriptions and of forest cover change. The lack of knowledge on the environmental impacts of protected areas, and in particular of conservation-induced displacements, has already been outlined (e.g., Brockington and Schmidt-Soltau 2004; Andam 2008; Agrawal and Redford 2009). The importance of independently monitoring forest cover change is particularly present in areas such as Thailand where 1) the limited extent of deforestation or quality of remaining forests did not lead international organisations to finance a large array of independent forest assessments, and 2) signs of positive forest trends, including reforestation, have appeared. In such contexts, national forest authorities remain the sole producer of legitimate forest cover and deforestation estimates and can thus easily perpetuate the idea of an important deforestation crisis, even when contradictory signs are observed. Indeed, Thailand is not the sole country to have shown an interest in suppressing positive forest cover results (Grainger 2008), although the opposite position is more frequent (Leblond and Pham 2014). As such, diminishing deforestation rates and the existence of important reforestation, a phenomenon increasingly known as a forest transition, could open the door to new political strategies in Thailand and in other settings.

Arguably, spatial information tools have become technologies (sensu Fox et al. 2005). The avoidance of their impact is now near impossible and their influence-and thus the power of actors who can strategically use them-will likely continue to grow. With regard to forest and conservation debates, the emergence of multiple claims of 'forest transitions' in developing countries (Meyfroidt and Lambin 2011) and the recent push towards the establishment of schemes that financially reward reforestation and avoid deforestation will likely greatly increase this trend (e.g., REDD+). In this regard, light green groups in Thailand and elsewhere (and by extension their allies in academia) must carefully reflect on the continuing relevance of past environmental narratives, and analyse all the implications of their incomplete involvement in spatial information technology.

   Acknowledgements Top

This research was funded through PhD research grants from the Fonds québécois de recherche sur la société et la culture, and the research program The Challenges of the Agrarian Transition in Southeast Asia (ChATSEA), financed by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. A previous version of the paper was presented at the workshop Changing frontiers of ecological knowledges: a critical dialogue on Asian ecologies on the edge (October 12-13 2011, York University, Toronto, Canada). I wish to thank the editors, the two anonymous referees, as well as Rodolphe De Koninck, Peter Vandergeest, Tania Li, Tim Forsyth, Shubhra Gururani, and the other workshop participants for their constructive comments on the paper and the underlying research. All errors and omissions are, however, mine.


  1. Estimates of the number of occupants in the 1980s in national forest reserves range from 1 million families to 8.7 million people (Hirsch 1990; Onchan 1990; Panayotou et al. 1990). In the 1990s, the estimate is of 11 million people (ICEM 2003).
  2. Most of these counter-estimates put forest cover at 10-20%, while official statistics reported 25-33% forest cover during the same period.
  3. To my knowledge, only Plodprasop Suraswadi, then RFD Director-General, ever defended the existence of recent reforestation (Hutasing 2000; The Nation 2001).
  4. One could argue that the economic valuation of forest continues with the promotion of tourism in protected areas and, more recently, the commoditisation of carbon.
  5. On the image of forest as a source of water and livelihood security, see Forsyth and Walker (2008).
  6. These classes are 1A, 1B, 2, 3, 4, and 5, each of them being associated with prescribed land uses that goes from strict forest conservation (1A, 1B, 2) to intensive cultivation (5). Management according to watershed classes was endorsed by the government through a cabinet policy in 1985. It has never been instituted into a law.
  7. For more details, see Leblond and Pham (2014).
  8. The procedure followed can be found in Leblond and Pham (2014), and at http://webhelp.esri.com/arcgisdesktop/9.3/index.cfm?TopicName=Understanding_generalization_analysis. Using other minimum mapping unit thresholds also showed the bias to be relatively minor.
  9. This is based on land use history reconstitutions in selected areas mapped as recently deforested and reforested in three northern districts of Phetchabun province. Interviews with current and past occupants, local leaders, and state officials as well as some simple analysis of land use maps, aerial photographs, and satellite images tended to confirm this. Fieldwork was conducted in 2006-2007 and 2008.
  10. WWF Greater Mekong used extracts of diverse forest mapping exercises. The comparability of these secondary forest maps is questionable.
  11. On the importance of cultural factors on the adoption of spatial information tools, see for example Fox (1991).[98]

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