“Holes emerging in all the forests”: Swidden, betel nut, and the repurposing of environmental myths in Myanmar

Holes emerging in all the forests”: Swidden, betel nut, and the repurposing of environmental myths in Myanmar

Jared Naimark, MESc 2019 1


Political ecology has long critiqued hegemonic narratives blaming marginal peoples for environmental degradation. Yet, historically constructed myths that blame indigenous swidden agriculture for deforestation persist in tropical forest conservation. This article seeks to understand how such myths evolve amidst a transition from swidden to cash crop agroforestry. Based on an ethnographic case study of a biodiversity conservation project in Tanintharyi Region, Myanmar, it explores the origins and consequences of an emerging environmental narrative that blames cultivation of betel nut (Areca catechu) by returning Karen refugees for causing deforestation. I show how contemporary conservation discourse reifies and repurposes persistent narratives from two key historical moments: 19th century colonial representations of Karen swidden as destructive, and 1990s counterinsurgency campaigns against supposedly dangerous Karen swiddeners. I find that the repurposed narrative blaming betel nut cultivation produces a disingenuously pristine forest to be managed by excluding any Karen agricultural activities, obscuring the political-economic drivers of deforestation and facilitating the Myanmar state’s territorialization of the contested Karen borderlands during the current ceasefire period. These findings suggest further study of the everyday practices of conservationists, and how counter-narratives from below can challenge dominant environmental narratives.


Production of betel nut, a stimulant harvested from the Areca catechu palm, is booming among indigenous Karen communities in the proposed Lenya National Park (LNP) in Tanintharyi Region, Myanmar. Historically, Karen people in Lenya practiced swidden cultivation, known as ku in S’gaw Karen language. They produced upland rice alongside diverse vegetable crops through a rotational “slash and burn” technique, leaving fields fallow for at least seven years until they would regenerate with forest growth, before returning to cultivate. Today however, Karen people in Lenya are converting swidden fallows to perennial cash crop orchards of betel nut, which is then sold through distributors for consumption in cities throughout Myanmar and exported to India. This betel-taungya system adapts traditional ku by planting betel nut seedlings alongside upland rice. After the rice harvest, instead of fallowing the swidden these fields mature into betel nut agroforests, representing the primary income source and livelihood strategy for Karen villagers who have long suffered under the military regime. However, foreign conservationists working in Myanmar blame the Karen betel-taungya system for causing deforestation:

You know they’re clearing the forest to plant betel nut. So, I think overall the impact is nothing compared to oil palm but if you add it all up over a few years it’s still not insignificant. And at some point, they’re gonna have to stop expanding into the forest. Otherwise there won’t be any forest. And that’s just, I mean that’s just fucking simple maths.

Taking this conservationist view of betel nut as a starting point, my research examines how the hegemonic narrative blaming indigenous swiddeners for deforestation evolves amidst a transition to cash crop agroforestry. Political ecology has long critiqued environmental narratives that blame marginal people for causing degradation (Robbins 2012). The myth that indigenous swiddeners are misusing or destroying the environment has been historically constructed and deployed by elites in order to justify taking control of swiddener’s territories (Dove 1983, 2015). Myths denigrating swidden have facilitated state territorialization through the creation of forest reserves (Vandergeest and Peluso 1995) and policies outlawing swidden throughout Southeast Asia (Fox et al. 2009). Despite decades of work by environmental anthropologists showing otherwise, the myth that indigenous swiddeners are to blame for deforestation persists (Doolittle 2010:70) and continues to inform ubiquitous policy narratives (Colfer et al. 2015). Thus, my research seeks to understand the emerging narrative blaming Karen betel-taungya within the historical and political context of blaming Karen swidden. What political aims does this narrative serve? What acts of dispossession does it enable? And what are the material consequences for local livelihoods and biodiversity conservation?

