Blinded by science: The invention of scientific forestry and its influence in the Mekong Region

1 Nov

Scientific forestry emerged in the mid-eighteenth century in Europe and has had a pervasive influence in the Mekong region.

By Chris Lang and Oliver Pye. Published in Watershed Vol. 6, No. 2, November 2000 – February 2001, pp 25-34.

From its emergence in the mid-eighteenth century in Europe to its present pervasive influence in the Mekong region, scientific forestry is a tool used by industrial foresters to separate nature from rural livelihoods and to organise society to meet the demands of a global timber economy.

The commercialisation of nature and the growth of the global timber economy have their roots in scientific forestry. Chris Lang and Oliver Pye trace the socio-political roots of scientific forestry and the reasons for its dominating influence on forest management in the Mekong region.

In 1905, W. F. L. Tottenham, the British Director-General of the Royal Forestry Department in Thailand between 1901 and 1904, argued that logging in Thailand was “exceeding possibilities”. He estimated that the yield of the Chao Phraya valley forests should be 30,000 logs per year and noted that the actual number of logs passing the revenue station in Paknampho in 1897 was 56,000 logs; in 1899 it was 108,530; and in 1903 it was 93,000. Tottenham’s concern was that the supply of teak for export from Thailand should be maintained for the benefit of the British Empire.

Almost one hundred years later, forestry consultants for the Asian Development Bank (ADB) argue that the “sustained yield” of logging in Cambodia is 500,000 cubic metres (m3) per year, while they point out that the annual capacity of the timber processing industry is 2.1 million m3. The consultants add, “In permitting this level of forest exploitation, Cambodia displays a classic example of unwise forest resource utilization. The country may soon turn from being a net exporter of timber to a net importer.”

In both cases the reasons for concern about the logging yield and the prescriptions for maintaining the supply of logs are similar. Tottenham, the British colonial forester, and the Asian Development Bank’s consultants propose the export of a certain volume of timber so as to maintain the collection of forestry revenue by the state. The prescriptions for dealing with the overexploitation of the forests are also pretty much the same. Forestry “experts” are to manage the forests, “forest crimes” are to be stopped, and village people’s access to the forests is to be limited, particularly if access is seen to threaten the state’s income from the forests. Meanwhile, logging is to continue, under the new title of “sustainable forest management”.

The principles underlying these prescriptions are those of scientific forestry, developed in eighteenth century Europe and imposed on the Mekong Region since the nineteenth century.

In Europe, the process of enclosure, the establishment of state control over forests and the implementation of scientific forestry took several hundred years. The process was characterised by a conflict between the state (and its forestry department) and the rural populations. State control was imposed by systematic legal restrictions on the customary rights of local communities and by repression, including violence.

Europe’s forests were once very diverse and varied from mountains to lowlying areas, to wetlands, to river banks, to floodplains. Northern Scandinavia featured boreal forests dominated by spruce, pine and birch; birch and pine grew in the Caledonian forests of Scotland; broadleaved forests dominated by lime covered much of western and central Europe; oak, birch, ash and alder forests grew in Ireland; beech and hornbeam forests covered large areas of Germany; chestnut forests grew in southern France; beech and fir grew in the lower Alps mountain range; and cork oak and pine forests dominated the Mediterranean with cypress and cedar forests in the eastern Mediterranean.

European woodlands formed a part of agriculture, providing not only another area for pasture, but also fertilizer – for example, German farmers mixed farmyard manure with twigs and branches from forests to maintain the productivity of their fields. Foliage was used as fodder and thatched roofs, food for domestic animals and people, bark and roots for medicine and tanning, sap for resins, and so on. Wood was used for home heating and building.

Forms of forest management developed in association with agriculture and were continued for hundreds of years. Coppice woods, for example, (in which trees are cut at intervals of several years and the shoots allowed to regrow from the cut stumps) yield a large range of products such as poles, branches, timber, leaves and fuel woods.

The restriction of community rights to the forests began before the imposition of state forestry geared to timber production. Between the tenth and the sixteenth centuries, feudal lords gradually restricted peasant’s access to formerly communally managed forests and charged dues and tithes for forest pasture, fuelwood collection, acorn grazing by pigs and hunting.

This general loss of rights to use the forests was one of the factors leading to the German Peasant War of 1524-25. The peasants (the rural farming class, composed of small-scale farmers – the majority of the German population) summarised their demands in 12 articles, six of which related to forests, including the right to hunt and fish freely, the reinstatement of community forests, the reduction of corvée labour (unpaid labour for the ruling class) and generally the return to independently managed community forests. The military defeat of the peasants led to increased state and private control of forests and the establishment of forest police services.

