Reimagining Political Ecology

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Reimagining Political Ecology is a state-of-the-art collection of ethnographies grounded in political ecology. When political ecology first emerged as a distinct field in the early 1970s, it was rooted in the neo-Marxism of world system theory. This collection showcases second-generation political ecology, which retains the Marxist interest in capitalism as a global structure but which is also heavily influenced by poststructuralism, feminism, practice theory, and cultural studies. As these essays illustrate, contemporary political ecology moves beyond binary thinking, focusing instead on the interchanges between nature and culture, the symbolic and the material, and the local and the global.

Aletta Biersack’s introduction takes stock of where political ecology has been, assesses the field’s strengths, and sets forth a bold research agenda for the future. Two essays offer wide-ranging critiques of modernist ecology, with its artificial dichotomy between nature and culture, faith in the scientific management of nature, and related tendency to dismiss local knowledge. The remaining eight essays are case studies of particular constructions and appropriations of nature and the complex politics that come into play regionally, nationally, and internationally when nature is brought within the human sphere. Written by some of the leading thinkers in environmental anthropology, these rich ethnographies are based in locales around the world: in Belize, Papua New Guinea, the Gulf of California, Iceland, Finland, the Peruvian Amazon, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Collectively, they demonstrate that political ecology speaks to concerns shared by geographers, sociologists, political scientists, historians, and anthropologists alike. And they model the kind of work that this volume identifies as the future of political ecology: place-based “ethnographies of nature” keenly attuned to the conjunctural effects of globalization.

Contributors. Eeva Berglund, Aletta Biersack, J. Peter Brosius, Michael R. Dove, James B. Greenberg, Søren Hvalkof, J. Stephen Lansing, Gísli Pálsson, Joel Robbins, Vernon L. Scarborough, John W. Schoenfelder, Richard Wilk

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From the Publisher

Reimagining Political Ecology is an important contribution to efforts to build a more nuanced poststructural political ecology and a pertinent reminder that political ecology has benefited enormously from the work of anthropologists.”—Raymond Bryant, author of The Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma, 1824–1994

“Political ecologists have helped configure the fields of environmental governance and environmental justice. This thoughtful, insight-filled collection helps readers rethink some of the main concerns of political ecology. Organized in complementary counterpoint, the essays use evidence from around the world to make fundamental contributions toward a reconsideration of nature/culture relationships. Scholars from both disciplinary and interdisciplinary formations will discover the need to consult and use this volume.”—Arun Agrawal, author of Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects

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Meet the Author

Aletta Biersack is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon. She is the editor of Papuan Borderlands: Huli, Duna, and Ipili Perspectives on the Papua New Guinea Highlands and Clio in Oceania: Toward a Historical Anthropology.

James B. Greenberg is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and Professor at the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology. He is the author of Blood Ties: Life and Violence in Rural Mexico and Santiago’s Sword: Chatino Peasant Religion and Economics.

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Reimagining Political Ecology


Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3685-3

Chapter One

Equilibrium Theory and Interdisciplinary Borrowing: A Comparison of Old and New Ecological Anthropologies Michael R. Dove


The stochastic, discontinuous nature of theoretical development in anthropology has recently received some critical attention. Roseberry (1996), for example, has suggested that post-World War Two anthropological theory can be divided into three generational periods, each of which has ended in the perception by the succeeding generation of a crisis of theory in the discipline. Roseberry asks whether this tendency to discard what went before in the light of what has come next is not overly facile. Ecological anthropology can also be faulted in this regard. Brosius (1999c:278) has recently pointed out that there is little linkage between the old ecological anthropology of the 1960s and 1970s and the new ecological anthropology of the 1990s and 2000s. Is such discontinuity real or just apparent? Where does it come from? And what does it tell us about the evolution of the field and the wider relationship between science and society?

Rereading Ecological Anthropology

Such theoretical discontinuities are made possible by a curiously ahistorical academic stance in which the ideas of the past aremeasured against the ideas of the present without reference to their own time and place. The historian of science Bernard Cohen (1994:xii) calls this stance "Whiggism in history: the attempt to judge the ideas of the past by present standards rather than to explore such ideas in their historical context." What is needed in order to explore rather than judge the old, as Cohen suggests, is greater attention to how we read it. The past decade or two have seen increasing interest in how we read our works and those of others. Rosaldo (1993:184), for example, argues that new forms of social analysis require new habits of reading. Poststructural theory offers insights into how to discern what is truly new as opposed to simply reworked. Derrida (1978:282) thus writes of the inherent paradox in and challenge to critical thought of necessarily exploring some of the very concepts that are being critiqued.

