Environmental Histories of Commodities 1800-2000

A highly topical conference on “Environmental Histories of Commodities 1800-2000”  was held at University College London on the 11th of September 2015,  organised by the British Academy’s Commodities of Empire project,  which is a collaboration between the Open University’s Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies and and UCL’s Institute of the Americas.

From a diverse set of papers, four main themes coalesced. The first concerned the importance of going beyond the simple study of commodities intended for global markets by researching other productive practices,  particularly crops for subsistence and those intended for local markets, which may have distinctive ecological uses and cultural meanings for their producers. The second theme focused on the nature of historical knowledge and the crucial question of sources in relation to agrarian environmental issues, suggesting both differences and complementarities  between accounts based primarily on written archival sources and those informed by ethnographic research. A third concern was to analyse how historical processes operating at different scales – global, imperial, transnational, local – can be related to  one another, and the  potential of  commodity studies in bridging geographically and environmentally disparate sites. Finally, a number of the papers addressed the  importance of understanding a range of different human and non-human agencies – including those of animals and plants –  in the historical genesis of commodities, and how such an approach might enrich this exciting, interdisciplinary field of study.

The three papers of the opening session spoke to the resourcefulness and inventiveness of peasants’ agricultural practices within their own local environments. However, accessing these practices required either critical anthropological fieldwork, attentive to indigenous cultures, or reading archival historical documents ‘against the grain’. Sandip Hazareesingh (Open University) drew on his research into cotton production in nineteenth-century colonial  western India to argue that rich descriptions of peasants’ responses to changing environments and climates can be found within the colonial archives. He showed how colonial accounts of the material agrarian environment – rainfall, climate, soils, crops grown and peasant livelihoods, were all based on encounters with a host of indigenous informants, including cultivators in the field, whose views and perspectives often filtered through these narratives. He proposed a ‘political ecology’ approach to archival documents which involves, first, recognising their origins and generation in colonial (or state) encounters with ‘alien’ natural and human environments; and second, pursuing a commitment to explore the modes of resilience and adaptation of local peasant communities faced with environmental challenges.  

Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork, Paul Richards and Harro Maat (University of Wageningen) outlined the  complex environmental and human factors that have shaped the adaptation of rice varieties along the coast of West Africa, resulting in significant variation  within this region. Thus, in upper West Africa, African rice was rejected following emancipation because of its associations with the slave trade, and replaced with Asian varieties and African-Asian hybrids, which allowed farmers to experiment with varieties best suited to their own local environments. In lower West Africa, by contrast, African rice was not associated with slavery, and has instead been ‘curated as a crop of ritual significance, and as a marker of ethnic distinction, quite separate from Asian rice, grown largely for the market’.

Finally, Minoti Chakravarty-Kaul (University of Delhi) also drew on colonial records read against the grain in her paper f on the historical geography of agrarian Punjab during the long century of British rule.  She showed how colonial social engineering, particularly in the form of canal technologies, led to new demographic pressures and the gradual eroding of self-governing customs for natural resource use which local peasants had built up over thousands of years.  

The second session commenced with a paper by Simon Jackson (University of Birmingham)  on French attempts to produce phosphates in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia between 1916 and 1933. Jackson argued that these projects were motivated by French attempts to develop a modernised agriculture based on raw materials supplied by France’s own colonial territories in the period after World War One. Mining sites within these territories constituted a North African ‘phosphate archipelago’ linked by labour migration of miners from North Africa and the Mediterranean, and by engineers and managers from France. Indeed, the multiple dynamics of this archipelago increasingly shaped the political economy of the wider French imperial system. Jackson’s paper underlined the significance of viewing phosphates (and potentially other mined commodities) as environmental actors over vast geographies, enabling a fresh perspective on the colonial-political history of French north Africa. 

