Ontological Politics and Conservation in Northern Thailand: Do Rivers Open up new Possibilities for Communities?

Peter Duker, Geography, York University


Modernization, Technologies, and Innovations


This presentation will draw on the results from my master’s research on community-based riverine governance in the Ngao River Basin of Northern Thailand. The Thai state’s environmental governance regime is typically known for its history of marginalization and displacement of local people. However, this governance regime is juxtaposed by the unique form of community-based governance in the Ngao River Basin created by local Sgaw Karen or Pga K'nyau (referred to as “Karen” hereafter) people. My study seeks to better understand the emergence of a grassroots-level river conservation initiative, which has scaled up to more than 50 communities, in this river basin. This case deserves attention due to the apparent successes at restoring ecological health and ensuring food security for local people. Both Karen people and the Thai state discursively use conservation to justify their management of land and resources. However, both sides mobilize a much different conception of conservation that is founded in their differing relations with the environment and ontologies. Thus, the struggle for land and resources in the Ngao river basin is also a struggle over the legitimacy of these human environment relations and ontologies. Scholarship on the impacts of the politics of conservation on communities in Southeast Asia has typically focused on forest governance, or, in the context of rivers, on the “top-down” impacts of hydropower development. This presentation will explore how community-based riverine governance as a distinct collective from that of forests opens up new possibilities for marginalized communities in their struggles for more self-determination.

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CCSEAS Conference 2021 |