As demand for industrial uses of timber increased, deciduous woodlands (consisting of trees that shed their leaves annually such as oak and ash) were logged and replanted with monoculture conifer plantations (consisting of trees that bear cones such as pine and spruce). In Germany over the past two hundred years, the proportion of deciduous to conifer tree cover has been reversed, and today Norway spruce and Scots pine account for two-thirds of the country’s tree cover.

Today, very little remains of Europe’s forests. Although statistics of forest cover indicate that over 30 per cent of Europe is currently forested, such statistics do not reveal that much of this “forest” is in fact plantations grown to produce timber or to supply pulp and paper mills. (See Box: Plantations and Forests.) Since 1950, almost half of the remaining area of Britain’s “ancient semi-natural woodland” (defined as woodland that has existed continuously since 1600 in England and 1750 in Scotland) has been converted to conifer plantations. According to Simon Pryor, a UK-based forester in private practice, “It is now recognised that many such plantations have not been a silvicultural, commercial or environmental success.”

Plantations and forests

The English word ‘forest’ derives from the Latin foris which means “outside”. The Latin verb ‘forestare’ means to keep out, to place off limits, to exclude. The German word forst may have meant a tract of land covered in trees, but when the word was first used in England (introduced by William the Conqueror in the 11th century) it referred to unfenced land on which deer were kept, and special forest laws protected the deer. This ‘forest’ land included moorland and heath as well as areas where there were trees. For example, the legal boundary of Waltham Forest enclosed 60,000 acres but the area covered by trees never extended much more than the current 6,000 acres of Epping Forest.

Since the 11th century, the meaning of ‘forest’ has changed from describing an area covered by specific laws to an area covered with trees.

In Germany today, a spruce-monoculture plantation is defined, by law and in the opinion of most foresters, as a forest. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) supports this position and includes plantations within its definition of forest.

In fact, plantations and forests are very different. As Ricardo Carrere, a Uruguayan forester explains, “Plantations and forests are both full of trees, but the two are radically different. A forest functions as a complex regenerating system, comprising soil, water, microclimate, energy and a wide variety of plants and animals in mutual relation. A commercial tree plantation, on the other hand, is a cultivated area whose species and structure have been simplified dramatically to produce only a few goods, whether lumber, fuel, resin, oil, or fruit. A plantation’s trees, unlike those of a forest, tend to be of a small range of species and ages, and to require extensive and continuing human intervention.”


Harrison, R. P. (1992) Forests. The Shadow of Civilization. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Rackham, O. (1986) The History of the Countryside. London: Dent.

The roots of scientific forestry: Eighteenth century Germany

Scientific forestry developed in Germany towards the end of the eighteenth century. Although it was not unique to Germany, and similar systems developed in Scandinavia and France, forestry science appeared first in Germany and provides the clearest example of the way forests were removed from local, rural economies and comprehensively redesigned to serve the needs of an industrialising state economy.

Forestry science (Forstwissenschaft) developed as a sub-discipline of “cameral science” – named after the chamber (Kammer) in which a prince’s advisors planned the economic affairs of the land. As well as forestry, cameral sciences covered a wide range of state concerns including economics, finance, police, mining, agriculture and trade. With increasing industrialisation during the eighteenth century, forests made up an increasingly large sector in the state economies of central Europe. Industrial uses such as pit-props for mining, fuelwood for salt production and glass production, beech for furniture production, and oak for ship building led to more restrictions of local use of forests for subsistence in favour of industrial production.

The state’s main interest in forests was represented by a single number—the revenue yield that might be extracted annually by cutting down trees. The problem facing the forest managers of the eighteenth century was thus to estimate as accurately as possible how much timber could be cut from a certain area of forest in a given year, and in future years. Forest management in the eighteenth century consisted of simply dividing the forest into equal plots with the number of plots equal to the assumed growth cycle of the trees. For example, if the trees in a particular forest were assumed to take 120 years to grow before they could be cut, the forest would be divided into 120 plots and each year the trees in one plot would be felled. Because forests are not homogeneous and the maps of forests were poor, some year’s timber harvests would be far more valuable than others.

The first attempts at measuring forests were crude and involved simply counting trees in a sample area of the forest according to a simple size classification. Foresters would walk through the sample area with a known number of differently coloured nails. The nails corresponded to five classes of tree sizes. Every tree received a nail of the appropriate colour, until the whole sample plot had been covered. Then the foresters simply subtracted the number of nails left of each colour from the number they started with to determine how many trees of each size class the sample plot contained. The foresters would then extrapolate from this sample plot to the entire forest area to determine the amount of timber in the whole forest.

Mathematicians subsequently produced yield tables which allowed foresters to calculate the usable volume of timber from a standardised tree (Normalbaum) of a known species, age, and diameter. Foresters could more accurately predict the value of a forest if the trees growing in it conformed to the standardised, predictable trees in the mathematicians’ tables. A forest containing fewer species, of more value commercially, was both easier to measure and of more value to the state economy.

