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BOOK REVIEW
Year : 2010  |  Volume : 8  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 152-153

Baviskar, A. (ed.). Contested Grounds: Essays on Nature, Culture and Power


Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India

Correspondence Address:
Radhika Krishnan
Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi
India
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


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Date of Web Publication31-Aug-2010
 


How to cite this article:
Krishnan R. Baviskar, A. (ed.). Contested Grounds: Essays on Nature, Culture and Power. Conservat Soc 2010;8:152-3

How to cite this URL:
Krishnan R. Baviskar, A. (ed.). Contested Grounds: Essays on Nature, Culture and Power. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2010 [cited 2019 Sep 19];8:152-3. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2010/8/2/152/68918

Contested Grounds: Essays on Nature, Culture and Power

Baviskar, A. (ed.). Contested Grounds: Essays on Nature, Culture and Power. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 2008. vi+259 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 9780195695854. INR 650.

Environmental debates all too often centre on concepts of resource scarcity and conflict, waste and efficiency, security, territory and sovereignty. The mainstream discourse for instance informs us that natural resources are finite and 'scarce'. Therefore, they have to be managed 'efficiently' in order to cut down on 'wasteful' usage. We are also often told that conflicts over these scarce resources are inevitable, as different groups fight to claim control and power over the increasingly dwindling supply of resources. We are reminded that the Iraq war was essentially about oil. And future wars, it has been widely predicted, will be over water. Resources are seen as 'goods' on which the security of a nation, and of the communities within it, depends. They are used and controlled by those who exercise territorial sovereignty over natural resource environments.

Contested Grounds questions this understanding: the essays in the book attempt to provide fresh insights into current debates over natural resources. As Amita Baviskar explains in the introduction, this collection of nine essays introduces 'cultural politics' into the discourse which has hitherto largely been defined by contours set by political ecology. The essays argue for a more nuanced and infinitely more complex understanding of the conditions and processes by which identities and interests are constantly produced. And in the process, the essays show that our understanding of key concepts such as 'scarcity', 'community' and 'waste' could well do with some serious reworking.

In one of the essays, Lyla Mehta for instance explains that scarcity of resources is often both 'real' and 'constructed'. Using the example of water scarcity in the drought-prone Kutch region of Gujarat, she points out how scarcity has been 'created' by systematically undermining the traditional mechanisms of coping with drought, and also by the existing inequities embedded in rural social and political structures. Therefore, she convincingly argues, understanding the real nature of scarcity, and more importantly understanding the dynamics that operates behind the 'creation' of scarcity, is essential to coming up with a useful policy-level response.

Similarly, in pointing out how the concept of 'waste' was used in two completely different and even contradictory ways by the British, David Gilmartin explains how this resource regime is fraught with complexities and contradictions. Through an account of the changes in the social, political and economic fabric of the Sylhet region (in northeast Bangladesh bordering India), David Ludden dismisses the simplistic notion that the use of natural resources can be defined by legal territorial boundaries and can consequently benefit only those who exercise sovereign control within these boundaries.

In discussing what he terms as the 'Economies of Violence' in oil-dependent Nigeria, Michael Watts shows how no single definition of a territorial 'governable space' can explain the dynamics of resource utilisation. Watts explains the impact of petro-capitalism in Nigeria and shows how the youth and the indigenous community in Nigeria have negotiated to create spaces for themselves, thus influencing and challenging the very concept of a 'nation'.

In a vividly descriptive essay laden with imagery, Anna Lowenhaust Tsing shows how the lines between legal and illegal, public and private, violence and law, restoration and extermination are routinely blurred in the creation of what she calls 'capitalist frontiers'. Though she is describing her experiences in Indonesia, Tsing might well be writing about resource utilisation patterns in several other parts of the world. At one point she writes: "It is hard to know what one is seeing."-showing how an officially designated 'nature reserve' is also an official forest and a village territory, how extensive logging of timber is permitted in 'national parks', how a 'community forest' could be nothing more than stumps of trees left by loggers.

If Tsing shows how the inadequacy of mere bland definitions, Tania Li explains how multiple identities exist and are sometimes actively harnessed: a process that often blurs and complicates relationships that are often taken for granted. A farmer for instance could simultaneously be portrayed as a victim of state-sponsored displacement, a forest destroyer, a criminal or a greedy, profit seeking opportunist-and these multiple identities complicate simplistic understandings of the relationship between the state and the 'community', or intra-community relationships. Li uses the example of how a displaced farming community in Indonesia decides to 'illegally' settle down in a 'natural reserve', and cultivate land for their subsistence. In this process, they ironically find themselves pitted against groups who would in other circumstances be supportive of their defiance of the state machinery - the 'indigenous' community previously residing there, and the NGOs working on forest conservation. This experience of multiple identities finds echoes in the conservation debate in India, where the discourse saw a shift from 'nature-loving tribals' versus the 'vicious state'. The tribals living in national parks were seen by the tiger conservation lobby as mere 'poachers' and willing participants in the decimation of the tiger population, rather than as possible partners in animal conservation.

Contested Grounds does succeed in pointing out how culture itself 'is a political struggle' as Baviskar points out. It shows how the process of resource use and environmental change is complex. Tsing's essay in particular forces us to question basic definitions, infusing scepticism, bewilderment and even anger. The book therefore helps us to unravel the politics behind the phraseology in which the environmental discourse is couched and shows how continuously evolving cultural changes should also inform the discourse.

The book could perhaps have included other accounts: for instance, the complex processes that are responsible for changing aspirations and cultural perceptions regarding resource use. To take an example, political ecology has done a good job of showing how colonialism changed the landscape in the Kosi river basin, changing the flood-dependent to a flood-affected area. Introducing cultural politics into this debate could have helped us to understand how local perceptions of the river changed in the process, and how the state succeeded in legitimising its project of constructing dams and embankments by systematically undermining existing culture and practices.

For anyone interested in environment and resource politics, this book is a useful read. Researches and academics, activists and policy makers could benefit from the valuable interventions that this book makes in the existing discourse on resource use.




 

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