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1 November 2007 The Changing Village Environment in Southeast Asia: Applied Anthropology and Environmental Reclamation in the Northern Philippines
Wolfram Dressler
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The Changing Village Environment in Southeast Asia: Applied Anthropology and Environmental Reclamation in the Northern Philippines by Ben J. Wallace. London, United Kingdom: Routledge, 2006. xi + 130 pp. US$120. ISBN 0-415-36484-1.

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For several decades, South East Asian countries have experienced project interventions that seek to support local livelihoods as a means to reduce deforestation. The Philip-pines are no exception. Since the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, and even before then, the state, NGOs, and private-sector companies have designed programs and projects seeking to curb swidden cultivation. The most effective way forward was for “agroforestry” projects to introduce permanent tree crops, among other species of economic and ecological value. The underlying assumption was that, as farmers plant and harvest tree crops and acquire new sources of income, semi-permanent production would stabilize or replace swiddens (shifting cultivation) and curb deforestation. Achieving the dual objective of forest conservation and poverty reduction further depended upon local acceptance and support of project objectives, which, in turn, led to collective action and sustainable outcomes. This agenda effectively became part of the new populist discourse of integrated conservation and development, and, more recently, community-based conservation.

However, local adoption of agroforestry programs for livelihood support and afforestation is no easy feat. Most literature documents very few successful cases over the long term. The Changing Village Environment in Southeast Asia represents one successful case of an agro-forestry project carried out through networks of trust and reciprocity. These successful outcomes included local control and ownership of agroforestry initiatives in support of livelihoods and forest conservation.

Unfortunately, the book represents an oversimplified account of the author's own claims (as director) of the Ugat ng Buhay (Good Roots) project's success in redressing a pending environmental crisis in the Luzon province of Ilocos Norte. While the book offers insightful ethnographic detail on the ways of life and livelihoods of Ilocano and “traditional Yapayao,” we hear more “perspective” on what made the Good Roots project so successful in using afforestation for livelihood support, than how local and regional realities influenced factors driving deforestation in the case study areas.

Chapter 1 begins with a poignant reminder of how the conditions of poverty can produce the devastating consequences of deforestation in upland areas and how projects like Good Roots can overcome the causes and consequences of deforestation. We learn why the 4 communities (3 Ilocano and 1 Yapayao) were chosen for study and how interdisciplinary research is more likely to achieve multiple, “functionally interrelated” objectives with sustainable outcomes (p 3). The project supposedly stands out from others because it is a local initiative financed by the multinational petroleum company, Caltex Inc (The Philippines). Chapters 2 and 3 offer the reader valuable ethnographic detail on the social life and modes of production of each of the Ilocano and Yapayao communities in the study area. Chapters 4 and 5 shift in emphasis, turning to accounts of how species composition and consumption levels vary according to livelihood activities and the types of forest, ie to the cultural exploitation of forests according to the volume available and consumed by 4 activities (swidden, charcoal-making, fuelwood use, and minor construction). Chapter 6 then sketches out the basis of the project's sustained success including, for example, tapping both formal and informal leaders, and using species relevant to local culture and physiography. The concluding chapter recounts local thoughts on the project's overall success and where else it could be implemented.

The study's substance lies in its detailed ethnographic account of the ways of life and modes of production of each social group, as well as assessments of the distribution and harvesting of tree species in primary and secondary forests. We learn how much (in number of trees and cubic meters) is lost due to swidden cultivation, charcoal production, illegal logging, and minor construction activities, and, more broadly, annual levels of forest loss. The methods used to glean these data will inform future afforestation efforts according to the relative impact of forest-based livelihoods.

Structurally, apart from the impressive ethnographic and empirical data, the chapters have little coherence and flow, with concepts and themes not directly supporting one another as the book unfolds. Wallace fails to draw directly on the ethnographic detail in chapters 2 and 3 to define how, when and why the 4 livelihood practices unfold within and between each of the 4 communities. Conceptually, the basis of what constitutes sustainable human–environment relations follows functionalist interpretations of nature and culture. The fact that introductory chapters suggest rather explicitly that it is in a farmer's “nature” to replace “unstable” swiddens with “stable” agro-forestry systems, leads one to question whether the poor will ever find “balance with nature.” Given Wallace's interpretation of nature and culture as being in equilibrium, it is hardly surprising that discussions of how politics affects environmental change are largely absent. How, for example, might past and present political and economic changes, be they local or regional, affect local interpretations of “sustainable” forest use?

For these reasons, the accounts of the cultural exploitation of forest environments in Chapter 5 could have paid greater attention to how the social and economic dimensions of forest access and use relate to the cultures within and between each of the social groups. By examining intra-household relations and the integrated nature of livelihood activities, for example, we would have learned more about the relative importance of each type of livelihood. Failure to examine in detail the internal and external political economic dynamics of each group leaves the reader feeling as if the 4 communities were relatively homogenous and overly eager to participate in the project. How might within-group differentiation affect investments in livelihood strategies and levels of project participation?

More troubling is the constant reference to project success in the introductory and concluding chapters. While it is very clear that the project was implemented in a collaborative manner with trust and an “esprit de corps,” we know nothing of the author/director's own experiences of and influence on the project—there is little to no reflexive account. We also know nothing of whether the corporation, Caltex–Chevron Texaco, had any stake in the area beforehand. Further detail on the company's history in the area would have made the author's case of private sector benevolence more convincing.

This book will prove useful to students attempting to differentiate and redress the relative impacts of livelihood activities on upland forests in the Philippines. We learn that the success of community-based conservation is contingent upon long-term consultation building local rapport and trust, and that once local users find direct value in such interventions, they themselves may carry it forward. Unfortunately, essentialist interpretations of culture and collective action, broad assumptions of swidden cultivation, and clichéd accounts of human–environment relations overshadow the strengths of the book.

Wolfram Dressler "The Changing Village Environment in Southeast Asia: Applied Anthropology and Environmental Reclamation in the Northern Philippines," Mountain Research and Development 27(4), 386-387, (1 November 2007).
Published: 1 November 2007

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