Future section


283rd Meeting - Tuesday, January 30th 2007  

Border Landscapes: The Politics of Akha Land Use in  China and Thailand

A talk and presentation by Dr. Janet C. Sturgeon

The full text of Janet’s talk and presentation

Border Landscapes looks at Akha access to resources and land use as influenced both by their location on international borders, and by their incorporation into modernizing nation-states.  Today I’m covering the second part, the intersection of Akha and state landscape visions in China and Thailand, and hence the title of my talk “Border Landscapes: The Politics of Akha Land Use in China and Thailand”.

I began to design this research project on shifting cultivation in the mid 1990s, when there was tremendous public concern about loss of tropical forests.  The media and many scholars blamed shifting cultivation for much of this forest loss.  I knew from working as a program officer in environment and development that the major culprits in tropical forest loss were Ministries of Forestry and timber companies, and that shifting cultivators were often blamed unfairly.  It seemed to me that one way to open up our understanding of shifting cultivators, their reputations, and their complicated experience with modernizing state policies was to do a comparative study.  By comparing one of the handful of upland groups that live in both China and Thailand, I could look at historically related peoples across international boundaries, and across the regions of East and Southeast Asia.  So I set out to trace the encounter between shifting cultivators and the state under the dramatically different political regimes of China and Thailand.

I chose Akha because of their differing reputations in China and Thailand.  In China, Akha are regarded as the “most developed” among shifting cultivators, and as reasonably conserving of the environment.  In Thailand, by contrast, Akha are thought to be forest destroyers, and the “hill tribe” with the most entrenched backwardness.  To figure out what produced these differing reputations, I selected an Akha village called Mengsong in China, and one called Akhapu in Thailand. 

This research traced Akha access to resources and land use over the past 50-60 years.  During this time Akha farmers and the forests around them became enclosed within national boundaries and the mental landscapes of policy makers in China and Thailand.  What I discovered was Akha knowledge and practice of what I call landscape ‘plasticity’, which I will describe in detail in a minute.  Practices of shifting cultivation invoke understandings of time and space that are both more mutable and more long-term than those of state agents, with their dreams of mapped and categorized landscapes meeting annual production goals.  State-allocated property rights and maps with delineated land uses enable planners to predict annual harvests and tax receipts.  What I found in these comparative cases was a clash of imagined landscapes between villagers and government administrators.  These clashes or contradictions relate to notions of time, space, and productivity.  But these clashes played out very differently in China and Thailand, as I will show.

Let me outline my talk for you.  First I’ll introduce landscape plasticity, with examples of how it works.  Next I’ll compare land uses in the 1950s with those in 1997 when I finished field research.  Following this, I’ll present case material, first in China, then in Thailand, to show how the intersection of state and Akha landscapes resulted in the very different 1997 outcomes.  And last I’ll offer a summary explanation for the divergent trajectories and a capsule version of my findings.

I want here to describe and give examples of what I mean by landscape plasticity, and show why it is so useful in considering villagers' strategies.  For much of the past 2,000 years, Akha farmers have lived in the mountains that now link China and mainland Southeast Asia, and have relied on shifting cultivation in hilly, wooded sites to grow upland rice and a rich array of vegetables.  Shifting cultivation entails fairly rapid changes in the landscape as forests are cleared for fields, fields are cultivated for one or two years, and then allowed to regenerate into forests.  Fields at different elevations may have separate rice varieties as well as distinct combinations of vegetables intercropped with the grain.  Depending on household labor, changes in weather, and infestations of pests, Akha farmers can open fields of varying size in different micro sites.  While aware of the length of fallow time needed to restore fertility to cultivated fields, Akha can also vary the length of fallows depending on the natural fertility of the site, and upon changing production demands.  This successive use of various sites for somewhat different purposes enables Akha to envision the landscape as an extensive setting with multiple possible trajectories for future use.

