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Anthropological Quarterly 76.4 (2003) 775-787



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The Social Life of Nature

Leslie E. Sponsel
University of Hawaii

Paul R. Greenough and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, eds. Nature in the Global South: Environmental Projects in South and Southeast Asia. Durham and London: Duke University Press, October 2003. pp. 412

This set of extraordinary case studies by authors from several countries and disciplines explores historically the politics of nature in particular local contexts through environmental projects, movements, and associated discourses. Environmental discourses vary with the particular context, including the details of time, place, phenomenon, agents, and consequences. For instance, state government officials may consider a tropical forest to be only a resource for logging to gain revenue, but indigenous people may consider the same forest to be their physical, historic, cultural, and spiritual homeland, a landscape in which they depend on the sustainable use of non-timber forest products (NTFP). Thus, many things in the Asian tropics and elsewhere may be perceived, conceptualized, and valued in remarkably different ways—field, forest, tree, frontier, wilderness, native species, exotic species, resource, sustainability, management, conservation, rights, property, profit, environment, nature, culture, ethnicity, indigenous, native, tribal, peasant, forester, scientist, environmentalist, tropics, south, north, region, community, local, national, international, transnational, global, and so on. Furthermore, meanings may compete and conflict resulting in practical consequences—ecological, demographic, economic, social, cultural, political, religious, historical, and so on. In [End Page 775] all of this language, imagery, metaphor, rhetoric, construction, representation, interpretation, assumptions, and the like do matter. As editors Paul R. Greenough and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing explain in the Preface to this book, the essays are revised from papers at the conference "Environmental Discourses and Human Welfare in South and Southeast Asia" held in December 1995 in Hilo, Hawai'i. Four themes emerged from this conference: environmental projects, practical enactments, environmental terminologies, and distinct periodizations of environmental commitment. The latter were colonial resource management for protection, resource exploitation for economic development, and southern environmentalism and social justice movements with local empowerment.

The editors provide an unusually imaginative and provocative introduction that nicely integrates the main concerns of the anthology. This book aims to historicize, contextualize, problematize, deconstuct, and demystify environmental issues in selected countries in South and Southeast Asia. It focuses on a series of relationships including social and environmental justice and welfare, environmental conservation versus economic development, community-based and state government initiatives, rural and urban, local to global, colonial and postcolonial, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and so on. Common concepts which are usually taken for granted are called into question. The role of colonialism in shaping essentializing discourses to produce civil order and governmentality is critically examined. The underlying argument of this book is that "it is the interplay of discourse and counterdiscourse that produces environments and human welfare concerns.... the productive effects of discourse are used by both repressive governments and oppositional movements...." (p. 11). The editors observe that most economic development policies ignore the environment, while most environmental policies ignore local people and their well-being. Accordingly, they assert that policy makers, scholars, and activists need to pursue the interconnections between social, economic, and environmental justice and welfare.

The editors also mention that the above challenges are addressed by the authors through four approaches: they expose and challenge the dominating projects of science and state by revealing their historical and cultural specificity; scrutinize how agency is formed; consider the making of scale from the local to the global levels; and focus on self-conscious efforts at mobilization or campaigns by community and state agencies.

The first chapter, Warwick Anderson's "The Natures of Culture: Environment and Race in the Colonial Tropics" explores how the concept of the tropics developed, drawing on examples from the particular political and cultural contexts [End Page 776] of the Philippines in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries under Spanish and later American colonialism. His main thesis is that: "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" (p. 29). In this...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1518
Print ISSN
0003-5491
Pages
pp. 775-787
Launched on MUSE
2003-11-07
Open Access
No
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