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Anthropological Quarterly 76.2 (2003) 335-341

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Translating Nature and Claim-makings in Southeast Asia

Yoonhee Kang
University of Pennsylvania

Charles Zerner (ed). Culture and the Question of Rights: Forests, Coasts, and Seas in Southeast Asia. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. 272 pp.

Nature is an artifact, understood and interacted with by people via culturally specific symbolic systems. In Indonesian rainforests, bee-hived trees are considered spiritual beings, and when people harvest the honey the bees are praised in bee-songs as beautiful girls. Fishermen cast magic spells to cajole the spirits of fish residing in the seas. Forests and marine landscapes that look "empty" to outsiders are in fact full of various cultural meanings and values that require culturally grounded semiotic processes of interpretation.

As reflected in Alfred Russel Wallace's 1869 classic, The Malay Archipelago (1869), European accounts have traditionally depicted insular Southeast Asia as one of the "Spice Islands," a source of exotic commodities such as cloves and nutmeg. In the past two decades, the vast forests and rich natural resources of Southeast Asia have attracted both foreign and domestic investment. To outsiders, the region's thick tropical forests and boundless expanse of seas seem "wild" and empty, and therefore unclaimed. Thus, the allocation of land and resources has often been determined by external agendas and without consideration of local needs. In this context, large-scale influxes of foreign direct investment, and resulting processes of rapid industrialization and urbanization have produced many social problems, including the displacement of local [End Page 335] people coupled with low levels of compensation for their land by exploitative developers. Indigenous peoples of the region have been marginalized, impoverished, and displaced from their ancestral territories. Indeed, they stand to lose even more because they do not have any public voice. In the face of immense pressures exerted by state power and transnational economic forces, the indigenous communities are forced to employ multiple strategies to maintain their rights to their lands and livelihoods.

The volume under review here, Culture and the Question of Rights: Forests, Coasts, and Seas in Southeast Asia, edited by Charles Zerner, is a valuable addition to the literature of political ecology of Southeast Asia, a region where the problem of indigenous rights in relation to rapid social change has arisen as a central concern (cf. Brosius 1997; Li 2000; Zerner 2000). Based on field research conducted by the authors in Indonesia and Malaysia from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, the articles of this volume demonstrate how local people conceive nature and make claims to it vis-à-vis state power and transnational economic forces. In their accounts of diverse local situations, nature appears as a politically-situated cultural product.

The issue of "translation" is one of the main themes that links each article of this volume. The authors engage in multiple levels of translation, involving numerous boundary-crossings. By "boundary-crossings," I refer to the various communicative negotiations between differently culturally situated actors, such as between local people and ethnographers, between indigenous people and government officials, and, on a larger scale, between different cultures. Specifically, this book examines the strategies that endangered indigenous peoples of the region have used to attempt to speak across difference in their efforts to survive social and economic marginalization.

The translators involved in these multiple boundary-crossings include bee-hunters, fishermen, shamans, indigenous writers, and ethnographers. All of these people engage in interpretations of the various signs and symbols embedded in local people's visions of nature. Anna Tsing's article on the honey hunting practices of the Meratus Dayak reveals that they think of honey trees and the bees in them not as "wild," but as cultivated and managed natural resources. Meratus people claim their rights to harvest and distribute honey through their incessant care and management of the honey trees and bees in the forests. Durian trees appear as a marker of local people's settlement history in Bagak, West Kalimantan, in Nancy Peluso's examination of the changing composition of forests in relation to the community's political history. To the Bentian Dayak...


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