In addition to cultivating upland rice in swiddens, Akha in both villages also manage wet rice fields, raise large numbers of livestock, hunt wild game, and collect myriad kinds of wild fruits, vegetables, and medicinal herbs in surrounding fields and forests.  Like shifting cultivators elsewhere, Akha base their livelihoods on a composite of activities that allow them to shift labor allocation as needed for subsistence, trade, and taxation.

Here I want to emphasize the knowledge form, or conceptual understanding of the landscape that underlies composite land use practices with long time horizons.  Akha have an intimate knowledge of micro sites across the landscape (spatial knowledge), and also an understanding of the plasticity of land cover over time (temporal knowledge).  These two aspects, spatial and temporal, enable villagers to adjust quickly to changes as well as to strategize into the distant future.

Strategies involve the ability to imagine how the current landscape could be otherwise, or how parts of it could be allocated to new uses for a while, knowing that use could revert in the future.  In Akha imagination and planning, not only can forests become swidden fields and fields then regenerate into forests, but fields can also become pastures, and pastures can become forests again at a later date.  In Akha experience, even wet rice fields, usually deemed to be a permanent landscape feature, can change into pastures or even forests once again, given enough time.  This understanding is based on memory and experience, as well as daily practice.  Landscape plasticity stretches backward as well as forward in time, as previous uses and events are recaptured and reworked in current contexts.

I first became aware of plastic landscapes and the extent of farmers' strategizing one day early in my field research when I was trekking with a small group of farmers.  We were covering all the land areas of the Akha village in China.  At one point, when we had stopped on a ridge, they mentioned that the prefecture government planned to build a reservoir that would inundate much of the village forest we could see stretching out in the valley below.  The dam for the reservoir would generate electricity for lowland towns in both China and Burma, according to the plan.  This was news to me and I reacted with horror.  The villagers, however, reacted differently.  They pointed to areas of pasture that they would regenerate into trees, because forests were necessary for survival.  They would meanwhile move the pastures down slope, taking out some shifting cultivation fields.  And they would open more wet rice fields on their lowest elevation lands.  At that moment, I had this sudden understanding of these farmers' knowledge and practice of a processual landscape.  I also immediately realized the conceptual chasm between their understanding and the usual state vision of set property rights on mapped landscapes for which annual production estimates are made.  I began to realize the extent and scale at which these farmers could imagine their landscape differently and plan the transition to a new mosaic of land uses.  I had previously pictured individuals or households planning on the scale of a swidden and its various stages of regeneration.  But here were farmers strategizing on a landscape scale, and planning for forests that wouldn't be usable for 15-20 years.  They were also planning actively how to manage for loss of land and forest due to government planning.  From that point on, I focused more on reasons for adjustments in land use.

By laying out comparative cases I will show you that an understanding of landscape plasticity is critical to making sense of the trajectories of change I’m about to describe, and the dramatically different outcomes in China and Thailand.  I will show that Akha farmers have used their knowledge of plastic landscapes to respond to markets, tax collectors, policies for property rights and agricultural production, and development projects.  Akha use their complex knowledge of the environment to meet an array of demands, and at times to manipulate around regulations that impede flexible planning.  In relation to current land uses, I will also relate how individuals of different age and gender have differing strategies, ones that represent conflicting visions of what "Akha" land use or livelihoods ought to be.  Conflicting strategies come to light all the time, but my point here is that every person I talked with understood the mutability of land uses and how to use this potential to their own advantage.

Conditions in the early 1950s, China and Thailand

I'll begin now with conditions in the 1950s, before national policies really transformed villagers' practices.  At that time land uses in the two villages were similar enough that I can describe them together.  In both research sites, farmers kept an area of forest around the village large enough that it took about an hour to walk through it to their swidden fields.  A smaller ring of protected forest surrounded the village.  Villagers also kept an area of cemetery forest and watershed protection forest where cutting anything was forbidden.  In certain areas, farmers opened swiddens, or shifting cultivation fields, wherever they wanted, large enough to meet household needs for grain.  Anyone could open that area once it had regenerated to forest in about 13-15 years.  At that time, customary access allowed for flexibility in relation to shifting cultivation lands, and also for enduring, set rules for areas of forest.