I analyze these questions using Gregory Simon’s (2018:72) framework of “disingenuous natures” defined as: “the management interventions and coinciding social-ecological conditions that emerge from faulty science, partial data and erroneous environmental narratives.” Disingenuous natures hinge on the continuous upcycling of environmental myths through a process of narrative repurposing, in which: “knowledge residues of the colonial past are carried forward and reproduced in contemporary—yet geographically disparate, and politically convenient—global resource management contexts” (Simon and Peterson 2018:5) These upcycled narratives of environmental change are made durable through the management regimes they inform, reifying the narrative and producing “disingenuous natures” (Simon and Peterson 2018). Such environments are disingenuous, because “despite being constructed by surreptitious knowledge, incomplete science and fictitious histories—they are understood and managed as if they were a legitimate, authentic and thus genuine depiction of past and contemporary socioecological interactions” (Simon and Peterson 2018:5).

In this article, which synthesizes key findings of my master’s thesis research into the controversy over Lenya National Park, I show how conservationists are actively repurposing a persistent environmental myth by blaming Karen betel-taungya for deforestation. First, I review my qualitative research methods which draw on anthropology and political ecology. Next, I provide a brief historical and political context to conservation in Tanintharyi Region. I then go on to examine how the betel-taungya narrative marks the beginnings of a repurposed environmental myth, building upon two key historical moments: 19th century colonial representations of Karen swidden and 1990s counterinsurgency campaigns against the Karen. Based on interviews with conservationists, I illuminate how these old narratives are being upcycled to fit the current conservation agenda for establishing protected areas. Finally, I conclude with some insights for further study of persistent environmental myths, including how counter-narratives from below can contest dominant narratives. Overall, I find that the repurposed narrative produces Lenya National Park as a disingenuous forest to be managed by excluding any Karen agricultural activities, obscuring the political-economic drivers of deforestation and facilitating the Myanmar state’s territorialization of the contested Karen borderlands during the current ceasefire period.


This article is based on 10 weeks of qualitative social science field-based research in Myanmar from May-August 2018. I draw primarily on 39 semi-structured interviews with conservationists and Karen villagers about their perspectives on Lenya National Park and betel nut cultivation. Interviews with Karen villagers in LNP were carried out with assistance from Karen staff of the Conservation Alliance Tanawthari (CAT), who I am collaborating with to apply this research towards indigenous rights advocacy. CAT staff provided consecutive translation of interviews from Burmese and S’gaw Karen language to English, which I audio recorded and transcribed. These were coded based on perspectives on betel nut, and analyzed using a grounded theory and political ecology approach. Interview data is complemented by ethnographic participant observation in conservation workshops and village agricultural activities, analysis of conservation project documents, and historical research using both primary and secondary sources. In order to protect the identities of those who participated in this research project, I omit the names of all informants, villages and conservation organizations.

Historical and political context of Lenya National Park

After Burma gained independence in 1948 the Karen National Union (KNU) took up arms fighting for Karen independence, and now political autonomy under a federal system. Since then, Southeast Myanmar has seen seven decades of civil war (Jolliffe 2016). In the 1990s, Myanmar’s military carried out brutal counterinsurgency campaigns targeting civilians. As a result, an estimated 80,000 Karen people remain displaced from Tanintharyi, either as refugees in Thailand or internally displaced persons (IDPs). The KNU entered into a preliminary, bilateral ceasefire agreement with the military in 2012, which has opened up formerly off limits areas in Tanintharyi Region to “ceasefire capitalism” (Woods 2011) in the form of large-scale natural gas, coal, tin, and oil palm projects. It is in this context of a war-torn, militarized resource frontier of shifting territorial control during a tenuous ceasefire period that conservationists have arrived to implement their projects.

Containing the largest remaining intact, lowland, wet evergreen forest in a unique biogeographic transition zone, Tanintharyi is constructed as holding global importance for the conservation of endangered and endemic species (Donald et al. 2015). Conservationists are working in partnership with the Myanmar government to vastly expand and improve management and connectivity of the protected area network in the region, including establishing the 780,000-acre Lenya National Park (LNP). However, Karen indigenous rights activists have lodged an official complaint against LNP, over concerns it would prevent displaced Karen people from returning to their customary lands—a process which has already begun on a small scale. Because of this complaint, the park’s future remains in flux. This paper thus serves as a close examination of one of the flashpoints in the ongoing controversy over LNP: conservation discourse that blames Karen betel-taungya for causing deforestation.

