Jim Igoe Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist, Scott Freeman

As part of an ongoing series profiling finalists for the 2013 Rappaport Prize, Jim Igoe interviews Scott Freeman about his research and writing on soil conservation, labor, and environmental awareness in Haiti.

Scott Freeman was a finalist for the 2013 Rappaport Student Paper Prize from the Anthropology and the Environment section.  Scott is completing a Ph.D. in Applied Anthropology at Columbia University Teachers’ College and a dissertation entitled, To Conserve and Protect: Soil Conservation and Environmental Awareness in Haiti.  He is currently a visiting scholar in the Institute for Global and International Studies at George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) Scott was selected as one of five participants in the Rappaport Prize panel at the 2013 AAA meetings on the strength of his paper: Conserving the Project: Labor, Development, and Environmental Government in Haiti. The paper engages long-standing concerns with soil conservation in Haiti. His rich ethnographic analysis reveals the ways in which the economy and logic of funded projects shapes and directs labor practices and environmental awareness. His insights have relevance not only for soil conservation in Haiti, but for conservation and development generally, and in many different parts of the world.


JI: Could you begin by talking a bit about your background. How did you become interested in anthropology in general, and soil conservation in Haiti in particular?

SF: After college, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I lived in an agricultural town in the mountains where I worked with youth, the environment, and sexual health education. There were a number of Haitian migrant workers living in the sprawling barrio where I lived, and we would trade English for Kreyòl lessons. I think that the more time I spent in the DR, the more I was aware of how necessary it was to understand the island as a whole.

I actually never took any anthropology during undergrad (I was pretty interested in comparative literature). During my years as a Peace Corps volunteer, I happened to run into an applied anthropologist. By that time, I was fed up with the absurdities of development that I saw unfolding around me, and he thought I might find some helpful perspectives in anthropology. After I did some reading and spoke more and more to him, I realized that the questions I wanted to ask were already being asked by anthropologists.

My interest in soil conservation is far more recent. It was one of those unforeseeable fieldwork moments. I hadn’t set out to study soil conservation, but I kept seeing these ditches dug along hillsides, and came to realize that they were the work of the organizations I was interested in. They seemed to be everywhere; I really couldn’t get away from them. Farmers I spoke to started telling me they would never build them, because it was the job of the NGOs and projects to do so. It went from an odd side topic of conversation to becoming my primary focus of research. As I learned more about the structures and their history in the country, these canals seemed to be the clearest way to really study how environmental development aid was unfolding.

JI: I remember reading about soil conservation in Haiti back in my Development Anthropology seminar in graduate school back in the late 1980s. What makes this topic such a long-standing topic in environmental anthropology do you think?

SF: Supposedly, soil conservation was considered the first ‘global environmental movement’. Right after the Dust Bowl phenomenon in the 1930s, people in the United States were startled. Even Washington DC was getting dust storms. Seeing all of this in the US, other countries (particularly British colonial administrations) wanted to figure out how they can continue to extract resources from the land without having some sort of environmental catastrophe. So soil conservation became this global concern.

Political ecology makes a pretty important intervention into all this. The premise for these interventions was largely that farmers were doing things wrong, and that populations were growing too fast. Piers Blaikie and Harold Brookfield looked at soil degradation and started pointing out that actually degradation has far more to do with broader systems of accumulation and dispossession.

Since then, this back and forth has continued. Is soil degradation the fault of ‘negligent’ farmers? Or is there something more insidious going on in terms of extraction and accumulation? Anthropologists love to get at these questions. They involve global movements of ideas and commodities, and revolve around knowledge production, representation and inequality. I think it was essential that anthropologists played a role in these debates, and I really hope that we continue to do so into the future.

JI: One of my favorite parts of the article is your discussion of collective labor, ritual feasting, and a postive post-colonial identity. Could you talk about that a bit and how it relates to some the arguments you are making about soil conservation?

SF: I think one of the most amazing parts of this research has been getting to think about the different ways that people work together in adverse conditions. Cooperative work groups are a prominent part of Haitian life. The strategy is, ‘we’ll work your land one day, my land the next’, and so on. The really fascinating part comes when the groups sell their labor to another person. When they collect payment for their work, they don’t distribute the money. Rather, they hold onto it until the end of December. At that time, they’ll buy a goat or cow to slaughter, and will divide the meat among the members. So rather than individual and immediate cash compensation, there’s delayed, non-cash compensation. On January first then, everyone gets some of the meat to eat. January first is Haitian Independence Day, and this activity comes as an assertion of freedom and humanity, remembering the day that the slaves won their freedom and for the first time could eat what they wanted.  Even if meat is scarce for the rest of the year, on that day everyone can meat- there’s this profound assertion of dignity with independence.

I think this intersects with soil conservation as conservation projects come in with cash-for-work type wages. Many of these projects assemble labor groups to dig ditches. These groups look the same, but there are completely different in terms of the types of relationships that are imposed. Unlike the cooperative work groups, soil conservation group payment is individual, immediate, and in cash. There’s a monetization of the social relationships in group labor. Not that wage labor hasn’t existed before in Haiti, but there’s something really quite different going on here with the way that particular labor forms become coopted for the purpose of cash distribution. Farmers too discuss the wage labor done for soil conservation as something qualitatively different, something they, without a project, would never attempt.


JI: The central focus of your analysis is what you call “the projectification of soil conservation.” What do you mean by this and what do you regard as some of its primary topical and theoretical implications?

SF: What I’m referring to is the way that projects slip into the everyday parts of people’s lives. For example, space starts to be defined in terms of beneficiaries, time becomes regulated by the entrance and exits of projects. Grassroots organizations continually seek legal recognition in order to obtain projects. However slowly all these processes occur, they start to alter the everyday.

Development aid has become remarkably dominated by ‘the project’. There are graduate school programs in ‘project management’, and aid workers have described to me their lives as hopping from project to project. I realized that this intense prevalence of the project calls for attention to how aid is  terms of the project. It forces us to consider what are the properties of the project itself—how does a project assert certain logics as it becomes more and more a part of life in both development and in the Haitian countryside.

JI: How would you describe this work fitting with your larger dissertation project?

SF: Funny enough, I now wince when I think of my dissertation as a project! But I think that this intersection of an examination of the project and of soil conservation is really at the heart of what I’m doing. I try to take a very historical perspective in understanding how problems get defined, and how they oblige particular solutions. Soil conservation as an institutional response then becomes this package of technical expertise and strategies that gets moved throughout the world to solve ‘environmental degradation’. I think the larger dissertation research really starts to show how profoundly projects work, and how they become this very intense and diffuse type of government.

JI: What kinds of questions and concerns still remain for you? What kinds of research would you like to do next?

SF: There’s still some conceptual work to be forged on the project for me. I think this means trying to reach out to other disciplines, scholars who are thinking about this in perhaps slightly different ways. In regards to soil conservation, there’s interesting work being done on infrastructure that I think aligns nicely with what I’m doing.

