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Peter Vandergeest and Nancy Lee Peluso

In this chapter we explain the importance of the concept of political forest for understanding the history and social aspects of forestry in keeping with a political-ecology perspective. Using Southeast Asian forestry to illustrate the main points, we define political forests as both political land-use zones meant to remain in permanent forest and as species defined as forest. We understand contemporary political forests as the outcome of four intertwined forestry ‘moments’: colonial forestry, national forestry (or ‘forestry for development’), war forestry and most recently ‘non-state’ forestry. Although we label the last moment ‘non-state’ as a way of talking about the growing participation of non-state actors such as conservation organizations, NGOs, certification bodies and private companies in the demarcation and management of forests, we demonstrate in this chapter that non-state forests are only partially non-state; indeed, they are in practice based on the other three moments that preceded them historically. Political forests do not map precisely on to ‘forest cover’, and are thus distinct from both ‘common-sense’ understandings of forest as natural formations characterized by trees and associated species and from more formal FAO-type forest classifications based on assessment of vegetation cover. The creation of political forests has always involved (at least in principle) the displacement of resident peoples, and has worked to eliminate jungles by turning them into distinct political forests on the one hand, and land permanently converted to agriculture or other uses on the other. The making of political forests has often involved various kinds of coercion and violence, from the violence of forced displacement to the ways that wars, insurgencies and other forms of political violence impact these targeted areas.