Future section



MEETINGS 2003


 

238th Meeting – Tuesday, September 9th 2003

 
‘Development Interventions, State Administration and Local Responses of Ethnic Minorities in Upland Northern Thailand: Role and Dynamics of Local, Rural Organizations and Networks’

a talk by
Dr. Hans-Dieter Bechstedt and Mrs. Patcharin Nawichai
Research Group Social Networks and Development
Hohenheim Office, Faculty of Agriculture, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand,

Phone: +66-53-944647, Fax: +66-53-274030 bechstedt@gmx.net, nawichai@yahoo.com

 

Present: John Alioa, Nathan Badenoch, Martine Gaultier, Reinhard Hohler, Richard Hudson, Randall Jones, Ken Kampe, Jack Kelly, Carool Kersten, Annette Kunigagon, Peter Kunstadter, Sally Kunstadter, Jaques Op de Laak, David Steane, Carina zur Strassen, Pichitpon Tongtuek, Ricky Ward, Tanit Wongprasert. An audience of 18.

 

Dr. Hans-Dieter Bechstedt’s background

More than 20 years of experience as university lecturer and researcher at Thai and German Universities, and international research centres. Short-term consultant, team leader, advisor and trainer for national and private, bilateral and international organizations such as World Bank, FAO, ADB, EC, GTZ, SDC, OXFAM, etc. in the field of rural and urban social research and development: 

2001-to date: Senior Research Fellow (at Chiang Mai University, Thailand) for the social analysis of development policies, state/local administrations, NGOs and local/community organizations.

1996-1999: Specialist for Participatory Research and Development, with the emphasis on socioeconomic baseline survey and data interpretation, participatory research, technology development and training in Southeast Asia, the Pacific and West Africa.

1994-1996, 1999-2001: Social Development Specialist for Rural/Urban Development, Training, Institution Building and Policy Analysis (Southeast Asia).

1988-1994: Visiting Lecturer for Rural Sociology/Anthropology at Thai and German universities.

1981-1988: Social Scientist and Research Fellow.

1. Introduction
Context of the study

On the surface, the general situation of the northern highlands of Thailand and its people appears to be an example of a situation in which a centralized government with policy priorities on forest and water conservation, national security, drug control and integration of the ethnic minorities, runs into conflict with local people's customary perceptions on the control over land and their traditional modes of agricultural production, in particular shifting cultivation practices. However, a closer look reveals, in socio-political terms, that the northern regions of Thailand are a particular landscape that reflects growing competition between various social groups over increasingly degraded and scarce natural resources, with some holding in their hands most of the power and supremacy over the definition of meaning, while others, particular the ethnic minorities, face a process of increased marginalization. As a consequence, development analysts and practitioners tend to give much emphasis to the crucial role of local organizations and networks, searching for strategies to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of local institutions. Yet, this perspective is often impeded by the 'persistence of notions of formal bureaucratic rationality' (Nuijten 1992), since their dominant development discourses are restricted to the logic of project planning and implementation. In this situation, an actor-oriented approach appears to be a promising analytical framework as it goes beyond a functionalist perspective and aims to relate the different livelihood strategies of different groups with a set of organizational practices that are concerned with access to and utilization of natural resources. An improved understanding of these issues appears indispensable for better project designs and management techniques.
Objectives, approaches and concepts
The major objectives of the research, conducted within the framework of 'The Uplands Program' - a collaborative research project between German, Thai and Vietnamese Universities on sustainable land management in mountainous areas, was (1) to analyze and interpret weaknesses, strengths and potentials of newly emerging ethnic minority organizations in upland northern Thailand vis-à-vis a strategy for a more appropriate use of natural resources, assuming that one of the most essential ingredients for sustainable agriculture is the existence of strong, local-based organizations and networks in rural communities. In a second part (2) of the survey a critical reinterpretation of the results was attempted following an actor-oriented and case study approach with the emphasis on an interface analysis.

2. Materials and Methods
Organization of the study
From August 2001 to September 2002, two major field surveys were carried out by the research team in villages of different ethnic minority groups, i.e. Shan, Red Lahu, Black Lahu, Lisu, Lawa, and Karen, in Pang Ma Pha District, Mae Hong Son Province, and among the Hmong and Karen living around Doi Inthanon and Ob Luang National Park, Chom Thong District, Chiang Mai Province. The two areas had been selected due to the recent emergence of ethnic hilltribe network organizations as well as some distinct features: On the one hand, there is the multiple ethnic Pang Ma Pah (PMP) Hilltribe Network Organization, covering 28 out of the District's 38 villages, located in a remote corner of northern Thailand with mainly subsistence-based communities. On the other hand, there are the mono-ethnic Mae Klang Watershed (Karen) and the Hmong Environmental Networks of Doi Inthanon National Park and adjacent areas. Both are located in regions close to urban centres, with highly commercialized household economies and long-standing conflicts between lowland and upland populations over forest and water resource usage. While the PMP Network was initially facilitated through a bilateral development program, the Karen and the Hmong Networks are supported by the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) and a Thai NGO, respectively.
Methodology
Apart from the evaluation of selected secondary sources (e.g. project documents), mainly ethnographic methods have been applied during the field study using qualitative research methods (participant observation and semi-structured, focused interviews with open-ended questions) for a better understanding of the overall socio-economic and political situations, the diversity and complexity of rural people's livelihood strategies, their perceptions on resource utilization and organizational practices, and their interactions with government, non-government and donor agencies.