I’ve got another project in Haiti I’m excited about continuing. I looked at the vetiver industry in Haiti a few years ago. This is an industry that takes the roots of the vetiver plant, digs them up, distills them, and sells the oils to perfume houses. The oil is in a lot of widely distributed (and expensive) perfumes. I’m interested in the way the perfume industry conceptualizes Haitian vetiver as compared to the Haitian farmers’ understanding of the uses and movements of the oil. This has a lot to do with soil degradation (ripping roots out of the ground is a very real threat to the soil), and processes of extraction and accumulation. I think it will build off the current project really nicely, and hopefully add a important perspective to a very sparsely studied industry


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Cynthia Fowler’s “Ignition Stories”: Anthropological explorations of fire ecology and social justice

ENGAGEMENT Blog editor Micha Rahder recently spoke with Cynthia Fowler to discuss her recent book, Ignition Stories: Indigenous Fire Ecology in the Indo-Australian Monsoon Zone (2013, Carolina Academic Press), and its broader contributions to fire management and social justice debates in Indonesia and around the world. This interview is the latest in an ENGAGEMENT series that explores how environmental-anthropological book projects have profound and important impacts on the world around us.

The Author Walking Through a Recently Burned Grassy Field on the Coastal Plains_Photo taken by David J. Cook_180 dpi

Author Cynthia Fowler Walking Through a Recently Burned Grassy Field on the Coastal Plains (Photo taken by David J. Cook)

MR: What is the theme of your new book?

CF: The theme of the book is that fire is a product of social relationships as much as ecological relationships, that fire produces life and life produces fire.

MR: How does your book address broader questions in environmental anthropology?

CF: Broader questions in environmental anthropology are related to interdisciplinarity – that is one of my big goals here, to bring together fire ecology and anthropology. I was on the side of fire ecology for a while, and thought, ‘anthropology could bring so much to the table here.’ So I was trying to do something for fire ecology at the same time that I was trying to do something for ecological anthropology.

Some of the other issues that it addresses in ecological anthropology have to do with the role of people in environmental change, so the role of anthropogenic change in long-term environmental change, and short-term as well. The book addresses some of the ways that ecological anthropologists try to think about the dynamic processes of ecosystems, ecologies, or environments by grabbing hold of the concepts of succession and disturbance and trying to see how human perceptions of the environment, or human interactions with the landscape, play into what seem like – from an ecologist’s point of view – very ecological processes.

It seems like there’s a lot of space to explore how human culture reflects succession and disturbance. If they are such critical processes in the environments where we live, then it seems like our mythologies, our rituals, our systems of knowledge would reflect those changes in environments that humans partly create.

Green Alang Grass Sprouting Post-Fire Next to the Previous Season's Dessicated Alang Grass

Green Alang Grass Sprouting Post-Fire Next to the Previous Season’s Dessicated Alang Grass

MR: How did you engage with different communities, such as local people, or fire scientists, as you were doing the research for your book? How has your research sparked lasting collaborations and/or engagements in your field site?

CF: The book was based on more than a decade’s worth of engagements with this specific field site, and that period of time is going to continue as I write future projects and gather additional data. I’ll be interacting with the community by doing more fieldwork, and hopefully also eventually taking students there and doing research projects with students from Wofford, which is an undergraduate institution. We have some really strong initiatives now, which would include doing study abroad projects.

I was definitely trying to engage the fire ecology community. What I’d like for them to take from this is a broader conceptualization of the kinds of technical issues that they’re looking at with fire, for example things like defining fire regimes. I’ve gotten a little bit of push back from some fire scientists who say: ‘well, you know fire regimes, that doesn’t include anthropogenic fires.’ So my idea is, why not? Maybe it could. How interesting would it be if we opened it up to that?

Also with regard to the fire ecology community or fire science community, I’d like them to think about how fire is handled in the non-Western world, outside of the U.S. I think that Australians might have more awareness of indigenous fire ecology practices and have incorporated this in their national practices, strategies, and policies more than Americans. A lot of fire managers in the U.S. also think about Native American burning practices, for sure, but maybe this book will help them think about it a little bit more, push themselves in that direction a little bit more.

I think that fire ecologists could think about the practices of indigenous peoples who live near where they work. Not only in terms of how to design their own fire management practices or design their own ecosystems – which our fire managers do, and they do it pretty well, along with loggers, horticulturalists, and agronomists, plant biologists, et cetera. I’m thinking of public lands specifically here.

But also, more critically, I think there are really some interesting issues related to what our fire managers in the U.S. are doing (and maybe elsewhere in the world too) with regard to referencing Native American burning practices as a means for justifying what they want to do with fire. I don’t think they’re thinking about it critically like anthropologists do. What are they accomplishing by saying that they want to recreate the ecosystems that Native Americans created? And what do they mean? What knowledge do we have about those ecosystems? What knowledge do they have and where does that knowledge come from, and how incomplete is it? Because the science is still in development.

Fire in a Coastal Plain Savanna

Fire in a Coastal Plain Savanna

MR:  What are the broader contributions of your book to public and policy discussions about environmental projects, or social and environmental justice?

CF: The biggest conversation I was having in this book related to policy was addressed to policy makers in Indonesia. That was true in the beginning of the writing process, but by the end I was also trying to talk to policy makers at the international level, who are dealing with climate change and REDD+ projects. The main issue in Indonesian fire, from an anthropological point of view from the past 15 years, has been related to the catastrophic fires that have occurred periodically on some of the larger islands of Indonesia. These seem to be resulting from landscape management policies that aren’t really good for indigenous peoples in those areas, and aren’t really good for the kinds of ecosystems that ecologists might want to see. For example, many of these fires that have gained the most attention on Borneo and Sumatra in the last two decades seem to be resulting from land clearing for plantations.

So there are a lot of social justice issues wrapped up with that, because indigenous people are being displaced to make plantations, for one thing. For another thing, indigenous people a lot of times are blamed for the fires, because of their subsistence practices. They’re using fire in clearing gardens and so forth, but it seems that there are other places where the blame deserves to go, rather than to indigenous people.

Another justice issue is that because the idea is that indigenous people are starting the fires, their subsistence practices need to be outlawed. And in fact they are: burning is outlawed in Indonesia. It’s tolerated to a great degree, even though it’s illegal. But in a hypothetical world, if that policy were enforced, it would have devastating implications on people’s nutrition and survival. That issue is definitely forefront in this book.

Part of the argument involves trying to recommend to any policymakers who might ever read this or hear about what I’ve written that they not make blanket policies to cover all ecosystems and all communities in Indonesia. It’s such a vast and diverse place, culturally and ecologically, that the role of fire in Bornean and Sumatran ecosystems – well, that varies because there are a lot of ecosystems on those islands, but it’s not always the same as the role of fire in ecosystems in other parts of the country. Like the dry, extremely seasonal places like Sumbo, which is one of the driest parts of the country, fire has a very different role there.

Ester and Pua Walking Down the Road to Kapapa

Ester and Pua, two main characters in Ignition Stories, walk through a landscape where evidence of anthropogenic change is apparent in the new road and the burned garden.

MR: How is your book being used beyond the academy? Is it actively shaping the management of nature in your study site?

