by Sara Loh
‘Capitalism thrives on crisis. This is its engine of innovation and creativity’ – Sian Sullivan
For neoliberal conservationists around the world, the environmental crisis has been produced (and will be saved) by none other than capitalism itself; for nature, ecotourism is one of many neat solutions that flattens and deadens nature into an abstract, commodifiable object in order to save it; and for us, many believe that selling nature can save it from degradation – a ‘perceived triple win.’ Or as the New York Times proclaimed in 1992, ‘Ecotourism promises the traveler an opportunity to help save the planet (people included) and get a suntan in the process.’
As you scroll down the ‘Activities in Taman Negara Pahang’ (Pahang National Park, in Malaysia)’ page, ‘Visit Kg. Orang Asli (Aborigine Settlement)’ is listed as the fourth activity after the ‘Canopy Walk’, ‘Jungle Trekking’ and ‘Night Jungle Walk’. Other promotional material invites the explorer-ecotourist to ‘enjoy your explorations and protect our Mother Nature’s treasure’ at the same time. These advertisements are banking on the ‘spectacle of nature’ and the human body as a site for accumulation of the emotions and sensations produced by observation of the spectacle. In turn, nature’s spectacle is consumed by ecotourists. Either through travelling to national parks, clicking buttons over the Internet, or paying for an ecotourism adventure, what is seen, understood, reproduced and reinforced is: nature is pristine, people are primitive, life could be so simple.
Taman Negara Pahang and Ecotourism: A Brief History
Taman Negara Pahang was set up by colonial authorities the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), in the 1930s as a product of pre-Second World War concerns about the potential of wildlife to disrupt agriculture and other human developmental activities. The park was modelled on American national parks as a wild natural place where flora, fauna and “savages” were allowed to grow and roam freely. This model preserves the environment without negatively affecting commerce.
Neo-evolutionist and paternalistic colonial policies allowed and still allow the Batek, an ethnic subgroup of Orang Asli (the indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia), to remain in Taman Negara Pahang because they are as yet unsuited to “civilisation”; instead, their “primitive lives” are part of the museum of nature. While the DWNP manages Taman Negara and allows them to stay as long as they only carry out acceptable activities such as subsistence hunting and gathering, the JHEOA (now known as JAKOA – Department for Orang Asli Development) manages their territorial rights, social well-being, and journey towards “civilisation.”
Behind the Façade of Conservation Ecotourism: Ethnocentrism and Nostalgic Consumerism
Private ecotourism brought changes upon everything and everyone, but the Batek continue to perform their role as primitive guardians of the forest in order to belong within the nature of the park (Lye, 2011, p. 50). They have become entrepreneurs of their own ‘shy, gentle, nomadic, hunting and gathering people who live close to nature’ brand to live up to the demand for authentic primitivity from tourists and the government departments. But in order to survive, many of them continue to be entrepreneurs of their forest produce to trade with the outside world, which renders them destroyers (as viewed by the outside world) of nature at the same time. They are visible in Taman Negara as a commodified cultural product but are at the same time seemingly invisible (by being a part of nature) in order to be able to stay in the parks.
These ambivalences reflect a deeper unease with the relationships between people and nature. Boundaries between ‘folk/local’ and ‘scientific/global’ (Lye, 2011, p. 38) are not so clear cut, and in fact, intersect. Protected areas are global in their managerial and scientific methods but these are filtered through ethnocentric Malay (the people working primarily in management) understandings of people and nature. The Malays (prior to and also a result of colonialism and globalisation) see the Orang Asli and nature very much in the same way as our globalised world does: the forest is beyond the world of people and the Orang Asli, because they are part of nature, are also beyond the world of people with the natural spirits, animals and soul-stuff (semangat). They are liar (wild) and border the divide between man and non-man (Lye, 2011, pp. 50-52) and as such cannot yet progress.
For the Batek, the commodification of nature indicates a fluid meaning of themselves – both producers working with the land, as well as service providers working for tourists; and of their environment – which is a source of direct sustenance with use value, as well as a commodity with an exchange value. The idealisation of the Orang Asli as primitive, wild and secluded renders invisible this fluidity of meanings. Instead of ‘protecting mother earth’, the commodification of nature draws upon the ethnocentric colonial roots of conservation – ‘othering’ – and reinforces this ‘othering’ by compelling indigenous peoples to perform wildness for a global ecotourism audience. These overlapping identities create grey areas in which the Batek dwell and find agency to resist controlled interventions. In fact, the Orang Asli have also begun to organise themselves along a common identity market – a self-reflexive, political self-‘othering’ with ecotourism as their (whether through compulsion or choice) means against the encroachment of further development.
Nature, Culture, Capitalism: Who is the Winner?
Nature is allowed to thrive freely, but there are also the environmental costs of eco-travel – carbon footprints and the gradual degradation of rivers and forests due to increasingly built-up areas. Culture, albeit a created one, is performed, and the Batek who embody their mystique are safe, perhaps at the expense of being victims of their own conflicting cultural identities and at risk of being evicted at any time. The consuming ecotourists on the other hand are allowed to momentarily ease their moral consciences through observing conservation but not fully partaking in it on their trip down primitive memory lane where nature and culture are divided. Capitalism thrives like no other due to consumption and categorisation of nature into commodities that can bring profit to the private owners, investors and tourists but this money can be reinvested to alleviate the environmental crisis. All three seem to win and lose to a certain extent, whether through compulsion or choice.
In such a world, the grey magic of the commodity – in this case the spectacle of nature – needs to be constantly pushed back to reveal its ‘constituent fragility.’ The people who exist within this spectacle of nature and their agency to negotiate their own changing identities and lives within these temporal and spatial contexts need to be highlighted. The Batek move freely within and outside Taman Negara due to the ambivalence of DWNP and JHEOA and accentuated by ecotourism’s consumptive ethnocentric filter, are between man and non-man and as such cannot be touched, for now. But what happens when this filter is removed? This ‘perceived triple win’ takes place at the expense of people’s identities and autonomy, and is what allows ecotourism, commodification of nature, or capitalism, to thrive. Visibly, nature is the winner, but invisibly: it is capitalism that wins first place, and people and nature that are relegated to last place.
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Sara Loh is a postgraduate student in the MA Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation, University of Sussex, UK. Prior to this, she worked in urban and rural community development organisations in Malaysia.