CONSTRUCTING THE ECOLOGICAL STATE
Conservation, Commodification, and Resource Governance
SINCE at least the late 1990s, when international observers and the Chinese government itself began to publicly express concerns that the country’s unprecedented economic growth was founded largely upon potentially disastrous levels of environmental degradation, ecological management and sustainable development have become critical aspects of the CCP’s claim to political legitimacy. With the proliferation of environmental laws and environmental management projects, China has become, by the reckoning of its own government, an ecological state, one in which governmental logic is increasingly defined by the reduction of environmental hazards and, to a certain degree, calculated attempts to create a surplus of “ecological capital” (Escobar 1996). These initiatives are exemplified by CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao’s exposition of his “new theory” of the “scientific outlook on development,” which has “sustainable development [as] its basic requirement” (Xinhua 2007). Some Western observers have understood this as “ecological modernization,” but in a different mode from that of Europe, where the concept was developed, and have read into the “greening” of China the growth of an increasingly robust civil society (Carter and Mol 2007; Mol 2006). This appears especially promising because of the rapid proliferation of environmental NGOs during the first decade of this century, and the assumption that, regardless of the state’s original intention, these groups have a privileged role to play in the spatial politics of the environment and landscape management:
These [environmental] NGOs represent far more than what Saich describes as “disgruntled workers in the northeast, rebellious farmers in the southwest and an uppity intellectual in Being”—groups that lack a common, bonding vision and might more correctly be described as “uncivil society.” . . . [Environmental] NGOs organize, inform, train and activate government officials and the public in an effort to protect environmental interests. . . . They reflect an important aspect of a nascent civil society and the potential direction of other expressions of Chinese civil society. (Jonathan Schwartz 2008, 70–71)
In this view, post-reform decentralization and the relaxation of administrative controls have left a very large space between state policy directives, on the one hand, and the regulation of everyday life, on the other. This space, which was formerly under the close surveillance and control of the state in a Maoist, disciplinary mode of governance, is open for collective negotiation and individual navigation. Environmental NGOs are believed to fill this space by providing information, services, monitoring, and collective initiative—“a common bonding vision”—to solve socio-environmental problems of many kinds (Carter and Mol 2007; Schwartz 2007). We view this assessment as insightful, but applicable only within a limited set of rather ideal conditions.
During most of the first decade of the 2000s, many Tibetan borderland communities were host to some radically new and fundamentally different international and interregional collaborations, and environmental NGOs working there were making exciting strides not only in identifying and seeking to mitigate socio-environmental problems but also in redefining them to include a reckoning of sociocultural factors, including economic disparities, ethnicity, spiritual values, and indigenous environmental knowledge. For example, in 2002, representatives of the Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Conservation International–China (CI-China), and more than eighty Chinese and foreign experts gathered to define conservation priorities for a newly declared biodiversity hotspot, the Mountains of Southwest China, a region of 262,400 square kilometers with an 80 percent overlap with what we call the Sino-Tibetan borderlands. The Sacred Lands Program, one of the new programs implemented in the hotspot by CI-China, was based on the premise that sacred landscapes have traditionally fostered “a harmonious relationship between Tibetans and their surrounding environment” and thus that maintaining these sacred landscapes would be “a particularly helpful cultural attribute in support of biodiversity conservation” in the hotspot (undated brochure). The organization began a number of different projects in the region, including surveys on biodiversity in sacred mountains, the formation of new nature reserves based on sacred mountain areas, and efforts to persuade Tibetan religious leaders to mobilize their cultural and religious authority in spreading environmental education.
Similarly, in northwest Yunnan, TNC began working together with the Kunming Institute of Botany and the Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge to conduct research on ethnobotanical knowledge about the local flora. Western ethnobotanists began working with Chinese counterparts at the Kunming Institute of Botany to study local knowledge of the plants, particularly of Tibetan doctors. They argued for incorporating traditional ecological knowledge into conservation planning and including local Tibetans in conservation projects: “Tibetans have acted as environmental stewards for Khawa Karpo for millennia and the future should hold a sustained, empowered, and influential role for them and their traditions” (Salick, Yang, and Amend 2005, 322). As part of these efforts, TNC, the Kunming Institute of Botany, and the Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge created an NGO in Deqin County for Tibetan doctors, the Tibetan Doctors Association, to build capacity for in situ medicinal plant conservation. The association was involved in working with Chinese and international scientists as well as preserving Tibetan culture for biodiversity conservation.
