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Thailand RPCV Michael J. Montesano reviews "A Land on Fire
Thailand RPCV Michael J. Montesano reviews "A Land on Fire
Reviews for A Land on Fire
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35 (1), pp 159–181 February 2004. Reviewed by Michael J. Montesano - National University of Singapore
James Fahn served for most of the 1990s as the first environment editor of Bangkok ’s English-language daily The Nation . This valuable, accessible book draws on Fahn’s journalistic experience and writings, his gift for narration and background in the sciences, and his thoughtful, unpretentious engagement both with contemporary Thailand and with, quite literally, the fate of the earth.
A land on fire includes chapters on the congestion and pollution of Bangkok during Thailand ’s boom years and on the ecological and social impact of tourism, dams, logging, deforestation, over-fishing and shrimp farming, off-shore gas fields, and the construction of the Yadana gas pipeline between Burma and Thailand . Fahn builds these chapters around his own investigative reporting for The Nation and his shorter stint working 167 book reviews on an environmentally oriented programme for Thai television. He uses accounts of his often very aggressive pursuit of stories and cites the articles in which that pursuit resulted to illuminate Thailand ’s environmental crises and their political and sociological complexities.
This approach, along with Fahn’s deft scientific and ecological explanations, distinguishes his book from other treatments of the environmental costs of rapid growth in Southeast Asia .
Many of the book’s episodes take Fahn to Thailand ’s western littorals and borderlands.
He documents land-grabbing and the depletion of fisheries along the coast of the Andaman Sea . He tracks illegal logging and corruption on both sides of the Thai–Burmese border. His visit to Karen villagers living deep in one of the conservation areas known collectively as Thailand ’s Western Forest Complex serves as his introduction to the khon kap pa (‘man-and-forest’) debate in Thai environmentalism. What Fahn calls his ‘biggest scoop ever’ (p. 217), his dogged effort to understand the extent of mercury poisoning in the gas fields of the Gulf of Thailand and along the country’s eastern seaboard, will spook anyone who has ever eaten a seafood dinner in Bangkok. But he emphasises throughout this work that less affluent, above all rural, people bear the heaviest costs of ongoing environmental degradation.
To simplify, this debate pits individuals and groups who seek to preserve pristine wilderness against those who fight for the rights of forest-dwellers to stay put, living in putative harmony with nature. Fahn expresses his own doubts about the realism or sustainability of the latter vision. But he acknowledges that in the predominantly rural societies of most of the globe, it can represent the mainstream environmentalist position.
He perceptively notes that what he terms the environmental democracy movement and other participatory campaigns are ‘the closest thing there is to a true left-wing opposition’ (p. 6) in Thailand . On the one hand, Fahn thus gently suggests both the utopianism of Thailand ’s NGO movement and the dysfunctional nature of its political parties. On the other, he makes clear that much of the environmental movement in developing Asia is, in its active engagement with the disenfranchised, a very different enterprise from its mainstream counterpart in the industrialised world.
Throughout A land on fire , Fahn effectively presents environmental problems confronting ‘the global South’ in terms comprehensible to readers in ‘the global North’.
His book proves less successful in illustrating the degree to which Thailand ’s Southeast Asian neighbours share the full range of its environmental problems. As he focused his investigative reporting for The Nation on developments within Thailand ’s borders, he lacks the rich anecdotal material in his references to Vietnam , Indonesia and other neighbouring states that so enlivens his treatment of Thai problems. At the same time, his accounts of trips to the Thai–Burmese border make an invaluable contribution to the book. Fahn cultivated a range of excellent contacts along that border, and readers of this book will learn much about the activities of Burma ’s State Peace and Development Council regime on its eastern periphery.
The penultimate chapter, the book’s longest, addresses environmental issues in their global context: rich countries’ linkage of trade and conservation, ‘bio-prospecting’ and biodiversity, and global warming. This chapter draws only minimally on Fahn’s own reporting, and it is denser than the chapters that precede it. But Fahn uses the chapter to puzzle out for himself many of the North–South issues with which general readers will be most familiar. Whether or not they agree with his conclusions, those readers will 168 book reviews appreciate his effort and thought. The chapter offers a strong discussion of the World Trade Organization (WTO), of its Thai Director-General Suphachai Phanitchaphak’s views on global environmental issues, and of the potential of legally binding WTO rulings to trump international environmental agreements.
The final chapter of A land on fire revisits the political violence on the streets of Bangkok during May 1992. Fahn sees this successful ‘democracy uprising’ (p. 319) as the true source of Thailand ’s 1997 ‘people’s constitution’, with its provision for better governance and more participatory management of natural resources. He thus makes an argument with regard to environmental concerns that parallels an emerging school of thought on human rights: what is needed is not stronger civil societies so much as more capable and responsive states. Just as international institutions must somehow take into account the environmental perspectives of ‘the global South’ treated in the preceding chapter, Fahn acknowledges that better government in Thailand must also accommodate the country’s poor rural majority. Fahn makes clear in earlier chapters that these people suffer most from the environmental disasters that have accompanied Thailand ’s boom.
He is somewhat less clear about the form that the political accommodation for which he calls might take.
A land on fire is a stimulating book, one of those rare titles on Southeast Asia that ought to reach readers whose thoughts do not ordinarily turn to the region. It will also serve teachers at many levels admirably in the classroom. One envies students whose first exposure to modern Thailand will come through the insights of James Fahn. As of this writing, however, Westview Press appears to have published only a hardcover edition of the book. Both for students and for other readers, a paperback edition is in order.
When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.