Culture and the Question of Rights

Forests, Coasts, and Seas in Southeast Asia

Culture and the Question of Rights

Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 16 b&w photos, 7 maps Published: April 2003

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > Southeast Asia, Environmental Studies

This collection of ethnographic and interpretive essays fundamentally alters the debate over indigenous land claims in Southeast Asia and beyond. Based on fieldwork conducted in Malaysia and Indonesia during the 1980s and 1990s, these studies explore new terrain at the intersection of environmental justice, nature conservation, cultural performance, and the politics of making and interpreting claims.
Calling for radical redefinitions of development and ownership and for new understandings of the translation of culture and rights in politically dangerous contexts—natural resource frontiers—this volume links social injustice and the degradation of Southeast Asian environments. Charles Zerner and his colleagues show how geographical areas once viewed as wild and undeveloped are actually cultural artifacts shaped by complex interactions with human societies. Drawing on richly varied sources of evidence and interpretation—from trance dances, court proceedings, tree planting patterns, marine and forest rituals, erotic poems, and codifications of customary law, Culture and the Question of Rights reveals the ironies, complexities, and histories of contemporary communities’ struggles to retain their gardens, forests, fishing territories, and graveyards. The contributors examine how these cultural activities work to both construct and to lay claim to nature. These essays open up new avenues for negotiating indigenous rights against a background of violence, proliferating markets, and global ideas of biodiversity and threatened habitat.

Contributors. Jane Atkinson, Don Brenneis, Stephanie Fried, Nancy Peluso, Marina Roseman, Anna Tsing, Charles Zerner


"[A] delightful volume. . . . The eight chapters in this volume open up a space for contemplating the common fate of people and nature in the modern world. Culture and the Question of Rights will be theoretically engaging to critical scholars of nature and culture hybridity, and it will capture the attention of undergraduates exploring Southeast Asian environments for the first time." — Celia Lowe , American Anthropologist

"[A] fascinating collection. . . . The papers are capably done and politically understated. As a group, they constitute a critique of neo-liberal policies with their pragmatic focus on property relations, extraction, and profit." — Levon Chorbajian, Journal of Intercultural Studies

"[A] valuable addition to the literature of political ecology of Southeast Asia. . . . It is obvious that the subjects of "culture and the question of rights" must be reexamined in the context of current social change. This book, by focusing on nature as a political product and by framing claim-making in the sphere of communication, would serve as an appropriate starting-point for scholars and policy makers concerned with these issues."
— Yoonhee Kang , Anthropological Quarterly

"[F]or any scholar or practitioner this remarkable book is well worth pondering." — Leslie E. Sponsel , Society & Natural Resources

"[T]he papers in this edited collection . . . make cutting-edge contributions to academic and political debates around ideas of access, control, ownership and rights to and with 'nature.'" — Paul K. Gellert , Pacific Affairs

"[This] book provides a thought-provoking examination of the interrelationships between culture and the rights to natural resources. Anyone interested in natural-resource rights and management would benefit from a careful reading of this well-researched and well-written volume." — Richard B. Pollnac , Journal of Asian Studies

"As a contribution to anthropology, Zerner’s collection works to bring rich and thick ethnography and an appreciation for aesthetics to the forefront of political ecology without reinscribing cultural performance as some sort of anthropological curio and marker of Otherness. . . . The book would work well in both upper-level undergraduate seminars in anthropology, geography, environmental studies, and conservation biology and in graduate seminars." — Paige West , American Ethnologist

"In addition to finding a place alongside other valuable work in political ecology, Southeast Asian studies, and law and anthropology, the book joins a much broader contemporary intellectual countertradition ranging from research in the social studies of science and feminist literary criticism all the way to 1984 and the Philosophical Investigations. In its pages, travelers come home to remind us English-speaking intellectuals once again that familiar webs of meaning and belief can bind us as tightly as those on whom we would impose them." — Larry Lohmann , Corner House

"This important book presents a collection of essays and ethnographic case studies on a subject of great importance to practitioners and theoreticians of environmental management." — Carol Warren , Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management

"While Zerner and his contributors offer strategic possibilities for wider recognition of minority group tenures, the value of this collection lies in its evocative ethnographic portrayals of local experience and the rich and subtle ways in which human communities engage and strategically fashion cultural claims to landscapes of meaning." — Andrew McWilliam, Asian Studies Review

"Zerner has exposed us to the problems of indigenous people everywhere, not just those in Southeast Asia. This book is recommended reading for anyone interested in Southeast Asia and international studies." — Cynthia T. Cook, International Third World Studies Journal and Review

“A timely and exciting volume. Its cutting-edge scholarship goes to the heart of debates about the relations among land, people, and what is problematically called ‘culture.’ While offering no easy answers, the contributors’ voices together bring home the point that local farmers and fishers, scholars, activists, and development workers all need to rethink their ideas about rights and claims to seas, forests, and other resources.” — Laurie J. Sears, University of Washington

“An enormously important volume that is sure to provoke a great deal of discussion about the discourse of indigenous rights. Without question one of the most original interventions into the issue in recent years, it shifts the ground of the debate, providing a way for us to think about the issue of rights in ways that are polyphonic, aesthetic, and performative.” — J. Peter Brosius, University of Georgia

“In this valuable and important book, we see villagers articulating their relationship to the natural environment, not through cadastral surveys and claims of right but through songs, speeches, poems, prayers, and spells. Too often, government officials and other ‘experts’ tend to ignore such practices and impose rigid conceptions of law, space, and time. These remarkable essays remind us of the extent of the loss that can accompany the triumph of law.” — David M. Engel, University of Buffalo


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Charles Zerner is Barbara B. and Bertram J. Cohn Professor of Environmental Studies at Sarah Lawrence College.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Figures ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction. Moving Translations: Poetics, Performance, and Property in Indonesia and Malaysia / Charles Zerner 1

Cultivating the Wild: Honey-Hunting and Forest Management in Southeast Kilimantan / Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing 24

Sounding the Makassar Strait: The Poetics and Politics of an Indonesian Marine Environment / Charles Zerner 56

Singers of the Landscape: Song, History, and Property Rights in the Malaysian Rainforest / Marina Roseman 109

Writing for Their Lives: Bentian Dayak Authors and Indonesian Development Discourse / Stephanie Gorson Fried 142

Fruit Trees and Family Trees in an Anthropogenic Forest: Property Zones, Resource Access, and Environmental Change in Indonesia / Nancy Lee Peluso 184

Reflections: Toward New Conceptions of Rights / Donald Brenneis 219

Afterword. By Land and By Sea: Reflections on Claims and Communities in the Malay Archipelago / Jane Monnig Atkinson 235

Works Cited 249

List of Contributors 275

Index 277
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2813-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2802-5
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