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Conserving Nature in Culture. Case Studies from Southeast Asia, Michael R. Dove, Percy E. Sajise, & Amity A. Doolittle (eds)

New Haven: Yale University, Southeast Asia Studies, Monograph No. 54, 2005, 348 p.
Cristina Eghenter
p. 360-362
Référence(s) :

Michael R. Dove, Percy E. Sajise, & Amity A. Doolittle (eds), Conserving Nature in Culture. Case Studies from Southeast Asia, New Haven: Yale University, Southeast Asia Studies, Monograph No. 54, 2005, 348 p.

Texte intégral

1The book Conserving Nature in Culture. Case Studies from Southeast Asia surely offers an intriguing and thought-provoking title, playing on the reversal of the logic that has so far entrenched our way of thinking around the issue of nature conservation: Nature is separate from culture, and can be preserved as long as culture is not encroaching.

2The authors of this edited volume invite readers to reconsider the stereotyped thinking based on “orthodox dichotomies” (p. 7) of nature vs. culture, and instead look at the possibility that culture as human actions may, under certain conditions, maintain critical dimensions of the environment (p. 2), and that nature may be actually conserved in the cultural traditions and practices of forest communities around Southeast Asia.

3In the introduction, the editors argue that the real challenge is to inquire about the conditions that support conservation, including those social, economic, and historical factors that have helped preserve biodiversity. Culture embodied in the experiments and traditional management systems of communities living in and around forest areas helps conserve nature, and influences the level of biodiversity. Traditional strategies are often based on the exploitation of diverse microenvironments and a wide array of resources, maintain a broad selection of cultivars, and are dispersed over the landscape. As Sajise et al. put it with reference to the Mount Makiling Forest Reserve in the Philippines, “the combination of subsistence use of forest resources and a highly diverse cultivation strategy produces an overall positive effect on floral and faunal diversity at landscape level” (p. 266-267). The methodology must also be modified to measure biodiversity with a variety of tools and a combination of qualitative and quantitative techniques. About the Haliap-Panubtaban area in the Philippines, Ticsay similarly underlines how the dimension of landscape, as opposed to island or isolated forest areas, becomes the key unit of measurement for nature conservation and biodiversity assessment, “[…] agroforestry systems are viewed as components of diversity at the landscape level […] to contribute to the overall ecosystem health…” (p. 213).

4What has been seen as human “disturbance” often played an integral part in the composition of the environment as we know it. For example, Puri provides a thorough description of “the role of humans in the creation and maintenance of vegetation communities in a rain forest” (p. 28) and, specifically, the ways in which the Punan’s forest camps and related activities might have effects, some ephemeral and other more lasting, on the species composition and perpetuation of forest fruit groves and the distribution of hill sago. The chapter by Puri is also instructive with regard to the interdisciplinary methodological approach employed that can yield better and more comprehensive results on the complex interactions of human activities and natural ecosystems.

5Yet, government policies have often failed to recognize the effectiveness of local practices for the sustainability of the environment, or denied that local people could be actively involved in the management of these resources. The outcome is that inappropriate policies might have some serious negative consequences on the overall preservation of the environment and its carrying capacity. This aspect is most convincingly discussed by Budhi et al. with regard to the management of the Citarum River Basin in West Java (pp. 119-143). The authors argue that government policies in forestry and agriculture do not reflect circumstances on the ground, and their implementation has not been coordinated. Moreover, policies often gave priority to short-term economic benefits over long-term sustainability (e.g., cultivation of vegetables). They have neglected to take into account local practices, like bamboo gardens and intercropping, which had valuable effects on the management of resources and the prevention of soil erosion.

6Is this failure to recognize an indication of oversight or institutional denial? The chapter by Lye (p. 83-115) suggests that we might be dealing with different ontological premises. The “ecocentric” scientific model has so far defined the conceptual boundaries of nature conservation. However, this is one way of looking at the issue and managing a protected forest. The author underlines the cognitive (and, maybe, practical) advantage of alternative models of conservation by describing the environmental knowledge of the Batek of Peninsular Malaysia.

7For the Batek, people are part of the forest by definition (p. 83), they guard the forest (p. 116). The author also suggests that the Batek way of managing the forest might help recreate the conditions that promote a view of nature inside society, and therefore make it acceptable for the Batek to be involved in park management. But in order to do that, a shift in relations and flow direction must happen, and the conceptual and structural periphery be given center stage.