CF: I don’t have any sense that it is being used that way, not yet. I would love for that to happen. It would be really exciting, but the possibility of it happening really scares me too. I don’t know how it would be received by policymakers or land managers in Indonesia. It’s hard to imagine because fire is so wrapped up in so many legal issues, and, as I said, it’s tolerated. Many policymakers are practical; they know that subsistence farmers need to use fire to produce food. But if they ever considered enforcing the law, and they had all of these fires documented by me, the potential for how they would use them is scary to me. Which is why I use pseudonyms for every person and place in the book.

I would love to see the Indonesian fire service or other land management agencies want to talk to me about this book, or even the US forest service, who work to train Indonesian fire fighters and land managers. I would love to talk to them about how they could use this information to adjust their policies, or about the problem of unwanted fires vs. the fires that are necessary or good for people, and good for places that are fire-adapted or fire-dependent.

MR: Finally, What is the key message or key point you hope people take away from reading your book?

CF: One key message would be that people’s relationships to fire, and the relationships people have with one another—with things in their environments and with landscapes—can be really intimate, can involve very personal, very emotional, and very intimate kinds of things. And that that intimacy is the kind of thing that I think ethnography is especially skilled or able to pull out of a study about people and fire. So many things you read about fire are so technical, and ethnography is so great at pulling that whole human story out of something that has been really submitted to the scientists.

Cynthia Fowler is an Associate Professor at Wofford College, Secretary of the Society of Ethnobiology, and Co-Editor of Ethnobiology Letters.  Cynthia conducts transdisciplinary research on society and nature with a special interest in the social relations of fire ecology and of mapping. In her fieldwork in Eastern Indonesia’s dry monsoonal tropics, she studies the materialization of fire; that is, fire as a creative expression of social relations and ecological perceptions. 

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2014 Rappaport Student Prize Competition

The Environmental and Anthropology (A&E) section of the American Anthropological Association is pleased to announce the 2014 Rappaport Student Prize competition.  To apply, interested students are invited to submit an abstract by 21 March 2014 of a paper that you plan to develop into a publication.  The abstract should present a summary of the entire paper, including a statement of the problem being investigated, methods undertaken, the results of the study, the theoretical context in which it is being evaluated, and the significance of the research.  The abstract should not exceed 500 words; abstracts that exceed this word limit will not be reviewed.

All submitted abstracts will be reviewed by an expert panel consisting of A&E officers plus distinguished outside members, focusing on the originality of the research and analysis as well as the contribution to the field of environmental anthropology, and a maximum of five (5) will be selected for participation in the Rappaport prize panel at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (to be held this year 3-7 December 2014 in Washington D.C.).

The five semi-finalists will be invited to develop an article-length paper based on their abstracts, not exceeding a maximum of 8000 words, including notes and bibliography, to be submitted to the A&E on or before October 15 2014.  All five semi-finalists will receive partial support for travel to the AAA meetings, where they will be expected to present their papers during the Rappaport Prize panel and participate in the panel discussion.  These five papers will be reviewed by the same A&E expert panel, judged for their originality, contribution to the field, and writing style appropriate to a journal manuscript for submission, and one will be selected for the 2014 Rappaport Student Prize, which consists of a $250 cash award, to be announced at the A&E Business Meeting which will be held during the AAA meetings.

The Rappaport Prize and Panel is part of an effort to improve the mentoring process for graduate students as they pursue A&E related careers.  Participating provides an opportunity for students to receive constructive feedback on their work by junior and senior scholars in the A&E community.  In addition to the feedback received during the panel presentations, one panel judge will be assigned to each semi-finalist, to provide detailed feedback and guidance on publication of their papers.

The deadline for the initial paper abstracts is 21 March 2014, to be e-mailed to the organizer of this year’s competition, Michael R. Dove, at <michael.dove@yale.edu>.

**NOTE: A&E award committees follow NSF guidelines regarding potential conflict of interest between applicants and reviewers.**


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Derick Fay interviews the 2013 Rappaport Prize winner, Heather Swanson

As part of an ongoing series profiling finalists for the 2013 Rappaport Prize, Derick Fay interviews Heather Swanson about her research and writing on salmon fisheries and comparison in Hokkaido, Japan.

The 2013 winner of the Rappaport Student Paper Prize from the Anthropology and the Environment section is Heather Swanson.  Heather recently received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and  is currently Assistant Professor, Aarhus University and Postdoctoral Fellow, Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA).  Her prize-winning paper, “Fishy Comparisons: Similarity, difference, and the making of salmon populations,” probes how (human) comparative practices shape the making of multispecies landscapes.  Focusing on salmon fisheries management in Hokkaido, Japan, she demonstrates that neither the island’s watershed ecologies nor its fish population structures can be understood without attention to comparison-making.  Since the mid-19th century, natural resources management in northern Japan has been profoundly shaped by how people both within and beyond Japan have compared Hokkaido’s landscapes and fish to those in other parts of the world.

Derick: In your paper you had mentioned you had previously worked in salmon hatcheries and fisheries research in the Northwest – could you talk about the trajectory that led you to anthropology?

Heather: I grew up in a salmon fishing town at the mouth of the Columbia River, a small place called Astoria.  Salmon were everywhere there – including on my dinner plate. From the time I was a kid, it was clear to me that fish and fisheries really mattered. Our local high school even offered a three-year program in salmon biology.  Normally, it was for boys who were going to go into fisheries-related careers, but I was very passionate about science, and I wanted to take every science class that was offered.  I had no idea that I was going to fall completely in love with the fish, but I did.  As part of this class, I worked at our school’s on-site fish hatchery, and the experience of caring for the fish was transformative. It’s weird to think you can fall in love with slimy fish, but I really did – so much so that it changed my life.

Heather Swanson

After growing up in a rural area, I went to college at Princeton University, which was a huge culture shock for me. I didn’t come from an “intellectual” background at all.  I went from a high school with a fish hatchery and no AP courses to Princeton.  When I got there, I had no idea what planet I had landed on. Nothing made any sense to me. I had no idea how I could still be in the same country, speaking the same language, yet I couldn’t understand anything. Based in part on my interest in salmon, I was planning to go into some sort of scientific discipline. My first semester, I took physics, chemistry, and calculus, along with an anthropology class that fulfilled a writing requirement.  It was an incredible course that helped me develop ways of thinking about the world that were incredibly helpful in dealing with the cultural differences between small-town Oregon and an Ivy League school. Anthropology resonated with me so much that I decided to completely change my trajectory and major in it.

However, at the same time that I came to be deeply passionate about anthropology and my new academic life at Princeton, I still felt profoundly connected to my hometown and its fish. There was a giant wall map of the United States in one of the hallways at Princeton. I would often sit on a bench in front of it and contemplate the cognitive, the emotional and physical distance between New Jersey and Oregon. They were totally different worlds for me, yet I also yearned to bring them together in some way. In an attempt to do so, I wrote an anthropology bachelor’s thesis on salmon-human relations along the Columbia River.

Derick: How did this early experience growing up in a fishing community in Oregon shape your fieldwork in Japan?