The next logical step in the development of forest science was therefore to replace the untidy, unpredictable, chaotic forests which produced a wide range of products for a wide range of different people, with logical, predictable plantations which produced consistent, predictable and large quantities of timber for industrial use. The ultimate goal of the scientific forester was to know how much timber was in a plantation or forest without leaving the office—the data could be simply read from tables and maps. For this reason, foresters established monocultures predominantly of Norway spruce or Scots pine planted in straight rows on vast rectangular tracts of land.

Several writers were influential in developing the principles of scientific forestry. Heinrich Cotta published several scientific works including Systematic Guidelines for the Valuation of Woodlands and An Introduction to Silviculture. George Ludwig Hartig, a senior Prussian forester, advised foresters to develop single species plantations of industrially valuable trees. Writing in 1833, he stated, “[I]f soil and location are suitable, the cultivation of Norway spruce cannot be recommended urgently enough.”

Another influential author in the development of scientific forestry was Friedrich Wilhelm Pfeil, the first director of the Eberswald Academy of Forestry. In 1856, he wrote, “One should manage the forest so as to guarantee the highest sustained financial revenue, when all usable products are calculated in money.” Here Pfeil unambiguously states the purpose of scientific forestry. Inherent in his statement is the exclusion of local communities and all subsistence uses of the forest.

Forest laws in Europe

    “Liberty and Forest Laws are Incompatible.”
    An English country vicar c.1729.

Forest laws were introduced, for example in Germany in 1833, to impose restrictions on village people’s use of forests. The new forestry scientists believed that the exclusion of people from the forests and the separation of forest and agricultural uses, such as wood pasture, was essential to guarantee the survival of the forests.

However, local populations depended on the forests for a range of products, and continued to graze animals, collect firewood and make charcoal in the forests and the newly planted plantations. Foresters saw such use not as a viable form of forest management, but as an obstacle to achieving the foresters’ dream of a predictable, standard forest.

The state justified a series of forest laws restricting access to forests on the grounds that there was a scarcity of wood and a danger that farmers and peasants would destroy the forests. In 1797, John Bechstein, a member of the Waltershausen Forestry Society – one of many such economic and scientific societies established at that time in Germany – described the role of “shortage, need, alarm” in the development of forestry science.

In 1841, the Rhine Province Assembly passed a Law of the Thefts of Wood. The Law was in favour of forest owners and made local people’s gathering of dead wood from forests a crime, punishable by a fine and a penal sentence of up to two years hard labour in the forest. The following year Karl Marx, in a newspaper article in the Rheinische Zeitung, remarked, “We are only surprised that the forest owner is not allowed to heat his stove with the wood thieves.” Marx argued that the basic principle of the legislation was “that the interests of the forest owner shall be safeguarded even if this results in destroying the world of law and freedom.”

As part of the spontaneous revolutionary uprisings throughout most of Europe in 1848, peasants in Germany demanded the end of private and state restrictions on the use of forests. Upset by restrictions on grazing in woodlands, resin tapping and the rights to timber, peasants all over the country chased forestry officials out of forests and demanded the dissolution of the forest police.

The new conifer plantations, especially those developed in previously forested areas, deprived peasants of a source of fuelwood, as there was little deadwood in the plantations. In Würtemberg, for example, peasants protested the transformation of beech forests into Norway spruce monocultures, and in April 1848 farmers from the Aachener region destroyed spruce plantations.

Ecological impacts of scientific forestry in Europe

From a purely economic point of view, the new plantations were a huge success, at least when the first generation of trees were harvested. Wood from the plantations supplied large quantities of uniform wood to industry, the economic return from forest land was increased and the rotation period (the length of time taken for trees to reach a harvestable size) was decreased.

However, the level of productivity of the plantations did not continue to be consistently high. Richard Plochmann, a professor at the University of Munich and District Chief of the Bavarian Forest Service, in his book Forestry in the Federal Republic of Germany published in 1968, describes the drop in productivity after the first rotation: “Many of the pure stands [of spruce] grew excellently in the first generation but already showed an amazing retrogression [decline in yields] in the second generation.”

Plochmann explains that the reasons for this drop in productivity are complex, involving relations between soil degradation, nutrient cycles, flora and fauna and the leaching of soils. The clearing of underbrush, dead fallen trees and standing dead trees reduced the diversity of insect, mammal and bird populations, which are crucial for soil-building processes. In addition, in single-species plantations, “the ecology of the natural plant associations became unbalanced. Outside of the natural habitat, and when planted in pure stands, the physical condition of the single tree weakens and resistance against enemies decreases.”

These “enemies” of even-aged, single-species conifer plantations, particularly of Norway spruce and Scots pine, include a range of forest insects and fungi. Such “pests” include: the pine looper moth, pine moth, Nun moth, saw flies, bark beetles, pine needle cast fungus, pine blister rust, and honey fungus.

