Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Bio-Geo-Graphy: Landscape, Dwelling, and the Political Ecology of Human-Elephant Relations

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Bio-Geo-Graphy: Landscape, Dwelling, and the Political Ecology of Human-Elephant Relations

Article excerpt

Abstract. The relation between the bio and the geo has been amongst geography's most enduring concerns. This paper contributes to ongoing attempts in human geography to politicise the dynamics and distribution of life. Drawing upon postcolonial environmental history, animal ecology, and more-than-human geography, the paper examines how humans and elephants cohabit with and against the grain of cartographic design. Through fieldwork in northeast India, it develops a 'dwelt political ecology' that reanimates landscape as a dwelt achievement whilst remaining sensitive to postcolonial histories and subaltern concerns. The paper conceptualises and deploys a methodology of 'tracking' through which archival material, elephant ecology, and voices of the marginalised can be integrated and mapped. It concludes by discussing the implications of this work for fostering new conversations between more-than-human geography and subaltern political ecology.

Keywords: more-than-human geography, political ecology, Asian elephant, landscape, subaltern studies, bio-geo-graphy, cultural geography, postcolonial

1 Introduction

This paper begins by tracking. It is a dark September night in Sonitpur, a district in rural northeast India. I am with a team of conservation researchers on the trail of an elephant herd. Villagers have reported that the animals ventured out of a forest reserve to raid rice paddy. We enter a seamless, black field, hoping to spot the animals. Only the sounds of our moving feet punctuate the silence. Sinking into the soft earth, rising up again. Searchlights echo in the far distance. The elephants have been spotted. My companions suggest we wait, for the animals may come our way. Three quarters of an hour later, we hear that sound familiar to those who inhabit the world with elephants. The uprooting of paddy, stalks shaken to remove clinging earth, soft rumbles. The sounds then dim. We lose the elephants to the night. The next morning, traces of elephant presence are everywhere. Tracks of a herd of four on the soil, trampled rice paddy, bricks scattered from a demolished wall. The tea plantation workers to whom the house belonged are angry and desperate:

"We constantly face this problem. These animals belong to the government, but we have to live with them. As for compensation, it never reaches us. Neither can we move out of here. With so many mouths to feed, you tell us what to do."

This vignette gives us a sense of the politics that emerges when more-than-human bodies (bio) and a lively earth (geo) interweave. As in many parts of the world, landscapes of human-animal cohabitation are politically fissured into reserves for elephants and spaces for people. Yet, elephants transgress these cartographic divisions, where they come into conflict with the rural poor. The latter bear an unequal burden of living with elephants, creatures afforded protection and deployed by the state to control vast tracts of land. This interplay between human and elephant bodies, landscapes and institutions, weaves an ecology that is inherently political, but a mode of politics that exceeds human deliberation. At work here is an earth-life nexus shaping disputed presents in the shadow of a colonial past.

But how should we make sense of such lively, political modes of cohabitation? How might we write (post)colonial histories in a way that does not render inert the actions and agencies of nonhuman animals? What bearings does it have for understanding the vital connections between the bio and the geo--one of geography's most enduring concerns (Whatmore, 2006)? These questions have been the staple of political ecology and environmental history. Political ecology has sought to unpack how human-animal cohabitation is mediated by broader political struggles such as those of race, gender, and class (Ogra, 2008; Robbins, 2011); it has examined how political economies of power and capital control landscapes (Peluso, 1995; Zimmerer and Bassett, 2003); and it has tended to the politics of environmental change and degradation that result when resources are integrated into regional and global markets (Robbins, 2001). …

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