Heather: It drew me into all kinds of comparisons in Japan. As soon as they heard about my background, everyone in Japanese fisheries wanted me to make comparisons between the salmon fishing and management practices I knew from the U.S. and those I encountered in Japan. My experiences growing up in a fishing community elicited comparisons. I became an opportunity for the fishing industry people with whom I worked to engage in and enrich their own comparative practices. While my embodied presence as a white American elicited all kinds of comparative conversations in general, my experiences with salmon led to more specific salmon-focused comparisons.

My experience of growing up in a fishing community also shaped my research in Japan by inspiring it in an unusual way. I never contemplated studying in Japan until my second year of graduate school at UCSC, when I opened up a newly-published book called The Atlas of Pacific Salmon. For the first time, I saw salmon mapped in a trans-Pacific perspective as a species ranging from California to Japan. I had studied salmon quite a bit in high school, and after I finished my bachelor’s thesis, I had also worked at a salmon-related non-profit for three years. But until I opened that book, I had never even known that there were salmon in Japan. It had been possible to be seriously involved in salmon management in the U.S. without even knowing that Japanese salmon existed. When I encountered these maps, it was this moment of double reflection: I became intensely curious both about the salmon in Japan and about how I had managed to not know about them. What were the structures and power relations that allowed me not to know such a basic thing when I was pretty enmeshed in fisheries issues? I tried to find some English-language sources about salmon in Japan, but I found surprisingly little, which piqued my interest even more.

I’d never been to Japan, and my Japanese vocabulary consisted of “tsunami” and “sushi,” but somehow it seemed like an utterly reasonable idea for me to study salmon in Hokkaido. I felt that I needed to know about salmon from a place other than the region in which I grew up – and that I needed to know the salmon world in which I grew up by going somewhere else. I had to take two years off from the regular graduate school trajectory to learn Japanese.  It was at once a crazy and wonderful idea, and I am so happy that my dissertation committee encouraged me to do it.

Derick: Your paper on Hokkaido develops some really interesting ideas about comparison – that salmon bodies are constituted through comparison, and that as anthropologists we should attend to our informants’ practices of comparison. Could you talk about how these ideas grew out of that fieldwork in Japan?

Heather: When I arrived in Japan, I was almost physically struck by comparison. It was everywhere. You can’t order breakfast in Japan without being asked to choose between a “Western” and a “Japanese” breakfast. But comparison became even more important when I began living with the vice president of a fisheries cooperative and his family. They were constantly making all kinds of comparisons in which “modernity” mattered (or, one might say, in which “modernity” emerged). For example, they were constantly comparing their business practices to those of the U.S. and Russia, comparing their lives as fishermen to those they might have had in Tokyo, or comparing their own pasts and presents. Comparison and the ability to “compare well” were so important to them that it became a real theme for my fieldwork.  I also started tracing landscape histories while I was doing this ethnographic fieldwork with the fishermen’s cooperative, and I realized that I couldn’t understand either Meiji-era Japanese history or the actual changes in salmon bodies without understanding the same kinds of practices of comparison toward which the fishermen were pointing me. My Rappaport panel paper focuses largely on historical comparisons, but my attention to comparison primarily emerged from my work with the fishermen’s cooperative.

salmon from Swanson paper

Oncorhynchus keta, a species often referred to in English as “chum salmon,” just after being harvested by a fishing cooperative along Hokkaido’s northern coast.

Derick: That leads nicely to the question of how this article fits into the larger dissertation project.

Heather: Comparison is what structures the dissertation as a whole. This article is a version of a chapter that comes near the beginning of the dissertation.  While this article focuses largely on relations between Hokkaido and the Columbia River, the other chapters explore comparisons that connect the island and its fish with other places. For example, in another chapter I look at comparisons that Japanese officials and scientists make between Hokkaido and Chile. From the 1960s to the early 80s, the Japanese government was interested in both developing international aid programs and in expanding their access to salmon. At that time, Japan was losing access to high seas salmon fishing as new international laws and treaties came into effect. I trace how people from Hokkaido travelled to southern Chile, and the comparisons they made there as they helped to build a salmon farming industry. Other chapters look at comparison in the context of conservation and science, and in the context of Ainu indigeneity, all in relation to salmon.

Derick: You’re currently at Aarhus University in Denmark, on a project that’s headed by Anna Tsing.  Could you talk about the aims of the project and the work you’re doing some more?

Heather: I’m very fortunate to be part of the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene project, or AURA. The Anthropocene is a term that is cropping up everywhere right now, and different people are doing different things with it.  The AURA project explores the Anthropocene by focusing on the jointly natural and cultural histories of anthropogenic landscapes. We bring together environmental history, anthropology, and the natural sciences. Our project team is interdisciplinary, with scholars from those fields and more, and we focus a lot on collaborative practices.  Instead of starting with questions of epistemological difference, we try to focus on cultivating common curiosities. Our assumption is that everyone on our team, whether a biologist or an anthropologist, is curious about landscape in some way. So one of our methods is to go out and walk through a landscape together, asking each other questions about how we’re seeing and thinking about the landscape and about what’s interesting and exciting to each of us. Our hope is that starting with the curiosity and working slowly will allow us to build long-term conversations. We often lament how natural scientists call up an environmental anthropologist after a project is basically already designed to add the “social perspective.” Similarly, in the social sciences, we’ve too often either turned scientists and their work into objects of study, or we take snippets of their data as background “facts” in our own projects. But here, in the AURA project, we’re trying to build meaningful collaboration where we can be in dialogue from the start so that we are shaping the very ways that we conceptualize and design our research. The project is still in its beginning phase – it just started in September 2013 – but I am incredibly excited about how it’s developing.

Derick: Following up the paper, are there ways that your interest in comparison is travelling with you to this new setting in Denmark?

Heather: I certainly notice when and how I do comparison in a way that I didn’t before I started my dissertation work. This is the case both in academic contexts and in everyday life. On the most mundane level, the challenges of trying to build a life in a new country have certainly led me to make all kinds of comparisons! I’ve tried to pay attention to them. One thing I have noticed is that there is undoubtedly something very different about comparison-making in Denmark versus Japan. Living in Denmark has convinced me even more that being situated in Europe or being situated in Japan makes a difference that matters when it comes to one’s practices of comparison.

In addition, Japanese comparisons are also still with me in Denmark. This summer, I’m planning to return to Japan to continue working on questions of comparison and landscape-making in Hokkaido.


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Press Release: Julian Steward Prize

Univ. of Michigan anthropologist Erik Mueggler awarded Julian Steward Prize 

The Anthropology & Environment Society has awarded its Julian Steward Prize to Erik Mueggler for his 2011 book The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (Univ. of California Press). Erik Mueggler is professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.

The Julian Steward Prize is given only every second year to the most outstanding book in the arena of environmental anthropology.  The Anthropology & Environment Society is a major section of the American Anthropological Association.  The announcement was made in December at the annual convention by president Glenn Davis Stone.

The Prize committee commended Prof. Mueggler for his lyrical account of the journeys of two early twentieth-century botanists who explored the borderlands between China, Tibet and Burma, and their collaborative relationships with Yunnan villagers.   The book presents colonial science as an intimate, personal affair, and shows the effects of local knowledge.  The text beautifully infuses biography, ethnography, botany and geography with captivating tales of daring adventure.

