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Natural Potency and Political Power

Natural Potency and Political Power: Forests and State Authority in Contemporary Laos

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    Natural Potency and Political Power
    Book Description:

    Forests, as physical entities, have received considerable scholarly attention in political studies of Asia and beyond. Much less notice has been paid to the significance of forests as symbols that enable commentary on identity, aspirations, and authority. Natural Potency and Political Power, an innovative exploration of the social and political importance of forests in contemporary Laos, challenges common views of the rural countryside as isolated and disconnected from national social debates and politics under an authoritarian regime. It offers instead a novel understanding of local perspectives under authoritarianism, demonstrating that Lao people make implicit political statements in their commentary on forests and wildlife; and showing that, in addition to being vital material resources, forests (and their natural potency) are linked in the minds of many Lao to the social and political power of the state. Sarinda Singh explores the intertwining of symbolic and material concerns in local debates over conservation and development, the popularity of wildlife consumption, the particular importance of elephants, and forest loss and mismanagement. In doing so, she draws on ethnographic fieldwork around Vientiane, the capital, and Nakai, site of the contentious Nam Theun 2 hydropower project—places that are broadly reflective of the divide between urban prosperity and rural poverty. Nam Theun 2, supported by the World Bank, highlights the local, regional, and global dynamics that influence discussions of forest resources in Laos. Government officials, rural villagers, and foreign consultants all contribute to competing ideas about forests and wildlife. Singh advances research on forest politics by rethinking how ideas about nature influence social life. Her work refutes the tendency to see modern social life as independent of historical influences, and her attention to viewpoints both inside and outside the state prompts an understanding of authoritarian regimes as not only sources of repression, but also sites of negotiation, engagement, and debate about the legitimacy of social inequalities.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6122-3
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-X)
  5. 1 Peripheral engagements
    (pp. 1-33)

    Remote, separate, and evading integration into societal cores—this is a common image of the peripheries of Southeast Asia. Such ideas are especially potent in Laos. The entire country was relatively disconnected from the capitalist world for more than a decade after the Communist assumption of power in 1975. Ethnic diversity, mountainous terrain, and limited infrastructure were—and in many rural areas still are—obstacles that magnify perceptions of isolation and seclusion. Today, Laos is governed by an authoritarian, one-party state, with the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (hereafter the Party) still maintaining its monopoly on political power. International discussions of...

  6. 2 Comprehending conservation
    (pp. 34-60)

    When seeking to understand ideas about native forests and wildlife in Laos, one is immediately struck by the invariably negative view of conservation, a view made apparent both in humor and trepidation. For instance, as a volunteer I received universally positive responses when I told people that I was helping to train Lao university students through an Australian development program, but this enthusiasm dampened noticeably if I mentioned that my host institution was a conservation NGO. Even more striking was the unusually stern reaction of market sellers to attempts to photograph wildlife that they sell openly in public. While trade...

  7. 3 Appetites and aspirations
    (pp. 61-82)

    Beliefs about society can be expressed in amazingly diverse ways. The intersection between the natural and social worlds, however, provides an especially rich site for social expression. This assertion continues the general argument of this book that forest resources are used to discuss ideas about identity, aspirations, and authority in contemporary Laos. The focus of this chapter is on beliefs about wildlife and wildlife consumption. The underlying premise is that the beliefs surrounding popular activities such as wildlife consumption express ideas about the social world. Here, I show how the symbolic strength of wild animals enables people in Laos to...

  8. 4 Ecopolitical elephants
    (pp. 83-101)

    Elephants are a common symbol seen in Laos—in temple murals and on tourists’ T-shirts, in advertisements for businesses, in major festivals, and also as mascots for the Southeast Asian Games hosted for the first time by Laos in 2009. Throughout Laos, people assert the significance of elephants for Lao culture, saying they are the ‘national animal’ and esteemed more than any other. Likewise, state and international initiatives to protect elephants depict these animals as unequivocal cultural icons. Thus, the Elephant Festival in Sayabouli Province—instigated by foreign donors in 2007—“endeavours to highlight the strong bonds that exist between...

  9. 5 Debating the forest
    (pp. 102-129)

    Forest resources in Laos, under the ostensible management of the state, are generally in decline. This chapter outlines this pattern of forest decline as well as the importance of forest resources for the Lao economy to explicate the state’s responsibility for this ongoing trend. This provides a basis for exploring the political implications of social inequity in forest management. Significantly, the Lao state’s authority over forest resources is actively protected. Experiences with community forestry clearly demonstrate the state’s limited commitment to prioritizing the needs of the rural poor in the process of forest-derived development. Forestry in Laos does not completely...

  10. 6 Concealing forest decline
    (pp. 130-152)

    In the previous chapter, I argued that while the Lao state restricts criticism and protects the interests of elites, its achievements and failures in forest management still represent politically potent issues. Discourses of forest decline were interpreted as a challenge to state authority and national unity, most especially because decline without the widespread receipt of prosperity highlights the social distinctions between poor villages near the forests and more developed, prosperous towns. Forest discourses are thus a form of social exchange between rural and urban areas. Desires for personal prosperity are significant in influencing social exchanges, but the state has ultimate...

  11. 7 Conclusions
    (pp. 153-160)

    This book has sought to demonstrate how forests and wildlife are vital social and political resources in modern-day Laos. As in other developing countries, natural resources that are found in the rural periphery are seen as providing the means to lift Laos out of its poverty. While the physical entities of forests have received considerable attention, there has been much less notice paid to their significance as symbols that convey socially and politically loaded meanings about identity, aspirations, and authority. Recent studies of changing livelihoods in Laos acknowledge that “the forest has been progressively captured by the state” (Rigg 2005,...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 161-170)
    (pp. 171-184)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 185-192)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 193-198)