Damage from storms also affects plantations far more severely than forests. In Germany during a series of severe storms in 1990, four out of five of the trees uprooted by the winds were in monoculture plantations.

Chris Maser, international forest consultant and the author of The Re-designed Forest, argues that there is a growing body of evidence that the productivity of plantations is declining in large areas of intensively managed plantations and forests in Europe. Waldsterben, a new word in the German language, describes the increasingly alarming phenomenon of forest death in Europe. However, most of the scientific research into Waldsterben looks for the causes in terms of atmospheric pollution rather than the inherent problems with the model of intensive plantation management as carried out for the last 200 years.

Scientific forestry: Export to the South

The influence and impacts of scientific forestry are unfortunately not limited to Europe. The European colonial powers exported the new science of forestry to their colonies in the South. The primary reason for European colonialism was to secure the supplies of raw materials that were required to feed the expanding industrialisation of Europe.

In mainland Southeast Asia the British Empire expanded as far as Burma and the British dominated and controlled the teak trade in Thailand. The French meanwhile colonised Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. European companies cleared forests to establish extensive coffee plantations in the central highlands of Vietnam and in Pakse province in Laos. Companies such as Michelin converted large areas of forest to rubber plantations, especially in the central highlands of Vietnam. The French colonialists built roads to facilitate extraction of timber, and to increase colonial control over remote areas. Throughout the Mekong Region the colonial era saw the beginning of large-scale industrial exploitation of forests.

The imposition of scientific forestry in Asia took place in two stages. First, the colonialists introduced capitalist exploitation of natural resources to the colonial countries. For the forests this meant logging by European timber companies. When British logging companies arrived in India, Burma and northern Thailand, they viewed the forests as unlimited. Their first task was to log these forests and export the timber.

Once the British colonial administrators realised that the logging companies were simply mining the forests they hurriedly established forestry departments and the second stage of the imposition of scientific forestry began. The newly established state forest agencies employed forestry “experts” who were supposed to ensure the continued supply of timber, regulate the destructive activities of the private companies and impose the monopoly of state and capital in controlling the use of forests.

Until the British established the Forestry School of Dehra Dun in 1879, there was no British school of forestry. The was no supply of trained British foresters and many posts in the British colonial state forestry agencies went to Germans. In 1885, Willhelm Schlich, then-Inspector-General of Forests in India, established the Royal Engineering College at Coopers Hill, in the south of England, in order to train students for the Indian Forest Service. Ten years later he founded and became the first director of the Imperial Forestry Institute, which became part of Oxford University, where it still exists under the less colonial sounding name, the Oxford Forestry Institute.

Britain’s dependence on imported timber from its colonies is indicated by the fact that Britain’s state forest agency, the Forestry Commission, was established as late as 1919, more than 20 years after the Royal Forestry Department in Thailand, and more than 40 years after the Indian Forest Service. Established in the aftermath of World War I, when British ports were blockaded and timber imports were impossible, the Commission’s first goal was to achieve three years’ worth of domestic timber supplies. In order to achieve this, much of what little remained of Britain’s forests was replaced by rows of conifers largely of Sitka spruce, and huge areas of moors were ploughed up and planted.

During the nineteenth century the British firmly established themselves as world leaders in deforestation, having destroyed most of their own forests as well as those of Ireland, southern Africa and northeastern USA to obtain timber for shipbuilding, iron smelting and to create agricultural land.

The first priority of the British colonial regime regarding the forests was therefore to extract timber. Shipbuilding consumed vast quantities of teak in India. The first warship constructed completely of teak, the 36-cannon frigate HMS Salsette, was launched in 1805 from Bombay. Between 1835 and 1855, Indian shipbuilders built 123 large teak ships for the British. Large quantities of teak were also sent back to England.


In Burma, the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, a British company, began to exploit Burma’s teak forests after the British captured Tenasserim in 1826. Rapid deforestation resulted from this commercial logging. In 1856, in an attempt to limit the rate of deforestation, and to implement reforestation programmes, the British colonial authorities appointed Dietrich Brandis as superintendent of the teak forests of Pegu division in eastern Burma. Brandis was a German botanist who had previously worked as a teacher in Bonn University.

In his new job as forester, Brandis aimed to assert state control over the teak forests, and to convert natural forests into stands of predominantly teak timber. He explained, “the reproduction of the Teak cannot be satisfactory unless Reserved Forests are established, to be converted gradually into more or less compact Teak Forests, which can be guarded more effectually than is possible at present against fires, creepers and other injury.”

Many of the teak forests in Burma were in areas controlled by militant indigenous groups such as the Karen. Brandis helped develop taungya (literally “field crops of the hills”) forest systems. Under the taungya system, Karen village people could plant their crops but were also required to plant teak seedlings on the same land. As the teak trees grew, the village people moved to new land and repeated the process. In this way many village people became dependent on the state forestry service and thus local resistance to the state takeover of forests became more difficult.

