Dr Sharae Deckard: Tea Barons and Coconut Kings: Sri Lanka, Commodity Frontiers, and the World-Ecology

We are very excited to be able to share Dr Sharae Deckard’s abstract for her keynote lecture at the conference later this month. You can find more details about the conference and how to register here.

Tea Barons and Coconut Kings: Sri Lanka, Commodity Frontiers, and the World-Ecology

According to Jason Moore, the environmental history of colonies and postcolonies throughout the Global South is characterized by periodic reorganizations and phases of nature-society relations, which he terms “ecological regimes” and “ecological revolutions.’ Ecological regimes are the “relatively durable patterns of class structure, technological innovation and the development of productive forces…that have sustained and propelled successive phases of world accumulation.” Within the 50-75-year periodic cycles of commodity frontiers, when biophysical webs of life are exhausted and particular ecological regimes are no longer able to produce ever-greater ecological surpluses for capitalist cores, thus failing to maintain the conditions of profit accumulation, then ecological revolutions occur, characterized by the extension of exploitation to new geographies, the intensification of existing forms of extraction, and the production of new technologies and modes. Moore points to sugar plantation monocultures in the Caribbean as the most salient example of the extreme socio-ecological violence perpetrated by ecological revolutions and commodity extraction, but in Sri Lanka, socio-ecological relations are just as indelibly marked by the experience of the commodity regimes corresponding to rubber, coconut and tea, originating in colonial plantation but continuing into independence, and by the subsequent reorganizations of society-nature manifested during the civil war and its ongoing conflict over territory, labour and resources.

Anglophone Sri Lankan literature is saturated by spatialised registrations of ecology on the “fractured island.” Gothic eco-topoi such as that of the spectral waluwe (plantation house) and estate garden, the threatening, almost eco-phobic fecundity of the jungle, and the toxic gothic of militarized waste-scapes, recur throughout the literature of writers such as Punyakante Wijenaike, Jean Arasanayagam, Ameena Hussein and Roma Tearne, mediating the history of the socio-ecological production of nature through plantation monocultures, paradise tourism and military territorialisation. These eco-tropes figure ecologies subjected to multiple reterritorializations, so that literary representations of landscapes become palimpsests of multiple socio-ecological histories and boom-bust cycles, saturated in accumulated violence. Reading through Moore’s world-ecology framework, this paper will explore how contemporary Sri Lankan writers represent the ecological regimes in irrealist aesthetics corresponding to plantation and to civil war: registering the collapse of coconut, rubber and tea commodity regimes; the desacralization, deforestation and toxification of jungle and dry zone ecologies through militarization; the slow violence of environmental refugeeism and stationary dispossession; and the complex restructuring of new regimes (such as mass aquaculture, gem and graphite mining, and tourism) through collaboration between multinational corporations and both state and guerrilla factions.

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