- Border Landscapes: The Politics of Akha Land Use in China and Thailand
Whether we think of China as a heavy-handed, authoritarian state with scant concern for local variation or as a market-driven economy whose rampant development has left vast stretches of the rural hinterland impoverished, in either case upland minorities have often been shortchanged. Therefore, the conclusions of Janet Sturgeon's comparative study of two Akha villages, one in China and the other in Thailand, may come as a surprise. The Akha villagers in both nations share a cultural legacy of usufruct rights and subsistence practices in upland terrain historically marginal to wet-rice cultivation in adjacent valleys. In the mid twentieth century, Akha villagers (known as Hani in China's official lexicon for minorities) began the inevitable process of integration into national development plans that in both cases devalued their local experience and constricted their flexibility. Yet by the late 1990s, as Sturgeon was winding up her study, in the Hani village in Xishuangbanna near China's border with Burma people's incomes were rising, they had retained some space for their flexible subsistence practices, and the local forests were relatively healthy, while the Akha village in Thailand was in dire straits with depleted forests and land in short supply.
In Sturgeon's view, forests function as a bellwether for the state of local livelihood in rural upland areas where swidden agriculture (shifting-fields cultivation) once prevailed. Forests were integral to swidden economies—primarily as sources of food, fuel, and building materials but also as long-term barriers to soil erosion. Before 1950, forests in these upland areas were protected under a variety of local ideologies and practices that, in effect, treated them as strictly regulated commons. In the early decades of revolutionary China, however, forests in the Hani villages were seen as unproductive wastelands best cut down for cultivation of food crops. While the remote location of the Hani villages spared the local forests from some of Maoist China's worst policy excesses, in general conservation laws were not put into effect until the early 1980s, when villages were no longer allowed to move around for swiddening and most land was allocated on a household-by-household basis. Collective forests were established and began to regenerate; household forests were used for house timbers, a use that encouraged the protection of large hardwoods for construction.
The good condition of forests in the Hani village in the late 1990s continued to provide villagers with subsistence flexibility, what Sturgeon calls "landscape [End Page 554] plasticity." They could extend swidden lands and sometimes pastures into forest areas, in spite of state policy regulations and with the complicit cooperation of local leaders, and women marketed the herbs, spices, and medicinal plants they collected in the forest. Clearly the forest was a sort of reservoir with flexible boundaries accommodating of fluctuating economic and environmental changes.
The contrast with the large Akha village in Thailand's Chiang Rai province is striking. There, landscape plasticity was virtually eliminated as reforestation and wet-rice projects mandated and enforced by the central government drastically reduced the strategies available to the Akha for livelihood. Following extensive logging in Thailand's forests in the 1970s, government policies and popular environmental movements in Thailand displaced much of the blame onto upland shifting cultivators, identifying peoples such as the Akha as forest destroyers. By the 1990s forests, especially in the north, "acquired an enormous symbolic weight as national treasures belonging to future Thai generations" (p. 203). Inevitably, regulations for forest conservation and reforestation fell heaviest on upland farmers who lost their farmland to large tracts of spindly, new-growth trees. The Akha in the large village studied by Sturgeon have been compelled to leave the mountains for wage work in Burma and northern Thailand's lowlands where, illiterate and illegal, Akha typically find work only at the bottom of the labor market.
What are the differences between the recent history of these...