Forests Are Gold: Trees, People and Environmental Rule in Vietnam

Forests Are Gold examines the management of Vietnam’s forests in the tumultuous twentieth century — from French colonialism to the recent transition to market-oriented economics — as the country united, prospered, and transformed people and landscapes. Forest policy has rarely been about ecology or conservation for nature’s sake, but about managing citizens and society, a process I term “environmental rule.” Untangling and understanding these practices and networks of rule illuminates not just thorny issues of environmental change, but also the birth of Vietnam itself. The book is available through the University of Washington Press, and through Amazon, in paperback, hardcover and electronic versions.

For more about the cover art, and more examples of Vietnamese propaganda posters about the environment, please see here. For full-color reproductions of the maps that were in black and white in the printed copy of the book, please see here

Table of Contents:

Foreword by K. Sivaramakrishnan



Introduction: Seeing the Trees and People for the Forests

1 Forests for Profit or Posterity? The Emergence of Environmental Rule under French Colonialism

2 Planting New People: Socialism, Settlement, and Subjectivity in the Postcolonial Forest

3 Illegal Loggers and Heroic Rangers: The Discovery of Deforestation in Đổi Mới (Renovation) Vietnam

4 Rule by Reforestation: Classifying Bare Hills and Claiming Forest Transitions

5 Calculating Carbon and Ecosystem Services: New Regimes of Environmental Rule for Forests

Conclusion: Environmental Rule in the Twenty-First Century


“Mirroring what the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz famously said about war, McElwee shows us that ‘environmental rule’ is politics by other means. Deeply informed by archival knowledge, intensive fieldwork, a knowledge of elite discourse, and a gift for theory, McElwee is, by turns, a consummate historian, botanist, sociologist, economist, and anthropologist. Inspiring, path-breaking, and sophisticated, Forests Are Gold will make big waves in Vietnam and in political ecology more generally” –James C. Scott, Yale University

“This meticulously documented and groundbreaking study reveals the ways in which the classification of forests is tied in to regimes of power, which in turn frames the political and economic meaning of what we so often assume are righteous ecological and environmental improvement projects.” –Erik Harms, author of Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City

“Very interesting and thought provoking, Forests Are Gold presents fascinating details about forest politics in Vietnam. This book will be a source of reference on Vietnam for some years.” –Tim Forsyth, coauthor of Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers: The Politics of Environmental Knowledge in Northern Thailand

Forests Are Gold takes us on a historical trek through different eras of ‘environmental rule’ influencing Vietnam’s little-known forest histories. McElwee deftly demonstrates the articulations of local and transnational forest imaginaries, socio-natural histories, and entanglements of culture, nature, and power.” –Nancy Lee Peluso, author of Rich Forests, Poor People

WINNER, EUROSEAS Social Science Book Prize, 2017

“The 2017 EuroSEAS Social Science Book Prize has been won by Pamela McElwee’s Forests Are Gold: Trees, People, and Environmental Rule in Vietnam (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), a book that pulls together colonial history, ecology, and local and national perspectives to show that policy interventions that are labelled ‘environmental’ are often only incidentally about the natural world. Drawing on more than a decade of research, including extensive ethnographic fieldwork, research in French and Vietnamese archives and libraries, and environmental science, McElwee has produced a solid ethnographic case study of what she terms ‘environmental rule’ in Vietnam. Forests Are Gold is an original and valuable contribution that articulates in detail the social changes related to both deforestation and reforestation, and shines an informed light on a poorly understood and under-appreciated phenomenon.”