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Muddied Waters: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Management of Forests and Fisheries in Island Southeast Asia

Author(s):Boomgaard, Peter
Henley, David
Osseweijer, Manon
Reviewer(s):Nawiyanto, S.

Published by EH.NET (August 2006)


Peter Boomgaard, David Henley and Manon Osseweijer, editors, Muddied Waters: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Management of Forests and Fisheries in Island Southeast Asia. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2005. viii + 418 pp. ?35 (paperback), ISBN: 90-6718-243-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by S. Nawiyanto, Division of Pacific and Asian History, RSPAS, Australian National University and Department of History, Jember University, Indonesia.

This book is edited by three prominent scholars in Southeast Asian studies. Peter Boomgaard is Professor of Environmental History of Southeast Asia at the University of Amsterdam and senior researcher at the Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology (KITLV) in Leiden. David Henley is a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV). Manon Osseweijer is academic affairs coordinator at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden. This volume is the outcome of a workshop on “Sustainability and Depletion in Island Southeast Asia: Forests and Fisheries, Past and Present,” held in Leiden in 2002 and is the sequel to a pioneering work, entitled Paper Landscapes: Explorations in the Environmental History of Indonesia (Boomgaard, Henley, and Colombijn, 1997). The two volumes, however, are quite different. Drawn heavily upon archival and published materials, the earlier work focused on historical developments exerting great influence on current environmental realities. The present volume, by contrast, puts a much stronger emphasis on contemporary conditions, and is strongly supported by close observation through field work and experience as “muddy-boots environmentalists.” It contains sixteen contributions, organized under two headings — fisheries (six papers) and forests (eight papers), preceded by two introductory papers by Henley and Osseweijer, and by Fox, which make this collection of papers systematically hang together well.

By focusing the history of human-environment relationships in Southeast Asia, this volume seeks to identify several preconditions for sustainable marine and forest resource uses. It wrestles with a complex of broad questions: Why did the exploitation of forest and marine resources in the past have limited consequences on the environment? Did these limited consequences result from better management and institutions in the past? Or did it have something to do with lower population densities, less developed markets and less efficient extraction technology? It is surely not an easy task to establish conclusive answers to these questions due primarily to the unavailability or unreliability of statistical data on resources. Such problems are paramount particularly in the section on fisheries. But quite surprisingly, similar problems still persist, even in contemporary forest statistics. In the fisheries section, most papers focus on Indonesia, while other countries are only cursorily discussed. There is no paper specifically dealing with fisheries in the Philippines, which obviously makes up one major part of the island Southeast Asia. In this connection, the forests section is much more balanced with the inclusion of various contributions specifically discussing forest issues in island Southeast Asian countries other than Indonesia.

Despite the imbalance, contributions in the fisheries section are able to grasp core issues in this sector. One major view arising from most papers concerns the issues of declining marine resources. A macro study by Butcher argues that a great variety of marine populations in Southeast Asia had been on the decline since 1850, but steep decreases took place only from around 1960. Butcher’s argument is adequately supported with evidence taken from across the region, such as rays and slipmouths in the Gulf of Thailand, flying fish off the southwest coast of Sulawesi, fusiliers and groupers in the Philippines and Indonesia, and trepang and shellfish in many places in Southeast Asia. According to Butcher, this depletion was the result of improved boats and fishing gear and rising numbers of fishing vessels, marking what Butcher describes as “the great fish race.” Boomgaard’s study suggests a relatively similar view, stating that particular marine species, with a special reference to trepang and turtles, experienced depletion only in the last decade of the twentieth century. But, unlike Butcher’s broad assertion of little impact of human activities on marine populations until 1850, Boomgaard suggests that local depletion of fish stocks might have appeared much earlier — beginning around 1600.

The use of resources, however, is not the only variable in the question of marine resource sustainability. There are other factors that also exert great influence on the issue of resource sustainability. On the basis of the Singapore case, Reeves and Reeves argue that the development of this island as a multi-faceted port city caused the demise of inshore and culture fisheries. The ways in which marine resources were managed and with which groups the control over resources rested, however, seem to be key issues requiring broader investigation. Atun?s’ micro study on Kei Besar, Maluku clearly demonstrates that changes in power relationships and wealth distribution in the community-based resource management system led to unsustainable exploitation. In his study on island Riau, Osseweijer underlines that a complex of problems, including the lack of consensus among state institutions, different points of view between government and fishing communities, and the growing environmental problems, inhibits the success of the state in promoting sustainable marine development. A study by Arnscheidt on marine conservation in Indonesia argues that the inability of the government to create effective communication among bureaucrats was responsible for the failure of the well-designed marine protected areas to promote the sustainable use of resources.

