The University of Arizona

Symbolic Politics or Generification ? The Ambivalent Implications of Tree Ordinations in the Thai Environmental Movement

Henry D. Delcore


Since the early 1990s, tree ordinations have become an important practice for some Thai environmental activists who seek greater legitimacy for local management and use of natural resources.  This paper, explores the political and cultural effects of tree ordinations by applying the concepts of “cultural objectification” and “cultural generification. It argues that recent uses of tree ordinations depend on a process of cultural objectification, facilitating the generification of the ritual and its various components as an example of the larger category of “local wisdom.” Significant forms of power difference are implicated in the process. Middle class NGO activists largely controlled the practice and representation of the ritual and its symbols, and tended to objectify and simplify the values and practices of rural people. The tree ordinations of 1996-1997, dedicated to King Rama IX, had the further effect of symbolically bolstering the hierarchical structure of the Thai state and Thai society as a whole – a structure in which local leaders and middle class NGO activists exercise power as arbiters of “good” and “bad” culture among rural people. These are the ambiguous implications to which the title of this article refers: a process of objectification and generification and its place in the reproduction of a hierarchical political and cultural order, together with some decidedly positive outcomes of tree ordinations for the conservation and control of natural resources by rural people.

Key words: Thailand, environmental activism, social hierarchy, power, cultural objectification. 

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