If only we could see the teak for the trees


September 1, 2006

This book aims to promote Arun Agrawal's own neologism - "environmentality" - which is modelled on Michel Foucault's coining of "governmentality". Its closing sentence reads: "We gain a richer awareness of environmental politics by beginning to trace the connections among power/knowledges, institutions and subjectivities."

These ideas are examined partly in relation to the author's "own" field area in India, the Kumaon region of the Himalayas. There is a long history to be told about Kumaon and its forests - about the relationship between successive governments and the conservation (or otherwise) of the forests. The region was once briefly part of Nepal, then part of United Provinces in the British Raj, then part of the plains state of Uttar Pradesh, and now part of the separate state of Uttaranchal. It is the setting for a series of notable peasant movements, including the famous tree-huggers of the Chipko movement.

The book's back cover says Agrawal did fieldwork during which he visited 40 villages, interviewed hundreds of Kumaonis and undertook extensive archival work to outline the strategies of decentralisation, resulting in various forms of joint forest management. The methodology of this work is never made explicit, and the little data offered reduces to small tables of, say, the number of forest offences committed in eight villages.

That the empirical work is sparse and often unpersuasive illustrates a problem with the book. Much of it is high-blown theoretical discussion about the applicability or modifiability of the work of Foucault or some other thinker on "imagined communities". Agrawal has one foot tentatively in India, another more firmly in the verbiage of Western social science.

The book's 24-page introduction is a good precis of the whole, and a substitute for much of what follows. The first two chapters are useful historical accounts based on secondary sources of how forests in South Asia came to be defined and, above all, quantified, so they could be governed by targets. Chapter three has 20 pages on the colonial state and local resistance from 1815 to 1916. There follows an introduction that summarises the three chapters and conclusion of the longer, second part of the book.

One chapter is on the decentralisation of regulation; another on the workings of regulation in different villages; and the last on the making of environmental subjects.

Far too much of the argument is at a general level, by assertion, and with no evidence offered. I do not wish to undermine the basic ideas, but to take the last as an example, Agrawal usefully welcomes the ambiguities in the word "subjectivities". His point is that people change their beliefs and behaviour not just based on information/education but also according to their scope for action - whether they are part of a self-managing community or the subject of an external forest department. The basic argument is sound, but its examination wholly inadequate.

Apparently, Burma's forests held one valuable species - teak. Few forests had more than one teak tree out of 300. The rest was other species of trees and foliage, which hid the teak. This book, too, has hidden its worthwhile arguments in thickets of verbal profusion, which make it hard to see the teak for the forest.

Graham Chapman is professor of geography, Lancaster University, and chairman, British Association for South Asian Studies.

Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects

Author - Arun Agrawal
Publisher - Duke University Press
Pages - 325
Price - £60.00 and £14.95
ISBN - 0 8223 3480 1 and 3492 5

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