Which elements of our environment should be considered “resources” for human use? And just how should we use them? Recent debates about the environment have made it clear that these are not simple questions. Imagine, for example, a 500-hectare grassy-jungly patch. Should it be described as “scrub waste”? As a “prime location for a tourist-bungalow complex”? As “reserve land for tiger and short-tailed deer”? Or as a “site suitable for a refugee camp”? Each description invokes a distinct conception of nature and of humans’ place in it. Each arises from a specialized activity: land tax collection, tourism, conservation practice, human rights activism. Each mobilizes its adherents. These discourses, and the contests that develop between them, are necessarily consequential. They are also an opening for scholars to understand how people struggle to control their worlds.

“Knowledge of the environment, we argue, is socially constructed in environmental practices, and it is the practical significance of knowledge that makes it always already political.”

Recent scholarship on the environment has increasingly begun to recognize the importance of the discursive shaping of environmental policies and practices. We understand “discourse” to involve both ways of speaking and clusters of nonverbal practices, as these create and maintain distinctions and identities. Our interest is not to separate “language” and “practice” as if linguistic categories gained power merely by being invented. We begin with the inextricability of linguistic and nonlinguistic practices in making both meaning and politics. Knowledge of the environment, we argue, is socially constructed in environmental practices, and it is the practical significance of knowledge that makes it always already political. The intertwining of knowledge and practice become particularly obvious where multiple frameworks for describing and using a single terrain are in competition.

Discourse creates objects of environmental knowledge and agendas for environmental action. For example, nature is made and unmade, claimed and unclaimed, through the production and deployment of property rights discourses. Political disagreements about how to live in nature—e.g., those that divide local farmers and national officials, or those that divide environmental activists and timber company spokesmen—involve divergent discursive frameworks for understanding “the environment.” As environmental issues assume an increasing visibility in political and cultural debates in both South and Southeast Asia, scholarly understanding of environmental discourses in these areas becomes pressing. Yet, in part because of the interdisciplinary nature of such investigation—which necessarily spans and transforms knowledge across the humanities and natural and social sciences—the work of theorizing environmental discourse is still in its infancy. We believe that such theoretical work is best done in relation to concrete environmental developments, such as those that are shaped within the culture and history of a particular place. The Joint Committees on South and on Southeast Asia have therefore designed a conference to study environmental discourses in these adjacent regions. Through a series of interlinked but locally situated studies, we hope to stimulate scholarly discussion of the politics of environmental knowledge.

Wild nature in the discourses of development and environmentalism

Since World War II, one environmental discourse has gained a singular power to define environmentally differentiated spaces in the Third World: the discourse of development. Development discourse delineates a progressive narrative in which humans gain increasing control over an unpredictable nature; places and peoples are targeted for development to the extent that they are still mired in the vagaries of nature. In recent years, this discourse has not lost its powerful hold, yet a counter-discourse has gained increasing importance: environmentalism. Environmentalism creates a different agenda for “nature.” In development discourse, nature is the raw material from which human well-being can be wrested; in environmentalist discourse, human and inter-species well-being requires that nature be conserved and protected. The contrasts between these two agendas inform debates about the environment.

Competition and overlap between these two agendas can be seen, for example, in relation to that domain imagined as “wild nature.” This is the nature that is not cultivated in permanent fields nor built upon in recognized settlements: forests, brushlands, swamps, mountains, rivers, oceans. Less spatially defined forms of nature such as weather, wildlife, natural disasters, and diseases, are also imagined as “wild.” Wild nature is culturally constituted in both development and environmental discourses; it is, respectively, that which is most suitable for development and that which is most important to preserve. What is lost in such constructions are the presence, interests, and activities of people: fishers, foragers, and shifting cultivators. We believe that the problems of composing, destroying, preserving, narrating, debating, and transforming wild nature in South and Southeast Asia will be particularly illuminating of the dynamics of environmental discourse. In exploring constructions of nature, we also necessarily make preferred presents and futures, with their narratives of human well-being, an object of our concern. Our focus, then, could be said to be “the naturalization of nature,” and its key corollary, “the development of development.”

“Our project involves careful ethnographic attention to local understandings as we also attend to local/global linkages.”

