Original imperial greens

Nature and the Orient
April 23, 1999

An iconic figure in the environmental movement is that of the ecological activist hugging trees to save them from the axe of commerce and development. This strategy was in fact forged in India by Himalayan women and men in a movement which started in 1973, known as Chipko. It has been a tactic which has been imitated and developed globally.

The study of the environmental history of South Asia, as it has developed as a distinct field of study since the early 1980s, has grown largely from this particular history. The pioneer, Ramachandra Guha, began his research by studying the pre-history of the Chipko movement. The argument which he developed was that the current crisis of massive deforestation originated in the forest policy of the British colonial period, which continued to be implemented almost seamlessly in the postcolonial period. He argued that the British had established an autocratic forest department which sought to conserve timber for imperial needs by enclosing the forests and excluding the peasantry from using them as a resource base. This gave rise to disparate protests in the late 19th century and later nationalist-led forest protests of the Gandhian period. With no substantial changes after independence in 1947, the protests continued, giving rise to the Chipko movement.

Guha was highly critical of the British, who in his account were blamed for both snatching the forests from the people and for providing the institutional base for their commercial exploitation. He was challenged in this by Richard Grove - a former Friends of the Earth activist from Britain who had developed an encyclopedic knowledge of colonial environmental history - who sought to show that the original "greens" in India were in fact colonial officials. Colonial forest policy was, in his view, rooted in an enlightened understanding of environmental issues developed in particular by a group of remarkable Scottish medics serving in the colonies, who sought initially to understand the connection between climate and health, but very quickly became experts in botany and ecology. They argued that there was a close connection between deforestation and environmental desiccation, and pressed strongly for state-led conservation of forests. Through their pressure, the earlier laissez faire attitude towards forests was replaced from the mid-19th century onwards by active management and control.

Of the 31 essays in the present book, edited by Grove and two colleagues, 23 focus on the forest history of South and Southeast Asia, almost all being on the colonial period. In two of the essays Grove and co-editor Satpal Sangwan focus on the "green" side of colonial environmental science. In two of the most interesting essays, Ravi Rajan and Ajay Skaria seek to provide some sort of reconciliation between the approaches of Guha and Grove. Rajan argues that the earlier botanists lost control of forest affairs after about 1860, being replaced by "scientific foresters" trained in Germany and France. In both of these parts of Europe, forests had been enclosed as government property during the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, managed by a new class of professional foresters. These foresters believed that one of their prime duties was to protect forests from their "destructive" use by local farmers and woodmen, even if this entailed ruthless repression. The doctrine was applied in India by the forest departments set under the Forest Acts of 1865 and 1878. Skaria shows how this development was worked through in one region, that of the Dangs in western India. Although the new "scientific forestry" was the driving force - allowing a systematic appropriation and exploitation of forest resources from the late 19th century onwards - the earlier "desiccationist" arguments of the botanists were still deployed to justify this official control over the forests. He argues that this created an official consensus which continued right up to the 1980s - long after the demise of British colonialism itself. Only in the past 15 or so years have Indian foresters begun to have second thoughts.

Other chapters fill in interesting details about colonial forestry and popular resistance. M. D. Subash Chandra shows how colonial forestry could in fact be "unscientific". British foresters sought to exclude shifting cultivation from the forests of the western ghats by arguing that valuable teak and other hardwoods were being destroyed. In its natural state, however, the forests were so dense that such hardwoods were unable to grow; they only existed because these peripatetic cultivators were continually clearing the forest, providing the necessary ecological niche. The dogmatic ban on shifting cultivation was therefore, according to Chandra, counter-productive. Eric Meyer provides a valuable documentation of the severe environmental effects of the development of tea plantations in Sri Lanka. Vinita Damodaran shows how forest enclosure led to devastating famines in forest regions never previously known to suffer high mortality during years of drought. Piers Vitebsky provides a fascinating anthropologist's view of how deforestation and the resulting changes in life-style can affect cosmological beliefs.

The general consensus of the collection is that - contrary to what foresters claimed - indigenous forest-users cannot be blamed in any major way for the deforestation of this region over the past two centuries. The one person to argue otherwise is Edward Haynes in a chapter on deforestation in Rajasthan and Gujarat. He claims that in the Gujarat-Rajasthan border region there was considerable destruction of forest by shifting cultivators in the period after 1860. He relies for his evidence, however, on disparaging statements by colonial officials about this form of cultivation. This is the very sort of evidence which other papers in this volume show to be highly dubious. This part of India happens to be one which I have researched myself in some depth, and the evidence I have collected suggests that there was minimal destruction of existing forest in this region before Indian independence in 1947, since when it has been rapid. For blame, we need to direct our attention to timber dealers, politicians and forest officials rather than farmers.

The environmental history of South and Southeast Asia does not of course begin and end with the forest. Richard Grove himself is at present investigating the global effects of the El Niño phenomenon over the past several centuries, seeing how it has caused droughts and environmental and even political crises. One of the chapters in this collection presents some of his initial findings. Although suggestive, the dangers of an environmental determinism become apparent when he seeks to connect the severity of the political crisis in revolutionary France with the exceptionally severe El Niño of 1791. He also claims that the El Niño of 1877-79 caused severe famine in India, when in fact the famine was in 1876-77, before El Niño. Another important area of environmental history which is only slightly examined in this collection is that of water resources. The editors accept that there is a lacuna in this respect in their introduction. The only two chapters to focus on the topic are those by Ranabir Chakravarti for ancient and medieval India and Janice Stargardt for medieval Thailand. The former provides only a broad survey, the latter an excellent and detailed study of irrigated rice agriculture. There is nothing on this topic for the colonial period, despite excellent work in the field over many years by scholars such as Elizabeth Whitcombe, Clifford Geertz, Nirmal Sengupta, David Gilmartin, Anil Agarwal and many others.

As a work which focuses on colonial forest history of South and Southeast Asia, this a valuable collection of essays, particularly useful for the teaching at university level of a new imperial history which refuses to be blind to the often dire environmental consequences of European colonialism.

David Hardiman is associate fellow in history, University of Warwick.

Nature and the Orient: The Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia

Editor - Richard Grove, Vinita Damodaran and Satpal Sangwan
ISBN - 0 19 563896 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 1,036

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