Jackson was followed by Colin Cahill’s (University of California, Irvine) paper on the history of coffee gathered from the excrements of civets (small catlike mammals native to tropical Asia and Africa ), based on a combination of colonial literature analysis and ethnographic research among contemporary Indonesian civet coffee producers. Civet coffee has recently attracted attention as a very high-priced novelty for coffee connoisseurs, and opprobrium because of the increasing tendency to keep civets in cages. Seeking to move our understanding of civet coffee beyond these reductive tales of luxury and cruelty, Cahill presented an original story about the shifting yet entangled histories of coffee and civets over the past three centuries, using an anthropological approach that sought to integrate commodity histories, animal studies and political economy: coffee cultivation not only altered livelihoods and landscapes in Indonesia, but also the diets of local civets and other fauna.   
The afternoon session began with Marc Herold’s  (University of New Hampshire)  counter-intuitive  analysis of  value distribution in the modern cocaine commodity chain linking Latin America and the USA between 1970 and 2013. The highly controversial debates around the prohibition of drugs could, he suggested, be tempered by treating cocaine suppliers and users as economically rational agents.  He also pointed out that it was important to compare the environmental and social effects of cocaine production with those of other commodities, concluding with the provocative suggestion (contested in the subsequent discussion) that cocaine in Colombia has been less environmentally destructive overall than Peruvian asparagus. 

He was followed by Helen Cowie (University of York) who brought us back to the world of animals in her paper on attempts to acclimatise alpacas (long-haired South American mammals) in the British Empire of the nineteenth century. She focused on networks of knowledge that facilitated the transfer of alpacas, prized for the quality of their wool, from Peru to Britain and, especially, Australia, emphasising how British subjects in places as diverse as Bradford, Liverpool, Sydney and Arequipa promoted and benefited from the naturalisation scheme.  These efforts brought together ‘Yorkshire manufacturers, Australian livestock farmers and Peruvian herders’ in a project which Cowie related to broader nineteenth century themes of  botanical imperialism, agricultural ‘improvement’, bio-piracy, and  heroic (male) colonial adventure.   

Jonathan Robins  (Michigan Technological University)  then spoke on transformations in the palm oil industry in colonial Ghana between 1850 and 1950. Robins brought out two primary uses for palm tree products, as foods for a wide range of local uses, and as globally-traded commodities. He analysed in particular the shift from  the commodity form of palm oil  as an inedible product – used chiefly for ‘soap, candles, grease and tinplate’ –  to what may be defined as an ‘anti-commodity’ derivative, palm wine. This drink derivative had traditionally served social, political and religious functions in Ghanaian society and was an important source of income for local producers. The banning of cheap liquor imports by the colonial authorities, coupled with low prices for palm oil on the world market led to a resurgence of palm wine production for local consumption, in spite of colonial forest conservation legislation designed to control the felling of palm trees. Robins’ arresting conclusion was that such local producer persistence ultimately led to a shift in colonial development strategies away from the export sector, in favour of producing foodstuffs for the vibrant local market.  

Finally, although she was unable to attend in person, Emma Reisz’s (Queen’s University Belfast) paper on the control of wild rubber extraction in north-east India in the second half of the nineteenth century received much praise. Drawing on Latour’s Actor Network Theory, her paper discussed the emergence of two parallel rubber economies during this period which revealed a subtle dynamic of power and resistance within this particular imperial frontier as well as the limits of British hegemony. Such a focus on ‘networks’ of rubber (and potentially other commodities) enabled particular regional environments to be understood through the interplay of local and global, imperial and colonial, human and non-human.

All sessions were followed by lively and engaging discussions, led by respondents. Part of the richness of the day stemmed from the singularities of the commodities discussed, their complex entanglements with natural environments and human lives, and participants’ different  approaches to studying them. The perspectives of scholars from different disciplines – history, geography, anthropology, economics, and  development studies - contributed both to the productively eclectic range of arguments, and the  thought-provoking variety of sources which were creatively employed within the different papers.