Although we argue for the power of discourses of development and environmentalism in South and Southeast Asia, we do not imagine them to control all the ways people understand and talk about their environments. Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of studying nature in South and Southeast Asia is precisely the insufficiency of this European-derived category to cover the many local forms of narration, classification, and meaningful practice that have developed in these regions. Forests, for example, are redefined and reclaimed through a large variety of environmental discourses—involving indigenous forest ecologies, village grazing practices, urban romanticism, bureaucratic scientific forestries, plantation labor relations, tourist wildlife parks, religious epistemologies, national map-making, and much more. Our project involves careful ethnographic attention to local understandings as we also attend to local/global linkages. We plan neither to raise cases as isolated monads nor to depict an increasing global homogeneity; we encourage the simultaneous use of culturally comparative and world systems frameworks. Thus, for example, recent work on forest management practices in Kalimantan, Indonesia, has shown the gap between national policy and local Dayak strategies and understandings of forest use, while a similar gap in central and western India has brought aboriginals and peasants into opposition with not only the government but also the World Bank. But the two do not exist side by side as autonomous cultural alternatives: National development policy has criminalized local management practices, creating situations in which community livelihoods involving water and forest use require refusal of official demands. When environmentalists step into such situations, they create an even more complex polyvocality; sometimes, they may even make unwitting alliances with national developers.

Although environmentalism and development have come to compete in recent years, a narrow focus on the present is one of the pitfalls to avoid in interrogating development discourses, which frequently obliterate the precolonial and colonial past. Again and again they begin their stories with the moment of “decolonization,” reinscribing an always troubling periodization. An important aim of our forthcoming conference will be to reconstruct the eighteenth and nineteenth century lineages of expert knowledge, policy prescriptions, and concrete practices that haunt contemporary environmental tellings. Scholars have already begun this task of unraveling the history of South and Southeast Asian forest use and abuse, but much remains to be said about the way soils, seeds and genetic resources, water, weather, wildlife, etc., were embedded in and extracted from the lives of Asian peoples. One of our motives, then, is to historicize the different efforts of expert, i.e., scientific, accounts to frame, and at times denigrate, indigenous environmental competence. The discordant and isolated voices of past European observers require a more attentive review of discourse contests among “experts” under colonial regimes. Indian provincial authorities, for example, waged a spirited defense of the effectiveness of village-management of forests in Madras in the 1870s, being finally overruled by naked bureaucratic authority that favored wholesale expropriation to the state of India’s timber resources. The alliance—or the appearance of an alliance—of interests between provincial Victorian officials and forest-dwelling aboriginals in the matter of forest control is perhaps unexpected, but what is even more surprising is that this specific information has become a useful resource for contemporary efforts to wrest control of local forests away from the postcolonial state.

Contending discourses in theory and practice

Environmental discourses—gathered from materials as various as oral tales, subsistence practices, scientific projects, corporate strategies, NGO proposals, and UN policy statements—are consequential. They serve to replenish, undermine, or remake knowledge about the nature of “nature” and about the place and purpose of humans in specific physical settings. Such discourses are implicated in stabilizations and transformations of the landscape. In some cases they enjoin destruction of the forest or animals as a group’s highest and most moral ambition; in other cases, the protection of every twig or bird is the acme of religion. We want particularly to understand the increasingly common situation in which differing stories come into conflict over material and symbolic interests in nature.

But how, as a matter of theory, is the environment discursively shaped in South and Southeast Asia? What are the notions of “nature” and “development” that are assumed, conserved, contradicted, destroyed, and transformed in the narrative practices and social relations of specific South and Southeast Asian societies? What visions and revisions of discourses of development posit nature alternatively as object of, or as agent in, conceptions of the environment? What are the historical and political and economic forces that compel people to account for nature in one way rather than another? At what points, under what conditions, do such naturalizations of nature crumble and discourses about the environment fail?

“A focus on wild nature thus allows us to bring up issues of the unpredictable, perhaps uncanny, forms of non-human agency in which nature ‘talks back’ to it objectifications.”

Here again the notion of wild nature—always a construction that has no meaning apart from human invocation—is analytically useful. On the one hand, the wild is an object created by powerful discourses; on the other hand, the wild is that which is thought to escape human control and intentionality. A focus on wild nature thus allows us to bring up issues of the unpredictable, perhaps uncanny, forms of non-human agency in which nature “talks back” to it objectifications. Natural disasters—floods, epidemics, droughts, earthquakes—have a distinctive temporal significance, on the one hand marking the unobservable worlds of tectonic, pathogenic, and biospheric energy accumulation and its sudden release, on the other hand writing—in death and dust—the breaks with normal expectation when human projects come to nothing. Such calamities intrude with an urgency that suggests implacable will, and ordinary as well as scientific discourses are rife with allusions to hubris and comeuppance. These too will be subjects for investigation.

The where and the what that structure environmental talk in South and Southeast Asia offer diverse classifications, oppositions, and concatenations that beg for critical examination. On the one hand, there are development-oriented national and international policies that map economic-ecological zones, defined by their relationship to development ideals, onto the national landscape. These are zones of economic possibilities—for subsistence, resource extraction, industrialization, etc. They are also classifications of communities, resource-use strategies, and technological regimes. Thus, for example, in Indonesia, “forests” are isolated as a landscape category and then divided into “production,” “conversion,” and “protection” spaces. Similarly, established slash-and-burn rice cultivators tend to be classified (before-development) as “primitives,” while irrigated rice cultivators are merely “poor.” These are influential classifications. Even in arguing for local rights or conservation needs, scholars have known the boundaries of “local” social-ecological spaces only by following the lines of these national and international landscape-division policies.