The colonial narrative blaming Karen swidden emerges

Karen in the uplands of Myanmar and Thailand are the descendants of a long process of evading lowland states, likely practicing swidden cultivation because it is less “legible” to the state for appropriation (Scott 2009), making it one of the defining features of Karen identity (Rajah 2008). When the British annexed Tanintharyi Region in 1826 with interests in teak, they encountered Karen swidden. For instance, in 1887, colonial officer Donald Mackenzie Smeaton (1887) wrote: “Those in the hills still follow the primitive and destructive methods of their forefathers.” Similar depictions were presented by American Baptist missionaries in the early 20th century. In these descriptions, we see the emergence of a colonial narrative blaming Karen swiddeners for destroying the forest—but what political purpose does this narrative serve?

In The Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma, Raymond Bryant (1997) employs a close reading of colonial archives to show how it was politically easier to blame shifting cultivators rather than the unregulated and powerful logging companies actually responsible for deforestation in Tenasserim. We can thus understand the myth that Karen swidden is “primitive” and “destructive” as being constructed by British colonial foresters in order to order to obscure the root cause of deforestation and instead justify policies restricting Karen swidden and territorializing the Karen borderlands through the creation of reserved forests. Following the “disingenuous natures” framework (Simon and Peterson 2018), this narrative serves as a “residue of the colonial past,” which has been made durable through the creation of forest reserves and restrictions on swidden—producing “disingenuous forests” in Tanintharyi Region.

Counterinsurgency and swidden in the Karen borderlands The second key historical moment for understanding the production and persistence of a narrative blaming Karen swiddeners is the Myanmar military counterinsurgency tactics against the Karen National Union (KNU) that displaced Karen civilians from Lenya in the 1990s. In their landmark analysis of Cold War Southeast Asia, Peluso and Vandergeest (2011) show how counterinsurgencies against jungle-based guerilla rebels aimed to resettle civilian swidden agriculturalists suspected of supporting insurgents, and created state forest reserves conveniently emptied of people. My interviews with Karen people in Lenya reveal a similar pattern of counterinsurgency and resettlement. Many Karen living within the park boundary are originally from other villages further upstream, where the military launched a major offensive against KNU positions in 1996. Houses, rice stores, and crops were burnt to the ground as some villagers fled to hide in the forest, surviving on meager rations. Most Karen villagers were forcibly resettled in government-controlled “strategic hamlets” (Peluso and Vandergeest 2011) downstream. One villager recalls: “If we didn’t move, the Burmese army would see us in the forest and kill us.” These strategic hamlets were located far away from upstream KNU positions to cut off support for the rebels, while also in close proximity with military bases so that Karen residents could be monitored closely. Racializing any Karen civilian as a KNU collaborator, the military upheld a shoot-on-sight policy for those attempting to tend to their abandoned swiddens. It is these earlier acts of military violence, emptying the jungle of supposedly “dangerous” Karen people, that allow conservationists to construct a disingenuously pristine forest landscape for protection today. The military’s narrative depicting Karen swiddeners as dangerous, along with its material legacy in depopulating the forests, thus provides another crucial residue for reformulation.

Contemporary conservation discourse repurposes the narrative Throughout my research, foreign conservationists were consistent in their claims that betel-taungya by Karen people returning after the ceasefire was causing deforestation. While one American conservationist recognized the right of displaced Karen people to resettle in LNP, she also worried that some might come back with “more of a business mindset to clear land in the forest.” This claim was echoed by a remote sensing expert who has worked on LNP. He sees Karen betel nut expansion as “anarchy,” encroaching on “uninhabited forest areas” and therefore fragmenting critical tiger habitat. These views are reflected in official project documents, which claim returning refugees and IDPs will bring “additional pressures” on “environmentally sensitive areas” and that betel nut expansion by returnees is a “principal threat” to LNP. Karen rights organizations have contested this depiction of returning refugees as threats, lodging an official complaint on behalf of affected communities, advocating that LNP “must not go ahead until substantial guarantees are put in place for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of all those who have been displaced by civil war.” Yet, when I asked one conservationist how his organization would approach the question of return and resettlement, he replied curtly: “That’s obviously a concern for us cause then you’ve got holes emerging in all the forests, and it would be impossible to manage.” In this way, conservation discourse depicts betel-taungya by returning Karen IDPs and refugees as a dire threat to the integrity of LNP and the globally important forest landscape.