8At the level of political economy, Dove presents a similar analogy (p. 279-305). By describing the structural position of communities as the custodians of biodiversity and owners of genetic resources at the periphery of an asymmetrical system, he argues that proposed mechanisms like intellectual property rights and compensation for biodiversity conser-vation would have positive and lasting results for development and biodiversity conservation only if the inequities embodied in certain structural and unequal relations between the center and periphery, or between power and economic elites and marginal communities, are changed, and communities at the periphery are not incorporated into the system but more equitably re-positioned as political actors. In the case of rice farmers, as discussed by Frossard (p. 144-166), this would mean more politically asserted peasant scientists (p. 161), plant breeders taking charge of rice genetic diversity and germoplasm so far controlled or preserved in the cold storages of research centers in Asia.

9The richness of case studies and cohesiveness of the overall theme make this volume an interesting reader for students and scholars in the social sciences, and a must-read for those conservationists who still harbor skepticism regarding the positive impact of human activities on natural ecosystems. Existing differences at the level of theoretical analysis and conceptual engagement among the various contributions can be understood in the context of an edited volume encompassing studies carried out independently, at different times, and with slightly different priorities, although under the umbrella of a single project.

10At another level, however, a critical remark must be made. The authors seem to promote the view that “conserving nature in culture” is a new beginning, a fresh re-start in the debate on nature conservation. It might be, but only to some extent. The literature, among academics as well as practicing anthro-pologists, has long focused on the many ways of conservation away from the monolithic idea of conservation rooted in the “ecocentric” scientific model of the West.

  • 1 See Social Science Research and Conservation Management in the Interior of Borneo: Unravelling past (...)

11In particular, many practitioners working with conservation organizations in Southeast Asia have increasingly come to recognize the value and role of local communities in the management of the forest and conservation areas. Community-based mana-gement of natural resources and collaborative management of national parks are some of the approaches that have become accepted and common practices in conservation. The rationale for these strategies is precisely the recognition that local people have devised techniques and ways that strengthen rather than hinder conservation, and these techniques could be incorporated in official policies. A few examples come to mind. A seven-year-long research project carried out in the interior of Indonesian Borneo, Culture and Conservation (1991-97), aimed at learning about “what communities are doing that supports environmental conservation and how [we can] strengthen these activities” (p. 2), which is the main question raised by the book. Similarly, an entire issue of the journal Policy Matters is devoted to “History, Culture and Conservation” (No. 13, November 2004) to show how conservation is embedded in history and society, as both a process and a product. The research results of the Culture and Conservation project were instrumental in developing a different, more people-centered management in the Kayan Mentarang National Park, in Indonesian Borneo.1

12The authors also suggest that, “a better solution lies in identifying local institutions that have the potential to conserve the environment...” (p. 7). Most practitioners would certainly agree with this approach, with the sole caveat of not romanticizing a revival of traditional arrangements, but focus instead on functional substitutes that fit present circumstances.

13A redrawing of the boundaries of conservation and conservation priorities is already taking place within the conservation practicing community and various experiments in policy advocacy and policy making. From this point of view, the book might not break any new ground, but rather reinforce a notion that has already become established among practitioners: Preserving nature can only be done with or in culture.

14One important question remains, which is indirectly tackled by Dove in his chapter, while most of the contributors come short of addressing it: Notwithstanding all the research results and information available, why have there been comparatively few achievements in terms of influencing policy towards more pro-poor, pro-conservation, and anthropocentric policies? The answer, however, might need to be sought in terms of power centers and economic relations rather than in concepts of nature and culture.

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1 See Social Science Research and Conservation Management in the Interior of Borneo: Unravelling past and present interactions of people and forests, C. Eghenter, B. Sellato, & G.S. Devung (eds.), Bogor (Indonesia): Center for International Forestry Research, 2003.

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Cristina Eghenter, « Conserving Nature in Culture. Case Studies from Southeast Asia, Michael R. Dove, Percy E. Sajise, & Amity A. Doolittle (eds) », Moussons, 9-10 | 2006, 360-362.

Référence électronique

Cristina Eghenter, « Conserving Nature in Culture. Case Studies from Southeast Asia, Michael R. Dove, Percy E. Sajise, & Amity A. Doolittle (eds) », Moussons [En ligne], 9-10 | 2006, mis en ligne le 17 janvier 2013, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL :

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