Staking claims on the landscape

Nature in the Global South
December 24, 2004

This volume, which is the result of an international conference held in 1995, is a rich compendium of themes, ideas and perspectives that notes the "conjoined making of nature and culture" in South and Southeast Asia. But unlike most social-science literature that maintains a boundary between the two geographical regions, this volume highlights their shared sensibilities, ideologies and actions in 20th-century environmental movements.

In an interesting introductory essay, framed within an imaginary futuristic exhibition on nature in the 20th century, the editors introduce two overarching perspectives. One is the idea of a landscape as the material and aesthetic formation of nature and its relationship with humans, the second is the coherence of projects seeking to indicate the impact of modernity on nature and culture. Four questions are posed. What is the historical and cultural specificity of environmental projects? How is agency formed? How is scale achieved? How are the mobilisation and campaign conducted?

Some answers are provided in the essays. Warwick Anderson, Charles Zerner and Michael Dove detail the colonisation of the tropics through tropes and ideas that led to the territorialisation of these regions. Dove gives fascinating details of how Dutch policies remade Indonesia's agriculture.

In a seminal essay, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing questions the divide between peasants and tribes and details the interface between the colonised and the colonial in reconstituting identities of Southeast Asian peasants, farmers and tribals and their relationship to nature. Ann Gold draws on oral narratives among agriculturists in Rajasthan to highlight the importance of local knowledge and strategies to cope with new ecological and economic conditions. Paul Greenough uses a critic-author dialogue to describe Indian projects to stem smallpox and save the tiger. As he notes, both projects highlight how the state can participate successfully in the reordering of the human-nature relationship.

Nancy Lee Peluso questions the definition of territorialisation as a "totalising process". She elaborates the ways in which people of West Kalimantan mark their claims over nature. She details how the people resort to "counter-mapping" to challenge government appropriation of nature and natural resources.

Three essays address forest policies in India. Roger Jeffrey and Nandini Sundar review how forest produce is classified and its subsequent use by local people is determined, highlighting problems of access, availability and equity. K. Sivaramakrishnan discusses law and policy as instruments of power over nature. He is critical of post-structuralist development theories and details how conservation and colonialism are conjoined. Amita Baviskar draws on her early work with the movement to save the Narmada River valley and calls attention to contesting visions that seek to balance ecological conservation with the rights of tribal peoples and workers.

A reflective essay by Peter Brosius notes the "biographical and cultural significance" of nature and how researchers need to go beyond representing and reproducing images of nature deployed in environmental campaigns. In describing the innovative strategies deployed by a Thai Buddhist monk, Susan Darlington details how practical spirituality enables people to conserve nature and community.

Nature in the Global South is a worthwhile read for graduate students and others interested in environmental issues in South and Southeast Asia. But Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the islands of South Asia (Andaman and Nicobar, the Maldives) are unrepresented. Furthermore, with a few exceptions (Tsing, Gold, Dove and Peluso) the essays concentrate on identifying forests and forest resources as the key environmental sites and issues. Agriculture (and also the Asian urban areas) are underrepresented.

There is also an absence of summaries and cross-referencing in the book.

Although several essays note how colonialism relied on the colonisation of nature as well as the natives, there is no consolidated perspective on why post-colonial Asia articulates its environmental narratives in the way it does. What is the larger political and economic context - the conditions of development or underdevelopment, democracy or non-democracy - that has produced these particular voices and strategies? As the introductory essay notes, there are multiple ways in which nature is being reconstituted and reclaimed today. Even non-Western local strategies that dovetail with Western-directed environmental activism will have to contend with alternative local proposals for use and conservation, as Brosius points out. More of such discussions, along with attention to the issues already covered by this volume, would have been welcome.

A. R. Vasavi is a social anthropologist at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India.

Nature in the Global South: Environmental Projects in South and Southeast Asia

Editor - Paul Greenough and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
Publisher - Duke University Press
Pages - 428
Price - £78.00 and £18.95
ISBN - 0 8223 3150 0 and 3149 7

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