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Reviewed by:
  • Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta
  • Maurits Ertsen (bio)
Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta. By David Biggs. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010. Pp. xv+300. $35.

One can say many things about David Biggs’s Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, but not that it is without ambitions. Examining precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial interventions of different states and state agents in the Mekong Delta, Biggs aims to show how “the activities and politics of nation-building were connected to the historically and environmentally complex places where they occurred” (p. 5). This may not sound that ambitious, as many have studied state interventions in different natural environments throughout history—notably colonial efforts like dam building and irrigation in tropical countries or dam development in the American West. The ambition comes in when Biggs wants to show that the environment itself has a role to play. To him, the Mekong Delta is not a passive stage where one can develop the play one likes. First of all, there are the people who live(d) in the Mekong Delta, using the rich resources available but employing quite different strategies than the canal builders of the state. Again, we already know that states met with resistance from local agents in their efforts, but Biggs does quite well in giving these others a face, to make them more than the footnotes in state records.

The most ambitious—and for me innovative—element in the book, however, is the way Biggs shows that the material environment itself does have a role to play. The stage becomes a main actor; the environment strikes back. And it does so throughout the entire period described by Biggs, making no distinction between Vietnamese state projects, French and American interventions, or (pre/post)colonial ones. To take just one example, the tidal movements in the Nine Dragons Delta (the Vietnamese term for the Mekong Delta) affected canals, effectively blocking them very soon after being dug. Biggs is successful in the sense that when reading the book, one cannot but think that materiality matters as much as the goals and actions of human agents, and one cannot but wonder why this notion has not been discussed more explicitly in the scholarship on environmental history of technology.

A partial answer may be that recognizing the notion is one thing, but actually writing about it is very challenging. Biggs’s own potential quagmire must have been to connect all the different elements in his book, to give all the relevant actors enough stage time. The interconnections of states, environment, and local actors are highly complex. I have tried to avoid the term “nature” for this reason—employing the term materiality instead—because these complex interconnections make it difficult to say what nature means in the Mekong Delta. There must have been a time when nature in the region was not affected by humans, but in the period described by Biggs, the [End Page 944] results of human actions are everywhere in the “natural” environment. The material effects of earlier projects must have been parts of the environment encountered by later states, a topic I would have loved to see the author explore. The continuities in the different state programs attempting to tame the delta and its inhabitants—including bringing new inhabitants from other regions—are a clear thread. However, covering 300 years or so in a 300-page book means that not all events or interconnections are spelled out in as much detail as one would like.

To conclude, Biggs has written an ambitious book, which convincingly argues that the Mekong Delta needs to be understood as much more than a passive stage upon which different state projects were enacted. The Mekong Delta is a major actor, and environmental conditions encountered and created by the different states through time need to be understood when explaining the history of this region. Quagmire is also an example of the challenges faced when trying to translate ambitions in historical narrative. How to tell a story of such complexity and nuance? I do not know the exact answer, but I expect it will come pretty...


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pp. 944-945
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