Considering political ecology as a framework for analyzing the relationship between space, labor and environmental factors is crucial if the political-economic aspects affecting production and ecology are to be fully addressed. Take, for example a political ecology of the Caribbean.
Sugar was initially introduced in the Caribbean as a potential export product in the 16th century, and by 1585 England was the world’s foremost producer. Plantation workers became increasingly necessary as the plantation system evolved, and European colonizers began purchasing enslaved Africans to satisfy the growing demand for manual labor. Meanwhile, indigenous populations such as the Taino, the Ciboney, the Arawaks and the Caribs declined at unprecedented rates.
The widespread cultivation of sugarcane had a detrimental impact on local soil conditions and promoted deforestation as well as water pollution in the surrounding areas. As new crops came to dominate the Carribbean, the indigenous plants perfectly suited to the local environment were pushed out. Furthermore, excessive fertilization, perceived as necessary to accommodate sugarcane cultivation in the tropics, leached nitrates and phosphates into the soil profile, contributing to acidification.
The legacy effects of land use severely depleted Caribbean soils and sculpted the industrial-agricultural landscape into a monocultural profit-oriented production complex. Studies by political ecologists and geographers have found that food insecurity in the Caribbean would be best addressed by small-scale food-crop farming, as opposed to plantation-scale monoculture. However, the Caribbean’s close historical association with the plantation system has made such an adjustment difficult.
The numerous financial, cultural, political and ideological institutions which shaped Caribbean sugar production make analysis of the issues at hand an interdisciplinary effort. By addressing the crucial relationship between ecology and production, while maintaining politics, economics and modernity as interrelated and inseparable foci, political ecology can serve as a means of analyzing the nature of contemporary issues in Caribbean agriculture.
Political ecology is a crucially relevant axis of examination in discussions of sustainable resource management and environmental preservation. It locates environmental factors in a globalized political context to underscore the institutional pressures on global ecologies. Trade deals, tariffs, multinational corporations and outsourcing perpetuate hegemonic agricultural and resource-management practices, at the expense of the world’s climate. Often times, a political-ecological approach elucidates indigenous empowerment as a formative countermeasure against environmental degradation.
Just as on Caribbean sugar plantations, indigenous communities in the American west, such as the Zuni, saw transplanted settler agro-systems degrade the soils and decrease local biodiversity. Although the indigenous Zuni community successfully cultivated crops for several millennia, the pueblo underwent a process of desertification when in situ agricultural systems were displaced by settler economic and agricultural systems.
The environmental and ecological disruption facing the Zuni pueblo began as U.S. expansion into the southwest precipitated disruptive economic and agricultural change. To combat the desertification facing the pueblo, the Zuni Sustainable Agriculture Project and the Zuni Conservation Project formed coalitions with researchers to employ the vast corpus of Zuni soil knowledge and descriptions of traditional Zuni farming and resource management techniques to develop and inform community initiatives to combat desertification. Zuni soil knowledge and farming practices continue to be assistive in combating desertification at the Zuni pueblo.
Indigenous methods of agriculture and the associated corpuses of deep ecological knowledge are inherently suited to the environments in which they are developed. Whereas foreign practices almost ubiquitously generate negative externalities, in situ methodologies are sustainable and enriching.