3. Results and Discussions
3.1 The Pang Ma Pha (PMP) Hilltribe Network Organization - A case study from Mae Hong Song Province, northern Thailand
Background of the PMP Network
Pang Ma Pha District, Mae Hong Song Province, is located about 60 km from the provincial capital and 180 km from Chiang Mai City. Bordering Burma (Myanmar) to the north and west, Pang Ma Pha District in the past has been under the territorial influence of Khun Sa, once considered to be the world's leading drug lord. The district is populated by very diverse ethnic groups such as the Shan, Karen, Black and Red Lahu, Lawa and Lisu. Its physical geography comprises steep sloping mountains of complex limestone. Given the continuous border tensions between Thailand and Burma, the area has a strong military presence. Most farmers of the Lahu, Lisu and Karen tribe, particularly those in the more distant villages (as measured in terms of distance to/from the Chiang Mai - Mae Hong Son Highway) are still basically subsistence, shifting cultivation farmers (rotation: 3-6 years) with upland rice (basic staple diet), maize (as animal feed) and kidney beans as their major crop grown on sometimes steep fields. Until 20 years ago, the major cash crop was opium. Today, some villages grow coffee, tea and vegetables (sesame, garlic, cabbage). Raising livestock has become the major cash-income source. Another source of income is occasional agricultural and non-agricultural wage labor, mostly within the same or neighboring villages. As land is scarce and restricted, and soil is poor and prone to erosion - up to 80% of villagers suffer from rice shortage for 3-6 months per year on average. Village rice banks, whose setting up has been encouraged and supported by the Community Development Department, play a major role in compensating for rice deficits.
The eastern and southern parts of Pang Ma Pha District are part of the Pai Wildlife Sanctuary, the western parts belong to the San Pan Dean Wildlife Sanctuary, while virtually all the other areas fall into the category of National Conservation Forests. In the past, forests in the area were rich and vastly undisturbed. During the last 20-30 years, however, due to the influx of new settlers and the increase of the indigenous population, the use of natural resources has intensified. Forests degraded rapidly, wildlife, all bigger species, disappeared, and water shortage began to adversely affect paddy production in the lower areas, especially during the dry season. Today, virtually all land in the District falls under the jurisdiction of the Forestry Department, while farmers have no land titles and, following a strict interpretation of the law, are illegal squatters.
The PMP Network history
Based on an initiative of the former GTZ-funded Thai-German Highland Development Program (TG-HDP), the Pang Ma Pha Hilltribe Network Organization started in 1996 by grouping together a few villagers from three Lahu communities who wanted to solve problems related to the management of forest products. Encouraged by traders from Chiang Mai and an increasing demand from passing motorists along the Chiang Mai - Mae Hong Son Highway, villagers from the three communities had started to collect and sell an ever increasing amount of bamboo shoots, mushrooms, orchids and other non-timber forest products. This had led to conflicts among themselves as well as with neighboring villagers over forest encroachments and depletion. By 2002, 28 villages had joined the PMP Network, including villagers from different ethnic minority groups, such as Red and Black Lahu (still constituting the majority), Shan, Lisu, Karen and Lawa. Meetings are held monthly, composed of two elected representatives from each village, and hosted at every member village in rotation, apart from the rainy season when, due to difficult access to some communities, villagers meet in the District town. With its broader scope, the PMP Network set up four different sections related to: (1) natural resources and the environment, (2) culture and tradition, (3) drug prevention and control, and (4) education and accommodation (for students who want to further their studies in Pang Ma Pha District town). By 1997, the PMP Network had adopted an administrative structure with a Steering Committee at its top, consisting of a Chairman (a Lahu Village Headman), a Vice-Chairman (presently vacant), a Treasurer (Thai) and a Secretary (Shan).
The main issues the PMP Network is dealing with today are problems related to conflicts over land use and management of natural resources, environmental conservation (forest and watershed protection), the fight against illiteracy, the suppression of drug abuse, and the revitalization and strengthening of cultural and traditional forms of livelihood. In 1998, the TG-HDP was terminated, however, together with AusAid, they continued to provide some limited financial support for the PMP Network over the next year. Since 1999, a number of PMP Network proposals have been supported by the Social Investment Fund (SIF), jointly set up by the Government of Thailand and the World Bank to mitigate the effect of the economic crisis on the rural population.
Challenges and lessons learned - an evaluation
With regard to the PMP Network's strengths and weaknesses in terms of effectively and efficiently putting into actions its objectives, since its establishment in 1996 it has been, from a functionalist point of view, relatively successful in areas such as: establishing network objectives, procedures and activities based on a broad consensus among its members, as well as in adjusting and extending the scope of activities due to new circumstances and demands; creating an administrative structure (Steering Committee) whose members, at least some of them, have given proof of their commitment, have been able to encourage and motivate others, are well-trusted and respected, to a certain degree, by ordinary members, and are generally viewed as skilled and competent; initiating activities that are seen as interesting and beneficial to its members and that require the communities' active involvement; creating an atmosphere in which decision-making is transparent and emerging conflicts due to different interests and ethnic affiliation are openly discussed, negotiated and settled (such as land and forest utilization disputes which include agreeing on rules and regulations for harvesting of non-timber forest products); avoiding, relative successfully, domination, over-centralization and bureaucratization through rotation of positions and delegation of duties; fending off attempted political interference  - there is, for example, widespread awareness of the danger of becoming a political tool for politicians campaigning for supporters, votes and influence.
Besides these achievements, at least some of the members of the PMP Network are aware of a number of shortcomings, such as: insufficient attention given to regular reviewing of the relevance of Network objectives and of an assessment of progress; lack of ability for self-critical assessment, in particular regarding the members of the Steering Committee; high dependence on outside financial support in managerial and development activities; dependence on non-network members (as external advisors) on issues such as advocacy and establishing and maintaining contacts and relationships to governmental and non-governmental groups, agencies and organizations; lack of awareness of the benefits of non-financial support; passivity of Network members, in particular most of the Network Steering Committee members; insufficient transparency in financial matters mainly due to lack of experience, giving rise to mistrust evolving along ethnic lines (Lahu versus Shan); language problems and illiteracy, that put the Lahu vis-à-vis the Shan in a disadvantaged position; domination of the Network through village elites, particularly in the Lahu communities; lack of  legitimacy of Network representatives vis-à-vis their village communities (appointed instead of elected, poor communications); inability to overcome ethnic-centred perspectives, which are particularly dominant among the Lahu groups.