One subject that merits greater attention in new readings or rereadings of theory is the relationship between science and society. This is a subject that anthropology (like many other fields) has traditionally avoided. As Asad (1973:15) wrote, there is "a strange reluctance on the part of most professional anthropologists to consider seriously the power structure within which their discipline has taken shape" (cited in Nader 1997:42). This reluctance was supported by an earlier generation's vision of the role of science in society. Thus, we see in the work of the sociologist Robert K. Merton and his peers in the 1950s and 1960s an assumption of a sort of pact between science and society that was thought to guarantee the autonomy of science. Any interest in the relationship between knowledge and power was written out of this conception of science from the very start. A new, post-Mertonian generation of scholarship rejects these assumptions, however, and argues that science is not autonomous from society (Lenoir 1997:3, 15). This critique is at the base of two important traditions of scholarship: on the one hand, a more conservative and positivistic school of science and technology studies and, on the other hand, a more humanistic and radical out-and-out critique of modern science.

This increasing attention to the relationship between science and society has offered new insights into the relations between disciplines, in particular the way that ideas are taken from one discipline and used, critiqued, and transformed in another. Over the past decade interdisciplinary relations have been the source of considerable ferment and even conflict. Debates between physical scientists and critics of science from the social sciences and humanities have earned the sobriquet "the science wars." The critique of concepts from the physical sciences by nonphysical scientists has been derided by the former as "higher superstitions" (Gross and Levitt 1994) and "fashionable nonsense" (Sokal and Brichmont 1998). Unheeded by either side in this debate, however, is the work of historians and other scholars of science on the everyday practice in which disciplines borrow from one another, and how this practice reflects the wider character of relations between science and society (Cohen 1994; Fujimura 1992; Lenoir 1997). An understanding of these borrowing practices can help us to understand the way in which individual disciplines and science as a whole evolve. It can help us better understand the ways in which ecological anthropology in the 1960s both differs from and yet resembles ecological anthropology today and what the implications of this are for the future development of the field.

From Equilibrium to Disequilibrium

I propose to explore here a particular transformation in ecological anthropology since the 1960s: the supplanting of assumptions of equilibrium with assumptions of disequilibrium in the systems we study. Ecological anthropology in the 1960s assumed that socioecological systems tended toward a state of equilibrium, and it tried to explain different aspects of society in terms of their contribution to this state. Ecological anthropology today, however, assumes that systems tend toward disequilibrium and asks how societies cope with this tendency. I will draw on Roy A. Rappaport's monograph Pigs for the Ancestors (1968) as an exemplary case of the equilibrium-based model, and I will draw on my own published work from the 1980s and 1990s to illustrate the disequilibrium model. Rappaport's work focuses on the Tsembaga, a tribal group in the interior of Papua New Guinea, whose basis of subsistence was the swidden cultivation of root crops for both humans and pigs; my work concerns the tribal Kantu' of West Kalimantan, Indonesia, who cultivate rice and a variety of non-rice cultigens in swiddens to meet their subsistence needs and who meet market needs by raising rubber (Hevea brasilensis [Willd. ex Adv. de Juss.] Muell.-Arg.) and pepper (Piper nigrum L. [Piperaceae]) for international commodity markets (map 1).

I will focus on the ecological functions of ritual in Rappaport's work and in my own. Rappaport (1994:167) noted in later years, "I had intended to study a local group of tribal horticulturalists in the same terms that animal ecologists study populations in ecosystems ... [but] was therefore surprised, to say the least, to discover that environmental relations among the people studied seemed to be regulated by a protracted ritual cycle." In the wake of this discovery, he dedicated his research to explaining the relationship between ritual and ecology. I began my research among the Kantu' with a similar puzzle: I understood from Freeman's (1960, 1970) work that the Ibanic peoples of Central Borneo were consummate swiddeners, but I also gathered from the literature that their agroecological strategies were periodically and decisively deflected by seemingly unrelated bird omens (Harrisson 1960; Jensen 1974; Richards 1972; Sandin 1980). My research, then, was intended to explain this seeming lacuna in the indigenous resource management system.

I will begin with a discussion of my work on agricultural divination among the Kantu'. I will then examine the evolution in thinking regarding "perturbation" since the 1960s, compare its treatment in Rappaport's work with my own, and try to explain the difference in terms of the wider political and intellectual contexts in which the work was carried out. In the next section I will analyze the use of equilibrium versus nonequilibrium models in terms of the politics of interdisciplinary borrowing in Rappaport's time versus my own. I will conclude with a discussion of the changes as well as the continuities in interdisciplinary borrowing since the 1960s and the implications of this for our understanding of relations between anthropology and environmental studies, between natural and social science, and between science and society.

