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The Changing Village Environment in Southeast Asia Applied Anthropology and Environmental Reclamation in the Northern Philippines.

The changing village environment in Southeast Asia: Applied anthropology and environment reclamation in the Northern Philippines By BEN J. WALLACE London: Routledge, 2006. Pp. 130, Plates, Figures, Tables, Maps, Index. doi: 10.1017/S0022463406310995

This book should never have been published. Not because the author has nothing to say but because the substance of the argument would more appropriately have been expressed in article-length form. This is a pity because at the core of Ben Wallace's research is some very valuable data on the impact of village level activities (agriculture, industry, construction and firewood) on progressive forest loss. All this, however, is contained in two chapters comprising some 14 pages of text (excluding some three pages of tables listing common tree species). The rest, unfortunately, is mainly just 'padding'.

Wallace recognises that it is an oversimplification to see deforestation simply in terms of 'misuse' of resources as many of its perpetrators often have no other recourse but to degrade local timber stands given the precarious state of their livelihoods. This book is an account of one such attempt to find a practical solution to the dilemma caused by shrinking woods and growing population, the Ugat ng Buhay or Good Roots Project in the northern Luzon province of Ilocos Norte that combines research into the multipurpose use of various tree species with reforestation. This is what the author refers to as 'applied anthropology'.

The first chapter provides an introduction to the Good Roots Project, the locale and the methodology. Amidst descriptions of the four villages and why they were chosen as the site of the study, there is a discussion on the importance of promoting a more integrated, truly inter-disciplinary approach to land-use strategy that both improves family farms and reclaims surrounding woodlands. This forms the principal conceptual statement of the work. The project is also notable for being a joint venture between business, Caltex (Philippines), an acronym for Chevron Texaco, who supplied the money, government as represented by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources who lent their expertise, and academe in the shape of the Southern Methodist University of Texas that provided the direction (the author) and who ran the whole show. The following two chapters provide some basic 'anthropological' background to the three lowland Ilocano communities and the one upland or 'tribal' Yapayao settlement before Wallace moves on to the only two substantive chapters. The final chapter offers an overall assessment of the project, the problems faced, how they were overcome and gives a final reckoning in terms of seedlings produced. There is also a brief conclusion that brings the reader up to speed with the subsequent history of the project and its successful introduction to other locations throughout the archipelago.

There is some really important and useful material presented in this study on both the species composition and consumption rates of local forests. Wallace and his team of colleagues have carried out a remarkable study on estimating the average number of tree species to be found per hectare in primary and secondary forests, their size distribution, and the volume of timber they yield. This data has been matched by equally impressive ones on local consumption derived from a whole range of activities including kaingin (swidden) agriculture, charcoal-making, construction purposes and use as a fuel. Of particular interest are the candid interviews with illegal loggers that detail the extent and frequency of their operations. This is a very sensitive issue and the researchers deserve to be congratulated on their ability to compile it. It also speaks highly of the degree of 'trust' that the project must have engendered among local participants for them to be willing to divulge such meaningful figures. Based on these statistics, then, Wallace is able to calculate the annual rate of forest loss, showing how unsustainable it is in the long run given projected population increases, and to support his argument on the pressing need for alternative forest uses.

All of the valuable material and data presented in The changing village environment in Southeast Asia will provide 'ammunition' for a whole range of arguments about various consumption and regeneration rates, the impact of illegal logging and its integration into wider community activities, various forest timber yields and much else. It does, however, comprise only a very small part of what is already a very small book of only about a 100 pages. Much of the rest of the material is only peripherally relevant to the study and could easily have been sketched in a couple of brief summaries appended to the introduction and the conclusion.

The other five chapters add very little of substance, and at times becomes rather cliched and on other occasions a trifle vacuous. Thus, the study begins with the remarks of an 'uneducated' old woman, undoubtedly the keeper of tribal lore, who mouths suitable platitudes about the balance of nature, how it has been upset by the rapacious greed of modern society, and how: 'Humankind has taken too much' (p. ix). While this is true, one may also wonder just how many Ilocano husbands still solicit good fortune for their unborn children by jumping three times over their wives during labour as claimed by the author.

The interspersed historical interludes also are debateable at best, such as crediting Ilocanos with pioneering the colonisation of the Southern Philippines (p. 17), and, at other times, downright inexact, such as extending Spain's dominion over the archipelago to a period of 'four hundred years' (p. 23). Entire sections of the text, moreover, are without references of even the most general nature, including a discussion of upland swidden agriculture that overlooks Harold Conklin's seminal work on this topic ( Hanunoo agriculture: A report on an integral system of shifting cultivation in the Philippines [Rome: FAO, 1967]). Even the book's title is somewhat misleading (though, of course this may be a fault of the publisher and not the author). If the study is about Southeast Asia as claimed, then surely there should be at least some attempt at making comparisons with other parts of the region?

Basically, this book is a useful study that deserves serious consideration for all those interested in forest matters. It is just that the author did not need all that space (or wood for that matter) to tell his story.


University of Auckland
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Author:Bankoff, Greg
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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