However, the conjuncture that had allowed these various projects to be implemented shifted dramatically with political and economic events of 2008. The combination of the global financial crisis and protests across the Tibetan Plateau led to the removal of state funding, logistical support, and approval for grassroots efforts as well as for translocal and transnational projects. The reassertion of state sovereignty in the wake of the Chinese nationalist backlash against the Tibetan protests was quite evident across the Tibetan Plateau. Numerous grassroots projects to revive Tibetan culture, protect the environment, and enhance livelihoods and development were shut down, either directly or indirectly through bans on receiving foreign money. In northwest Yunnan, the Tibetan Doctors Association lost all of its funding after 2008 and ceased to operate. Like other local NGOs, it was no longer allowed to receive funding from transnational organizations such as TNC. Although TNC’s temporary economic limitations resulting from the financial crisis were generally given as a reason for the shift in priorities, residents of Diqing were firmly convinced that newly heightened political sensitivity was a driving factor, particularly given the Diqing area’s association with Samdhong Rinpoche, until 2011 the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, despite the fact that no protests or unrest had taken place there.
Ethnobotanical discourse also shifted dramatically, away from an emphasis on the potential of traditional ecological knowledge and the importance of Tibetan culture and toward a new set of projects and plans in which Tibetan medicinal plants would be saved by being cultivated and commodified for new markets. Rather than empower Tibetans as traditional ecological knowledge holders, these new projects neoliberalize the management of Tibetan medicinal plants. The new projects that came to characterize transnational conservation’s interaction with local people after 2008 were no longer designed to ensure Tibetans’ positions as owners of cultural property. Instead, Tibetans were interpellated as “laborers for conservation purposes, cultivators of plants and new self-entrepreneurial subjects who are instructed to be motivated by the promise of development benefits but who are not actually granted any control or ownership over the means of production” (Dinaburg 2011). In these new schemes, Tibetan culture is no longer important for the protection of the environment. Instead, the development of new markets for newly commodified species promises to save nature by selling it.
Our contributors cover many aspects of these trends, using political ecology’s analytical tools for grasping the political dimensions of human-environment interactions. As a conceptual and methodological approach, political ecology is particularly strong in analyzing the ways in which environmental governance, which often has roots in colonialism, may involve the expropriation of natural resources historically managed by local communities, through state enclosures as well as neoliberal forms of commodification. Our political ecology approach, which also draws on the Foucauldian analytic of governmentality, reckons closely with the market logics of ecological modernization, the emergence of new rationalities of rule (which modify and supplement sovereign power over life and death), and the production of environmental knowledge in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands. This approach also draws attention to how state-directed environmental projects produce environmental subjects. In other words, environmental governmentality gives rise to new forms of personhood, responsibility, and aspirations produced by a growing array of economic, political, and aesthetic connections to nature (Agrawal 2005). While these can lead to measurable positive social and environmental outcomes, the results are far from guaranteed.
Extending Foucault’s concern with biopower to human-environment relationships also directs our attention to how forests, grasslands, and wetlands become objects of political and economic calculation in their designation as “nature” (Yeh 2009b). In this view, sustainability is a political project that creates the conditions for thinking about “nature” as resource in potentia. “Natural landscapes,” if mapped, demarcated, and managed properly, will provide environmental services locally, regionally, and nationally. Natural biological organisms, if harvested sustainably, will give rise to new commodity networks that can promote economic stability in marginal regions while serving the demand for “natural products” in domestic and international urban markets (see chs. 6 and 7 in this volume).
Environmental governmentality and ecological modernity thus demand of states a thorough delineation of environmental services that are ultimately analyzed at the level of the landscape, mapped, and regulated within systems of environmental zonation. This process of internal territorialization is arguably a universal pattern among all modern states, which must “divide their territories into complex and overlapping political and economic zones, rearrange people and resources within these units, and create regulations delineating how and by whom these areas can be used” (Vandergeest and Peluso 1995, 387, 412)—in other words, the ecological state has requisite land classification systems that dictate, often with a high degree of specificity, which people have access to which resources in which times and places, and these regulations often have little to do with sociocultural patterns that have long-standing value for local and regional identities and livelihoods.
This spatial taxonomy works across scales. At the local level, post-Reform village land tenure systems are critical to contests over resources, development, and conservation. Many of the case studies allude to the fact that rural residents of the borderlands have a significant degree of agency over household and collective lands (jiti de tudi), but little or no authority over nearby nationally owned lands (guoyou de tudi). This land tenure system strongly shapes struggles over not only access to resources and the viability of locally generated forms of resource governance but also the status of sacred landscapes.
At the national scale, the process of internal territorialization is exemplified in a report from the Chinese Academy of Sciences:
If all the above tasks [of systematic land use regulation] are fully accomplished, China’s ecological modernization will reach the world’s middle level in 2050. . . . About one-third of the national territory will be covered by forests (about 35 percent), one-third of the territory will be used for agricultural purpose (about 36 percent), . . . land for construction purpose will account for about 9 percent of the national territory and land for natural landscaping will account for 20 percent. (CAS 2007)
In this scenario, the west is the functional zone for forests and grasslands—a macrogeographic zone for the nation’s watershed protection. One dramatic example of the technical implementation and monitoring of this process is in the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve in Qinghai, which is designed to protect the upper reaches of the Yangzi, Yellow, and Mekong Rivers, an area roughly the size of England and Wales combined. Establishment of the reserve has included plans for large-scale resettlement of pastoral communities from core areas through “ecological migration,” grazing bans, fencing, tree plantations, and curtailment of logging and small-scale and uncontrolled mining (Foggin 2008; Harris 2008; Yeh 2005). The declaration of the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve exemplifies the state’s view of the western borderland as an ecological zone: its function is to provide ecosystem services for downstream regions of capital accumulation and political power. In this way, a wide array of traditional and recently implemented local forestry and grassland resource utilization patterns becomes classified as forms of ecosystem degradation, and those who persist in practicing them are labeled backward and unscientific.
Concomitantly, those natural products that fall within the interstices of regulatory surveillance or those specifically targeted for sustainable harvest hold the potential to become crucial for the livelihoods of local people. The viability of such products depends on local articulation with regional and international commodity chains, as well as with state policies. The “tragedy of commoditization” is due not to market penetration alone but to the interplay of state policy and market forces, as well as other sociopolitical relations obscured by purely biological frameworks of resource management:
Such policies are commonly driven by logics that are alien to the environment—such as the need to pay off foreign debts. In such political processes, local populations, who may have both a greater knowledge and a greater stake in particular environments, often have little voice in policy formulation. And, haplessly, even when governmental policies and regulations attempt to strike a balance between the conservation of natural resources and the economic interests of various competing groups, such efforts too frequently are either poorly coordinated or have contradictory effects on the environment. (Greenberg 2006,122)
The case studies in this section focus on the Sino-Tibetan borderlands as both a zone of watershed and biodiversity conservation and a region where specific non-timber forest products have mobilized networks of individuals, families, villages, state agencies, and both national and transnational corporations in commodity chains extending from the borderlands to other parts of East Asia and beyond. As a zone of nature conservation, the borderlands have become a zone of transnational cooperation but also one of significant institutional disharmonies and misunderstandings. In chapter 4, John Zinda offers an analytical perspective on the complexity of China’s emergent ecological state and the role of transnational conservation in efforts to integrate environmental logics into governance. The chapter focuses on a succession of alliances that grew up around efforts to establish China’s first national park in northwest Yunnan as a new model for managing protected areas. Demonstrating the importance of disaggregating the state in order to understand environmental governance, Zinda shows how local governments competing to expand tourism economies adopted the title “national park” for upgraded attractions but prioritized high-volume tourism and lagged on the active conservation management and resident involvement recommended in initial proposals. Zinda traces how, over time, TNC adjusted its proposals in response to changing situations, and different agencies worked with the organization when it suited their perceived interests. The chapter charts a shift in the focus of transnational conservation organizations as well as a relative decline in their capacity to influence local practices.
