Environmental Histories of Commodities

A one-day conference organised under the auspices of the Commodities of Empire project and the Institute of the Americas at UCL

Friday 11th September 2015, University College London

Conference organisers: Dr Sandip Hazareesingh (Open University), Dr Paulo Drinot (UCL)

This one-day conference organised jointly by the Open University’s Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies and UCL’s Institute of the Americas will showcase state-of-the-art research on nature’s contributions to, as well as the environmental impact and consequences of, the historical production, circulation and consumption of commodities in the modern period. The collaboration will enable coverage of the main continents of the global south, enabling a broader reach than the customary ‘area studies’ conference framework, and is aimed at facilitating fruitful conversations and debates across regional academic frontiers and specialisms.

‘Commodities’ and ‘environment’ are naturally linked, and the past decade has seen the emergence of a rich sub-field of research on human-environment interactions. Broadly, this literature has suggested that one of the crucial ways of understanding environmental change in the global south during the modern period is through a study of the territorial and environmental aspects of commodity production.1 An initial focus on the transnational political economy of ‘commodity chains’ and on the exercise of colonial power on agrarian landscapes held responsible for environmental destruction and the exploitation of local populations2 has more recently given way to a greater attention to the ‘agency of nature’ in the production (or non-production) of commodities and to indigenous and local social actors and their modes of environmental knowledge. Recent studies have, for instance, shown how the climate, soil and environments of Latin American countries have both facilitated and limited the production of certain export commodities,3 how both soil-borne and air-borne banana pathogens have impacted on forests and indigenous lands in Honduras,4 and how Egyptian and Indian peasants were able to use their knowledge and experience of local environments to contest and resist the agrarian designs of their respective imperial overlords.5

The conference will showcase and debate the current state of play of research on commodities from environmental historical perspectives. We invite papers from scholars from any discipline working on any region of Africa, Asia, Latin America & the Caribbean during the period 1800-2000. Papers may, for instance, address

  • the impact of climate, extreme weather events, soil, pests or pathogens on commodity landscapes, waterscapes, or human livelihoods.

  • the environmental effects of the development of plants or minerals into commodities

  • the interface between colonial, scientific and indigenous environmental knowledge in approaches to crop/commodity production

  • the impact of modes of governance on agrarian, forest and water environments

  • the significance of animals as factors of production in agrarian landscapes

  • the environmental impact of changing local/global patterns of commodity consumption

  • gendered commodity environments

  • new approaches, or theoretical frameworks, in the environmental histories of commodities

The conference will consist of moderated panel sessions featuring twelve papers grouped together by the organisers and led by a respondent. We invite scholars to submit a single document proposal which should include an abstract of 300 words, their name, institutional affiliation and contact information, and a one-page C.V. The deadline for the receipt of proposals is Thursday 30th April 2015. The conference will be open to a small number of interested attendees, principally early career researchers.

Proposals should be sent to Dr Jonathan Curry-Machado, Co-ordinator, Commodities of Empire project (commoditiesofempire@gmail.com).

1 Brenda Baletti, review, Journal of Latin American Geography vol. 4 no. 2 (2005), 116.

2 Influential examples of work in this vein are Steven Topic et. al. (eds.), From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy (2006) and Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (2001).

3 Christian Brannstrom (ed.), Territories, Commodities and Knowledges: Latin American Environmental Histories in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (2004).

4 John Soluri, Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States (2006).

5 Alan Mikhail, Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt. An Environmental History (2011); Sandip Hazareesingh, ‘Cotton, Climate and Colonialism in Dharwar, western India 1840-1880’, Journal of Historical Geography 38 (2012).