How can we understand the origins of this narrative? First, it neatly repurposes the long-running, historically constructed myth that Karen rotational swiddeners are “primitive” and “destructive.” Rather than being interpreted as more modern or sustainable than swidden, betel production is made equivalent to swidden. Conservationists react strongly to images of “slashing and burning” common to both systems, fitting Karen smallholders into their preexisting slot and reifying the narrative of blame. Second, the conservationist discourse repurposes the knowledge residues and spatial legacies from counterinsurgency, constructing returning refugees as deforesting park encroachers rather than as indigenous peoples with a right to their historic lands. While this rhetoric is shaped by the materiality of the betel nut boom, in a sense this narrative is not about betel nut at all. Rather, it is about the continued criminalization of any Karen forest livelihoods, no matter whether they are swidden or cash crop agroforestry, in order to complete the territorialization of Tanintharyi’s borderland forests by creating LNP.


Through this case study I have traced not only the genealogy of a persistent environmental myth, but also the dynamics and contestations of a narrative repurposing in progress. I suggest that this encourages further study of the everyday practices of conservationists themselves. Two observations highlight this: First, conservationists in Myanmar are preoccupied with the image of slashing and burning, providing continuity between old and new narratives. Further study of conservation discourse should thus look closely at the role of spectacle—and the way conservationist rhetoric is shaped by an emotional reaction to globally circulating images of environmental destruction. Second, conservationist depictions of betel nut deforestation in Myanmar are largely based on remote sensing data of forest cover change. This suggests the need to study the way that these aerial view, remote technologies are mediating knowledge produced about deforestation, and shaping contemporary environmental narratives.

Finally, examining the Karen counter-narrative about betel-taungya sheds light on how conservation is entangled with the long struggle for territory and sovereignty in the Karen borderlands. Karen worry that their betel-taungya land will be enclosed by the park—asking “how will we survive?” It is through this lens that Karen see foreign conservationists as “working for the government” to help the Burmese finally take control of Karen territory. These restrictions are not understood as a new intervention, but rather as a continuation of the military’s earlier forced removal of Karen and restrictions on swidden. They reject the persistent, continuously reformulated myth that blames Karen people for the destruction of their own forests, instead drawing our attention to the political-economic factors that have historically caused deforestation in Myanmar—politically connected logging and palm oil companies. In this way Karen contest the disingenuous forest, countering with a landscape of cultural survival and self-determination.


I would like to express my sincere thanks to my research collaborators at the Conservation Alliance Tanawthari, and to my Karen hosts in Lenya National Park, for making this research possible. Thank you to my advisor, Dr. Amity Doolittle, and thesis committee members, Dr. Michael Dove and Dr. James Scott for their advice and feedback on this project. I am grateful for feedback from numerous F&ES classmates on earlier versions of this paper. Financial support for this project was provided by Yale University’s Tropical Resources Institute, Council on Southeast Asia Studies, and Charles Kao Fund.

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Naimark. J. 2019. “Holes emerging in all the forests’’: Swidden, betel nut, and the repurposing of environmental myths in Myanmar. Tropical Resources 38, 38–43.

  1. Jared is the currently Emerging Strategies Program Associate at the 11th Hour Project where he works on interdisciplinary research and grant making at the intersections of human rights, food and agriculture, and energy. Jared grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and has previously worked in solidarity with the Karen indigenous rights movement on campaigns against coal mining, palm oil plantations, and hydropower dams in Burma (Myanmar). He holds a bachelor’s degree in Earth Systems from Stanford University, and a master’s degree focused on political ecology from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

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