Cultivating Insecurity: How Thai conservation and development policies promote unsustainable practices and foster insecurity in upland farming communities

Authors: Daniel Ahlquist*, Michigan State University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Development, Soils
Keywords: Agrarian Change, Soil, Conservation, Political Ecology, Rural Development, Thailand, Indigenous Knowledge
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Calvert Room, Omni, East
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In upland northern Thailand, the shifting mosaic landscape of fields, fallows, and forests produced by the swidden cultivation has given way in recent decades to mountainsides covered in maize and other chemical-intensive cash crops. Thai policymakers and development practitioners employ powerful degradation narratives to condemn upland farmers as environmental destroyers and to justify conservation and development interventions in upland communities. When viewed through the lens of the narrative, the evidence in the hills (e.g. monocultures, chemical use, erosion) appears to support the narrative and its moral imperative for intervention. Yet, one critical question lingers: why are so many upland farmers, whose land use systems have for generations been premised on minimizing risk and maintaining soil health, now engaging in land use practices that they know to be undermining the viability of the soil on which their livelihoods depend?

Drawing on ethnographic research in two upland communities, I argue that many of the changes – and insecurities – in upland communities today derive in part from state policies that ignore the dynamic relationship between upland farmers and the soil. The result, I argue, is a vicious cycle of diminishing soil health and accumulating insecurity for upland farmers. By foregrounding the changing relationship between farmers and the soil, I seek to insert the physical environment as an active presence in the story of agrarian transformation and to highlight the ways in which state interventions that ignore the relationship between local people and their environment may promote unsustainable farming practices and foster insecurity.

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