Nature and Nation: Forests and Development in Peninsular Malaysia explores the relations between people and forests in Peninsular Malaysia where the planet’s richest terrestrial eco-system met head-on with the fastest pace of economic transformation experienced in the tropical world. It engages the interplay of history, culture, science, economics and politics to provide a holistic interpretation of the continuing relevance of forests to state and society in the moist tropics. This is a major contribution to the forest history of Peninsular Malaysia. Meticulous and exhaustive in the field which it addresses, the changing social and political milieu and policies from the precolonial Malay states to the present advanced middle-income economy are recounted, and their effects documented. Peninsular Malaysia is often upheld as having one of the most enlightened and successful traditions of indigenous forest management in the tropics but, as this even-handed text reveals, it proves as usual to be a sorry story: the author details how short of ideals even this successful economy has been, and explains in exhaustive detail why it has been so.
In twentieth-century Peninsular Malaysia, one of the planet’s richest yet most vulnerable terrestrial ecosystems collided with unsustainable growth. The retreat of the forest cover by over 60 per cent during the course of the same century manifested the profound change that development brought to society, driving a wedge between nature and culture. This study traces the transformation. It also examines the countervailing influences that have sought new ways of re-engaging with the environment. From the early centuries of the first millennium, the Peninsula’s forests furnished markets from China to Arabia with aromatic gums and resins collected by a small and dispersed population of forest dwellers and exported by merchants and rulers at the riverine commercial nodes. Forest-fed rivers that served as arteries of commercial exchange underpinned the political economy of the pre-colonial Malay state. The nature of the forested terrain constrained territorial control and shaped the nature of political authority, upheld by socioeconomic influence rather than military power. Nineteenth-century British colonial enterprise was a major catalyst for change in the relations between forests and people.
It fractured the forest-dominated riverine infrastructure that influenced the relations between humans and nature. Forest laws and reserves established immutable boundaries, denying access to products vital for everyday needs. Fruits, herbs and essential plants, no longer sought in the wild, were planted within the newly refashioned kampung (village) landscape. The relocation of hamlets from riverbanks to sites along new dirt tracks, roads and railways, and the corrugated iron roofs that replaced thatch, symbolized the gradual alienation of the rural economy from the forest. The process was completed after Independence by the inroads of mechanized farming and mega-plantation agriculture under the New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced in 1971. As reliance on forest for wood fuel and other necessities diminished, only marketable timber and land stripped bare for plantation agriculture gained value. The complex relations between nature, culture and material growth, emphasize the importance of incorporating the social values of ethics, public accountability and collective responsibility into scientific and technological initiatives.
Studies of Malaysian development suggest shortfalls in environmental safeguards relating to forests. Scholars traced the links between twentieth-century development and environmental degradation; some others reviewed the emphasis on land development at the expense of the value of forests; while others questioned the viability of sustainable forest management, and the author herself highlighted the toll taken on the forests by plantation agriculture. Modern Malaysian history has been studied largely in terms of politics, trade and economic growth, independent of the environmental context within which these processes evolved. Rectifying the imbalance demands a shift of focus to the centrality of forests to Malaysian development and the evolution of nationhood. In sum, this study traces the historical links in Peninsular Malaysia between forests and the state at the crucial intersection of science and society. As well as examining the problems of sustainable forest management, it highlights the conservation discourse as providing political space and a claim to equal citizenship, based on nature as common heritage.
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