3.2 Local networking in northern Thailand - A reinterpretation from an actor-oriented perspective
Setting the agenda for an intervention study, Part 2 of the research, was an attempt to reinterpret and critically review the previously conducted analysis and evaluation of the PMP Network along the lines of an actor-oriented interpretative framework. From this perspective, the Network is seen as a set of social arrangements worked out between or under the influence of several parties concerned, i.e. different groups of villagers, a bilateral donor agency, different governmental departments, local authorities, an NGO, local administrative organizations, and the military. It is perceived as a platform, where different people or groups of people interact according to their particular interests, and where objectives, procedures and activities are negotiated within the framework of internal, but also external factors and power relations. Looking from the perspectives of such an actor-oriented 'intervention study', responses and strategies of local groups in Pang Ma Pah Districts are interpreted on the background of their specific conditions as recent migrants and members of different ethnic minority groups with different socio-economic backgrounds (small-scale subsistence farmers, cash crop producers, former opium growers, traders, shop-keepers, etc.) that increasingly became the object of diverse and sometimes contradictory policies and programs, and who have to struggle to define and defend their own social, cultural and economic space within a wider power field that tends to marginalize them. They came under a dominant development paradigm of a centralized state that not only de-legitimized their local bodies of knowledge and organizational forms, but also threatened to render their socio-economic live invalid and sometimes even carried racist connotations. 'The backward practice of shifting cultivation by ethnic non-Thai groups is destroying Thailand's forests' is a view still shared by many government officials at different levels.
Who sets the agenda, and with whom to work?
The PMP study demonstrated how over time the Network evolved in interactions between different ethnic groups, development experts, NGO members and government officials. From this perspective the transformation of a loosely-structured 'forum' consisting of members from a small number of Lahu villages involved in settling disputes about collection and sale of NTFP, into a broad-range development activities implementing organization with four distinct scopes of operation (natural resources and environment, culture and tradition, drug prevention and education) and a clear-cut administrative structure (Steering Committee), was clearly externally-driven. What appears to be imposed from outside, however, to a certain degree served the purpose of all major parties involved and helped to shape the particular agenda of the Network: (i) The TG-HDP, just prior to its termination, attempted to set up a string of local organizations that would be able to continue project development activities on their own, thus demonstrating the sustainability of their program; (ii) a Thai NGO who seized the opportunity to get involved in a new field of operation; (iii) the Network member villagers, as they live in an area that restricts or even prohibits land use, and through their
involvement in development activities hoped to get some official recognition and to attract funds. The agenda, however, only partially addresses the most crucial problems the majority of villagers are facing, such as rice shortage, insufficient agricultural land available and lack of land titles.
Issues for Network activities have been negotiated among Network members as well as between the Network and its outside supporters. Regarding other potential partners of cooperation, apart from staff members of the Department of Local Organization, Network members still show reluctance to cooperate with other government agencies or the District Office. The villagers cannot easily do away with their collective memory of being stigmatized, even today, by the authorities as being illegal, non-Thai migrants, destroyers of the forest and drug producers.
Who represents whom?
Both the Network representatives and its Steering Committee lack legitimacy vis-à-vis their communities. In virtually all cases they have not been elected through open village meetings. They are either village headmen, or their relatives or members of their entourage who has been appointed by them. Among the 56 members there are only 2 women. Network members represent the better-off, local rural (male) elite, as villagers tend to vote for the wealthiest and thus most powerful and influential person in a village to become village headman. They consider, for some good reasons, a strong and powerful village leader to be in a better position to represent the village vis-à-vis the outside world. A Network representative who is not a village headman or his deputy, will not have the authority to call for a village meeting, to speak on behalf of his community, and to contact local government authorities. However, interests of those appointed persons are often less related to tackling the most pressing needs, than to concerns with trade, shop keeping, transportation, construction, or with serving their clientele.
Who establishes dominance and legitimacy over whom?
Development interventions do not only imply material and/or 'human development'-related inputs, but also include specific concepts that attempt to impose certain values through the promotion of certain normative standards of what development is or should be. In this way images are constructed and sustained. Those images are, for example, 'sustainability', 'participation', 'conservation’, or 'watershed protection area'. They appear to be fixed entities, however, they are socially constructed and embedded often in unequal power relations. An actor-oriented approach attempts to 'deconstruct' development rhetoric. It scrutinizes development activities apart from material and human resource-related inputs also in terms of the normative concepts that define problems and legitimize solution and means. Development interventions are thus seen as a struggle over the dominance and legitimacy of competing images of development, i.e. clashes between and within intervening agencies and local interests over the dominance of meaning and knowledge.
The PMP Network, as an example, operates in a landscape characterized by competing interests over increasingly scarce resources. Its major actors are local subsistence farmers, commercially-oriented farmers, different ethnic groups and their alliances, lowland and upland people, traders, businessmen, shopkeepers, cross-border smugglers (drugs and other commodities), the military, NGOs, local authorities, government departments (in particular the Departments for Forestry, Community Development, Extension, and Public Welfare), and, more recently, the elected bodies of the Tambon (Sub-district) Administration Organization. Thus, this struggle has led to an increased expropriation of natural resources through state agencies and private owners and, at the same time, to a process of social and economic marginalization of the majority of ethnic minorities.

