Fire in British West Indian History

Isle of Fire: The Political Ecology of Landscape Burning in Madagascar/Igniting the Caribbean’s Past: Fire in British West Indian History

Mayer, Judith

Isle of Fire: The Political Ecology of Landscape Burning in Madagascar. By Christian A. Kull. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, xiv + 314 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, glossary, index. Paper, $25.

Igniting the Caribbean’s Past: Fire in British West Indian History. By Bonham C. Richardson. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004, xvi + 233 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth $59.95, paper $19.95.

Two regional histories of fire and burning join analyses of political-economic and environmental change and continuity, one in Madagascar and the second in the British eastern Caribbean. Kull’s and Richardson’s meticulously documented accounts serve as counterpoint approaches to historical scholarship by geographers. Both books define regions within their island environments based on fire-related phenomena, analyzed in a global politicaleconomic context. Beyond the physical nature and material effects of fire and burning, both works examine fire’s varied and contested cultural and political significance. Both books are highly readable. Each would be an engaging graduate-level text in geography, human ecology, or environmental history.

Christian Kull’s Isle of Fire presents a masterful theoretical framework to analyze rural land and forest burning in Madagascar during the island’s colonial history under France (1896-1960) and its subsequent independence. Kull defines and challenges an “antifire received wisdom” that demonizes widespread burning to extend and maintain cropland and pasture, serving a continuity of elite, urban, and “metropolitan” (French, in colonial times) interests with a limited range of failed regulation. Kull shows how criminalization of most peasant burning has reflected dominant misunderstandings of fire practices and their actual effects. Emblematic narratives from Kull’s own extended field studies complement archival data from French colonial and independent Malagasy government agencies, bringing immediacy to politically-charged historic disputes.

Kull refocuses contemporary debates about deforestation and Madagascar’s “fire problem” in view of the stalemate achieved by a century of futile government attempts to stop burning at the expense of Malagasy peasants’ continued assertion of their own livelihood needs and capabilities, using fire to manage productive landscapes. Kull argues that the real problem is not that fires are ruining the island, but, instead, is actually a century-long political struggle over appropriate land use and the character of Madagascar’s landscape, encompassing conflicts over access to natural resources and appropriate means to manage them. This study echoes kindred approaches in political ecology modes familiar in work by Nancy Peluso, Melissa Leach and James Fairhead, and Lucy Jarosch.

Kull’s nuanced typology of fire in Madagascar, like Stephen Pyne’s for other regions, identifies fire’s causes or goals, and effects of burning, mediated by contextual factors and problematized since fire setters can remain anonymous and their intentions ambiguous. This history focuses on fire’s effects on land, and effects of anti-burning regulation on people; it avoids portraying fire as a significant hazard to communities. Kull’s elegant analytic framework is adaptable to other places where debate on burning and anthropogenic fire is explosive. Highlighting examples from his own research in Afotsera and other areas, KuIl illustrates how continued burning resists broad assumptions of governance. He criticizes exclusionary land and forest conservation programs that impose arbitrary rules against burning as sharply as he does private and state-sponsored logging and land conversions.

Favorably reviewing historic arguments that Madagascar was never covered entirely in forest, Kull asserts that fire policies should reflect Madagascar’s regional differences, distinguishing among highland grassland burning to renew pastures, tavy cultivation (swiddening), tapia woodland management, and shifting cultivation on forest frontiers. He advocates compromise among competing land demands to conserve delineated zones of natural forest. While KuIl does not trivialize the conflicts inevitable in such efforts, his harangue against contemporary conservation-motivated burning prohibitions would be more convincing if it were not so uniform, especially given his hopeful nod toward recent community-based fire management approaches.

Attentive readers may be annoyed by dissertation-like repetition of this book’s major points. Exhaustive burn permit and fire enforcement enumerations remain ploddingly prominent in the main text. While Kull’s range of analytical methods is impressive, he is conspicuously reticent on the potential and risks of remote-sensing/GIS based analyses to help assess the locations, scales, degrees, and rates at which fire and burning have affected vegetation coverage, land use, and habitat over the past few decades. This book may become a classic in the political ecology of fire and landscape change. It exemplifies how historical political ecology, using geographic methods, can reassess the effectiveness of past policy and science to help inform contemporary conservation and development.

Bonham C. Richardson’s Ignitingthe Caribbean’s Past uses fire as a window on colonial society and landscape in the Lesser Antilles from about 1885 to 1910. It explores how island people “used, categorized, contemplated, contested, and feared” (p. 3) fire during a time of economic depression, ecological ruin, natural disasters, and sporadic violence. Considering fire and its uses as indicators and “animators” of action and change, rather than their major cause, Richardson positions his account within an emerging mainstream of geographic approaches to regional hazards, joining discourse on marginality, vulnerability, and resistance to accounts of practical aspects of governance, resource management, urban planning, and disaster response.

Richardson explores colonial assertions that controlling fire is controlling people, and, more ironically, that to have sovereignty over land requires having sovereignty over fire. While this study adeptly introduces ecological histories of the eastern Caribbean islands prior to the late nineteenth century, its jumping-off point is the “second nature” of colonial exploitation, development, and degradation following the demise of the region’s indigenous peoples and native ecosystems. Ecological change serves largely as background for this social and political history of fire-related control, rebellion, and development ambitions.

One of Richardson’s most valuable contributions is reconstructing historic scientific discourse that informed colonial land and fire policies. This history recounts debates among British administrators and literate West Indies publics concerning agricultural burning, plantation management, forest clearing, urban water supply, housing, lighting and cooking, origins of popular celebrations, and protest demonstrations. It offers a lively technological portrait of uses, risks, and control of fire in forest, agricultural, urban, and industrial environments.

Newspaper accounts of catastrophic fires like the 1895 blaze that razed Trinidad’s Port of Spain convey emotional tones of a world where entire towns burned down overnight, and an escaped cane fire could raze much of an island. Fear of fire gave impoverished plantation workers and a growing urban underclass power to threaten accident or arson. Torch lit revels like the early Trinidad Carnivals’ “Camboulay” parades (traced back to cannes brulées of slave-era cane field firefighting crews), or sugarcane arson that would force early harvest and generate wages (before Caribbean cane fields were routinely burned) struck political sparks. Flashpoints exploded where authorities’ antiburning rules opposed people’s fire practices, as in Kull’s Madagascar history.

For all the richness and immediacy of its newspaper accounts and colonial records, the absence of documentary “voice” for this history’s common people leaves a troubling imbalance. Richardson stumbles on postcolonial sensitivities through biases inherent in his British-identified sources. While these expressed apparatus of control against “incendiarism,” Richardson asserts that symbolic uses of fire, in daily life, celebration, or protest, animated aspirations and frustrations of the vast majority of island residents who left few written records.

Both of these island fire histories are worth reading. Reading them in tandem adds insights.

Judith Mayer is an environmental planner who employs historical approaches in planning and policy analysis, working extensively in the United States and Southeast Asia. She has taught environmental planning and policy analysis at Virginia Tech and Humboldt State University. Dr. Mayer currently is investigating the political ecology of catastrophic regional fire in Indonesia.

Copyright Environmental History Apr 2006

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved