Dao on McElwee, 'Forests Are Gold: Trees, People, and Environmental Rule in Vietnam'

Pamela D. McElwee. Forests Are Gold: Trees, People, and Environmental Rule in Vietnam. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016. 312 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-99548-9.

Reviewed by Nga Dao (York University)
Published on H-Asia (July, 2017)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha

Environmental Governance in Vietnam

For me, a researcher engaged in environmental issues in Vietnam, reading Pamela McElwee’s book, Forests Are Gold: Trees, People, and Environmental Rule in Vietnam, was of great personal interest. This is a well-researched and well-written book about the politics of forests in Vietnam throughout a long period (from the beginning of formal French colonial rule, roughly 1884, through the twentieth and into the early twenty-first century). McElwee’s book provides valuable history, insights, and analysis for those interested in environmental rules and forest politics in Vietnam. Drawing on environmentality and actor-network theory, McElwee provides a detailed elaboration of how environmental governance happens, arguing that it is neither a specific policy nor an approach to nature, but a practice that aims to assert environmental solutions for social problems. She writes: “Environmental rule occurs when states, organizations, or individuals use environmental or ecological reasons as justification for what is really a concern with social planning, and thereby intervene in such disparate areas as land ownership, population settlement labor availability, or market” (p. 5).

This book contains many valuable insights that should shape the way one looks at forest politics in Vietnam, underscoring the interaction between cultural identities and environment and the importance of actors involved in shaping environmental rule in Vietnam over the course of its history since the late nineteenth century. How, McElwee asks, have “environmental” problems been identified and made visible? How has environmental “truth” been created and used? How has environmental conduct been shaped? And how have subjects of environmental rule been formed? Drawing on years of fieldwork, McElwee poses and explores these questions in an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. The book unfolds chronologically. The way McElwee uses a historical-ethnographic approach to reveal divergent techniques and technologies of rule, and different authorities and actors in different periods of history is fascinating and easy to follow. This strategy allows her to scrutinize in a systematic way how human and nonhuman activities have been manipulated and changed through various forms of environmental rule.

McElwee starts by explaining her work in the classic anthropological context, going through the book’s theoretical and methodological framework, then moving to examine how forests in Vietnam have been seen and understood through different eras. She sets the stage for a thorough examination of the emergence of environmental rule in a historically compressed period under the French colonialism. She scrutinizes the long history of colonial forestry in Indochina, how French colonial projects succeeded in bringing a new way of thinking about forests into Indochina, how the French treated forest reserves as a place to use state authority to extract revenues, and various forms of resistance that took place during this era. The “general” and “specific” components of environmental rule applied to forests in Vietnam provide a clear framework for the research.

Using historical and ethnographic evidence McElwee explores “why” and “how” questions surrounding environmental rule. She continues with a fascinating exploration of how power worked under socialism, how it shaped settlement and subjectivity in the postcolonial era, and how forest management shifted throughout the twentieth century until the early twenty-first century. It was fascinating to learn how forest management in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (roughly from 1954 after the French war ended until the Renovation, or Đổi mới, in 1986) was similar to the colonial period (1884-1954) in that it was not primarily about forest or nature. During this time, it was all about labor and state-led development. New technologies of rule were used to strengthen the state management of forests, such as State Forest Enterprises (SFEs) and resettlement to reduce swidden agriculture by ethnic minorites in the uplands. Local knowledge of forests was replaced with industrial management for large-scale timber production. Stories about the creation of many top-down SFEs, labor, their crises, and networks of rule influencing forest management are all striking. Stories about people’s sabotage against the SFEs recall what had happened to farming cooperatives before Đổi mới, which proved the failure of the state-led development over that period of history, and add more nuance to the research. Many researchers have studied Vietnam after Đổi mới, but what is most interesting in McElwee’s book is the focus on deforestation in the Đổi mới period--its causes, actors, policies, and consequences. The link between Đổi mới and deforestation is a quite interesting analysis. The concept lâm tặc (illegal logger) and its association with different actors, and multiple discourses on deforestation are carefully examined throughout the book. McElwee provides nuanced analysis to help us better understand transitions and the emergence of new forest interventions after Đổi mới. These interventions brought new tools to the reforestation project, including ways to classify forest, forest maps, new ways of thinking about forest management, new emphasis on biodiversity conservation, the nature value of forest, etc. But again, all these new things were not driven solely by environmental concerns.

McElwee revisits how forests in Vietnam have been seen or visualized over the years; a close examination of the way problems have been formulated and subjectivities created is very useful in understanding the dynamics by which environmental rule has operated. The chapters offer a thorough analysis of Vietnam’s forest transition, which enables a critical way of looking at the role of state in the process of forestland management.

Chapter 5 focuses on relatively new approaches in environmental policy such as “Payments for Environmental Services” (PES) and “Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation” (REDD+). McElwee clearly points out that despite the new label of “market-based” for these policies, neither PES nor REDD+ operate as markets in any way: “The state continues to be intimately involved in all aspects of PES and REDD, from problematization to intervention” (p. 173). More actors and networked interests have been involved, and interventions have created new environmental subjectivities.

At the end McElwee reiterates the thread running through all the preceding chapters, arguing that environmental rule in Vietnam has worked in a very similar way through various periods of history. And even though environmental rule may take different forms over time, this practice has largely relied on “similar organizing principles of problematization, classification, intervention, and subject formation” (p. 208).

Overall, McElwee’ s book is a very useful guide to forest politics and environmental changes in Vietnam. The book is a timely addition to the growing body of scholarship on land, resource management, and environmental issues in Vietnam. While the book is about Vietnam, the methods used and the components of environmental rule can be applied to studies of forest politics and even other environmental issues anywhere. McElwee’s nuanced research helps us better understand how multiple actors intersecting with material objects like trees, as well as multiple drivers operating at the same time have influenced the transformation of material nature and human subjectivity in Vietnam over the last century. This goes beyond Malthusian population growth, capitalism, Marxism, or neoliberalism.

The only area that I wish that McElwee had delved a bit deeper into is the section on “Gendered Subjectivities.” I found this section to be quite thin. Even though I agree that women’s involvement in forestry has often been hidden, I think it would be interesting to examine the gender dimensions of the struggles over power, politics, and forest governance, and how changes in forest management have affected gender subjectivities, roles, and responsibilities.

In brief, I have learned with great interest how, over time since the French colonial period, forests in Vietnam have been defined, seen, used, and managed, and how, with all the shifts in the dynamics, environmental rule has been practiced. And as the book tries to bring nature and culture together though a detailed examination of forests as an effect of environmental rule, I am sure it will stimulate others--political scientists as well as political ecologists and anthropologists--to inquire more deeply into the characteristics of peoples who have lived and still live in the upland forest areas of Vietnam.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=48585

Citation: Nga Dao. Review of McElwee, Pamela D., Forests Are Gold: Trees, People, and Environmental Rule in Vietnam. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48585

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