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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2004  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 461-463

Book Review 2

Postdoctoral Associate, Polson Institute for Global Development, Cornell University, Ithaca NY 14853, USA

Correspondence Address:
Cynthia Caron
Postdoctoral Associate, Polson Institute for Global Development, Cornell University, Ithaca NY 14853
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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Date of Web Publication18-Jul-2009

How to cite this article:
Caron C. Book Review 2. Conservat Soc 2004;2:461-3

How to cite this URL:
Caron C. Book Review 2. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2004 [cited 2023 May 29];2:461-3. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2004/2/2/461/55826

James L.A. Webb, Jr, Tropical Pioneers: Human Agency and Ecological Change in the Highlands of Sri Lanka, 1800.1900 (Series in Ecology and History). Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2002, 243 pp., $24.95. ISBN: 0-8214-1428-3.

Despite the fact that the literature on environmentalism and resource management in South Asia has increased dramatically over the past twenty years, little scholarship has been produced on the social, cultural and political.economic dynamics of environmental change and resource use in Sri Lanka. James Webb.s Tropical Pioneers, therefore, makes an immediate and important contribution to the field. This text provides a rich description of ecological change in the central highlands in and around the Kandyan Kingdom of colonial Ceylon with a balanced analysis of how colonial powers as well as Kandyan villagers were agents of landscape change. While farmers mostly cultivated areas below 2,000 feet in the early eighteenth century, cultivation moved into the upper highlands (elevations up to 5,000 feet) by the century.s end. Deforestation, the eventual opening of the highlands to large-scale plantation agriculture, cannot be blamed on British economic policy and their desire to control nature alone, but also on the local and unregulated land use practise of chena cultivation, a form of slash-and-burn agriculture.

With regard to the text.s authorship, it is important to point out that Webb.s first text was on economic and ecological change in the Sahel. It is rare indeed to find a scholar with the versatility and the courage to write across continents and ecosystems. The breadth and depth of his knowledge enriches each and every chapter as economic and agro-ecological changes taking place in Ceylon during the pre-colonial, Portuguese, Dutch or British colonial periods are situated in a global comparative perspective with colonial policy and practice from places as far afield as South America, Madagascar and Malaysia. Webb approaches the social, cultural and historical contexts of colonial Ceylon with great sensitivity and specificity. I found his analysis in chapter two, of the dynamic interrelationship between land tenure, settlement pattern, taxation/revenue generation, social structure (caste), and paddy production and its connection to landscape change in the Kandyan kingdom, exceptional. Furthermore, his analysis provides historical insight into today.s Sinhala.Buddhist discourses about the .traditional Sinhalese village. as poignantly captured in such concisely-worded sentences as, .The social order shimmered in the brilliant mirror of the tank. (p. 35). I would argue that Webb.s use of the archive brings a new dimension to, and complements quite well, contemporary Sri Lankan scholarship on social change, economic development, and debates about the reinvention of tradition within modern society.

One of the strengths of Webb.s book is his ability to synthesise salient ideas from across a wide range of literatures and make them directly relevant to the Ceylonese context. He has written an environmental history that seamlessly weaves together social, cultural, biophysical, demographic and ecological data. For example, he provides a fascinating account of how labour migration from south India via the Gulf of Mannar and then overland into the highlands for seasonal work on coffee plantations had considerable impact on human, plant and animal communities as this migration of coolie labour was a significant vector for disease. Webb brilliantly explains the unpredictable and complicated nature of labour management, as labour availability from south India was tied to rice production and prices in south India itself. Over time as the seasonal coffee crop gave way to the agronomic demands of tea, these migratory patterns changed, leading to the permanent settlement of Indian Tamils in the plantation areas that, as Webb notes, created a new ethnicity on the island, that of .estate Tamils. (p. 137).

Another outstanding theme of the text is the relationship between plantation economics and colonial sciences such as botany, forestry, chemistry, entomology and mycology. In the late colonial period, the British treated Sri Lanka in general and the highlands in particular as a new frontier for empire building. Webb shows how, as the British introduced new plantation crops, such as coffee, cinchona and tea, planters needed to experiment and adapt these new crops to unfamiliar agro-ecological conditions that varied with soil structure and texture or the presence/absence of micro-organisms in comparison to other colonies in the tropics. Scientists at the Royal Botanical Garden at Peradeniya (established just outside Kandy) were entrusted not only to catalogue all flora and manage seed banks, but also to conduct applied research to facilitate plantation establishment. The sections on scientific research programmes are fun to read as Webb has included passages that highlight personal rivalries and the individual personalities of scientists, demonstrating that the colonial state and economic imperatives were not the only factors influencing and directing scientific research.

Webb's writing style is clear and jargon-free, and together with his attention to detail, this is enjoyable and highly informative reading. He has carefully used graphs and charts to amplify in a way that words cannot the dramatic and rapid rate of plantation expansion. Excerpts from official correspondence and personal writings, found in the appendices, provide a window to the logic of colonial administration and settlers. Anyone who has enjoyed Richard Grove's Green Imperialism, Alfred Crosby's Ecological Imperialism or Sidney Mintz's text Sweetness and Power on the connections between consumer tastes in England and sugar plantation cultivation in the Caribbean will benefit from this text. While writings on Sri Lanka's ayurvedic system have been popular, one hopes that Webb's text will inspire scholars to broaden their interests and initiate new work on Sri Lankan environmental issues whether that be colonial writings on nature and wildlife, the contemporary environmental movement, social constructions of nature and the environment from multi-ethnic and multi-religious perspectives, or the political ecological impacts of Sri Lanka.s entry into other global commodity markets such as coastal prawn farming or high-end (.niche.) eco-tourism.[3]

   References Top

1.Crosby, Alfred (2004), Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900.1900. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.Grove, Richard (1995), Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600.1860. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.  Back to cited text no. 2      
3.Mintz, Sidney (1992), Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking.  Back to cited text no. 3      


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