Analysis of the Ecological Dimensions of Ritual

Rappaport (1984:4) summarized his analysis of study of the ecological significance of Tsembaga ritual as follows: "It will be argued here that Tsembaga ritual, particularly in the context of a ritual cycle, operates as a regulating mechanism in a system, or set of interlocking systems, in which such variables as the area of available land, necessary lengths of fallow periods, size and composition of both human and pig populations, trophic requirements of pigs and people, energy expended in various activities, and the frequency of misfortunes are included." Rappaport's analysis was one of the chief sources of inspiration for my own doctoral research among the Kantu'. His analytic framework is reflected in the grant proposal I wrote to the National Science Foundation to fund this research, which proposed a "functional hypothesis (concerning bird augury as an ecologically adaptive, functional system) and a philosophical hypothesis (concerning bird augury as a deterministic belief system)." The analysis I eventually carried out is summarized below.

Kantu' Agricultural Augury

Kantu' augury is based on the belief that the major deities of the spirit world have foreknowledge of events in the human world and that, out of benevolence, they endeavor to communicate this knowledge to the Kantu'. If the Kantu' can read the intended meaning of these communications correctly, they believe that they too can possess this foreknowledge. The most common media through which the deities are thought to express themselves are seven species of forest birds, which are said to be the sons-in-law of the major deity, Singalang Burong.

The Kantu' deem omens from these birds to be relevant to many facets of life, including travel, litigation, and especially swidden cultivation. Omens are observed through most of the stages of the swidden cycle and typically are honored by proscription of swidden work on the day received. The most important omens, however, are those received during the first stage of the cycle, selection of the proposed swidden site (color plate 8). The selection of swidden sites is problematic for the Kantu' because of the large number of environmental variables that differentiate sites and because the particular variables associated with swidden success change unpredictably from year to year. This stage of the swidden cycle, called beburong (to take birds or omens), consists of traversing a section of forest proposed for a swidden and seeking favorable bird omens. The character of the omens received at this time-burong badas (good birds) versus burong jai' (bad birds)-is believed to be a major determinant of the character of the eventual swidden harvest. Accordingly, if a sufficiently ill omen is received, the site should be rejected for farming that year.

The key to interpreting site rejection in particular, and the system of augury in general, is the indeterminacy of the physical environment of Borneo, the consequent impossibility of correctly predicting critical agroecological conditions, and the attendant need to devise pluralistic rather than deterministic agricultural strategies. The system of augury helps to construct the conceptual space required for such strategies by systematically frustrating deterministic agricultural decision making and undermining empirical linkages between the environment and human decision making.

Environmental Irrelevance of Augury

Critical to my interpretation of Kantu' augury is the fact that I could find no empirical linkage between the behavior of the omen birds on the one hand and the success or failure of the Kantu's swidden harvests on the other. Whereas there is an empirical basis to the birds' behavior, in the sense that they have fixed and predictable habitats, feeding patterns, mating seasons, etc., there is no temporal or spatial pattern in the birds' behavior that correlates with temporal or spatial variables critical to swidden success. In any case, the rules of augural interpretation thoroughly scramble any possible empirical linkage between bird behavior and swidden success. A linkage is ruled out not byecology, therefore, but by culture. According to Kantu' augural lore, for example, some omen birds have more than one type of call, and the meaning of an omen varies according to which call is heard. Thus, the normal call of the Rufous Piculet is auspicious but its variant trill is inauspicious (cf. Freeman 1960:82-83). There appears to be no ecological significance to this variation. Similarly, there is great augural, but there can be no agricultural, significance attached to whether one or more calls of the Rufous Piculet (or other omen bird) are heard. Equally important to interpretation (and equally irrelevant from an agricultural point of view) is whether the call is heard (or the bird is seen) to the observer's right or left. Augural interpretation is subject to an extravagant number and variety of additional rules and caveats, all of which appear arbitrary in an agroecological sense.

The agroecological arbitrariness of augury is most clearly illustrated in the performance of betenong kempang (to divine from the kempang tree), a variant type of augury that the Kantu' sometimes practice instead of seeking omen birds at the prospective swidden site (color plate 8). It consists in cutting a pole from the kempang tree (probably Artocarpus elasticus Reinw. ex Bl.) and measuring and marking one's depa' (arms-breadth) on it. The augurer then proceeds to cut some of the underbrush on the site, after which he or she remeasures his or her arms-breadth against the kempang pole. If this measurement exceeds the initial one (indicating that the pole has "shrunk"), this augurs ill for the proposed site; but if the measurement falls short of the initial mark (if the pole has "grown"), this augurs well. Although this procedure is susceptible to unconscious influence on the part of the augurer, it nonetheless represents a cultural statement regarding the lack of any link between the environment and the augural system.