Raymond Bryant describes how the formerly rebellious Karen were effectively co-opted into teak reforestation: “[T]he taungya forestry system was attractive precisely because it was a means to regulate, and gradually eliminate shifting cultivation from Burma’s forests. In effect, each acre planted was an acre no longer available for use by the hill Karen.”


In December 1862, Brandis was promoted to work in India. Three years later the Indian Forest Service was created under a Government Forest Act, with Brandis as the first Inspector-General of Forests. Under Brandis the forests were surveyed and demarcated and the best forests in terms of timber production were reserved as state forests. This process involved the dispossession of the people living in and near the forests, and the management of the forests by professionally trained foresters, largely hired from Germany. These “state forests” were managed for timber production according to written, formal plans.

In 1878, a new Forest Act was passed, which detailed the establishment of reserved forests, and which excluded any existing users’ rights to the forest. After logging, the forests were completely closed to allow regeneration—people and cattle were excluded.

Village people protested the enclosure of forests, and continued to lop trees, graze animals and burn the forest floor to encourage a fresh crop of grass to grow. Before the imposition of scientific forestry, grazing in forests had reduced the growth of shrubs and grass removing competition for deodar and Chir pine saplings. Grazing also reduced the amount of inflammable undergrowth, thus reducing fire risks. Banning grazing meant that when fires did break out there was much more accumulated grass and debris to burn and the fires were much more fierce. Fires under scientific forestry regimes often meant that all young trees were killed, whether in plantations or in areas of natural regeneration.


Since the eighteenth century, British companies had logged and exported teak from the forests of northern Siam. But it was the Bowring Treaty, signed in 1855, that effectively opened up Siam to British trade in exchange for an agreement that Britain would not annex the Kingdom as a colony. As a consequence of this treaty much of the forests of Thailand’s central region, in the lower Chao Phraya River Basin, were logged, cleared and converted into rice fields to produce rice for export to Western colonies in the rest of Southeast Asia.

The British colonialists wrested control of forest resources from the former local rulers and thus guaranteed their trade and the secure investment of their capital. In the 1874 Anglo-Siam Treaty, for example, jurisdiction and revenue control of the teak forests was taken away from the Jao, the rulers of Siam’s neighbouring and tributary territories, and representatives from the court in Bangkok were stationed in Chiang Mai. Siamese guard stations were placed along the Chao Phraya River to prevent theft of the teak logs that were floated down the river to Bangkok for export.

Meanwhile the northern forests were being logged at an ever increasing rate. In 1895, Herbert Slade, the deputy Conservator of Forests in Burma, conducted a six-month inspection of Siam’s forests, and advised the King to nationalise the forest and set up a forestry service to attempt to limit the rate of logging by the timber companies.(1) The following year, Slade became Director-General of the newly founded Royal Forest Department (RFD). Until 1923, the successive Director-Generals of the RFD were British and the department was dominated by British forestry officers.

In 1899, King Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) of Siam formally claimed ownership of all forest lands in the country. The King and the RFD established their control of the forests and banned traditional patterns of forest use. The RFD suppressed village people’s widespread use of teak saplings and poles for house building, as it conflicted with the export of teak timber. Within teak concession areas, the felling or girdling trees under a certain diameter was prohibited. This diameter was increased systematically: from 2.03 metres in 1909 to 2.14 metres in 1923. The use of teak in general was prohibited by law and, at least in part, enforced by the RFD.

In 1904, D. O. Witt, then-Deputy Conservator of Forests, wrote of forestry officials having to “explain to the astonished villagers that a teak tree was no longer the property of the first person who liked to cut it down,” and that a part of foresters’ work included “reporting and, if necessary, prosecuting for infringements of the new rules.”

The construction of a railway line from Chiang Mai to Bangkok consumed a huge amount of timber for sleepers (the ties on which the rails were laid). The railway company was also granted concessions on either side of the railway line to supply fuelwood for the trains.

With the end of the absolute monarchy in Thailand in 1932, forest lands became the property of the state, with concessions still leased to corporations. The National Forest Reserves Act of 1964 led to an expansion of the area of forest land controlled by the state and opened up the forests to further commercial exploitation. Between 1969 and 1979, 516 timber concessions were granted, covering almost half the country’s land area of 513,115 square kilometres.

Although teak continued to dominate Thailand’s wood exports, by 1938 teak exports of 83,000 m3 were dwarfed by the 443,000 m3 of timber logged for Thailand’s domestic market. In 1956, 200,000 m3 of teak was exported and 1,301,000 m3 of other wood species were cut for the domestic market. During the 1970s timber production was officially registered at between 2-3 million m3, down from a peak of 4.5 million m3 in 1968. Thailand’s forest area declined from 274,000 km2 in 1961 to 143,000km2 in 1989. In the mid-1980s the country became a net importer of timber.

