'Common Sense' Versus Good Sense: A Critical Analysis of Forest Conservation and Deforestation in Indonesia


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date13 Mar 2018


For more than three centuries Indonesia has struggled with capitalism's demands on its resources, with outcomes ranging from colonialism to famine, revolution to independence, genocide to dictatorship, and attempts at free-market democracy. More recently, Indonesian rainforests, the third-most-extensive in the world, are at the centre of a new resource battle over carbon, over who owns it and who gets the right to emit it, in the current struggle to limit global climate change. In 2015, forest fires in Indonesia released more carbon in three weeks, than Germany emits in a year, bringing Indonesia's role in the climate change debate even more sharply into focus.

In this thesis I argue that in order to understand conservation in Indonesia, we must pay close attention to material interests dominated by a world-view that treats society, politics and the law as subordinate to the economy and which seeks to direct power and material benefits toward an elite minority, particularly that of the Global North. This thesis makes the case, drawing on Gramscian analysis, that the economic structure and its supporting institutions condition, and are conditioned, by bundles of interests, ideas and agendas which cause deforestation and climate change and maintain an imbalance of power and material benefits.

This thesis is a critical analysis of forest conservation and deforestation in Indonesia with a strong focus on Indonesia's location at the nexus of struggles to limit carbon output from a carbon dependent global economy, to resolve conflicts within contemporary capitalism, and to find new settlements within the sites of advanced and developing capitalism. Indonesian deforestation and forest conservation are examples of outcomes and contradictions, revealed as advanced capitalist and developing countries struggle to resolve the great social, political and economic damage wrought by neoliberalism. I follow a Gramscian interpretation of neoliberalism as more than just economico-legal frameworks for market activity, but rather (and increasingly) as a political project which embodies a 'common sense' way of thinking, behaving, analysing and framing problems and solutions. Neoliberalism, on the other hand, sees the market not as an autonomous realm separate from other spheres of life, but rather as the model by which politics and social relations should also be governed.

Through qualitative interviews conducted in field work in Indonesia, the US and Europe, by applying discourse analysis of conservation project documents, and scientific reports focusing on REDD+, the Norway-Indonesia bilateral partnership, and RSPO, this thesis argues that forest conservation in Indonesia is dominated by the unquestioned 'common sense' of neoliberalism, unable to think outside the framework of continued, dogmatic legitimisation of the creation of property rights and the establishment of a market to buy and sell those rights. The underlying aim of these programmes is the continued legitimisation of an economic philosophy divorced from political and social realities, in order to prop up the resource-hungry, surplus-maximising economies of the industrialised Global North. The result is the creation of a set of forest- and climate programmes, which though convincing to a political elite and voting (tax-paying) public in the UK, Germany and Norway and similar developed capitalist countries, fail to achieve ecological gains or to convince vested interests on the ground in Indonesia to change their behaviour. In dismissing political economy realities on the ground, conservation programmes in Indonesia encounter dynamic modes of resistance and expose chronic contradictions within the neoliberal project. REDD+, the Norway-Indonesia bilateral partnership programmes, and RSPO, fail to protect forests in Indonesia because they are tools for extending neoliberal capitalist relations and not for conserving forest or preventing deforestation.