Paul Robbins

Coffee, Frogs, and Workers: The Frontiers of Conservation in Southern India

Though some new areas for conservation are still being set aside throughout South Asia, the era of wildlife “enclosures” is drawing to a close. The frontiers of environmental conservation have begun to extend instead to humanized landscapes: traditionally managed village lands, extractive reserve forests, and even wholly cultivated lands. This raises basic questions about the survival of people and other species in India. Can chaotic, semi-humanized environments be coaxed to protect rare, endemic species? When and under what political and economic conditions? The research described here seeks to answer these questions by investigating biodiversity, plantation export economics, and labor migration in the booming commodity production landscapes of coffee, rubber, and arecanut in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, India. Preliminary conclusions: wildlife is indeed thriving in places that are not wilderness at all; the fate of these species is intertwined with the aspirations of the agrarian labor force, however, whose bargaining power has shifted amidst dramatic demographic change.

Paul Robbins is the director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research addresses questions spanning conservation conflicts, urban ecology, and environment and health interactions. His work has focused on the politics surrounding forestry and wildlife conservation in both Rajasthan and Karnataka, India. Robbins has also led national studies of consumer chemical risk behaviors in America, including research on the abiding passion of Americans for their lawns and mosquito management policies in the Southwest. In addition, he has studied the complexities of elk management policy on the settled fringes of Yellowstone Park. He is author of the foundational text Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction and his award-winning book Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are is widely recognized as one of the most accessible books on the environ-mental politics of daily life. A UW-Madison alumnus with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, Robbins came to UW in 1985 as an undergraduate to study archaeology and social and political history. He holds a master’s degree and doctorate in geography, both from Clark University.