For the contrast with 1997, here I have a schematic map of Mengsong, China.  The ring of forest around the village is still in place.  The forested areas have now been divided into collective forest and household forest.  The protected forest right around the village, the cemetery forest, and the watershed forest are still there.  There are extensive areas of wet rice along the river and part of the shifting cultivation lands have become pasture.  The point to notice is that this map is not that different from the 1950s—land uses and the areas designated for them are much the same.  For Akha villagers, outcomes in China show that as of 1997, households with the highest cash incomes earned 10 times as much as the poorest households.  In general, incomes were gradually increasing.  No one was really rich but no one was desperately poor either.  As for forests in the village, overall they showed considerable species richness, with 217 species found in my sampled plots covering an area of 4.2 ha.  There was an average of 16.8 species on 10-meter diameter plots.  Additionally, the species dominance found in protected sites showed the presence of numerous slow-growing, old growth species found nowhere else on village land.  These are indicators of diversity and forest age, and look reasonably good for an area of shifting cultivation.

For Akhapu (an acronym) in Thailand, the 1997 map shows that almost all the area of forest surrounding the village is now in tea fields allocated to households.  As in China, there is extensive wet rice along the river.  The areas that were formerly shifting cultivation lands have been reclaimed by the Royal Forestry Department and reforested under RFD control.  There are two watershed protection forests, one designated by Akha villagers and one designated by the RFD.  The point to notice here is that the map is very different from the one in the 1950s.  Tea has replaced the forest surrounding the village.  And the RFD has taken over all the shifting cultivation lands, now planted in trees for the state.  As for villagers in Akhapu, households with the highest incomes earned 900 times more than the poorest households.  A few people were really wealthy, while those on the bottom were falling through the cracks.  Looking at the forests they managed, species richness amounted to 87 species on a total sampled area of 9.4 ha.  The average species per plot was 7.4, considerably less than in China.  On protected sites, there were fewer old growth species, and many more pioneer species.  These are indicators of forests that were frequently cut and sometimes burned, and generally not in good condition.

So what processes led to these very different outcomes?

Major Factors Accounting for Outcomes in China

In China, Akha became citizens as of the Revolution of 1949.  As a result, policies for property rights and agricultural production were the same for them as for all other farmers across China.  Planners interpreted shifting cultivation as a grain-producing system, meaning that Akha farmers were seen as contributing to national development.  Most forests in China since the revolution have been managed by local units, whether communes, production teams, or households.  Policies in general have kept people, land, and trees together.

Mengsong, China

The Collective Period

Following the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the first major change in land use occurred during the collective period (1958-82).  Agricultural land was all collectivized, as were forests, tea, most bamboo, and all livestock.  State cadres reorganized villagers' labor to produce grain for the state, as a means both to "modernize" local farmers and give the government the resource to build an industrialized economy.  During this era, state cadres turned villagers into laborers for the state.

The Period of Economic Reforms

Beginning in 1982, national policies brought the collective period to an end.  To stimulate agricultural production, land that had been managed by communes was distributed to households.  In 1982-83, the household responsibility system was implemented for agricultural land across China, including in Mengsong.  The following year, in 1984, forestland from communes was allocated to villages and households for subsistence uses.

Together with the distribution of agricultural and forestland, land use regulations spelled out how villagers were to use these different kinds of land.  A new state vision of the landscape began to be implemented.

In line with the new state vision, each household in Mengsong acquired wet rice fields and areas for shifting cultivation based on the number of people in the household at that time.  Each household also received a certain number of livestock and areas of tea.  As for forests, the village received about 33 ha for a collective forest, which could be used for house construction.  In addition, each household acquired about 1/3 ha of trees where they could cut fuel wood.  At the same time, cadres from the local forestry station, together with a committee of villagers, designated an area of protected forest around the village, as well as acknowledging the cemetery forest and watershed protection forest on the same sites previously protected by customary rules.  In effect, the forestry department co-opted customary rules on forestland.  Many of the rules for protection have stayed the same, but they are now enforced by the forestry station rather than by village elders.  Indeed, villagers look to forestry officials to punish offenders.

