Review of Cultivating the Colonies: Colonial States and their Environmental Legacies, edited by Christina Folke Ax, Niels Brimnes, Niklas Thode Jensen, and Karen Oslund Ohio University Press

Cultivating the Colonies: Colonial States and their Environmental Legacies. Edited by Christina Folke Ax, Niels Brimnes, Niklas Thode Jensen, and Karen Oslund. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2011. 344p. ISBN: 9780896802827

The analysis of colonial policy frequently addresses invasions, resistance movements, and cultural change. However, few texts have adequately investigated the ways that colonial governments managed nature and through natural resource management, managed people. Cultivating the Colonies, edited by Christina Folke Ax, Niels Brimnes, Niklas Thode Jensen, and Karen Oslund addresses this void with eleven case studies – ranging from Lesotho to India to the Philippines to Russia. Despite its geographic and chronological diversity, this collection maintains a specific and sustained focus on the radical changes in culture based on the definition and regulation of land. Each essay introduces a different history of how colonialists “got their hands dirty”, or “how states translated ideas about the management of exotic nature and foreign people into practice” (1). Additionally, each study asks whether there is “any evidence that colonial states were more destructive towards or transformative of the environment in larger ways than other modern states were” (4) While the collected authors provide differing answers to this question, they all agree that continued focus on the way colonial governments adapted traditional, native, and colonizing strategies and mechanisms in an attempt to manage the environment is necessary to understand modern policy making and nation states.

While many collections have been organized geographically, Cultivating the Colonies is organized by the process of colonization: framing the intention, colonizing, and the lingering effects of colonialism. The editors have labeled these three sections: Part 1: “Perceiving the Colonial Environment,” Part 2: “Managing the Colonial Environment” and Part 3: “The Legacy of Colonialism.” In each section and essay, special attention is given to questions of agency and how interactions between land, the colonizer, and the colonized were framed at that stage of colonization. For example, in Part 1, Daniel Rouven Steinbach’s essay “Carved Out of Nature: Identity and Environment in German Colonial Africa,” investigates the German use of “Heimat as an aesthetic frame within which to cope with African nature, but also a basis on which to construct a feeling of belonging, grounded in nature” (69).  In Part 2, Julia Lajus traces the “Colonization of the Russian North: A Frozen Frontier” from the thirteenth century to the present. This fast paced but well researched study is used to demonstrate that “strong economic, environmental, and security constraints impede the development of the Russian northern frontier, which is likely to remain “frozen” unless it is changed by the recently revived mineral resource rivalry and global warming concerns” (184). Finally, in Part 3, Elizabeth Lunstrum’s essay “State Rationality, Development, and the Making of State Territory: From Colonial Extraction to Postcolonial Conservation in Southern Mozambique” argues that “it is necessary to continue investigating how past territorial reconfigurations continue to shape the future of the LNP [Limpopo Transfrontier Park] as a space of conservation, cooperation, and conflict” (266). Her research emphasizes the “connection…in the request or outright demand that communities sacrifice access to their lands in the name of national development” (265). By advancing similar but nationally and chronologically specific arguments, the collected essays create a complex narrative of colonial management that highlights the lingering effects of colonialism in modern environmental policy.

While the edited volume features an excellent introduction, one wishes that each subdivision was introduced with a short introduction that made explicit  the connections between the forthcoming essays. The table of contents alludes to such an introduction, but instead the reader finds a small title page, a blank page, and then the first essay of the section. Short, concisely focused introductions would have improved the text’s accessibility in undergraduate classrooms where students are only beginning to ponder the connections between colonialism in West Africa, Northern Russia, and India.  Yet, individually, the essays are appropriate for undergraduate students. Each essay is sufficient as a stand-alone assignment but gains value when read alongside other essays in the book. Further, Cultivating the Colonies maintains a high standard of original archival research, analysis, and clear applications to unreservedly  warrant assignment in a graduate level course.  While the text could serve as a refresher for the high school teacher, or as an occasional assignment for an advanced high school student, it may draw too heavily on historical and geographic knowledge to be assigned in the mainstream high school classroom.

Cultivating the Colonies embarks on an ambitious task, investigating the nuts and bolts of colonial environmental governance and understanding how that study can illuminate the modern complexities in post-independence states. The editors and authors have done well not to shy away from the complexity of their task. Rather than attempting to address every nuance of colonial history, Cultivating the Colonies provides well defined case studies that will serve as examples for future study and investigation of colonial management of nature and people.


Reviewed by Allison Hahn, University of Pittsburgh

Edited by Dhara Anjaria

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]