For further information, contact Glenn Stone at stone@wustl.edu.


Anthropology & Environment Society

Prof. Erik Mueggler’s website



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Press Release: Junior Scholar Prize for 2013

Press Release: Oregon State Univ. anthropologist Drew Gerkey awarded Junior Scholar Prize for 2013

The Anthropology & Environment Society has awarded its Junior Scholar Prize to Dr. Drew Gerkey, who recently joined the Department of Anthropology at Oregon State University.  The AES Junior Scholar prize is given annually to an early-career scholar for an exemplary article in the area of environmental anthropology.

Dr, Gerkey won for his 2013 article “Cooperation in Context: Public Goods Games and Post-Soviet Collectives in Kamchatka, Russia” which appeared in Current Anthropology 54(2):144-176.

This innovative article combines ethnographic research with economic experiments to investigate cooperation among salmon fishers and reindeer herders on the Kamchatka Peninsula.  His research uncovered connections between the abstract structure of economic games and naturally occurring contexts of cooperation in Kamchatka, illustrating how cultural norms, values, and institutions shape expectations and frame strategies for solving dilemmas inherent in cooperation.

Dr. Gerkey shared the 2013 Junior Scholar prize with Dr. Jessica Barnes of University of South Carolina.

The Anthropology & Environment Society is a major section of the American Anthropological Association.  The announcement was made at the annual convention by president Glenn Stone (Washington Univ.).

For further information, contact Glenn Stone at stone@wustl.edu.

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Press Release: Junior Scholar Prize for 2013

Press Release: Univ. of South Carolina professor Jessica Barnes awarded Junior Scholar Prize for 2013

The Anthropology & Environment Society has awarded its Junior Scholar Prize to Dr. Jessica Barnes, Assistant Professor in USC’s Department of Geography.  The AES Junior Scholar prize is given annually to an early-career scholar for an exemplary article in the area of environmental anthropology.

Dr. Barnes won for her 2013 article “Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink: The false promise of virtual water,” which appeared in Critique of Anthropology 33(4) 371–389.  This article provides an insightful and timely examination of the concept of virtual water, which now plays an important role in as a tradable commodity in environmental management, and explores how key agro-environmental functions of water are being ignored.

Dr. Barnes shared the 2013 Junior Scholar prize with Dr. Drew Gerkey of Oregon State University.

The Anthropology & Environment Society is a major section of the American Anthropological Association.  The announcement was made at the annual convention by president Glenn Stone (Washington Univ.).

For further information, contact Glenn Stone at stone@wustl.edu.

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Engagement in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor

By Felipe Montoya-Greenheck

Sometimes engagement in the field grabs you when you are busy grading papers at your desk, and then it doesn’t let go, or rather, because of the urgency of the matter, one cannot let go. My recent post as director of the Las Nubes Project at the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, put me in charge of a research, education, and community action program centered in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor in southern Costa Rica. In 1998 a tract of rainforest, the Las Nubes Forest Reserve, bordering the Chirripó National Park was donated to York. While emailing and Facebooking with community members, researchers in Costa Rica, and my own Master’s students to plan participatory research projects in the corridor, communications began to pile up confirming the dreaded news that ten new hydroelectric dams were being planned for the watersheds on the Pacific side of the Chirripó mountain, two of which were located on the river that runs through the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor.

Las Nubes Forest Reserve in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor

Las Nubes Forest Reserve in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor

In 1998 the Las Nubes Forest Reserve, a tract of rainforest bordering the Chirripó National Park, was donated to York. In 2004, Las Nubes became part of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor, a collective initiative involving, among others, local communities, NGOs, and universities, including York. Since then, the Las Nubes project has sponsored over 25 Master’s and PhD research projects in and around the corridor, has taken hundreds of students there on summer field courses, and has worked alongside community members to advance initiatives to improve local livelihoods and environmental conservation. Las Nubes Coffee grown in the region is sold in Canada and part of the proceeds are used to fund Las Nubes projects. With its more than 300 bird species, we are working on a bird guide to promote the corridor as a must-go destination for birders. We are also in the midst of planning the construction of a research, education and community engagement center near Las Nubes that will serve as a local, national and international hub for activities around Neotropical conservation and livelihood improvement.

Students from summer field course in Las Nubes

Students from summer field course in Las Nubes

A few months ago, while in the field presenting some results from an ongoing research project on mammal monitoring, where we showed pictures of pumas, ocelots, coyotes, anteaters, wild pigs, and other animals that were caught on film during their mostly nocturnal amblings through the corridor, there were some mumblings about hydroelectric plants being planned for the rivers of the corridor. With the exuberant response from the community regarding the mammals that few realized were living among them, these rumors of dams were drowned out.

Puma captured with camera traps

Puma captured with camera traps

Starting in late August, however, what began as a trickle has become a flood of emails reaching my desktop computer, documenting how private enterprise is rushing forward with plans to build 10 hydroelectric dams, affecting each and every one of the rivers that runs from the highest peak of Central America down to the Pacific Ocean. These plans are endangering the last remnant of Evergreen Seasonal Tropical Rainforest in the country, threatening the survival of a number of endangered species, including the neotropical river otter, and destroying the ecological connectivity local communities have worked so hard to recover and maintain.

Ironically, community engagement, instead of thrusting me into the field, has suddenly kept me at my desk at my university: doing bibliographic research into the possible impacts of hydroelectric dams on river ecology and surrounding ecosystems; encouraging graduate students to take up research projects that will explore appropriate energy generating technologies as alternatives to hydroelectric plants, sample and describe the aquatic species in these rivers, or document environmental services rendered to local economies by the ecologic connectivity of the corridor; seeking the advice of academic colleagues who are specialists in resource management, hydrology, and environmental law; and writing to municipal governments and state ministries, as well corresponding with local activists.

In other moments and circumstances, engagement took on a more ethnographic expression, based on participant observation, collecting life histories, carrying out surveys, holding workshops, organizing festivals, and even giving back to communities information from my research in the shape of fictional (but truth-based) puppet shows, comic book stories, and video animations.

First Alexander Skutch Festival (2013)

First Alexander Skutch Festival (2013)

So, engagement, more than a specific activity, I have found, is an attitude. It has to do with working together with people dialogically, like in a conversation, creating something greater than the sum of the individual parts. Circumstance will dictate the best means of engagement. Sometimes it requires walking and talking, or sharing seeds and making food. Other times it may require organizing workshops or celebrating festivals, collecting or telling stories. Often it involves holding hands and working shoulder to shoulder. But one thing it always demands is listening. Listening to local concerns helped me establish the requirements for the research, education, and community engagement center we are in the midst of constructing. Listening also moved us to create the bird guide to market the corridor as a birder’s destination, and listening is what now moves me to mobilize against the destruction of the rivers in the region of Las Nubes.

