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Mountains Of Uncertainty: Politicised Ambiguity, Blame and Philippine Forest Fires

Thu, August 30, 11:00am to 12:30pm, ICC, E5.3


The causes of uncontrolled forest fires in the mountainous uplands of Southeast Asia are highly contested. Both popular and scientific accounts of recurrent forest fires often identify a bewildering array of actors whose irresponsible behavior could potentially contribute to disaster. However, while fire is used to aid the permanent conversion of forests by commercial plantations and expansionary migrant farmers, the blame for fires throughout the region is routinely placed on indigenous swidden cultivators who annually burn sections of forest for crop production. This disproportionate blame placed on swiddening peoples operates in the context of limited systemic knowledge of forest fires, and tropical forest ecologies more broadly, in Southeast Asia. Such spaces of intense epistemic uncertainty intersect with regional political economies in which blaming indigenous farmers for varied forms of forest degradation continues to enable the appropriation of valuable lands for agricultural intensification and commodity production. Drawing on ethnographic insights from swidden farmers and recent histories of forest fire governance in the Philippines, this paper demonstrates how the unruly and often spatially distanced nature of montane forest fires produces highly politicised spaces of uncertainty in which older prejudices against indigenous resource use are reworked and sustained.