Additionally, a long-term goal of both forestry and agriculture departments beginning in the early 1980s has been to bring shifting cultivation to an end.  Teams from FAO during those early reform years convinced Chinese policy makers that shifting cultivation was destructive to the environment.  These international teams marked the arrival of particular landscape visions for agriculture and forestry.  These visions embodied certain notions of time and space, the ones prevalent in development and passed on to state policy makers in many governments.

In interviews with numerous villagers about this transition, I got a sense of exploration, as people combined memories of practices from previous times with new possibilities for production and marketing.  This was not a "return" to land use practices from the early 1950s, but a reworking of practice and opportunity.

Farmers in Mengsong have responded readily to new policies, although not always in ways that policy makers and local officials would have predicted.  Those households who received shifting cultivation lands at lower elevations, on gently sloping land, opened wet rice fields in their swidden lands.  Their reason for opening terraces was not efficiency of space for production, but efficiency of time.  Villagers say that wet rice requires peak periods of labor for planting, weeding, and harvesting, but at other times frees up labor for other purposes.  Upland rice fields, by contrast, require some constant labor almost year round.  Once households had switched to wet rice, women spent more time tending vegetables to sell, as well as collecting mushrooms, medicinal herbs, and wild fruits prized in lowland markets.  Men engaged in paid labor, either locally in mining or in jobs in nearby towns.  By switching to wet rice, households could spend more time increasing their cash income.

A second response to the opening of markets was the production of more livestock for sale and consumption.  By 1996, Mengsong as a whole supported 3 times the livestock it did in 1982.  By 1989, most households had stopped opening swiddens in their shifting cultivation fields.  With the increase in numbers of livestock, farmers began to burn larger stretches of their upper elevation shifting cultivation fields each year to provide new grasses for the grazing animals.  By 1996, most high altitude swidden fields had effectively reverted to collective use, in spite of their earlier official allocation to households.

Households have shifted from upland rice in swiddens to wet rice in terraces and many shifting cultivation fields have become pastures for increasing numbers of livestock.  These changes in land use were not necessarily planned by government agents, although the shifts all respond to policies encouraging villagers to participate more in the market economy.  These shifts represent Akha farmers' operating in what Arun Agrawal calls the "crevices in state power," here exemplified in the maneuvering room opened up between requirements to produce for markets and regulations for set plots of land.

In talking with Akha farmers, it was clear that in their minds, shifting cultivation fields could become pastures, and rules for access and use could change accordingly.  They didn't see themselves as breaking rules.  Their understanding of landscape plasticity was coming into conflict with state land use regulations.  While I was there, Forestry Station officials informed me that the shifting cultivation fields that were burned every year for pasture would be reclassified as collective forest.  The land would still belong to the village, but would have to be allowed to regenerate.

Gendered Approaches

In interviews with men about overall trajectories of land use change, they would tell me that all households stopped practicing shifting cultivation in 1989.  People rely on wet rice, they told me, and income from tin mining and livestock.  Interviews with older women, however, presented a different picture.  Several older women had begun in the past 2-3 years to open swiddens again in a new site.  They planted upland rice and corn with an assortment of vegetables.  These women said that they worried about household reliance solely on wet rice and tin.  They grew corn to feed livestock and help pay taxes.  Upland rice could serve as the staple grain and also pay taxes.  Vegetables could be both eaten and sold.  This kind of diversity of production and purposes suited the older women's vision of what land use and landscapes should be.