On the other hand, development strategies sometimes envisage nature not as a series of zones but as a set of profitable resources. Here the well-established concept of “habitat” has been used to map, and then grant or deny access to, a wide variety of plants or animals of economic, scientific, or touristic significance. In recent years, the more elaborate concept of “biodiversity” has been draped across entire terrains to redefine all species as living archives of evolutionary information. Such information has value, a particularly striking example being “prospecting” for medically active wild plants and for genetic resources from crop plants. Such resource-extraction agendas create nature as capital—a storehouse of commodities pre-fit for a global trade network that needs no classifications and no boundaries, but only the expertise of the market. Increasing attention now gets paid to local forms of expertise, and the long-derided herbalist forest-product collector and the indigenous healer become sudden partners in multinational enterprise. Ownership negotiations leap over the social and ecological classifications of development zone mappings to imagine a level playing field in which villagers and corporate lawyers can bargain freely. The specifics of this rapidly burgeoning development alternative demand discussion of the heterogeneities and historical shifts that characterize development discourses in South and Southeast Asia.

“Both commercial and conservation organizations use stories that fuse natives and nature to create their own niches in international legal and property systems and metropolitan funding flows.”

As discourses of development are manipulated and reformed, surprising alliances and oppositions arise. For example, convergences have emerged in the rhetoric of conservation organizations and commercial enterprises. Pharmaceutical firms come together with environmental programs in producing narratives of entrepreneurial but ecologically self-conscious natives. Thus, a firm called Shaman Pharmaceuticals creates a soft-focus image of ecologically grounded “natives” as it extracts information for patentable drugs, while The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Program of Conservation International uses similar images to resuscitate knowledge of the natural world for young, alienated “natives.” Both commercial and conservation organizations use stories that fuse natives and nature to create their own niches in international legal and property systems and metropolitan funding flows. South and Southeast Asian environmental NGO’s also construct images of nature-loving entrepreneurial natives for use as these NGO’s negotiate with the national government on ethnic minority policies and with multinational companies on resource patent rights. Yet these latter agendas are also informed by discourses on social equity and civil and human rights; the units in these social justice discourses tend to be “communities” rather than individuals.

Environmentalism has not entered South and Southeast Asia in a monolithic form. Scholars have remarked the emergence of a “Standard Environmental Narrative” in South Asian intellectual and activist/NGO circles. The contour of this narrative is that of an inverted L, or a plateau punctuated by a drop, according to which stable and benign environmental interactions in the pre-and early-colonial period were followed by a rapid descent into environmental disorder and rural want after the mid-nineteenth century. In accounting for this fall, scholars have indicted colonial laws, institutions, and ideologies. This is, essentially, a nationalist narrative in green that closely parallels the saga of colonial subjection, and it has become very influential. In Southeast Asia, social and political agendas are also influential in constructing environmentalism, but the stories that build a relationship between colonialism, nationalism, and the environment are sometimes quite different. The contrast is perhaps most striking for Malaysia, where official spokespersons have effectively labeled environmentalism a neocolonial imposition. Indeed, in response, local people fighting environmental policy in Malaysia have sometime self-consciously allied themselves with colonial precedent.

There are also, however, historical links and overlaps between the environmentalism of South and Southeast Asia. For example, in colonial India and Java, intense ties between British and Dutch botanical gardens, beginning in the nineteenth century, accompanied the acculturation of once-exotic species such a cinchona, rubber, and eucalyptus. More recently, the blossoming of environmental activism in each region has relied in part on organizational ties and the copying of organizing models across regions. Environmentalist movements and groups in both regions have achieved global prominence; the Chipko movement in South Asia and Sahabat Alam Malaysia in Southeast Asia both stand out. This prominence has meant that both regions have been recognized as key to the formation of a “southern” environmentalist strategy. This project, then, addresses both national and regional specificities in the development of environmentalist discourses and cross-national, cross-regional, and transnational ties.