The section on forests provides much deeper and detailed insights into the questions of resource depletion and sustainability, reflecting the longer and more established academic interests and concerns about this topic. Deforestation and biodiversity loss are in focus in many contributions and there seems to be some agreement on certain issues. One of them is the consensus about the rapid rate of natural forest and biodiversity loss in many parts of inland Southeast Asia from the second half of the twentieth century, despite diverse estimates of the exact rates due to data limitations and other methodological problems. Strongly voiced in part by Fox’s study, the two trends are well-discussed either together or separately in broad studies by Boomgaard on Indonesian forests, by Aiken on Peninsular Malaysian forests, by Kummer on Philippine forests, and also in more regional studies by Persoon and Wakker on Sumatran forests, and by Potter on Kalimantan forests. As most papers suggest, the assault of the Southeast Asian forest was caused by the combined forces of population growth, commercialization, and technological advances.

But, as the section shows, the relationship between population, commercialization, and technology on one side and deforestation on the other is often more complicated than what has been previously thought. As Henley underlines in the introductory chapter, the role of these structural forces is ambivalent and is also greatly affected by other variables including property rights, economic development, and resources management systems. Under particular circumstances, demographic and commercial pressures stimulated sustainable forms of forest resource use and provided incentives for conservation. Aiken observes that in Peninsular Malaysia the rate of deforestation has declined with the successful achievement of economic development, despite continuing commercialization. Kummer notes that in several parts of the Philippines, extensive reforestation took place in the 1990s under the farmers’ own initiatives in response to market opportunities. But, Budidarsono and Burgers highlight that in Java during the crisis and Reformasi era, demographic and commercial pressures brought an alarming increase in deforested areas.

The contributions on forests also cast a new light on the role of the state in the context of resource sustainability. What emerges from the discussion is that there is no single, uniform conclusion on this issue. Boomgaard notes that in Indonesia the Dutch colonial state was relatively successful in achieving sustainable use of teak forests, but that was no longer the case for the state after independence. Fox’s contribution suggests that the Indonesian state during both colonial and post-colonial period was responsible for the sandalwood depletion. Similarly, Kummer describes the Philippines as a good example of a state with a policy of “how not to manage natural resources.” Two other studies by Henley on sago in pre-colonial Sulawesi and Colombijn on non-timber forest products in pre-1870 Sumatra provide examples of the successful role of ‘pre-colonial states” in promoting sustainable use of forest resources. Henley argues that in certain cases, direct state control and effective government agents are preconditions required for successful management of resources. Meanwhile, Colombijn underlines that sustainable exploitation of non-timber forest products depended also on other factors including the regenerative power of the crops, geographical distribution, and mode of collection.

On the whole, Muddied Waters offers an invaluable contribution to the environmental study of Southeast Asia. It joins pioneering efforts on the environmental history of the region in general and Indonesia in particular to expand the historical horizon beyond conventional interests. Henley and Colombijn’s contributions, in particular, provide excellent model of the historical study on non-timber forest resources and pre-colonial management systems, important issues that have frequently been neglected. For environmental studies, this volume provides a better understanding of the historical roots of contemporary environmental issues. Deforestation, overfishing, and biodiversity loss obviously are not new, but phenomena that have deep historical roots in colonial times. What makes them look new is the scale and intensity of problems and the fast-growing role of human agency in changing the environment, either for good or bad. For resource management studies, this volume brings a new awareness that there is basically no single panacea — either centralized state, decentralized or community-based management — for marine and forest resource depletion in order to achieve a sustainable level of resource use. Effective resource management in the present context seems to require a balance combining multiple parties, interests and institutions. This balance, however, should be flexible both in spatial and temporal settings, given the characteristically different ecological, economic, and socio-political circumstances from one locality to another. The volume is also well illustrated with photographs from early and more recent times, taking the readers’ imagination through time and helping their understanding of the region, its people and its changing environment.

S. Nawiyanto is a Ph.D. student in the Division of Pacific and Asian History, RSPAS, Australian National University, Canberra and lecturer in the Department of History, Jember University, Indonesia. He is currently writing his thesis on the environmental history of Besuki residency, East Java, Indonesia. His publications include: “The Economy of Besuki during the 1930s Depression,” in P. Boomgaard and I. Brown, editors, Weathering the Storms: The Economies of Southeast Asia in the 1930s Depression (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000); Translator, Fondasi Historis Ekonomi Indonesia [Historical Foundations of a National Economy], edited by J.T. Lindblad (Yogyakarta: Pustaka Pelajar, 2002); Agricultural Development in a Frontier Region of Java: Besuki, 1870-Early 1970 (Yogyakarta: Galang Press, 2003); The Rising Sun in a Javanese Rice Granary: Change and Impact of Japanese Occupation on the Agricultural Economy of Besuki Residency 1942-1945 (Yogyakarta: Galang Press, 2005); “Responses to the Crises in a Javanese Frontier Society: Besuki’s Experience in Historical Perspective” (forthcoming).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII