The histories of humanity and nature are deeply entangled across Inner Eurasia. Great expanses of steppe and mountain connected peoples at the far ends of the landmass and sustained unique civilizational zones of nomadic and settled societies. These are regions profoundly shaped by some of the most complex climatic regimes and by one of the most devastating disease vectors in the world. Viewed in the longue durée of the Holocene, the premodern prehistory and history of Inner Eurasia takes on new dimensions when reviewed in the context of the latest work being done in environmental, climate, and genetic science.
John L. Brooke and Henry Misa
The vast region known as “Soviet Central Asia” encompassed the territory of five Soviet republics, Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Because of the region’s environmental features, particularly its aridity, historically there had been a close linkage between people and the environment in this region. But the Soviet regime set out to radically reshape this relationship, focusing on the fields of agriculture and animal husbandry, large-scale water engineering, nuclear and biological weapons testing, and medicine and public health. By focusing on the environmental impact of these policies, scholars can see how Moscow’s efforts brought many benefits to the region. Cotton production boomed, and Moscow declared the eradication of malaria. But they also left horrific scars. Josef Stalin’s program of agricultural collectivization devastated Kazakhstan, resulting in the death of more than 1.5 million people. The Aral Sea, once one of the world’s largest bodies of water, began to shrink dramatically during the Soviet era, a development due in large part to Moscow’s efforts to divert the waters that fed the sea to cotton production.
David A. Bello
Agriculture—especially grain cultivation—informed the primary environmental ground of imperial China (221 to 1912 ce) and was ideally intended to produce human habitat from state-supervised environmental change. The consequent political and socioeconomic development of the empire and its constituent dynasties was conditioned within larger global ecological contexts that can be abbreviated as two major climate shifts, the Medieval Warm Period (MWP, c. 1000–1300 ce) and the Little Ice Age (LIA, c. 1400–1900 ce). Before 1000 ce, China likely experienced a number of less prolonged alternations of cold and warm climate, such as the Sui-Tang Warm Period (650–700 ce). Chinese empire’s adaptations in response were rooted in agriculture, augmented by agro-pastoral and pastoral measures mainly concentrated along and above north China’s steppe ecotone. Critical inputs for the sustainability of environmental relations were maintained throughout the imperial period and came from domestic and foreign sources—most critically including the fertile eroded silt of the north China Loess Plateau, the water resources of the Yellow and Yangzi river basins, a high-yield crop suite of both dryland and wet rice varieties, south China fast-growth tree species, and New World silver and highland crops. Ongoing development and exploitation of these resources across the succession of seven major—and over a dozen more localized—dynasties over two millennia allowed China’s population to expand at globally unprecedented rates, numbering from tens of millions around the year 0 ce to hundreds of millions during the 18th century. In the process, biodiversity—especially that of wild growth forest habitats—was steadily reduced from north to south, successively. The empire’s main resource base and population centers correspondingly relocated south of the Yangzi around the watershed Song (960–1279 ce) period, with the Grand Canal tapping both of China’s major rivers to deliver southern abundance as far north as Beijing by the Yuan (1279–1368 ce). Inner and Southeast Asian peripheries came under comparable agro-commercial developmental pressure only during the Ming–Qing period (1368–1912 ce). With the onset of the 19th century, however, destabilizing environmental pressures emerged across the empire, many of them paradoxically driven by once-effective adaptations.
Famines have played an important role in China’s history. Because the Confucian classics interpreted natural disasters as warnings from Heaven, in ancient and imperial China feeding the people in times of crisis was viewed as an essential part of retaining the mandate to rule. Formative famine-relief measures were codified in China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin (221–206 bce). The importance assigned to famine relief increased in the late imperial era, when a diverse array of local elites worked in tandem with officials to manage and fund relief operations. The Qing state (1644–1912) devoted an extraordinary amount of resources to famine relief, particularly during its 18th-century heyday. Beginning in the 19th century, however, the beleaguered late-Qing state increasingly lost the capacity to prevent droughts and floods from resulting in major famines. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, China’s nascent modern press drew national and international attention to frequent famines, leading to the burgeoning of foreign and nonstate relief activities in what came to be called the “land of famine.” After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, famines continued to be a test of state legitimacy. But Chinese modernizers largely rejected Confucian interpretations of famine in favor of the claim that modern science and technology would provide the best defense against disasters. By the 1940s, both the Chinese Nationalists and their Communist rivals called on people to sacrifice for the nation even during famine times. The Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 promising that under Communist rule “not one person would starve to death,” but within a decade it presided over the most lethal famine in Chinese and world history. The horrors of the Great Leap Famine of 1958–1962 forced Chinese Communist Party leaders to make changes that ultimately paved the way for the rural reforms of the 1980s.