4. Summary and Conclusions
By presenting and analyzing results from case studies of the different interests and livelihood strategies of different groups involved in hilltribe networking in northern Thailand, it appears that the enthusiasm of development experts from international organizations as well as NGOs in Thailand and elsewhere towards the contributions of local organizations and networks to sustainable development has to be met with scepticism. The case studies put together ranged from a network totally manipulated by Thai Government agencies (Mae Klang Watershed Network), a network paralysed by a conflict that has been politicized and assumed national dimensions (Hmong Environmental Network), to one in a more remote area that despite its heavy reliance on outside support probably still seems to best represent farmers' interests and desires (PMP Network).
Through applying an actor-oriented conceptual framework for the investigation of farmers' organizing practices it became obvious that the view of most development agencies on local organizations and networks tends to be limited by the significance these local initiatives might play for their project-oriented understanding of development. Their functionalist view prevents them from adequately analyzing the dynamics of existing and emerging forms of local organizations, and the way different local people use organizational forms in a different way. A social interface analysis, on the other hand, that 'deconstructs' the concepts of development assistance and explores the way in which discrepancies of social interests, cultural interpretations and power relations are mediated at critical points of encounter between and among local villagers, government officials, development experts and other groups involved, seems to be in a better position to understand social practices, competing discourses and local people livelihood strategies. The above analysis has revealed the different groups and interests involved in setting up of hilltribe networks, defining their agendas, establishing their administrative structure and translating objectives into operations. In all cases, the outcome represents a compromise between the various groups involved, shaped, but not necessarily fully determined, by cultural relations and underlining economic and power structures. It thus hopes to make a contribution to a better understanding of how development intervention, that in the past has so often failed to produce meaningful results for the local population, enters the lives/worlds of the individuals or groups and becomes either a supportive or disruptive part of their livelihood strategies.


After a vigorous question and answer session during which questions were raised, and answered, concerning, amongst other things, the amount of public money being allocated to networks, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Dr. Hans-Dieter in more informal discussion over drinks and snacks.