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

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

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ISBN-13: 9780822385004
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/08/2003
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 966 KB

About the Author

Paul Greenough is Professor in the Departments of History and Community and Behavioral Health at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: The Famine of 19431944 and the editor of “Global Immunization and Culture: Compliance and Resistance in Large-Scale Public Health Campaigns,” a special issue of Social Science and Medicine.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place and coeditor of Uncertain Terms: Negotiating Gender in American Culture.

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Nature in the global south

Environmental projects in South and Southeast Asia
By Paul R. Greenough

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3149-7

Chapter One


Environment and Race in the Colonial Tropics

"The main army of science moves to the conquest of new worlds slowly and surely, nor ever cedes an inch of the territory gained," wrote T. H. Huxley in 1890 (1894; clxxxi). But in the early twentieth century the tropics were still not scientifically subdued, even if the imperial powers had formally taken possession of most of the region. The Tropics had been defined cartographically as lying between Cancer and Capricorn, meteorologically as a region of continuous heat and humidity (the latter not readily measured until the 1890s), and botanically as lying within the "palm line." In the early twentieth century, medical scientists attempted a further physiological and racial enclosure of the Torrid Zone, proposing that it was the region where a representative of the white race would feel uncomfortable and displaced. The founders of modern geography drew a "white race climograph" that delimited this tropical region. Into the twentieth century, then, tropical nature resisted easy categorization, but to Europeans and North Americans it generally conveyed an image-both attractive and repellant-of luxuriance, excess, and danger.

Raymond Williams has suggested that what is often being argued in the idea ofnature is the idea of man (Williams 1981; Horigan 1988). In trying to define nature, colonial scientists were at the same time structuring (and restructuring) the relations of humans-whether local or alien-to the environment and one another. The bounding and typing of tropical space through tropes of mimesis and comparison thus produced definite types of racialized and gendered bodies (Duncan and Ley 1993, 39-56). Accredited knowledge of tropical nature provided a code for the proper inhabiting and managing of the region. One might even say that a discourse on equatorial environments brought the tropical colonized and alien colonialist into being. In particular, the regular declension of tropical, wild, and dangerous allowed the expression of a necessarily ambivalent and assailable environmental difference that worked well both corporeally and socially. These "tropicalisms" shaped masculinist European and North American self-perceptions (civilizing, containing, controlling) even as they provided opportunities for disciplining tropical bodies and botany (luxuriant, wasteful, extravagant, grotesque). But in the early twentieth century, as colonial scientists increasingly emphasized the actual plasticity of the Tropics as an environmental and racial site, we find the elaboration of a sociospatial discourse of tropical development-a new frontier-that promotes the "modernization" of a natural difference that was artfully, if incompletely, constructed during the previous century.

This essay examines late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century efforts to render the colonial Tropics scientifically legible. Although I intend to sketch the general development of late-nineteenth-century tropical expertise, my focus is on scientific debates over environmental difference in the Philippines under Spanish control and, after 1898, under U.S. domination. While Ken de Bevoise and others have recently demonstrated the force of arguments that treat tropical nature as a historical actor, I am not so concerned with the study of the environment's "autonomous place in history" (Cronon 1990, 1122; de Bevoise 1995; Crosby 1986). Rather, I want to reconstruct the material and discursive productions of natural boundaries, typologies, and hierarchies. In Paul Carter's words, I am interested chiefly in "the spatial fantasies through which a culture declares its presence" (1989, xxii). Our places in the world have been framed and ordered as much through this deployment of geographical metaphor as through any irruption of unmediated ecological agency (Demeritt 1994; Duncan and Ley 1993, 1-24). Here I pay attention to the development of scientific vocabularies for assigning environmental and human difference.

My work thus supplements Richard Grove's extensive analysis (1995) of the metaphors and images Europeans invoked to describe and manage their colonial possessions before 1860. Like Grove, I emphasize the perceptions of the naturalist and scientist on the colonial "periphery" (which thus becomes, for both Grove and myself, central). But unlike Grove I find these local experts sloughing off their environmental determinism and working toward ideas that imply greater cultural autonomy and mobility over the surface of the globe. What I am describing, in general terms, is a decline in the nineteenth-century preoccupation with the environmental shaping of racial types and the development instead of the idea of humans as independent agents whose impact on the environment, however destructive, will have only a minimal effect on their own mental and physical well-being. By the early twentieth century, the "Hippocratic agenda"-what David Livingstone has called an "ethnic moral topography"-is a dead letter in medicine and anthropology (though perhaps still finding a few eager recipients in geography and historical studies). In other words, while Grove has described the elaboration of theories of man as a natural agent subject to what he has wrought, here I trace the emergence of the scientific assumption that civilized man is a natural agent who can evade, through technocratic expertise, the consequences of his actions (Glacken 1967). In a sense, then, I am trying to identify the point at which biomedical science ceases to be an environmental discourse in the Asian Tropics and becomes primarily a discourse on social citizenship.