Chapter 5, by Robert Moseley and Renée Mullen, also discusses the role of TNC in northwest Yunnan, but from a very different perspective. As conservation professionals and organizers of TNC’s Yunnan Great Rivers Project between 2000 and 2005, the authors are uniquely positioned to describe the environmental NGO’s institutional conceptions of nature, standard operating procedures, and multi-scale conservation strategies. Their candid account is unprecedented in providing an insider’s perspective on TNC’s work in northwest Yunnan, focusing on a specific project in the Khawa Karpo region. It also offers an important invitation to dialogue from conservation scientists to their peers across the disciplinary divides that constitute “natural science” and “social science.” As institutionally constructed networks of epistemological authority, these disciplines are kept separate—“purified,” in the actor-network theory sense—through an array of tactical linguistic actions and discursive strategies. Moseley and Mullen argue that these walls must be breached in the interest of an applied, pragmatic science of conservation capable of working within what they recognize as the “complex socio-political-cultural milieu” found in places such as Shangrila. Of particular political import is their observation that in the first decade of the new millennium, sociocultural researchers (and their theories) lacked the support of the Chinese state and thus the capacity for agency that natural science projects were routinely granted.
In chapter 6, Michael Hathaway examines the ways in which the global commodification of the matsutake mushroom (Tricholoma matsutake) intersects with conservationist mandates to shape the landscapes and livelihoods of Tibetans in Diqing. Because of the high demand in Japanese markets, the matsutake mushroom has become Yunnan’s most valuable agricultural export crop, its commodity chain linking villagers embedded in local resource tenure and management practices, to regional dealers and exporters, to Japanese consumers. Management of the matsutake as resource includes international laws regulating traffic in endangered species as well as efforts on the part of NGOs and villagers to reduce pesticide contamination, demonstrating the need to consider environmental governance at multiple scales and beyond the view of a bounded state. Moreover, these translocal networks of governance and trade may be new in form but constitute the reemergence of a long history of interregional and international connections that shed light on the applicability of the Zomia concept to the Sino-Tibetan borderlands.
Michelle Olsgard Stewart turns a more explicit political ecology lens on resource governance in chapter 7. She analyzes the landscapes and socio-ecological relationships that gather around another mushroom, the highly valued caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), which, like matsutake, has recently gained tremendous importance because of its high commodity value. The fungus grows as a parasite on moth larvae in high alpine grasslands from three thousand to five thousand meters in elevation across the Tibetan Plateau. For the tens of thousands of households across the Tibetan Plateau that gather Ophiocordyceps sinensis, this harvest accounts for 50–80 percent of annual income. Thus, the Tibetan harvesters are engaged in an array of local resource management systems that affect cultural landscapes and resource commons in diverse ways. Stewart compares two harvesting areas in Diqing Prefecture, highlighting the persistence of strong village-level governance arrangements in one site and their dissolution in another as a result of rapid tourism-related state development projects, particularly highway expansion. The chapter demonstrates the political nature of environmental governance, as well as the limits of conventional scientific frameworks of sustainable yield, given their elision of social, cultural, and political economic processes.
Each of these case studies shows that the ecological state is a modality of biopower involving transnational linkages and often high levels of participation by government agencies, NGOs, and individuals. They provide valuable lessons for scholars and activists interested in the power relations that guide and structure scientific knowledge production and environmental planning. The politics of ecological management in the time of the Great Western Development strategy are manifest at scales ranging from household contract lands to East Asian interregional trade zones and beyond, and these constitute spaces and places that are increasingly linked by the capital, commodities, and conservation policies that compose networks of environmental governmentality.