Taking the Jungle Out of the Forest

Peluso, Nancy and Peter Vandergeest. 2011. “Taking the Jungle out of the Forest: Counter-Insurgency and the Making of National Natures.” In Global Political Ecology edited by Richard Peet, Paul Robbins, and Michael Watts. New York: Routledge. 

What are the interconnected political ecologies of war and forestry? What role do forests play in the formation of “territorial solutions meant to quell insurgent violence?” (253). Nancy Peluso and Peter Vandergeest aim to “better examine the ways tropical forests as theatres of insurgency have been key in shaping them as political entities (political forests) in the first place” (254). Labeling forests as “jungles” underwrites the realization of “nation-building projects through violence, militarization, resettlement, and other territorial practices of counter-insurgency. The articulations of war and forestry thus help make both territorial nation-states and political forests” (254). The authors examine the Cold War cases of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. In all three cases, “As insurgent violence was repressed, the shifting cultural politics of states discursive and spatial practices around forests and forest-based subjects became fundamental to understanding the making of the nation-states and national natures” (255).

The authors argue the dialectics of insurgency and counterinsurgency made the forests political in ways that cannot be reduced to a colonial legacy or contemporary discourses of resource wars. Second, they note that counterinsurgency in these environments was heavily predicated (discursively and materially) on making forests out of the jungle. State responses to jungle-based insurgencies induced massive spatial reorganizations of populations through displacement, settlement, racialization, and the territorial re-zoning of property rights (distinguishing forests from agriculture). Combined processes of counterinsurgency and nation-building created newly militarized jungles patrolled by increasingly sophisticated technologies. These same technologies were incorporated (or invented by) forestry and conservation initiatives. Summing it up:

We contend that the making of national political forests (legislated, zoned, mapped, classified, and managed by professional, “scientific” government agencies) was intertwined with the violent making of nation-state territories and political subjects through common repertoires of violent state practices.

The authors begin by tracing what could be called the use-value of forests as cover and illegible spaces for insurgents (and residents); only once such insurgencies were subdued did their full commercialization for exchange-value really take off. The insurgencies were first ignited against Japanese occupation and then directed toward European attempts to reestablish colonial relations. With the firmer establishment of post-colonial state, Maoist rebels (and some Islamist) sought to “surround the cities” in carrying out their peasant-driven revolutions—often, from “jungle” safe havens. Governments responded with “discursive and material practices through which nation-state territorialities were constructed through insurgency and counterinsurgency” and operationalized via “the making of political forests and the racialization of bodies and territories” (264). The process took three main forms:

1. “Taking the jungle out of the forest”: making clear boundaries between forests and agricultural areas, in large part by criminalizing what was deemed to be agriculture in forested areas. This involved discursive strategies as well as material practices such as reservation of forests and the designation of certain areas for settlement and permanent agriculture (industrial or smallholder private).

2. The relocation of people into and out of these forest areas through resettlement, evictions, and consolidations of settlements, with specific practices frequently based on racialized understandings of loyalty to the nation-state.

3. The militarization of forest areas through the deployment of troops, establishment of military bases, and transferring personnel and technologies of counterinsurgency and surveillance from the military to forest management agencies and timber companies.

Rural development became an explicit part of counterinsurgency operations, as did road construction. Forestry programs also drew widely on counterinsurgency rationales and vice-versa, such as the rotating of forest rangers to avoid allegiances with locals. In some cases, the timber operations were themselves run by the military. The “jungle” has strong resonance with discourses of frontiers, as the authors note. Not only of those between civilization and state hegemony, but also the frontiers of violent extraction.

In conclusion, the authors note:

“Jungles” as theaters of insurgency were tamed through massive rearrangements of property rights, land use zones, vegetative cover, and human settlements. The political violence provided a justification as well as a mechanism – military deployment and tactics – for intensive and extensive national state intervention in landscapes over which it had had only weak hegemonic power. Political violence preceded both forest enclosures and state territorializations. (275)



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