In 1985, Karl L. Hutterer suggested that there was "no such thing as tropical ecology; rather, there is only ecology in the tropics." It was difficult to provide a precise account of tropical environments and their ecology, as "tropical regions contain the most diverse and complex ecosystems in the world." And yet he could not entirely forsake the notion that there was something distinctive about a tropical environment: "certain fundamental biotic or nonbiotic conditions ... (such as levels of light radiation, temperature, humidity, soils, flora and fauna)" must define tropical nature-and yet it was not easy to specify them. Nevertheless, he attempted to provide a compendium of environmental difference. Geographically, the Tropics was a sector of the globe between Capricorn and Cancer, but these latitudinal limits "delineate the distribution of tropical environments only in the crudest of terms." Hutterer then reproduced a century or more of conventional tropical description: the region was sunny, hot, wet, and the equatorial flora was "one of the richest and most luxuriant." But he also used terms that would have sounded odd even fifty years earlier: the environment was remarkably diverse, complex, and fragile. It was so diverse, indeed, that it had become evident that "we are not dealing with a single environmental type but rather a broad range" (1985, 58, 59, 60). While vestiges of typological thinking remained, policing the conventional boundaries of the tropical had become less important than finding out what went on within them.

But a hundred years earlier Alfred Russel Wallace, a British champion of natural selection, had described the "wonderful uniformity" of the Tropics, the "monotony of nature" between Cancer and Capricorn. The climate he experienced in the Malay archipelago was "essentially the same": sunny, hot, and wet. As a result, the vegetation-far from appearing fragile-"overshadows and almost seems to oppress the earth." It was "luxuriant" and "abundant," indeed, a "vast treasure-house, which is as yet but very partially explored." Wallace was convinced that further scientific exploration would identify and make available an inexhaustible trove of commodities for civilized man. "There are probably a large number of kinds of timber which will some day be found to be well-adapted to the special requirements of the arts and sciences," and many products of the forests were "already more useful to civilized man than to the indigenous inhabitants" (Wallace [1878] 1891, 217, 240, 246, 245; McKinney 1972; Camerini 1994). Wallace and other natural historians in the late nineteenth century did not doubt that the Tropics was a distinctive region, a climatic zone, a type of flora and fauna, an inexhaustible source of wealth, and a condition of life-and it could be appraised and exploited scientifically.

Observation of the usefulness of biology, medicine, and other technical discourses for European and North American imperialism has become a historiographic commonplace (Godlewska and Smith 1995; Fanon 1978; MacLeod and Lewis 1988; Arnold 1989). But the sciences were not only "tools of empire" in a narrowly instrumental sense; they also helped to shape the meaning and significance of European expansion. Expert knowledge frequently gave geographical and racial form to distant possessions. To a trained readership, the apparently dispassionate and abstract languages of science-an especially plausible genre toward the end of the nineteenth century-seemed capable of capturing mimetically the places and peoples of the empire. Through fieldwork and subsequent elite analysis, these representational sites could be bounded and filled out. They were, in a sense, collected and then displayed in miniature (Pratt 1992). A new representational site-the Tropics, for example-might then be compared to a European frame of reference or master plan, providing grounds for a hierarchical classification of one sort or another. The precise character of the typology and hierarchy varied enormously during the nineteenth century, but the underlying logic of essential structure and natural order remained compelling in scientifically literate circles.

The argument for climatic zones has a long history in Europe. Until early modern times, climates were arrayed and ranked simply according to latitude: if the equatorial zone was more torrid, it was because it was more exposed to the sun. But during the eighteenth century studies of the distribution of pressure, wind, and temperature postulated an atmospheric circulation that did not map precisely onto lines of latitude. Over the next hundred years, the spread of observation stations through the expansionist European empires produced masses of new meteorological information. In 1817, Alexander von Humboldt published the first isotherm chart, onto which botanists and zoologists proceeded to map an increasing muster of plants and animals. "The curves of the isothermal lines," declared Humboldt, "correspond with the limits which are seldom passed by certain species of plants and of animals that do not wander far from their fixed habitation." Furthermore, it appeared that the "luxuriant zone of the tropics offers the strongest resistance to ... changes in the natural distribution of vegetable forms" (1850-58, 2:347). The climatic boundaries sketched by Humboldt's successors would become ever more distinct, though never incontrovertibly so. Whether a tropical region was best defined by parallels of latitude, vegetation (the "palm line," for instance), isotherms, or humidity, remained open to dispute, but no one doubted that it did indeed exist.

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the earlier, more general classifications of climate became fragmented as concepts of global circulation grew more complex: climatic regions began proliferating into smaller and smaller subspecies. Although most scientists sought to identify secure categories in nature, no one could agree on just what they should measure if they were to define such entities. Climate is, after all, an abstraction and not readily identified at any given moment. Botanists could classify and survey "characteristic" vegetation, but its distribution was never uniform, even under the same climatic conditions. Meteorologists could measure temperature and precipitation, but at which point did these statistics become unequivocally tropical?