Colonial Indonesia’s sugar industry, developed under Dutch and Sino-Indonesian auspices over a period of almost three centuries, beginning c. 1650, evolved into one which exhibited a unique configuration in which an industrialized sugar complex became embedded within much larger “peasant” economy of the farming of rice and “second” crops. It was on this agrarian and largely self-financed basis that Indonesia’s colonial sugar industry, located exclusively in the island of Java, became one of the leading sectors of the international sugar economy of the late colonial era, eventually even rivaling Cuba—the nonpareil of such producers—as an exporter to world markets. During the interwar Depression of the 1930s and subsequent decade of war and revolution, it lost much (and eventually all) of its international standing—yet managed to survive into Indonesia’s postcolonial era, albeit in an attenuated form. There were four main phases to the industry’s colonial-era history. The first, foundational phase, which saw the establishment of modern industrialized manufacture extended from the 1830s through to the 1880s. The second phase, from the 1880s to 1930, was the period of sugar’s peak expansion. The third phase, beginning in 1931 and ending in 1942, was one of retrenchment and (partial) recovery prior to the spread of the Second World War into Southeast Asia. The fourth phase, 1945–1958, was one of postwar reconstruction.
Precipitation and elevation shape land and water usage in Central Asia, distinguishing the southern irrigated oases from the steppes, deserts, and prairies, where instead nomadic pastoralism (sometimes rain-fed agriculture) is economically rational. The former was included in Russian Turkestan, the latter in the Steppe provinces. The colonial state recognized land usage rights of the nomads; while not formally admitting land property among the settled population, it allowed them to enjoy it within Islamic law. Nomads paid a capitation; at first tilled land continued to be taxed as a share of the real harvest. Land-assessment works from the 1890s, though, imposed a tax based on the estimated harvest value, initially on irrigated land and then, with some differences, on rain-fed land. Irrigation was paid for eminently through corvées. The increase in the share of land under cotton did not derive from state coercion but from factor endowments and absolute and relative prices. Subsidies, in the form of import duties and, above all, a growing tax break contributed to this. Despite political claims, new irrigation had a limited impact under the tsars. While the “cotton boom” altered the landscape and local economy of the oases, in the Steppe and Semirechie (now south-eastern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) the natives lost land to settler peasants from European Russia. The latter received land that statisticians and surveyors had deemed excess for the nomads and former nomads. Conflicts around land, water, and forests coalesced in the 1916 uprising, which in turn initiated a cycle of violent retaliation between Russians and natives that would last until the early 1920s. With the establishment of Soviet power, a first land reform “decolonized” former resettlement areas; in 1925 and 1927 another land reform aimed at reducing landlessness in southern Central Asia, while restoring pre-war output levels and cotton procurement mechanisms.
After the military conquest of the Kazakh Steppe in 1920, Russian and Kazakh Bolsheviks implemented policies of hard decolonization (1921–1922): tens of thousands of Slavic settlers were expropriated and land was distributed to nomads. During the period of 1923–1927, soft decolonization prevailed: Kazakhstan was created as an ethnonational administrative region and agricultural immigration was prohibited. Kazakhs were given priority in access to land and water and they were included in the state and party administrations. No sedentarization plans were drafted. With the Soviet economic policy turn of 1928, Kazakhstan became the object of plans for expansion of grain cultivation (to this end, peasant colonization from Russia was made legal again) and of industrialization. Moscow lunched an offensive in order both to subjugate and to incorporate Kazakh society: Kazakh pastoral elites and former Tsarist administrators were expropriated and deported; and young Kazakh men were drafted into the Red Army for the first time. In 1929, plans for the total sedentarization of Kazakh nomadic pastoralists were suddenly proclaimed, then rapidly became of secondary concern as they were merged with the total collectivization drive. Policies toward nomadic pastoralists were dependent and auxiliary to grain production policies from 1928 to early 1930. Then, from late 1930 to 1932, Kazakh livestock was requisitioned in order to feed Moscow, Leningrad, and the army, as the Soviet peasants had slaughtered their animals during collectivization. Procurements turned an ongoing starvation crisis into a calamitous famine that killed one-third of the Kazakhs. When no livestock were left, procurements were discontinued in Kazakhstan. Private ownership of animals and pastoral nomadic ways were explicitly allowed again. Kazakh mobile pastoralism had been transformed: pastoral routes were shortened; pastoralists were a smaller share of the population; and their work was organized within state and collective farms. The famine turned the Kazakhs into a minority in Kazakhstan and forced them into Soviet state institutions.