Another relevant feature of the rules governing augural interpretation is the proscription of interhousehold sharing of omens. Augury is performed by each household on its own, usually by the eldest male. "Omens cannot be shared," the Kantu' say. If an auspicious omen became known to a neighboring household, the latter would want to join in taking it. Such sharing might abrogate the auspiciousness of the omen or, minimally, make it difficult for the original recipient household to obtain that omen again in future years. The Kantu' minimize sharing of omens by the simple expedient of keeping their own household's omens secret from other households. Sharing is also minimized by augural rules that tie omen interpretation to the varying composition and fortunes of the individual household. For example, the meaning of certain omens (e.g., the bacar call of the Rufous Piculet) is said to vary depending upon whether elders live in the household. Of more importance, many omens have no meaning other than to signify a reversal of the household's prior swidden fortunes, regardless of whether these were good or ill (cf. Sandin 1980:104-8). For example, if a household hears the inauspicious bacar call of the Rufous Piculet when selecting a swidden site, they should abandon that site. But if the household has never gotten a good harvest of rice, then this call is auspicious and they can retain that site. This arbitrary reversal of the meaning of omens makes it difficult to share them, increases interhousehold diversity in responses to omens, and generally enhances the randomizing effect of augury.

Sharing of omens is also mitigated by the belief that augural interpretation is personal and idiosyncratic. The Kantu' say, Utai to' ngau bidik kitai ("This thing is a matter of our own fortune"). Each person builds up over his life-time a personal and distinctive relationship with each of the omen birds (cf. Metcalf 1976:108). It is quite possible, as a result, for two augurers to assign completely opposing meanings to the same omen. This personal relationship, coupled with the fact that there is considerable interhousehold variation in the knowledge and intensity of observance of augural rules, further ensures that there is considerable interhousehold variation in the seeking of omens and the interpretation of the omens obtained. If omens conveyed to the Kantu' empirically valid information about the environment, we would expect inter-household agreement on what information is conveyed by what omen, and we might also expect interhousehold sharing of this information, but this is clearly not the case.

In summary, the evidence suggests that there is no systematic relationship between augury and favorable conditions for swidden cultivation, and that the lack of any such relationship is enhanced by the rules of the augural system itself. This system produces what amounts to a metaphoric throw of the dice at a critical point in the swidden cycle, which I interpret as a cultural statement about the indeterminacy of the environment, the imperfection of human knowledge of it, and the inappropriateness of systematic management strategies. The augural system of the Kantu' helps them address this indeterminacy by culturally constructing and supporting a nonsystematic pattern of swidden behavior. This is associated with both intrahousehold and interhousehold diversity in swidden strategies that helps to ensure a successful adaptation to a complex and uncertain environment.

Augury Versus Modern Development

This traditional system of knowledge differs dramatically from modern development thinking in the way that it deals with the uncertainty that characterizes the tropical forest ecosystem. Both approaches make some effort to cope with uncertainty, but while modern development tries to eliminate it, augury does not. Studies in a variety of fields suggest that we need to come to better terms with the limits of our ability to know, in a deterministic fashion, the complex and the unknown (e.g., Diamond 1990; Holling 1994; Holling, Taylor, and Thompson 1991). Common to these studies is the belief that embracing our ignorance is, paradoxically, the best way to overcome it. Thus, Ludwig, Hilborn, and Walters (1993:36) write, "Confront uncertainty. Once we free ourselves from the illusion that science or technology (if lavishly funded) can provide a solution to resource or conservation problems, appropriate action becomes possible." I suggest that Kantu' augury, by accepting uncertainty, thereby reduces its impact on agroecological futures in the tropical forest.


Excerpted from Reimagining Political Ecology Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

About the Series ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction / Reimagining Political Ecology Culture/Power/History/Nature / Aletta Biersack 3

Beyond Modernist Ecologies

Equilibrium Theory and Interdisciplinary Borrowing: A Comparison of Old and New Ecological Anthropologies / Michael R. Dove 43

Nature and Society in the Age of Postmodernity / Gisli Palsson 70

Constructing and Appropriating Nature

Ecopolitics through Ethnography: The Cultures of Finland’s Forest-Nature / Eeva Berglund 97

The Political Ecology of Fisheries in the Upper Gulf of California / James B. Greenberg 121

“But the Young Men Don’t Want to Farm Any More”: Political Ecology and Consumer Culture in Belize / Richard Wilk 149

Properties of Nature, Properties of Culture: Ownership, Recognition, and the Politics of Nature in a Papua New Guinea Society / Joel Robbins 171

Ethnographies of Nature

Progress of the Victims: Political Ecology in the Peruvian Amazon / Soren Hvalkof 195

Red River, Green War: The Politics of Place Along the Porgera River / Aletta Biersack 233

Between Politics and Poetics: Narratives of Dispossession in Sarawak, East Malaysia / J. Peter Brosius 281

Between Nature and Culture

Rappaport’s Rose: Structure, Agency, and Historical Contingency in Ecological Anthropology / J. Stephen Lansing, John Schoenfelder, and Vernon Scarborough 325

Works Cited 359

Contributors 407

Index 409

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