Cosmology and Change among the Katuic Peoples of Laos and Vietnam


A review of Forests, Spirits, and High Modernist Development: A Study of Cosmology and Change among the Katuic Peoples in the Uplands of Laos and Vietnam, by Nikolas Århem.

Nikolas Århem’s dissertation focuses on the Central Annamite region of the upland Vietnam and Lao borderlands where the indigenous Katu people reside. In its own right, this is a major contribution to the anthropology of Southeast Asia, but Århem’s rich analysis of the spiritually verdant and complex landscape – one shaped by multiple wars and subsequent development initiatives implemented by the state and international organizations – renders his work timely and necessary. This dissertation, based on research conducted between 2004 and 2009 is multi-sited in that it tacks back and forth not solely between geographic areas (although a central core of villages is the primary focus of his research) but across largely abstract spaces of knowledge production at indigenous, state, and international gradients. Drawing upon James Scott (Seeing like a State. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) he employs the term “high-modernism” to “characterize the nature of the development fervor that exist in the region at present and the faith in rational science, technology and social engineering guiding the principal actors and agencies pushing this development advance – state agencies, international development organizations and transnational corporations” (p. 25). In doing so Århem illuminates the precariousness of “indigeneity” and thus indigenous cosmology and cultural practices in the face of drastic and rapid ecological development. Furthermore, this dissertation calls for understanding the Katu animistic ontology as a legitimate form of ecological knowledge (and lived experience) with implications for understanding the shifting landscape of the Katu people.

The Katu people are shifting cultivators numbering approximately 80,000 people with a deep belief in the hierarchical spirit-world surrounding their respective villages. There are “major and minor spirit areas” that map onto indigenous forest-use restrictions later usurped by conservation efforts and branded as a “High-Priority Conservation Landscape” (p. 32). The implications of the Katu cosmology, when met with contemporary conservation efforts, are discussed in great detail throughout nine chapters and an introduction and conclusion. This work begins with an image of the Katu spiritual belief system and their understanding of forests and thus spirits around them before transitioning into the high-modernist transformations that undeniably shift Katu (and other indigenous) worlds.

Chapter 2 focuses on what constitutes a spiritual place for the Katuic peoples and how can we weave our own understandings of ecological relations and contemporary scholarly work on animism together. Århem posits that “when we speak of spirits (as a kind of non-human person) we assume a transcendent, immortal subject with whom immanent, mortal human subjects can communicate. Much of my own discussion of human-environment (and human-spirit) relations in the ensuing chapters revolves around the idea of reciprocal communication between humans and landscape spirits. When Katuic interlocutors speak of plant and animal souls or the spirits of hills and forest, they in fact imply, I suggest, a communicative relationship between humans and the surrounding landscape” (p. 63).

Of course, our ability to unpack this communicative relationship from the Katu perspective is much more difficult. After all, we do not share the same experience of nature as the Katu, Århem points out, the Katu do not have a word equivalent to the western concept of nature in their vocabulary –  nor do we inhabit the same landscapes. Rather than view this as a limitation, it becomes an interesting point of departure wherein “the Village” and “the Forest” emerge as distinct spaces of human and spirits/animals respectively.

Chapter 3 paints a historical picture of the upland mountainous region by drawing on accounts of French explorers and colonial ethnographers of the Katu and surrounding village communities. These accounts describe a landscape that was shaped alternately by swidden agricultural practices and the subsequent colonial cash crop ventures leading to a question about what historically constitutes a proper (pristine) “forest” at all. In comparative fashion, Århem explores the value placed on biodiverse landscapes in North America as well as European views on forest ecology and preservation at once threated by “ecological intruders” (p. 101). This chapter begs the question of the circumstances under which indigenous groups become a “threat” to forest ecologies and preservation: “In Southeast Asia…international conservation organizations officially, appear to largely share – or are forced to comply with – the state forestry services’ common view of indigenous groups (particularly if they are shifting cultivators) as environmental threats. As such, the notion of these groups as “ecological intruders” has strongly influenced the way global development aid is being channeled into various programs in Vietnam and Laos (notably into the sedentarization/poverty reduction programs). Of course, the Annamitic forests also have a high economic value to the state agents who are now the de facto owners and managers of the national forests, as is the case in all Southeast Asian nations.” (p. 101)

In Chapter 4, “History, Wars, Memories,” opens with an ethnographic vignette from a small commune staffed largely by Katu on land known as the most “sacred and taboo place on this entire landscape” where, as Århem later discovers, spirit crocodiles abound (p. 141-143). The stories Århem manages to collect about the region offer a fascinating perspective on the American War in Vietnam through the lens of shifting ecologies and consequent impact on the spirits of the region. Rather than focus solely on the American War in Vietnam however, Århem also explores the First Indochina War and the Second Indochina War to highlight the relationship between colonial powers and the Katu people. This chapter marks a major contribution to Southeast Asian Studies and recent ethnographic approaches to the myriad war periods in mainland Southeast Asia by addressing a dearth of research on the implications of these wars for local, particularly ethnic minority, upland communities. As such, this dissertation draws a link between these key historical moments and the contemporary power relations between the Katu, the state, and development initiatives throughout the region.

Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 take an ethnographic and analytical turn, delving into the mutually constitutive relationship between the Katu and their spirit world. This relationship takes the form of rituals to maintain this relationship and spirit-laden places materializing as “forbidden places” that are taboo and “poisonous.” Two detailed maps – one illustrating the “cultural landscape” and another the public developmental plan for a Katu township – demarcates the stark difference in perspective about the value of forests, landscape, and local place-names. To demonstrate the Katu significance of place-names Århem quotes “one Katu elder in the A Vương commune who succinctly expressed this idea by saying: ‘to know the names of the hills is to be Katu.’” This perspective harkens back to Keith Basso’s (1996) work on Western Apache constructions of place, map-making, and cultural history that transcends time and space (Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Place: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1996). The “spirit hills” surrounding the Katu villages house the abhuy and a deep knowledge of these hills is a requisite aspect of Katu identity. Here, the term abhuy which translates as “spirit” is highly contextual to the Katu world and encompasses a number of different spirits: “Generally speaking, Katu spirits (including the non-abhuy varieties) are sometimes manifest, sometimes hidden, and are often perceived to live lives not so different from human lives; they eat, sleep, grow crops and hunt etc. This is why there is always a risk that humans will enter into conflict with the spirits. Humans and spirits compete for the same resources; they both need timber, agricultural land, food and so on. But what is “timber” and “rice fields” for the spirits will appear as something else to the humans – and vice versa.” (p. 199) The significance of these Katu spirit spaces is obvious when placed in the context of high-modernism – when the government imposes specific land development and historical resettlement plans they often inflict a Kinh (majority ethnic group; Vietnamese people) aesthetic and sensibility that renders the relationship between Katu and abhuy increasingly precarious.

The remaining chapters employ a “cartographic gaze” and Århem’s participatory map-making (an impressive methodological contribution) to further clarify the Katu spirit-worlds and the relationship between spirits and across sustainability efforts. Uncleared forests are attributed to both spirits and government development efforts while development, namely industrial development, marginalizes but also highlights the depth of the Katu values in their forests. In Laos Århem worked as a “Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) Advisor” for a sustainable forest development project and while the project was framed as a progressive, insightful approach to forest development it predictably misunderstood (or left out) the perspectives and voices of local villagers. Harkening back to Scott’s high-modernism development scheme, the project spoke largely to state development desires that were decidedly incommensurable to the local villages. For instance, project coordinators (Laotian staff) restrictions on forest use and expanding agricultural areas simply failed to take into consideration (or ignored) local villagers’ knowledge about their sustainable agricultural practices.

By way of conclusion, Århem reiterates his point that the Katu cosmology must be understood as ecology (p. 418-419). Development in the Central Annamites is characterized not solely by “projects” and construction but more vividly by an “ontological conquest” in which the state projects a hierarchy of legitimacy and knowledge at the expense of the Katu people (p. 419). Of course, as demonstrated by numerous ethnographic vignettes, this is not simply a story about indigenous knowledge practices at odds with the state rather it is about indigenous ways of being and experiencing that is at odds with western constructions of ecology and “proper” environmental sustainability efforts. One of Århem’s more poignant summaries argues that: “The modern state promotes and harnesses scientific knowledge and an impressive technology for the same purpose – and by doing so necessarily reduces and suppresses the diversity of vernacular knowledge and customary practices. At the same time, the growth of scientific knowledge and its technological applications impels the process of modernisation and empowers the state. The relationship between the development of the modern state and the growth of science and technology is recursive.” (p. 133)

This dissertation engages deeply with James Scott (1998) and his concept of high-modernism. It does so in the context of a market-oriented socialist economy where indigenous upland people are often subject to a transformation of their own landscape and thus spirit worlds.  Århem makes strident contributions to contemporary political ecology by engaging the historical implications of government land and forest policies on a local, marginalized ethnic minority community. Århem’s dissertation is meticulously researched and a pleasure to read. A careful definition of all terms (and Århem’s hesitancy to use some of them) speaks to his own subjectivities and relation to the Katu community and development worlds he straddles. This is another contribution (sometimes overlooked in recent scholarship of this nature) and one that is highly necessary in contemporary cultural anthropology.

Sarah G. Grant
Assistant Professor, Anthropology
California State University, Fullerton

Primary Sources
Participant observation (including consulting work)
Community mapping and “counter-mapping”
Policy documents

Dissertation Information
Uppsala University. 2014. 463 pp. Primary advisor: Jean Michaud.

Image: Photography by Author.

Leave a Reply