Community members of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor increasingly express their opposition to the privatization of the water, to the destruction of their rivers, to compromising their options for community-based tourism as a complementary source of income. They express their understanding that water is vital for life, and their perspectives that consider the rights of Nature as something worth defending and fighting for. They demand to be consulted regarding infrastructure projects in their communities, and they seek to have a say over their territories, their livelihoods, and their destinies. These expressions that come from small farming communities that have been marginalized socially, economically, politically, and now environmentally, are what currently engage me in the field of environmental anthropology. Their concerns and yearnings are those of common people from around the world.

Engagement in one small region of Costa Rica is less limited or restricted than it might seem at first glance. Successful struggles here may easily translate into victories elsewhere in the world. Strategies that allow these local communities to protect their fragile environment, and that permit them to maintain their autonomy, sustainability and equity, may provide road maps or guidance for similar struggles elsewhere. Engagement in these critical times is all the more rewarding because the stakes are so high. I cannot conceive of any alternative other than being engaged. So, I don’t fret that my boots are not on the ground, as long as sitting at my desk in front of my computer involves acts of engagement.

Felipe is a Costa Rican environmental anthropologist, currently serving as Chair in Neotropical Conservation at the Faculty of Environmental Studies in York University, Toronto, Canada.

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Up the Financier: Studying the California Carbon Market

ENGAGEMENT co-editor Chris Hebdon catches up with University of Kentucky geographer Patrick Bigger.

Patrick Bigger at the Chicago Board of Trade

Patrick Bigger at the Chicago Board of Trade


How would you explain your dissertation research on the California carbon market?

At the broadest level, my research is about understanding how a brand new commodity market tied to environmental improvement is brought into the world, and then how it functions once it is in existence. Taking as a starting point Polanyi’s (1944) observation that markets are inherently social institutions, my work sorts though the social, geographical, and ideological relationships that are being mobilized in California and brought from across the world to build the world’s second largest carbon market. And those constitutive processes and practices are no small undertaking.

Making a multi-billion dollar market from scratch is a process that entails the recruitment and hiring of a small army of bureaucrats and lawyers, the creation of new trading and technology firms, the involvement of offset developers and exchange operators who had been active in other environmental commodities markets, and learning from more than fifty years of environmental economics and the intellectual work of think tanks and NGOs. There are literally tens of thousands of hours of people’s time embodied in the rule-making process, which result in texts (in the form of regulatory documents) that profoundly influence how California’s economy is performed every day. These performances range from rice farmers considering how much acreage to sow in the Sacramento Delta to former Enron power traders building new trading strategies based on intertemporal price differences of carbon futures for different compliance periods in California’s carbon market.

My work uses ethnographic methods such as participant-observation in public rule-making workshops and semi-structured interviews with regulators, industry groups, polluters, NGOs, and academics to try to recreate the key socio-geographical relationships that have had the most impact on market design and function. It’s about how regulatory and financial performances are intertwined, as events in the market (and in other financial markets, most notably the deregulated electric power market in California) are brought back to bear on rule-making, and then how rule-making impacts how the market and the associated regulated industrial processes are enacted. And the key thing is that there isn’t some isolated cabal of carbon’s ‘masters of the universe’ pulling the strings––it’s bureaucrats in cubicles, academics writing books, and offset developers planting trees out there making a market. And they’re people you can go observe and talk with.

Who are buying and selling these carbon credits?

That’s a trickier question than it seems. Most of the credits (aka allowances) are effectively created out of thin air by the California Air Resources board which then distributes them via either free allocation or by auction to anyone who requests authorization to bid. A significant proportion of those are given away directly to regulated industries to ease their transition to paying for their carbon output. Another way the auction works is that electric utilities are given almost all the credits they need to fulfill their obligation, but they are required to sell (consign) those permits in the auction, while they are typically also buyers. This is to prevent windfall profits, like what happened in the EU, for the electric utilities. The utilities must return the value of what they make selling their permits at auction to ratepayers, which they have done to the tune of $1.5 billion so far.

More to the spirit of the question though, it’s a pretty big world. Literally anyone can buy California Carbon on the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), based in Chicago. From what I’ve been told, a lot of allowances pass through Houston because there is a major agglomeration of energy traders there, and carbon is often bundled into transactions like power purchase agreements that are traded over-the-counter (OTC). There’s an interesting division in who buys their credits where––companies that must comply with climate regulations tend to buy through the auction, while people trading for presumably speculative purposes tend to buy on the exchange. This isn’t even getting into who produces, sells, and buys carbon offsets, which is another market entirely unto itself. To attempt to be succinct, I’d say there is a ‘carbon industry’ in the same sense that Leigh Johnson (2010) talks about a ‘risk industry’; a constellation of brokers, lawyers, traders, insurers, and industrial concerns, and the size of these institutional actors range from highly specialized carbon traders to the commodities desk at transnational investment banks.

Would you be able to outline some ways your research could affect public policy? And how is it in dialogue with environmental justice literature and engaged scholarship?

There are a number of ways that my work could be taken up by policy makers, though to be clear I did not set out to write a dissertation that would become a how-to-build-a-carbon-market manual. Just being around regulators and market interlocutors has provided insights into the most challenging aspects to market creation and maintenance, like what sorts of expertise a bureaucracy needs, how regulators can encourage public participation in seemingly esoteric matters, or the order which regulator decisions need to be made. Beyond the nuts-and-bolts, there’s a fairly substantial literature on ‘fast policy transfer’ in geography that critiques the ways certain kinds of policy become wildly popular and are then plopped down anywhere regardless of geographical and political-economic context; I am interested in contributing to that literature because California’s carbon market was specifically designed to ‘travel’ through linkages with other sub-national carbon markets. I would also note that there are aspects of what I’m thinking about that problematize the entire concept of the marketization of nature in ways that would also be applicable to the broader ecosystem service literature and the NGOs and regulators who are trying to push back against that paradigm.

As far as the EJ literature is concerned, I’ll admit to having a somewhat fraught relationship. I set out to do a project on the economic geography of environmental finance, not to explicitly document the kinds injustices that environmental finance has, or has the potential, to produce. As a result some critics have accused me of being insufficiently justice-y. I’d respond by noting that my work is normative, even if it isn’t framed in the language of environmental justice; it certainly isn’t Kuhnian normal science. But EJ arguments, if they are any good, do depend on empirical grounding and I would hope that my work provides that.

At the Chicago Board of Trade.

“I’d be really happy if scholars of other markets could find parallels to my work that demonstrated that all markets, not just environmental ones, were as much about the state as they are about finance.”


Your advisor Morgan Robertson has written about “oppositional research,” and research “behind enemy lines,” drawing on his experience working inside the Environmental Protection Agency. What has oppositional research meant for you?

I think about it as using ethnographic methods to poke and prod at the logics and practices that go into building a carbon market. I think for Morgan it was more about the specific problems and opportunities of being fully embedded in an institution whose policies you want to challenge. That position of being fully ‘inside’ isn’t where I’m at right now, and it’s a difficult position to get into either because you just don’t have access, because the researcher doesn’t want to or isn’t comfortable becoming a full-fledged insider, or because academics often just don’t have time to do that sort research. It’s also contingent on what sort of conversational ethnographic tact you want to take––when you’re fully embedded you lose the option of performing the research space as a neophyte, which can be a very productive strategy. One thing that I will mention is that oppositional research is based on trust. You must have established some rapport with your research participants before you challenge them head-on, or they may just walk away and then you’ve done nothing to challenge their practices or world view, you’ve potentially sewn ill will with future research participants, and you won’t get any of the interesting information that you might have otherwise.