The discourses, however, are not always discrete. An intriguing example is the recent flourishing of “ecotourism,” that is, forms of tourism designed both to allow tourists to view wild environments and, ideally, to sustain those environments. Promoters of ecotourism hope to please both government officials demanding development and environmentalists demanding preservation of nature. Like ethnic tourism, with which it is often linked or fused (as wild nature and wild or authentic people are jointly packaged), ecotourism both taps and stimulates Western desires to experience something pristine and untouched. Unlike most other forms of tourism, however, it self-consciously (if paradoxically) proclaims its goal as conservation, and it joins fantasies of the wild with rhetorics of well-planned management and resource utilization. Although few developers have gone as far as the Japanese (an artificial indoor beach near Tokyo includes computer-generated waves, designed to be ever-so-slightly unpredictable), South and Southeast Asians have been promoting with increasing enthusiasm their mountains and coral reefs, rhinoceri and orangutans, and even their native peoples. The emerging discourses are deployed by various actors (officials, developers, travel agencies, and tourists, as well as the touristed) toward different ends—whether to remove local people from their land, or to return them to it on condition that they dress and behave as environmentally proper displays. And, although the emergent quality of these discourses and practices is part of their interest, they too have lineages which may be explored—for example, in natural history museums, where the great mammal halls were created by white hunters at once enthralled with nature and determined to capture and preserve it, taxidermically, for all time.

“Environmental science has played its own prominent role in shaping South and Southeast Asian environments.”

Another arena with unexpected overlap and convergence is the history of environmental science; certainly, both development discourses and environmentalism argue for their respective scientific legitimacy. Environmental science has played its own prominent role in shaping South and Southeast Asian environments. This applies not only to landscape-altering disciplines such as scientific forestry. Tropical medicine, for example, helped create the notion of “the tropics,” a concept that has influenced colonial and post-colonial environmental and developmental policies. The histories of science and of medicine offer additional opportunities to investigate the changing interface of local and scientific know ledges. (The recent rising prominence of medically oriented ethnobotany recalls the earlier natural history reliance on diverse local understandings of plants.) It is in these slippery, unequal, and contested fields, where various forms of knowledge and practice come together, that we expect to find the most exciting dynamics of environmental discourse.

Less well attended by scholarship to date but no less promising for the project’s goals are the very diverse discourses of development—micro- and macroeconomics, planning and population studies, food science, locational analysis, instructional broadcasting, demonstration projects, and social marketing. If these formidable techniques in various combinations have largely failed to effect the goal of “sustainable development,” it is regularly attributed to governments failing to exert sufficient “political will.” Yet the goal of development itself is very differently seen by different governments, some linking it to permanent and wholesale entry into global capitalist markets, others to a moderation of needs and desires among those who live in cities as well as those who plow and sow. Like the evolving and overlapping narratives of environmentalism, specialized development discourses move swiftly between South and Southeast Asia, carried by intermediaries as various as World Bank economists and the insurgents who in 1994 launched from ground-level the “Fifty Years [of the Bank] is Enough” movement.

Background and design

The proposed conference on environmental discourses, planned for the winter of 1995, emerges from concerns raised over the last several years by members of the Joint Committees on South Asia and on Southeast Asia about rapid and appalling exploitation of forests, river, and soils, and the impact of this exploitation on regional societies. These concerns have already led to preliminary meetings in 1992 and 1993. In designing a conference with a focus on South and Southeast Asia, we hope to draw on the participants’ regional and cross-regional knowledge, which will ground our discussions and contribute to culturally and historically informed conclusions. We also hope to explore a number of cross-regional conversations involving both development and environmentalism. Hitherto South and Southeast Asia have often been linked in discussing problems of poverty and development. (When conference organizers want to show the economic vitality of Asia, they link East and Southeast Asia; when they want to discuss Asian poverty, they link South and Southeast Asia.) Similarly, discussions of disease, hygiene, and population since the Victorian age have brought together the South and Southeast Asian “tropics.” These kinds of cross-regional tropes will highlight both heterogeneity and historical interconnections. Conference participants will be asked to write “case studies,” that is, concrete and situated analyses. No single analytic approach will be prescribed; however, by inviting interdisciplinary thinkers with training in the humanities, natural, and social sciences, as well as regional expertise, we are hoping for a conversation in which varied approaches to the materiality of nature will challenge and respond to each other productively. This conversation will move beyond disciplinary approaches, which offer only partial understandings of processes that range from textual to institutional to ecological effects, that transect local, regional, national, and international levels, and that connect real villagers’ talk to state, corporate, and international agency perspectives.

Paul Greenough is professor emeritus of history and community & behavioral health at the University of Iowa and he has received a Fulbright fellowship in India to research the social and environmental history of the Indian crow. He served as a committee member of the Council’s Joint Committee on South Asia from 1988 to 1994.

Anna Tsing is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her latest book is The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015). She served as a committee member of the Council’s Joint Committee on Southeast Asia from 1994 to 2005.

They organized a conference in 1995 called “Environmental Discourses and Human Welfare in South and Southeast Asia” through the Joint Committees on South Asia and Southeast Asia. Versions of the papers from this conference were published in the book Nature in the Global South (Duke University Press, 2003), coedited by Greenough and Tsing.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 48, No. 4 in December 1994. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.