This background points to an ongoing contradiction between state policies and visions of a mapped and bounded landscape under regulated uses, and Akha use and practice of landscape plasticity.  Set property rights and maps gave planners the ability to understand and control agricultural productivity and forest protection, or at least that's the driving desire.  For Akha, the plasticity, or flexibility of planning, also now included households sending out people in multiple directions to sell cash crops and engage in wage labor.  There had been a shift in the meaning of “landscape” to include wage labor in a variety of locales, some local, some not.  In a variety of ways, and with diverse strategies, Akha farmers continued to produce landscapes that were more complicated than what state agents had in mind.  Even the conflicting strategies between men and women added to overall landscape diversity.  These landscapes remained somewhat "messy" in the official view.

In spite of their messy landscapes, Akha had the reputation among regional state administrators as the “most developed” among hill shifting cultivators.  These state agents said that Akha were entrepreneurial and willing to adopt new crop varieties.  State and Akha visions had merged to a certain extent, as Akha had responded favorably to policies and market opportunities.  This accommodation reflects a complex interaction, with state agents and villagers in active roles.

Majors Factors accounting for Outcomes in Thailand

In Thailand, Akha were designated as a "hill tribe," one of those peoples who were interlopers and criminal users of state land and forests.  Most Akha were not citizens and therefore had no legal property rights in land or forests.  Shifting cultivation was seen in Thailand as a forest-destroying land use practice.  The Royal Forestry Department (RFD) managed forests, and all forested land belonged to the RFD.  Forestry policies for the north of Thailand had separated forests from the people who lived in them.

Akhapu, Thailand

The KMT and Opium

In northern Thailand in 1960, former KMT soldiers who had fled China in 1949 were now fleeing from Burma.  About 30 of them settled in the Akha village for 8 years.  As a result of the KMT contingent and their involvement in the drug trade, horse caravans carrying opium from Burma to lowland Thailand began to use Akhapu as a rest stop.  Villagers would sell them livestock and grain.  In villagers' memories, this was a time of abundant production and huge harvests, a landscape of plenty.

Changes in Thailand affecting Akha access and land use really began in the 1970s, and proceeded more rapidly than in China, and in most cases represent constraints on the practice of landscape plasticity.  First of all, as a result of escalating battles in the Shan State of Burma, large numbers of people fled to Thailand to escape the violence.  These included a new community of Akha who moved en masse to Akhapu.  After a couple of years the number of immigrants was so large that conflicts erupted over land.  The newly arrived Akha knew how to build wet rice terraces.  Shortly after arrival they set out in teams to open terraces for all the new households.  The older Akha watched for a while, and then tried to copy them, but by then most of the suitable land had been taken.  The arrival of new Akha produced a landscape of conflict and reduced access.

In 1976, Khun Sa, perhaps the most famous of the so-called "drug lords" in the Golden Triangle, fled Burma to settle in the nearby Thai town of Hin Taek.  Khun Sa in effect took over this whole district of northern Thailand as his principality.  He bought any opium that villagers produced, and paid for grain.  He also took care of any households who fell on misfortune.  The Thai army chased Khun Sa out of Thailand in 1982, but villagers remembered him as being a "good lord," certainly preferable to the government of Thailand.

Two Kinds of Tea--Development Projects

With Khun Sa gone, the Thai government encouraged one of the numerous international highland development projects to include Akhapu in its opium substitution activities.  With full endorsement from the Thai government, these projects set out to eliminate not only opium, but also shifting cultivation.  In their place, the projects introduced intensified production of cash crops on much reduced areas of land.  In Akhapu, one of the most lasting project outcomes was the introduction of tea.  Quite apart from the project, several former KMT soldiers had returned to Akhapu in the early 1980s to open a tea estate in one part of the community forest.  The KMT entrepreneurs planted expensive tea varieties from Taiwan and Guangdong.  At the same time, highland project staff taught Akha villagers how to cultivate the local tea already growing in their forest.

The introduction of the tea company, together with village cultivation of tea, has had a number of effects on the local economy, access to land, and forest condition.  First of all, by simultaneously introducing two kinds of tea in Akhapu, the tea company and the project produced two kinds of people.  Tea company owners, in collaboration with a handful of wealthy Akha investors, sold high quality tea for about US$40/kilo to Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia.  Farmers, meanwhile, cultivated "local" tea, which sold for about US$2/kilo to a wholesaler in Chiang Mai.  This new landscape entailed marked economic stratification.

