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Politics of Resource Patriotism

by Kekhriesituo Yhome, Himal, January, 2007

The importance and relevance of Ecological Nationalisms lies in its novel treatment and methodological contribution to the current debate on identity politics and ethnic conflicts in Southasia... “Can a journey into [environmental] history help us understand, or grasp at least some of the underlying dynamics of these struggles?”

Economic Nationalisms 2006

'Ecological Nationalisms:
Nature, livelihoods, and identities in South Asia'
edited by Gunnel Cederlof and K Sivaramakrishnan
Permanent Black, 2006

Debates over questions of livelihood, subsistence and peoples’ rights have figured large in recent discourses on the environment, both popular and academic. This is a shift away from previous debates, which had been primarily concerned with conservation, ecological balance and sustainable development, and had been triggered by the effects of global warming and environmental degradation. The current discussion tends to place particular focus on identity politics, especially in the form of rights over nature and claims over resources. These have been articulated through various political and cultural assertions, including outright ethnic movements.  

Ecological Nationalisms offers a new way of understanding the relationships between the concepts of nature, nation and identity in Southasia. Gunnel Cederlof, a historian at Uppsala University in Sweden, and K Sivaramakrishnan, a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, have chosen a host of contributors that do much to redefine debates on both environmental politics and histories of the region. These provide many interesting stories of struggle over nature and natural resources, and how these struggles have been intertwined in claims of national identity during the 19th and 20th centuries.     

In the book’s introduction, “Claiming Nature for Making History”, the editors write that the aim of the book is to explore “the relationship of struggles over nature, and its conservation, to issues of citizenship, subjecthood and nationalism”. By redefining nature as “the space or reference point for national aspiration”, they are able to blend the concepts of nature and nation. Cederlof and Sivaramakrishnan contend that claims of identity are often made as political assertions to legitimise rights over nature or land. Emphasising that these are political claims to territory, resources and “the desire to maintain subsistence”, they argue that indigenist and traditionalist claims cannot be dismissed as mere “acts of strategic self-essentialising cultural identity politics.”  

The editors define ecology as “the interrelatedness of environment and organism”, and emphasise that the concept of ‘ecological nationalism’ involves a radical change in the relationship between human beings and the environment. Elaborating on this concept, they present two different types of ecological nationalism – the “metropolitan-secular” and the “indigenist or regionalist”. While the former sees nature in terms of how it could be used materially and economically for the country, the latter is a reaction by indigenous or regional groups to such exploitative practices of the state, or by marginalised populations to global capitalism’s encroachment on their lives and livelihoods.

The use of the term ecological nationalism is apt, for it points out the problematic nature of the current academic division of ‘nationalism’ into two main types. The first is ‘civic nationalism’, in which membership in the nation is determined by citizenship of a territorial state. The second is ‘ethnic nationalism’, in which the nation is defined in terms of ethnicity. When it comes to environment, civic nationalism is associated with the metropolitan secularists; this group tends to place unitary nationalism above all else, and align themselves with forms of ecologism that reject a complex web of sub-national claims and rights to land and nature. Ethnic nationalism, on the other hand, is seen as providing “a space where right-based identities are produced in combination with place-based identities mediated by claims on nature.”  

In national interest
Ecological Nationalisms is divided into three sections. The first, “Regional Natures, Nation and Empire”, is comprised of three essays, each of which highlights how state intervention is legitimised and how this process destabilises the authority of indigenous communities over nature. Anthropologist Kathleen D Morrison investigates the history of interaction between hill and plains people in the Western Ghats during pre- and early colonial periods, and explores how claims to resources were reflected in the way in which distinct identities formed and were sustained.   

Cederlof then looks at two decades (1820-1843) in the history of the people of the Nilgiri hills. He describes how this area was gradually integrated into the British administrative structures with an eye towards providing “security and prosperity”, and how this has resulted in the dismantling of the local ethnic Toda authority. The third essay, by ‘human geographer’ Urs Geiser, examines the environmental history of the North-West Frontier Province, focusing on the official forest bureaucracy and its “century-old discourses”. Geiser demonstrates how contemporary forest officials in the NWFP justify and reproduce that colonial discourse by stressing the ecological importance of sustainable management of forests, while simultaneously emphasising the ‘national interest’ to legitimise the scientific management of those forests. They ascribe the failure of their so-called ‘mission’ to ‘uninformed’ people. 

