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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 1 (1994)

 

This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India. Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. xiv, 274 pp.

 

Reviewed by Sonja Brodt, Professor of Geography, University of Hawaii, Manoa Honolulu, HI 96822

In a time of increasing polarity between North and South, first world and third world, over issues regarding natural resource use and management, Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha manage to move beyond the usual narrow, postcolonialist debates to construct a wider framework for analysis of Indian ecological problems in This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India. Although not evident in the title, this book is specifically about the history of forest use in India, the understanding of which is enhanced by approaching forest management on two levels. On the one hand, the authors place it within the larger context of a conceptual framework that is broad enough to encompass a wide spectrum of resource use practices from hunter-gatherer to industrial modes. On the other hand, they narrow the scale of analysis by focusing on important details of Indian forestry that illustrate the larger concepts. Overall, This Fissured Land is a well-researched and clearly written book of relevance to cultural ecology and political ecology. It presents both a wealth of carefully chosen historical material and some useful thoughts on the origins of resource use problems and conflicts that are bound to stimulate debate.

The text is organized into three sections encompassing from one to five chapters each. In the first section the authors introduce a new theoretical framework for environmental history which they term "modes of resource use." This framework distills four basic resource use categories from human history: gathering (including shifting cultivation), nomadic pastoralism, settled cultivation, and industry. The authors admit from the outset that this framework is an "ideal type" (p. 13) and that not all societies may be so simply apportioned among its four categories. Given this disclaimer, the framework for the most part is illuminating. Occasionally, however, Gadgil and Guha devote too much effort to distinguishing one mode from another, with the result that they make a few questionable claims, such as that hunter-gatherers have a limited knowledge base and use only a small variety of resources. Such overdone statements could have been omitted without weakening the overall framework.

The authors analytic approach is reminiscent of a Marxist "mode of production" framework, which they intend to complement. The main shortcoming of the Marxist approach, however, according to Gadgil and Guha, is its lack of reflection on ecological parameters, and they conclude on these grounds "that the mode of production concept is not adequately materialistic" (p. 12). This statement sets the tone for many subsequent chapters, which are written from a strongly materialistic perspective. Everything from economy to ideology is seen to derive from resource use modes. Some of the resultant ideas are intriguing, if somewhat debatable. For example, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are presented as arising in response to resource abundance or scarcity. Notwithstanding the fact that the focus of this book is on relationships between living resources and human society, the authors failure to acknowledge the possibility of other influences on social formations--such as purely social and cognitive factors--is disconcerting.

Another prominent feature established in the first section and reminiscent of traditional cultural ecology is the repeated use of terms and concepts from biological ecology. For example, modes of resource use are compared to r and k strategies of different species. In a later section the caste system is interpreted simply as an ecological adaptation by which caste groups have come to occupy different resource "niches" according to Gauses principle of competitive exclusion. To a point, such analogies enrich the analysis by providing useful conceptual footholds. The danger, however, is that they disregard cognitive aspects of human behavior (see Ellen 1982).

The two latter sections of the book fill the theoretical framework established in the first with specifics of Indian forest management during the pre-colonial period and modern (colonial and postcolonial) times, respectively. Details are prudently compiled from an abundance of primary and secondary source material. This information alone would make the book worthwhile reading for any student of the history of Indian forest use. One of the most salient legacies of a Marxist approach evident in these sections is the focus on conflicts between different resource use modes. Refreshingly, Gadgil and Guha avoid dwelling at length on the usual, overused stories of conflict, such as that of the Chipko movement, and instead move quickly to lesser-known incidents which serve just as admirably to illustrate their points. They also avoid some of the black-and-white cliches so common in writings about colonial resource exploitation in the third world. For example, although British forestry policies are pinpointed as one major cause of forest depletion and conflicts, the authors also clearly demonstrate, often with direct quotes from colonial administrators writings, that some of the administrators openly opposed the prevailing policies. They also decline to exonerate all Indian rulers, some of whose directives are shown to be more deleterious to forest dwellers and farmers than British policies. The result is an analysis that for the most part is refreshingly frank and balanced in its assessments.

Having detailed many problems in Indian forest use, the authors closing remark that "it is too early to say" (p. 245) whether a new mode of resource use will prevail is initially disappointing. However, from the very first chapter Gadgil and Guha maintain that "given the complexity of ecological communities, precise prescriptions for the prudent use of living resources are difficult" (p. 23). Recognizing this complexity, they thus avoid the simplistic suggestions, such as that resource management should devolve entirely to local communities, that often conclude similar books. Finally, given the subtitle "ecological history," perhaps one should not expect solutions for the future to be explicitly laid out. Rather, it is ultimately contingent upon the reader to delve deeply into the historical analysis for any lessons it might hold.

Reference Cited:

Roy P. Ellen.

1982. Environment, Subsistence, and System: the Ecology of Small-Scale Social Formations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 89-93.