The introduction of tea changed access to land as households planted tea bushes in adjacent areas of forest.  Once planted, the household would claim the tea land as well as the bushes as belonging to them.  Over time, more and more households planted tea in the forest, so that at the time of my stay, the entire understory of the community forest was planted in tea.  A forest that until recently had been managed by these communities had become household land.  Tea in effect nailed down land use, and limited access to the household.  This step represented loss of plasticity for both use and access.

The third outcome of tea planting was changes in forest condition.  On tea company land there were no longer any trees, since the expensive varieties required constant sunlight.  For the local tea, people have gradually cut many of the trees in the tea fields.  The local tea likes partial shade.  Where the tea is intensely managed, the tea fields looked like tea fields, not a forest.  As a result of this "development project," an area that had until recently been primary forest was now becoming a tea plantation and a degraded forest.  As is common in development plans, the new landscape involved sedentarized production of a cash crop.  Farmers themselves had crafted the new access rules to protect the newly valued tea.

At the same time as the introduction of tea, agents of the Royal Forestry Department came to Akhapu to designate sites for forest protection, including a watershed protection forest.  Unlike in China, forestry officials in Thailand failed to recognize that villagers already had a watershed protection forest.  The RFD protected site was in a completely new area.  The foresters also did not acknowledge the cemetery forest or another sacred site as "protected," and as an odd consequence, I found that villagers didn't think of themselves as "protecting" any areas of forest.  Their customary rules forbid any cutting in these sites, but that didn't amount to "protection."

 Government Action

In the 1990s, there was a major state reforestation effort to celebrate the 50th year of the king’s reign, which was 1996.  This was a national reforestation campaign, and the target for the north of Thailand was 1.3 million ha.  Accordingly, all areas of shifting cultivation in the north were slated for reforestation.  All this land had in principle belonged to the RFD since 1988.  As elsewhere, forestry officials appeared in Akhapu to reclaim their land.  Villagers in Akhapu were paid the equivalent of $2/day to plant trees, but the land was no longer theirs to use.  This project affected villagers' access to resources, and scope for using their knowledge of landscape plasticity.

Reforestation for the king brought several rapid changes in access, land use, and labor allocation in Akhapu.  At the time of my research about half the fields had already been planted in trees.  A handful of wealthier villagers, who relied mostly on wet rice for grain and tea for income, were little affected by the change.  Poorer households, who constituted the majority, were losing their subsistence.  People scurried to find work in the village or in town.

Another result of reforestation was that most households had sold off their livestock.  Because of the tea bushes in the forest, villagers could no longer let their livestock graze there without supervision.  With reforestation, villagers could not pasture their cattle on swiddens in the off-season.  Livestock, which had previously been a major source of household income, had rapidly become an encumbrance to unload.

A final result of reforestation was that the RFD was literally taking the forest out from under Akhapu.  Their community forest was moving toward becoming tea fields amid sparse tall trees.  Their shifting cultivation lands, meanwhile, had been reclaimed and replanted in tiny pine trees by the RFD.  The Thai state was managing to separate forest-dependent people from the forest, literally, cutting Akha off from the source of multiple potential livelihoods.

The result of both the two kinds of tea and reforestation was a serious loss of scope for the practice of landscape plasticity.  There was no longer much room for villagers to adjust land uses to their own purposes as needed.  The flexibility open to them was for household members to find an array of arrangements for wage labor.  An affinity for complex landscapes had been translated into an affinity for a complicated patchwork of paid jobs.  The time scale was foreshortened to immediate plans.

Strategies by Age and Gender

As for strategies differing by gender, most men in Akhapu, except for the elderly, spoke Thai and could look for work either locally or in town.   Most women, on the other hand, didn’t speak Thai.  Many women liked working for the tea company, since the work was local and didn't require Thai.  These strategies were not contributing to landscape plasticity, however. Villagers had rapidly lost access to much of their land with its multiple potential uses, and were devising new strategies in the spatial and temporal arenas available to them.