During the 1980s, village people blocked logging roads, obstructed logging operations, and occupied logging camps, making work impossible for several logging companies. Buddhist monks ordained trees to protect them from the loggers, and village people set up their own forest protection patrols and planted trees in areas of forest destroyed by logging. As a result of the protest movement, and severe floods which killed more than 300 people in the south of Thailand in 1988, the government declared a nationwide ban on logging concessions in January 1989. All private timber concessions were rescinded. Many Thai companies moved to the forests of neighbouring Burma, Laos and Cambodia to continue logging.

As the forests have disappeared, the RFD, the military and private companies have promoted plans to establish four million hectares of fast-growing tree plantations to feed the pulp and paper industry. Village people’s farmland, pasture and community woodlands are of no interest to the foresters promoting plantations and are simply described as “degraded forest”. Under the banner of “reforestation” village people’s livelihood security continues to be threatened and destroyed.

Forestry consultants: The new colonialists?

The post-World War II decades saw a huge increase in logging and forest destruction throughout the Mekong Region. Economic development in both “free-market” and “communist” countries was characterised by the international division of labour, whereby the South produced raw materials for the expanding industrial production in the North. While Thailand has developed its own industry, creating domestic demand for timber, logging in Burma, Laos and Cambodia continues to be largely for export. Massive damage to Vietnam’s forests as a result of the United States military’s campaign of ‘strategic deforestation’, and demand for timber for the subsequent reconstruction of the country has led to Vietnam becoming a net importer of timber.

The implementation of scientific forestry in the Mekong Region follows a series of stages. First the forests are enclosed, demarcated and the amount of timber estimated. In the second stage the forests are logged. The aim may be to extract a sustained yield of timber, but the reality is that in the third stage the forests are destroyed and replaced by plantations or agriculture. There are few, if any, historical examples of long term sustained yield forestry in the Mekong Region.

In 1885, Dietrich Brandis, India’s first Inspector General of Forests, argued that there was no question about how forests should be managed—scientific forestry was the answer. Writing in the magazine Indian Forester, Brandis stated: “[T]he principles upon which scientific forestry is based, are the same in all countries, and the aim in future must be, as it has been in the past, to build the system of forestry in India . . . upon the results which long experience has furnished in those countries of Europe where scientific forestry is oldest and best understood.”

At the time scientific forestry had existed for little over one hundred years—only one full rotation of trees. As noted above, plantations and intensively managed simplified forests in Europe have run into serious problems since that time. Yet national governments and their international advisers from aid agencies or forestry consulting firms, continue to manage the forests of the Mekong region according to the principles of scientific forestry. This science, as any other science, is not a neutral tool, but comes with a set of political biases. (See box: The Politics of Science.)

The Politics of Science

Science does not operate in a vacuum. Whether “science of culture” such as anthropology, or “science of nature” such as hydrology, botany, ecology or forestry, science is enclosed in the politics of its time. Science derives many of its variables and questions, as well as its directions and funding, from wider contemporary social currents.

International forestry research networks illustrate well how this works in practice. Professor J. Burley, director of the Oxford Forestry Institute, explains that such forestry research networks usually have one research institute leading the programme. Burley explains that although this research institute is often northern based, this is “neither fortuitous, not a hint of incipient neo-colonialism but a reflection of the support given by donor agencies to international development by encouraging their own national institutions to undertake research . . .”

According to this worldview, as the North is richer than the South it can therefore set the agenda for forest research worldwide. Such an agenda is likely to include research into genetic engineering of trees to benefit the pulp and paper industry, or research into silvicultural techniques to improve yields of eucalyptus trees, but is less likely to include research on the diversity and benefits of swidden cultivation in upland Laos.

Franz Heske, a forester under Hitler’s Nazi regime, provides an extreme example of the reverse phenomenon: how science can be used to justify political ends. Heske argued in favour of German colonial expansion, on the grounds that German forestry was the best in the world and should therefore be exported worldwide. Speaking to US foresters in 1938 Heske argued, “For all time, this century [the nineteenth century] of systematic forest management in Germany, during which the depleted, abused woods were transformed into well-managed forests with steadily increasing yields, will be a shining example for forestry in all the world.”


Burley, J. (1987) International forestry networks – objectives, problems and mangement. Unasylva, 39 (157/158) p. 71.

Lohmann, L. (1999) Forest Cleansing. Racial Oppression in Scientific Nature Conservation. Corner House Briefing Paper No. 13. p. 17.

