I’m writing this from a hotel room in the small city of Baoshan which is tucked in the southwest of China near the Myanmar border. To say I never imagined I would end up here is an understatement. There are a lot of things in life that might have thrust me into these repeated moments of wondering, in a certain grateful awe, “how did I get here”, but for me it has been political ecology.
Though it all seems so sensible looking back and, if I want, I can draw a convincing enough progression of one interest leading to another, I had no idea what I was falling into. At age 21, out of a background in the fine arts and humanities but with an interest in the environment emerging, “geography” sounded innocent enough. That people and stories would be central seemed reasonable and added needed depth to what was appearing more and more to be a simplistic reading of the environment.
Political ecology has opened me up to worlds I didn't know existed, pressed me to shift and broaden my frameworks for understanding. Its particular and unique insistence on interdisciplinary approaches and multi-scalar investigation is, at times, overwhelming, but mainly expansive and intoxicating. What I find so seductive, intellectually and experientially, is political ecology’s certain grand aspiration, its fearlessness in and attempt at approaching issues with nuance, its unwillingness to reduce complexity, its commitment to pulling apart the issues at hand after immersion not only into multiple viewpoints but at multiple levels. How to explain a summer of sliding up and down scales within China—the national in Beijing, the provincial in Kunming, the prefectural in Baoshan, then down to the township, the administrative village, the natural village and finally the particular households each with their own dynamics and situations. By what other justification would I follow the cascading translation and mutation of policy through actors at various levels down to its ultimate manifestation at the local level, as well as the variegated, unexpected ways in which experiences feedback upwards into international conversation? And the hearing of stories all the way.
Like the description of anthropology which Ryan Anderson put forward in an earlier issue of the anthropologies project, in my mind, political ecology too, champions the importance of taking those “small things” and then linking them to and nesting them within larger things. With a particular bent on the environment, it’s how to take all of these everyday details (a choice to grow coffee this year, a new concrete courtyard), all of the narratives—from peasant farmers, but also from NGO employees, government officials and policy makers, private actors—and tie them back into broader structures and frameworks, understandings of concrete small things enriched by concepts of space and scale.
How do ideas and ideologies only ever explicitly discussed in the academy materialize in the everyday—internationally, nationally, regionally, locally? How do you understand the walnut you are eating in a small village near the Myanmar border in southwestern China as a physical manifestation of a participatory development approach to poverty alleviation and environmental degradation, an approach conceptualized in distant metropolises such as Beijing or as far west as Rome, implemented by agencies in places, still remote from the village, like Kunming or even Baoshan? How was this approach molded by, and also to, a specific place and time, by and to the particular environmental policies within a certain nation-state context?
These theories which are debated in texts within arguably irrelevant academies, printed in languages the farmers perhaps could care less about, now find themselves in the southwest of China in the form of walnuts. Walnuts which, at least for the moment, are a success story in their alleviation of poverty through income generation—well, for some—but which, inherently demand market integration (which demands infrastructure, which demands capital and natural resources and labor and…). There is the blizzard of implications which tumble out from that and, also, everybody knows how when the walnut trees grow tall they will shade out the corn, which has its own consequences upon food security. So how do you deconstruct, in a useful way, a whole world unto itself?
It had been almost a year since I’d been there last and the first day when I returned to the village this summer, it was already late morning. Most everyone had already left for the fields, but I came across Lu Xiang washing clothes just outside her courtyard. After a few excited greetings, she folded me quickly into the routine of things, showing me how to scrub jeans against the concrete to squeeze out the suds and dirty water. I helped her finish up and we went to go plant coffee seedlings down in the terraced corn. On our walk to the fields, she handed me a few walnuts to snack on. They were the old variety, slower to mature with a harder shell, but decidedly better tasting and with a higher price than the new kind which the project introduced more recently. Unsure myself of how to get at the meat, I watched her take one and crack it between her teeth. I tried. If you are not rigorous enough in your bite, you simply puncture one side of the shell and are obliged to pick at the nut through a narrow window, extracting tiny, unsatisfying fragments of the meat. But with enough pressure from multiple angles, the shell breaks away, leaving you with the inside whole, the individual sections of the nut still distinct yet connected.