So what does this comparison tell us?  Here I show a chart with the major factors causing the differences in China and Thailand side by side.  In China, Akha were citizens and property holders, and shifting cultivation, at least in the collective period, was seen as contributing to national development.  Over the past 50 years, forests have been managed by local units, including households.  In general, policies kept people, land, and trees together.  In Thailand, where Akha were among those peoples who had been categorized as "hill tribes," they had become the embodiment of problems in the north--forest destroyers who didn't deserve land in Thailand or to become "Thai."  Their land use, shifting cultivation, was cast as environmentally destructive and therefore criminalized.  Forests, meanwhile, were managed by the RFD.  Policies in the north separated people from the forests around them.

As far as the scope for using landscape plasticity is concerned, policies in both countries were trying to sedentarize and simplify land use in ways that undermined flexible practices.  In China, however, the village land area was the same as in 1958, and there were still areas for shifting cultivation, wet rice, pastures, and tea, as well as forest sites for both use and protection.  Even within land use regulations, there was still considerable room for moving land uses around to suit new purposes.  There was also, curiously, more room in the official administrative imagination for Akha to have useful knowledge about managing trees.  This created space, not only for Akha practices, but also for discussion about how new government plans should be implemented.  The spatial and temporal scales of Akha planning were still expansive.  As a result, Akha landscapes in China represented state property lines and Akha complexity—a negotiated outcome.

In Thailand, as I have shown, there had been rapidly diminishing scope for Akha use of their ecological knowledge of managing plastic landscapes.  Villagers had lost their shifting cultivation lands, and their community forest had effectively been allocated to households.  For the most part, people were busy looking for wage labor to offset loss of land.  In Thai official imagination, there was no room for Akha knowledge about managing forests, nor room for discussion.  Protected forests for the RFD were established on completely new sites with no reference to customary practices.  The resulting landscape reflected considerable coercion in implementing state plans—an enforced outcome.

Let me encapsulate the findings of this study:

The encounter between state and Akha landscape visions has played out differently depending on state definitions of upland peoples and forests, and the maneuvering room available from policies ensuing from these definitions.

A comparative reading of Akha landscapes indicates that where state policies and practices have enabled landscape plasticity, both Akha and their forests fared well.  This was the case in China.  Where state policies have disabled landscape plasticity, Akha and their forests have fared poorly.  This was the case in Thailand.

I have presented a clash between conflicting landscape visions, and the outcomes for those who practice processual landscapes.  There are numerous broader implications for landscape plasticity.  State visions in many parts of the world, and among many development agencies, project a spatial landscape that is mapped and divided into properties under set regulations for use.  These landscapes are simplified so that state officials can manipulate and control them.  The one direction of movement is toward fewer crops and increased productivity.  The time frame of these visions is annual, with production measured in yearly increments.  Forests are similarly mapped and categorized, with uses and protection spelled out to suit state purposes.

The vision involved in plastic landscapes, by contrast, is complex spatially and mutable over time.  Indeed, the practice of shifting cultivation increases biodiversity and creates more possibilities for future manipulation.  These landscapes involve long periods of time, flowing from past uses under those now dead, and stretching into imagined futures.  The mosaic of land uses includes cash crops and other commodities as well as subsistence goods.  The production of goods is carefully calibrated in relation to state demands and market possibilities.

An important broader issue here is that any landscape vision, whether of state agents, researchers, or upland farmers includes notions of time, space, productivity, and even morality.  What is the desired and good future?  For whom?  By using the lens of landscape to open up all these issues, I find that these comparative cases have kept pushing me to think more carefully about the meanings of national visions, differing perceptions of landscapes, and the process of negotiation between state and local visions and practices.  Using these tools, I have traced Akha negotiation of their landscapes and livelihoods under dramatically differing state regimes in China and Thailand.


After fielding many interesting questions, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged in more informal discussions with the speaker over drinks and snacks.


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