Although forestry “experts” these days use terms like “sustainable forest management”, “participation”, “consultation” and “stakeholders”, the principle of extracting timber from forests for the benefit of states, private individuals and corporations has not changed. A number of nongovernmental organisations (including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth), governments and United Nations agencies have established certification schemes to ensure northern consumers that the timber they are buying comes from “sustainably managed” forests. Certification may be one way that Northern NGOs can attempt to pressure the timber industry to change, but by reducing forest management to an issue of northern consumer tastes such schemes risk perpetuating imperialism, through the imposition of northern-dominated “standards” for forest management, based on the theories of scientific forestry. Forest certification can also contribute to marginalising discussions of timber demand, production and consumption patterns, inequality and power relations.

During the 1990s, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia have all had forest sector reviews paid for by international “development” agencies. Since colonial times some of the rhetoric may have changed, but there is much that is both structurally and rhetorically similar to, say, the role of foresters when the British ruled in India.


In 1993, the Finnish forestry consulting firm, Jaakko Pöyry Oy, produced the Thai Forestry Sector Master Plan. The Plan included statements such as:

    “The rural poor who depend on forests and forest land have no legal rights over them. Villagers have had no role in decision-making about the forests that they depend on; for some, no role even in decisions about their very lives, as when they were forcibly resettled. The ability of communities and individuals to conserve and manage forests is neither recognised nor appreciated.”

The same study recommended that four million hectares of farmers’ land be given to private companies for fast-growing tree plantations to feed the pulp and paper industry. Poyry’s consultants apparently failed to understand that it is precisely the conversion of community lands and forests to plantations that prevents local communities from conserving and managing their forests.


Similarly, Keith Gray of the Australian forestry consulting firm Fortech, was employed as a consultant for Vietnam’s Tropical Forestry Action Plan. In his report, he advised that investment in the pulp and paper industry would be necessary to consume all the timber that would be supplied by the massive “reforestation” programmes undertaken by the Vietnamese government. Gray’s report does not mention the impacts on local communities of large scale monoculture eucalyptus plantations, or the fact that the Bai Bang pulp mill in north Vietnam has faced almost continuous problems obtaining raw material since it first went on-line in the early 1980s. Forests have been cleared, bamboo cleared and pulp imported to keep the 50,000 ton mill operating. The Vietnamese government is currently finalising plans to expand the mill to double its size.

Proponents of the Bai Bang project argue that it has led to the “greening of the barren hills”. In fact much of what has been planted is eucalyptus and serves only to supply raw material to the mill. Its value otherwise for villagers is minimal, and the ecological impacts are large. In the vast numbers of studies of Bai Bang over the last thirty years, including a Swedish government aid agency-funded evaluation published in 1999, issues relating to the impacts of monoculture eucalyptus plantations are downplayed or ignored completely.

At the same time as planning to double the capacity of Bai Bang, the Vietnamese government is negotiating funding from international aid agencies for a project named the “Five million hectare reforestation programme”. According to the 1999 Swedish-funded review of the Bai Bang pulp and paper mill, the scheme will include one million hectares of plantations to feed the pulp and paper industry.

Huang Xuan Ty, Director of the Hanoi-based Research Centre for Forest Ecology and the Environment, is currently researching local forest management techniques. In a recent interview with Montreal-based journalist Julie Meunier, he described a pine plantation established to supply the Bai Bang mill in an area that because of the high rainfall “is not suitable for such a [plantation] project”. Five years after the trees were planted a fungus destroyed the entire plantation. Ty added that villagers living nearby the failed plantation have their own forestry management systems, involving growing bamboo and other species beneficial to them.


In Laos, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is funding an Industrial Tree Plantation Project. As the name of the project suggests it aims to supply wood-fibre to industry. The US$14 million project comprises 10,000 hectares of eucalyptus, acacia and teak plantations. The area of fast-growing tree plantations planted each year in Laos is accelerating, from 4,000 hectares in 1994, to 13,000 hectares in financial year 1996-1997.

In recent years, several Thai companies have planned the expansion of their plantation operations to Laos – to avoid the controversies and protests that have arisen in Thailand because of eucalyptus plantations there.

The ADB’s consultants recommend something similar to a taungya system: “In fragile watershed areas joint implementation schemes should be aimed at; the communities would provide labour and some monetary contribution while state subsidies for market inputs would make the plantations financially attractive.” According to the consultants the communities and the Lao government should subsidise plantation establishment, in order to maximise private sector profit.

Another project in Laos, the Forest Management and Conservation Project (Fomacop) aimed to develop a model of “village forestry” under which village people would log their community forests. The US$20 million project was funded by the World Bank, Global Environment Facility and Finlands International Development Agency (FINNIDA) – with the Finnish consulting firm Jaakko Pöyry (not surprisingly) winning the contract to implement the project.

According to project documents, village people were trained in “the essentials of forest management including surveying, inventory, forest practices and financial management. This process leads to preparation of a written forest management plant including detailed harvest prescriptions.” In other words, village people are taught the basics in how to manage forests according to the theories of scientific forestry.

