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.
The period between the 9th and the 13th centuries in China, a largely temperate climate span that followed an interval of punishing droughts, was a time of pivotal economic and environmental transformation. The Song dynasty, chronologically divided into the Northern Song (960–1127) and the Southern Song (1127–1276) periods, dominated the era, but numerous other regimes and societies prospered in eastern Asia as well. Over the course of these centuries, China’s recorded population rose from sixty to one hundred million people, and perhaps 20 percent of them lived in cities. Technological innovation transformed numerous landscapes and areas of human activity, and market relations came to play a significant role in the exchange of land, labor, and goods. When deforestation caused a crisis in timber availability, some Song metalworkers shifted from charcoal to coal to power forges for iron and steel. The amount of land under agricultural cultivation expanded dramatically. In the Yangtze delta, the economic core of south China, farmers drained wetlands and constructed terraces and polders to support paddies on which they grew new strains of fast-ripening rice. Elsewhere, they turned grasslands and forests into fields, with consequences for herders and foragers, nonhuman animals, and soil stability. To the north, on the Yellow River watershed, deforestation and grasslands degradation caused major erosion that initiated an era of inundation and avulsion that transformed floodplain landscapes and modes of subsistence downstream. New maritime technologies ensured that the environmental consequences of the Song economic revolution extended beyond the borders of the realm and into distant Pacific and Indian Ocean worlds as well. Nevertheless, many Song landscapes lay outside human exploitation, and many Song practices allowed for sustainable relationships between people and the ecosystems that they inhabited.
David A. Bello
The Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), China’s last, ruled an ethnic diversity of peoples throughout both Inner Asia and China proper. In the process, networks of environmental relationships were formed across Mongolian steppes, Tibetan and Southeast Asian highlands, Manchurian forests, and alluvial plains in the empire’s core, China proper. The dynasty’s main environmental efforts were devoted to the lowland agrarian concentration of water and grain. Yet the empire’s sheer extent also required management of agro-pastoral, pastoral, foraging, and swiddening relations—pursued under conditions of global cooling in the Northern Hemisphere, known as the Little Ice Age. Mineral inputs from foreign and domestic sources, as well as New World crops, were critical not only for the dynasty’s material development, but also entailed debilitating costs—most particularly deforestation and soil erosion. As it adapted to dynamic demographic and ecological conditions, the dynasty developed many structures for the maintenance and resiliency of its environmental relations, which included existential interactions with select animals and plants, to produce the world’s largest population of its time. The Qing achievement can be evaluated differently according to timescales and wide-ranging criteria that transcend crude Malthusian parameters. However, its political and demographic accomplishments must be qualified from an environmental perspective in light of the mid-19th-century breakdown of many of its environmental networks that directly contributed to its demise and that of the 2,000-year-old imperial system.
Contemporary India is among the top seven countries in the world witnessing the rise of mega urban regions, infrastructural expansion by government and private entities, and acceleration of special economic zones; the fallout of these trends has been the loss of cropland, and massive resistance coupled with political destabilization. Since the 1990s India’s political economy has increasingly been defined by land dispossession. Indeed, some politicians and big industrialists argue that the developmental agenda of India remains an unfulfilled dream because of land scarcity. On the other hand, strong grass-roots protest movements against land grab have toppled reigning governments and, in some cases, managed to thwart the outward march of land capitalization, dispossession, and ecological degradation. Land ownership remains a protean issue for Indian politics and its social matrix. Yet, it is not a recent phenomenon. Land acquisition and dispossession have a long genealogy in India and have gone through successive stages, engendering new political modalities within different economic regimes. Although not a settler colony, the East India Company grabbed land from the 18th century onward, dispossessing and uprooting people in the process, while alienating and disembedding land from its social matrix. Beginning with the Permanent Settlement of agricultural lands in eastern India in 1793, the Company sought legal authority to justify taking land, thus initiating a regime of quasi-eminent domain claims upon land for a wide range of practices, among them salt manufacturing, urbanization, infrastructure, and railways. The political authority and dubious legitimacy of the joint-stock company acting as a trustee of land was written into the various laws on land acquisition, ultimately culminating in the colonial Land Acquisition Act (LAA) of 1894. While independent India envisioned distributive justice through land redistribution, land acquisition and dispossession continued unabated, and postcolonial India’s land acquisition law merely offered procedural legitimacy to the act of taking land from people against their will for the greater “public,” and thereafter for public–private partnership. From 1947 state-led development resulted in the expropriation of land for industrialization, dams, and mega-infrastructural projects resulting in massive development-induced displacement across the country. India’s economic liberalization from the 1990s began a transnational movement of capital on an unprecedented scale, which manifested itself as an emerging configuration of real-estate-as-development. The government of India created new legal entitlements for private companies by enacting the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act in 2005 for export industries, IT companies, mining companies, and supporting real-estate development, resulting in dispossession, resistance, land speculation, and the emergence of land mafias.
Ian Matthew Miller
Over the last seven thousand years, humans have gradually domesticated the environment of South China. Transitioning from a reliance on wild environments, humans tamed plants and animals and transformed the landscapes and waterscapes to better fit their needs. Rice paddies, orchards, and artificial ponds and forests replaced naturally seeded woodlands and seasonal wetlands. Even the Yangzi River, and many of the other rivers, lakes, and seashores, were transformed by polders, dikes, and seawalls to better support human activities, especially rice agriculture. In the last thousand years, farmers intensified their control of the cultivated landscape through terracing, irrigation, flood prevention, and new crop rotations. They planted commercial crops like cotton, fruits, oilseeds, tea, and sugar cane in growing concentrations. Migrants and merchants spread logging, mining, and intensive agriculture to thinly settled parts of the south and west. Since the 17th century, New World crops like sweet potatoes, chilis, maize, and tobacco enabled a further intensification of land use, especially in the mountains. Since the early 1800s, land clearance and river diking reached extremes and precipitated catastrophic flooding, social unrest, and a century of warfare. Since 1950, the People’s Republic has overseen three further waves of degradation accompanying the mass campaigns of the Mao era and the market reforms under Deng Xiaoping. Following catastrophic flooding in 1998, the government has increasingly worked to reverse these trends. Nonetheless, South China remains one of the most intensively cultivated environments in the world and continues to feel the effects of new attempts to tame and expropriate the forces of nature.