How about the method of “studying up”?

For starters, the logistics of ‘studying up’ (Nader 1969) are substantially different than other kinds of fieldwork. There’s lots of downtime (unless you’re in a situation where you’ve got 100% access to whatever you’re studying, e.g.  having a job as a banker or regulator) because there aren’t hearings or rule-making workshops everyday, or even every week, and the people making the market are busy white-collar people with schedules. I feel like I’ve had a really productive week if I can get 3 interviews done.

Beyond the logistics, one of the most challenging parts of studying a regulatory or financial process you’re not fully onboard with is walking the line between asking tough questions of your research participants and yet not alienating them. It has been easy for me to go in the other direction as well––even though I think carbon markets are deeply problematic and emblematic of really pernicious global trends toward the marketization of everything, I really like most of my research participants. They’re giving me their time, they tell me fascinating stories, and they’ve really bent over backward to help me connect with other people or institutions it never would have occurred to me to investigate. And that can make it tough to want to challenge them during interviews. After a while, it’s also possible to start feeling you’re on the inside of the process, at least as far as sharing a language and being part of a very small community. There aren’t many people in the world that I can have a coffee with and make jokes about one company’s consistently bizarre font choices in public comments documents. So even though the market feels almost overwhelmingly big in one sense, it’s also very intimate in another. I’m still working out how to write a trenchant political-economic critique with a much more sympathetic account of regulatory/market performance. Even many guys in the oil-refining sector are deeply concerned about climate change.

Would you ever take a job in a carbon trading firm?

Absolutely. There’s a rich literature developing that gets into the nuts and bolts of many aspects of finance, including carbon trading in the social studies of finance/cultural economics that overlaps with scholarship in critical accounting and even work coming out of some business schools. Some of those folks, like Ekaterina Svetlova (see especially 2012), have worked or done extended participant observation in the financial institutions that are being unpacked in broader literatures around performative economics and have provided useful critiques or correctives that is helping this literature to mature.

However, much of this work is subject to the same pitfalls as other work in the social studies of finance, especially the sense that scholars ‘fall in love’ with the complexity of their research topic and the ingenuity of their research participants qua coworkers and ultimately fail to link them back to meaningful critiques of the broader world. All that said, I’m not sure I’ve got the chops to work in finance. I’d be more interested in, and comfortable with, working in the environmental and economic governance realm where I could see, on a daily basis, how the logics of traders meet the logics of regulation and science.

What advice would you give to scholars who may do research on carbon markets in the future?

Get familiar with the language and logics of neoclassical economics. Really familiar. Take some classes. If you’re studying neoliberal environmental policy, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that regulation is shot through with the logics of market triumphalism at a level that just reading David Harvey (2003, 2005) probably wouldn’t prepare you for. A little engineering, or at least familiarity with engineers, wouldn’t be amiss either.

On a really pragmatic level, if you can get access, get familiar with being in an office setting if you haven’t spent much time in one. Being in a new kind of space can be really stressful and if you’re not comfortable in your surroundings you might not be getting the most out of your interviews.

If you’re studying a carbon market specifically, take the time to understand how the electricity grid works. I lost a lot of time sitting through workshops that were well over my head dealing with how the electric power industry would count its carbon emissions. I would have gotten much more out of them if I’d had even a cursory understanding of how the electricity gets from the out-of-state coal-fired power plant to my toaster.

Don’t expect to just pop in-and-out of fieldwork. Make yourself at home. Take some time to figure out what the points of tension are. That’s not to say you must do an ‘E’thnography, but taking the time at the beginning to understand the playing field will make it easier to understand the maneuvering later.

Read the specialist and general press every single day. Set up some news aggregator service to whatever market or regulation you’re looking at. It’s what your participants will be reading, and if they aren’t then you’ll really look like you know what you’re doing.

What are broad implications of your research?

I think starting to come to grips on the creation, from nothing, of a commodity market worth more than a billion dollars could have all sorts of impacts I can’t even imagine. I’d be really happy if scholars of other markets could find parallels to my work that demonstrated that all markets, not just environmental ones, were as much about the state as they are about finance, and not just in the way that Polanyi wrote about them. I’d also like to help people think through the relationship between the economic structures that people build, and then how they inhabit them through economic ideology, the performance of that ideology and their modern representation, the economic model. In some ways this is reopening the structure-agency debates that have been simmering for a long time. I also want to provide more grist for the mill in terms of unpacking variegated neoliberalisms––there are quite a few examples I’ve run across in my work where discourses about the efficiencies of markets run up against either the realpolitik of institutional inertia or perceived risks to the broader economy (which can be read as social reproduction).

In terms of policy, I hope that regulatory readers of my work will think about the relative return on investment (if I can appropriate a financial concept) in deploying market-based environmental policy as opposed to direct regulation, particularly around climate change. We’re in a situation that demands urgency to curb the worst impacts of carbon pollution, so it is of the utmost importance that the state take dramatic action, and soon. That said, wouldn’t it be interesting if this carbon market ended up accomplishing its goals? If it does, then I hope my work would take on different kinds of significance.

* * *

Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, Leigh. 2010. Climate Change and the Risk Industry: The Multiplication of Fear and Value. Richard Peet, Paul Robbins and Michael Watts, eds. Global Political Ecology. London: Routledge.

Nader, Laura. 1969. Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up. Dell Hymes, ed. Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Random House.

Polanyi, Karl. 1944. The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon.

Svetlova, Ekaterina. 2012. On the Performative Power of Financial Models. Economy and Society 41(3): 418-434.



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Preservation’s Loss: The Statutory Construction of Forests in Cook County, IL

By Natalie Bump Vena

Why did the State of Illinois establish a Forest Preserve District in northeastern Illinois, where forests made up a small fraction of the landscape? And what were the ecological consequences of doing so? With jurisdiction in the county that encompasses Chicago, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, IL today manages 69,000 acres of protected land, mostly located in the city’s suburbs. At the turn of the twentieth century, civic and political leaders dreamed of establishing this system of open land as a natural retreat for Chicagoans who could not otherwise afford to leave the teeming metropolis. To begin realizing that vision, Chicago’s City Council hired Architect Dwight Perkins to compile a report for an enlarged park system in 1903. Perkins in turn asked Landscape Architect Jens Jensen to recommend land to include in what they called an “outer belt park.” They published the report in 1904.

During archival research, I became interested in how and why Jensen and Perkins’ inclusive vision for an outer belt park composed of wetlands, prairies, and forests became, by 1916, a Forest Preserve District with the purpose of acquiring and protecting natural forests. That evolution was even more puzzling to me, because Perkins and Jensen both had strong ties to Chicago’s Prairie School of Architecture made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright. While Jensen described all of Cook County’s landscapes in the 1904 report, he made clear the prairie’s ubiquity, writing: “The predominating character of the landscape around Chicago is that of prairie” (83). Through a combination of legal research and examination of administrative documents from the early twentieth century, I gradually realized that preservation in Cook County complicates understandings of U.S. conservation law. Indeed, the case exemplifies how legal preservation may save some landscapes, while degrading others.