All the same, few commentators on southern Asia failed to describe the climate as distinctively tropical. When Sir John Bowring, the governor of Hong Kong, visited the Philippines in the 1850s, he found the archipelago typically torrid, with constant "oppressive" heat combined with wet and dry seasons. The islands were "visited by the usual calamities gathered by the wild elements round that line which is deemed the girdle of the world." Elaborating on the gendered conceit, he was struck by "the awful serenity and magnificent beauty of their primeval forests, so seldom penetrated, and in their recesses hitherto inaccessible to the foot of man." As he thrust onward, Sir John felt "as if vegetation reveled in undisturbed and uncontrolled luxuriance." Such alluring tropical nature would prove "inexhaustible through countless generations" (1859, 74, 85, 86). Other foreign encounters, while often less explicitly venereal, confirmed the image of exuberance and excess. Fedor Jagor, a German ethnologist traveling in the Philippines a few years after Bowring, thought the islands a "lotus-eating Utopia" in which the "hospitality of nature" dissolved European cultural baggage to the extent that "one would gladly dispense with all clothing save a sun hat and a pair of shoes." The dolce far niente, he concluded, "only blossoms under the shade of palm trees" ([1873] 1965, 29, 34, 29). Tropical nature was luxuriant and verdant, overflowing any distancing analytic framework; it verged on the grotesque.

When Ramon Reyes Lala, an ilustrado expelled by the Spanish and living in New York, wrote an account extolling the new U.S. possessions, he described the "great wealth" of Philippine plant life, the "richness and abundance" of fruits, the "lush tropical forests," and the "luxuriance and beauty" of the vegetation. The islands were a "botanist's paradise" presenting the "appearance of a virgin wilderness." Here was a "spectacle of beauty seldom excelled." He assured his American readers that "there are thousands of square miles of dense forest within which the foot of the white man has rarely ever set; thousands perhaps upon which none but the natives have ever gazed; costly woods, whose value can be reckoned only in millions of dollars" (1898, 151, 155). Evidently the virgin woods were available to American masculine enterprise.

It would be wrong to imagine that culture has been erased from these accounts of tropical nature. Jagor thought that the natives of the Philippines presented "an interesting study of a type of mankind existing in the easiest natural conditions": they were a people who had homologously "sunk into a disordered and uncultivated state." Even the long-term Spanish residents had become "uneducated, improvident, and extravagant" ([1873] 1965, 27, 264, 24). Wallace observed that the Malay race had failed to develop its economy to European levels because the profligacy and ease of tropical nature had exerted no selection pressure on it ([1878] 1891, 310). Even Reyes Lala thought that the "go-ahead American spirit" was needed to sharpen Filipino sensitivities: "what is now confusedly enjoyed and but vaguely beheld in nature will ... become simple, clear, sympathetic, and clearly formulated to their apprehension" (1898, 156). Americans were only too willing to agree. According to Fred W. Atkinson, the first U.S. superintendent of education in the Philippines, the "high and uniform temperature which the thermometer reaches throughout the year is the chief reason which ... produces in the natives the laziness and inertia which characterizes them" (1905, 127). Americans were the tough products of a more stringent environment. Examples of such cultural disparagement could be multiplied indefinitely: they reiterate the assumption that an overnurturing Mother Nature had allowed her human charges to stay louche, irresolute, and primitive. Thus, the Malay race represented an earlier, and clearly inferior, level of physical development and cultural sophistication.


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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Introduction / Paul Greenough and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing 1

Part I Scales, Logics, and Agents

Tropical Knowledges

The Natures of Culture: Environment and Race in the Colonial Tropics / Warwick Anderson 29

Dividing Lines: Nature, Culture, and Commerce in Indonesia's Aru Islands, 1856-1997 / Charles Zerner 47

A Move from Minor to Major: Competing Discourses of Nontimber Forest Products in India / Roger Jeffery and Nandini Sundar, with Abha Mishra, Neeraj Peter, and Pradeep J. Tharakan 79

Rural Landscaping

Forest Discourses in South and Southeast Asia: A Comparison with Global Discourses / Michael R. Dove 103

Agrarian Allegory and Global Futures / Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing 124

Foreign Trees: Lives and Landscapes in Rajasthan / Ann Grodzins Gold 170

Part II Toward Livable Environments: Compromises and Campaigns

States of Nature / States in Nature

Pathogens, Pugmarks, and Political "Emergency": The 1970s South Asian Debate on Nature / Paul Greenough 201

Territorializing Local Struggles for Resource Control; A Look at Environmnetal Discourses and Politics in Indonesia / Nancy Lee Peluso 231

Scientific Forestry and Geneaologies of Development in Bengal / K. Sivaramakrishnan 253

Uneasy Allies

Tribal Politics and Discourses of Indian Environmentalism / Amita Baviskar 289

Voices for the Borneo Rain Forest: Writing the History of an Environmental Campaign / J. Peter Brosius 319

Practical Spirituality and Community Forests: Monks, Ritual, and Radical Conservatism in Thailand / Susan M. Darlington 347

Bibliography 367

Contributors 411

Index 413

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