Before Fomacop collapsed earlier this year, preliminary studies were made into the feasibility of assessing “village forestry” according to the standards developed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for sustainable forest management. Among the flood of rumours regarding the project’s demise is one that Lao government officials were worried that the bribes they are currently receiving from the logging industry would disappear under an externally audited system such as that required to meet FSC standards.

ScanCom, a Danish furniture company with operations in Vietnam, offered to buy timber from the project subject to it achieving FSC certification. The Lao government however, refused to sell the timber to ScanCom. According to a World Bank Aide Memoire dated February 2000, the Lao government lost US$800,000 in royalties, based on the offer they did accept. Meanwhile, the village people involve in logging their forests under the project lost a further US$700,000.

Assuming that ScanCom’s offer was based on international timber prices for timber, and that the World Bank’s figures are accurate, the offer the Lao government did accept was US$1.5 million below the international price. Partly as a result of this, the World Bank, Finnida and Sida are currently undertaking a Production Forest Review for Laos, due to be completed next year.


Since 1996, international aid organisations have made their continued funding to Cambodia conditional on improvements in the country’s forestry sector. In May 1996, the International Monetary Fund suspended Cambodia’s Enhanced Structural Adjustment Fund payments on the grounds that the Cambodian government had failed to “observe safeguards with respect to illegal logging and other forms of corruption”.

At recent meetings of the Cambodia Consultative Group, held by international development agencies and chaired by the World Bank, the mood appears to have become distinctly imperial. At the 1999 meeting in Tokyo, Canada’s delegation was headed by Bob Johnston, an official at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). In his presentation, having stressed the “urgency of redressing Cambodia’s unsustainable forest sector management,” and having agreed that “immediate forest sector reform is essential,” Johnston offered Canadian expertise to help manage Cambodia’s forests. “Canada’s extensive experience in sustainable forest management . . . may be strategically accessed to help Cambodia address its forest management needs”. Johnston of course failed to mention the impact of industrial forestry on Canada’s forests, or the protests against such forestry. For example, in the mid-1990s, protests against logging in watershed forests near Clayoquot Sound on Canada’s west coast, led to over a thousand arrests, in one of the largest environmental protests in Canada’s history.

Common sense, not science

Scientific forestry continues to blind governments and forestry departments in the Mekong Region. Unable, or unwilling, to see the local realities of communities and their economies, national governments and “expert” advisers from international finance institutions such as the World Bank and ADB continue to view forests in terms of revenue value to the state and as potential income generation through taxes and export. Once the forests are logged, according to these forestry “experts”, single-species, even aged plantations can provide wood-fibre to industry more efficiently and more cheaply.

Fortunately, there are foresters who reject the model of scientific forest management. To illustrate the narrow vision of scientific foresters, Ricardo Carrere describes the growth of the coronilla (Scutia buxifolia) a tree native to Uruguay. The tree is very useful to farmers because it provides very dense and therefore very valuable fuelwood, and because the hanging branches of the tree provide shade for sheep in Uruguay’s otherwise treeless grasslands. Foresters, trained to measure trees only in terms of the volume of timber produced consider the tree very slow growing. Carrere however, has measured a year’s growth of the tree not by measuring the diameter at breast height and the height of the tree as a forester is trained to do, but by measuring the length of each branch of the tree. He concludes that the tree grew a total of 2.24 metres, a growth rate similar to the fastest growing eucalyptus tree.

In Nong Yak village, Surin province, northeast Thailand, the difference between scientific foresters’ and village people’s views of forests is clearly evident. In the early 1990s, eight communities grouped together to re-establish community forest on land reclaimed from a eucalyptus plantation. The community forest has regenerated, and provides many goods and products to village people. In contrast, surrounding the community forest area are the rows of eucalyptus trees that provide village people with nothing. The people are especially excited about the return of red ants to their community forest – the ant’s eggs are used in spicy laab salads, a delicacy of their local cuisine.

Scientific forestry was developed in Europe as a means of producing timber to feed industrial development. As part of that process forests were forcibly separated from the livelihoods of local communities and were no longer managed with the knowledge of local people. Forest management was separated from agriculture and animal pasture, and focussed exclusively on the production of timber. Fast-growing monoculture tree plantations constitute the ultimate step in that direction, simplifying nature to produce one product for industry.

Throughout the South, local communities continue to resist the spread of scientific forestry. Village people continue to graze animals in forests, organise meetings, reclaim community forests from plantations, block logging roads to protest logging and burn down plantations. Such movements reject the main assumption underlying scientific forestry: that the purpose of forests is to produce timber for industry.


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1. According to a 1898 report on trade in Chiang Mai, six companies dominated the teak trade, three of them British, one French, one Danish and one Chinese. The Chinese company, the Kim Seng Lee Company, was taken over by the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation in 1899.

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