Forest Preserve District of Cook County map, ca. late 1940s, early 1950s

After Perkins and Jensen published their report, civic leaders and politicians began the legal and political work necessary to create an outer belt park for Chicago. Between 1904 and 1913, the Illinois State legislature passed three different Forest Preserve Acts. Illinois’s governor did not sign the Act of 1905 into law and the Illinois Supreme Court found the Act of 1909 unconstitutional. The Cook County Board of Commissioners finally organized the District in 1916, based on the Act of 1913. By studying documents produced during that protracted process, I found that the politicians and civic leaders organizing to create an outer belt park narrowed their efforts to protect woodlands, as a legal strategy to achieve the greater goal of providing Chicago’s public with more open space.

Although the Act of 1905 ultimately failed, it left an imprint on subsequent legislation by introducing the term “forest preserve” to describe the proposed district. The Act of 1905’s drafters likely named the bill for forest preservation, in order to avoid charges of double taxation (Hayes 1949: 10). Chicago already had a number of park commissions, each one responsible for a different region in the city. Based on contextual research regarding contemporary landscape architecture in Chicago and on the East Coast, I believe that the drafters invoked forests in the legislation’s title to appeal to popular conceptions of nature in America at the turn of the twentieth century. The Act of 1909’s drafters kept the forest idea in name, but not in purpose. Although called “An act to provide for the creation and management of forest preserve districts,” the Act of 1909 had the broad aim of preserving local species and “scenic beauties” (Laws of the State of Illinois 1909: Section 13). In December 1911, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the law on equal protection grounds in People v. Rinaker.

Forest Preserve District official on prairie land, ca. late 1930s – 1940s

In non-binding language, the Rinaker court also criticized the drafters for composing an enabling statute for a special purpose district named to preserve forests, but that embraced other subjects and failed to articulate forest protection as the law’s central purpose. As the baffled court pointed out, one could even interpret the legislation as authorizing the board to protect prairies. They stated,  “a reading of the statute leaves it open to grave doubt whether it does not authorize organizing a district in the prairie, without any forest whatever in it” (People ex rel. Koch v. Rinaker et al, 252 Ill. 275 [1911]).

In response to the Rinaker court, the Act of 1913’s drafters made clear that the Forest Preserve District’s purpose was to acquire and to protect “natural forests.” While the Act of 1909 gave the District board the authority to “hold lands for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora and fauna and scenic beauties of the State,” the Act of 1913 stated the board could “hold lands containing one or more natural forests or parts thereof, for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora and fauna and scenic beauties within such district [emphasis mine]” (Laws of the State of Illinois 1913: Section 5). The Illinois State Legislature passed the bill, and the governor signed it into law in June 1913.

Planting trees in the forest preserves, ca. 1930s.

While examining the early Official Proceedings of the Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners, I learned the extent to which the commissioners prioritized the acquisition of woodlands when they began purchasing land in 1916. However, due to the relative scarcity of forests in Cook County, the commissioners also had to acquire farmland, prairies, and wetlands to build the District’s holdings.

In order to resolve the increasing discrepancy between the characteristics of the property and the name and statutory purpose of the District, the commissioners increasingly turned to forestation. District leaders even described the large-scale tree planting as “reforestation,” thus creating the illusion that they were establishing something that had previously existed on the land (e.g., Reinberg 1920: 13). To protect the newly planted trees, the District also adopted a policy of fire prevention, which contributed to the near disappearance of the fire-dependent prairie ecosystem. In carrying out their land management policies, the District depended on the Civilian Conservation Corps and other Depression-era work relief labor to manually transform large swaths of the District into forests. During post-war suburbanization, the District scrambled to acquire more land at the edges of Cook County, much of which had been plowed for corn and soybeans. Without the abundant manual labor available during the 1930s, the District used mechanized tools that enabled them to plant forests quickly and with fewer people. Major forestation and fire prevention efforts continued through the 1970s.

Just as Dwight Perkins and Jens Jensen’s inclusive vision for an outer park belt got lost in the legal battle to found the District, Cook County’s prairies nearly disappeared during the twentieth century as District staff constructed a forest landscape to match the enabling statute’s name and language. Throughout my archival research, interviews with District staff, and fieldwork alongside interlocutors restoring prairies, I sensed the deep loss attendant to the District’s twentieth century land management policies. For instance, I read an account written in 1940 by an ecologist from the University of Wisconsin, who observed that the District had planted tree seedlings on remnant prairies in several northern Cook County forest preserves (Sperry 1940). And during an interview, a retired forest preserve naturalist recalled visiting a prairie in southern Cook County during the 1950s, where he and his troop of boy scouts found species like compass plant, prairie dock, and smooth green snakes. He remembered that soon after, “The Forest Preserve District, in its infinite wisdom, planted trees. Now there are no green snakes there.” I asked him why he thought the District wanted to change that prairie, and he intuitively said, “Because it’s called a ‘forest preserve.’”

Fighting fires in the forest preserves, ca. 1930s.

In their efforts to create more open land for Cook County’s public, the District’s founders made legal compromises that produced an agency named for woodlands with a statutory purpose reflecting its namesake. The District’s leaders subsequently cited that law as guiding their forestation policy, which entailed planting thousands of trees on prairie remnants as well as prairies that had been plowed. The case of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County demonstrates, then, how the legal and administrative process of protecting lands may cause one landscape to be found, while another is lost.

Natalie Bump Vena is a Ph.D./J.D. candidate in Northwestern University’s Department of Anthropology and School of Law. She grew up on the south side of Chicago, and visited the Cook County forest preserves every weekend with her father. In her dissertation, she examines why the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, IL has repeatedly transformed the land that it is mandated to preserve over the past 100 years. 

Photography credits: “Cook County Forest Preserve Photographs” (Richard J. Daley Special Collections; University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago)


Hayes, William P. 1949. Development of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois. M.A. Thesis, Department of History, DePaul University.

Jensen, Jens. 1904. “Report of the Landscape Architect.” In Report of the Special Park Commission to the City Council of Chicago. Chicago: Hartman Company Printers.

Laws of the State of Illinois Enacted by the Forty-Fourth General Assembly. 1909. Forestry, Forest Preserve Districts. Springfield: Illinois State Journal Co.

Laws of the State of Illinois Enacted by the Forty-Eighth General Assembly. 1913. Forestry, Forest Preserve Districts. Springfield: Illinois State Journal Co.

Reinberg, Peter. 1920. Fourth Annual Message of Peter Reinberg, President, Board of Forest Preserve Commissioners of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, State of Illinois. Chicago History Museum Research Center, Chicago, IL.

Sperry, Theodore M. 1940. “Report on Proposed Prairie Restoration for Forest Preserve District of Cook County.” Forest Preserve District of Cook County Records, University of Illinois at Chicago Special Collections and University Archives, Chicago, IL.



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