The book’s second section is titled “Competing Nationalisms”, and focuses on the relationship between nature and nationalism. In this, ‘nature’ features as a point of reference in the imagination and the cultural construction of identity. One example of this is the essay by University of Sussex historian Vinita Damodaran, which recounts the past century-and-a-half of marginalisation of the hill people of Chotanagpur in Jharkhand, an area that in recent decades has seen significant cultural resistance. Damodaran contends that, in the post-Independence era, the projection of the Adivasi identity versus that of diku (outsiders), and the focus on a history of injustice, have produced a symbolic landscape of Chotanagpuri identity.   

New Zealand anthropologist Antje Linkenbach then examines two relatively recent movements of protest in Uttarakhand – the Chipko movement, and the statewide assertion for political autonomy and separation from Uttar Pradesh. According to this essay, territory and resources play an important role alongside culture and religion in the formation of identity in Uttarakhand. A similar argument is made by Bengt G Karlsson, the director of the Nordic Centre in India, who explores the dynamics between forest and community in Meghalaya. In the Northeast, Karlsson writes, “the politics of nature is intrinsically linked to ethnic mobilisation and aspirations for increased political autonomy.” 

Two Canadians, Claude A Garcia and J P Pascal, then examine the politics of a sacred forest in Kodagu District in Karnataka. After a systematic investigation of the ecological character of the area, they refute the idea that sacred groves are environmentally virgin forests. Instead, Garcia and Pascal note that various stakeholders have very different views of sacred forests: they are alternately valued symbolically, as resources and also simply as “space”. The authors conclude by observing that sacred forests “merge environment, history and religion”, and are fundamental in the definition of the relationship between man and nature.  

Local knowledge
The final section in Ecological Nationalisms is titled “Commodified Nature and National Visions”. The four essays included here are concerned with the confrontation between the ‘metropolitan-secularist’ and the ‘indigenist or regionalist’ views on nature, as discussed above. German social anthropologist Gotz Hoeppe analyses the entrance of the state into the lives of fishermen in Kerala. Taking two cases,

Hoeppe looks at the contradictions between the state’s scientific knowledge and the local knowledge of the fishermen. He subsequently concludes that, in both interventions, the intimate local relationship and indigenous knowledge with nature is marginalised by the state’s scientific knowledge for the exploitation of nature. 

German anthropologist Wolfgang Mey presents a fascinating historical account of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, emphasising that the state’s definitions of development and identity have excluded the hill people in the national discourses on history and identity. Sociologist Sarah Southwold-Llewellyn then analyses the cosmopolitan and nativist claims of rights to the forests in a village in the Hindukush mountains, and illustrates how ecology and access to resources defines the conceptualisation of the Pakhtun socio-political organisation and identity. The section ends with sociologist Nina Bhatt’s interesting analysis of the forest bureaucracy in Nepal in the aftermath of absolute monarchy and the advent of multi-party democracy in the early 1990s. Bhatt examines the links between national parks and national identity through forest staff’s understandings of their roles as “stewards” or “defenders” of national interests in nature management through “hard work [and] … bravery”. But, in the changed context, Bhatt notes that the “experience of the bureaucratic subjectivity” suggests an ambiguity regarding duties to the park and duties to the country.  

The importance and relevance of Ecological Nationalisms lies in its novel treatment and methodological contribution to the current debate on identity politics and ethnic conflicts in Southasia. One point of departure from earlier ethnic studies is this work’s addressing of the problematic nature of ‘nature’ and its related concepts in the understanding of identity politics. The conceptualisation of the relation of struggle over nature, and the politics of identity formation or ‘national’ identity, is a significant breakthrough in the study of ethnic politics. The political landscape of Southasia is dotted with diverse forms of ethnic politics, and this book provides a new approach in understanding this complex scenario.  

The interdisciplinary approach of the book enabled the authors to view and engage with such diverse issues as livelihood, nationhood, identity, subsistence, conservation and politics. From historical, ethnographic, environmental, political-geographic and political-economic perspectives, the authors unearth the complexities and relations of identity politics and struggles over nature.

Ecological Nationalisms will be of great service for both social scientists and students of environmental conflicts and identity politics, and will help in leading to a greater understanding of the nuances of contemporary regional conflicts and politics.

One of the book’s contributors poses the question, “Can a journey into [environmental] history help us understand, or grasp at least some of the underlying dynamics of these struggles?” This reviewer would answer affirmatively, and would strongly recommend this work for students of politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, ecology and globalisation in Southasia.

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