Cellarius on Schwartz, 'Nature and National Identity after Communism: Globalizing the Ethnoscape'

Author: 
Katrina Z. S. Schwartz
Reviewer: 
Barbara Cellarius

Katrina Z. S. Schwartz. Nature and National Identity after Communism: Globalizing the Ethnoscape. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. xvii + 288 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4296-2; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8229-5942-7.

Reviewed by Barbara Cellarius Published on H-Soyuz (October, 2008) Commissioned by Leyla J. Keough

Nature, Latvianness, and the Return to Europe

Nature and National Identity after Communism contributes to the literature on environmental management and nationalism in postcommunist Eastern Europe, focusing on the small Baltic country of Latvia. Katrina Z. S. Schwartz examines the nexus of nature, national identity, and globalization in considering how Latvianness is defined in terms of a particular relationship with nature. Rather than religion or a key event or person in history, the story of nationalism presented here considers land and nature as defining factors in maintaining a distinctive sense of collective identity. An important term in the discussion--appearing, for example, in the book's subtitle--is "ethnoscape," which Schwartz defines as "a cultivated landscape of labor that mutually constitutes and is constituted by the Latvian national character and serves as a reservoir of national history and ethnographic uniqueness" (p. 9). For students of political ecology, the author describes the volume as an exploration of the influence of local discourses on environmental narratives. For students of nations and nationalism, she describes it as examining the social constructions of nature as a window into national identity. The book uses the country's accession to the European Union--its "return to Europe"--in May 2004 as the temporal end point (p. 1).

In writing Nature and National Identity after Communism, Schwartz drew on primary texts, interviews, and ethnographic observation. A political scientist by training, the author is Latvian American with native fluency in Latvian. Much of the research on which the book is based took place during one year of fieldwork in 1998-99. This built on interviews conducted in 1996 while Schwartz was an independent consultant on a sustainable forestry project for the Latvian branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Latvia). Although not specifically described, one has the sense that the research was based out of the capital city of Riga with periodic trips into the countryside. In all, Schwartz conducted about 160 interviews with 135 environmental advocates, scientists, government officials, landowners, logging executives, ecotourism promoters and providers, and international consultants. A footnote explains that virtually everyone interviewed spoke Latvian as their first language and identified as ethnic Latvians. In addition to the interviews, Schwartz conducted participant observation in a range of settings, especially in the WWF-Latvia offices, which she describes as her home away from home, but also at various meetings and seminars associated with Western assistance projects.

This volume consists of seven numbered chapters bracketed by a prologue, introduction, and conclusion. The first three numbered chapters, which together constitute part 1 of the book, look at the construction, reproduction, and contestation of agrarian and internationalist discourses of nation, homeland, and nature from the 1850s to 1990s. Schwartz has organized the chapters in this part chronologically. Chapter 1 addresses the period from the Latvian national awakening of the 1850s through the agrarian regime of the 1930s. In this Baltic borderland region surrounded by larger states, especially Germany and Russia, the national revival focused on the Latvian language and on peasants as culture bearers. This period saw a growth in interest in homeland studies, ethnography, and studies of folk traditions. While the agrarian discourse focused on Latvia as a nation of farmers and a primordial "farmscape," an alternative internationalist discourse saw Latvia as a multicultural crossroads between East and West. These two competing discourses and perspectives provide a framework for much of the book's discussion.

In the following chapter, Schwartz covers the period of Soviet rule. Annexation by the Soviet Union during the Second World War led to the transformation of rural life and work with the nationalization of land, collectivization of agriculture, liquidation of farmsteads, and deportations. According to Schwartz, this resulted in the elimination of the political and economic foundations on which the independent republic had rested. The Great Tree Liberation Movement emerged during the mid-1970s with the goal of registering great trees as protected national monuments to protect them (as a component of the rural landscape) from both undergrowth and reclamation that was associated with agricultural intensification and farmstead liquidation. And, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, environmental protests in the form of an anti-dam movement developed in the 1980s, challenging a threat posed to the Latvian ethnoscape by Soviet land use planning.

In chapter 3, Schwartz describes debates about national identity during the post-Soviet 1990s. She focuses on land reform and agricultural policies with an interest in how discourses about internationalism and agrarianism shaped visions of Latvia's postcommunist future. Schwartz argues that there was still a notion of the countryside as a bedrock of Latvianness during this era, but, at the same time, the decline of agriculture and marginalization of farming were forcing a reorganization of the land-nature-Latvian identity link.

The second half of the book further examines the reimagining of the rural ethnoscape in post-Soviet Latvia by looking at local responses to Western aid initiatives in nature management and rural development. Although the projects typically had outside support, they are described as being guided by Latvians and thus reflecting internally generated debates. Discussions of the environmental legacy of communism often focus on pollution and environmental degradation; however, some parts of the region saw the protection of an abundance of nature, especially in border regions where access, movement, and settlement were controlled. Such areas are the focus of the discussions in this section. After a context-setting chapter, three chapters describe case studies of Latvian participation in and opposition to Western assistance projects.

Chapter 4 sets the stage for the case studies that follow with a discussion of competing responses to post-Soviet nature management and rural development. The larger context for these responses includes Latvia's planning for accession to the European Union, recognition of biodiversity in Europe's traditional agrarian landscapes, and the need for rural sustainable development. The inward-looking agrarian perspective or discourse focused on preserving Latvia's agrarian landscape, while the outward-looking internationalist orientation or discourse focused more on preserving the pre-agricultural landscape shaped by natural processes. In the post-Soviet context, the latter perspective included the idea of ecotourism as a way to "export" wilderness and biodiversity to Western Europe, while at the same time providing opportunities for income generation.

Schwartz addresses the politics of national parks in post-Soviet Latvia using two examples in chapter 5. Gauja National Park was Latvia's first national park, established in 1973 to protect both natural habitats and the agrarian cultural landscape. Following Latvian independence, with the associated complication of land restitution within the park boundaries, discussions emerged about whether (or not) to excise heavily populated areas from the park, to redefine the park's focus on biodiversity protection, and to come more closely in line with international guidelines for national parks. The second example concerns a 1996 proposal by Latvia's environmental minister to merge several existing protected areas in the sparsely populated northern Kurzeme region into a national park with the mission of protecting natural and cultural heritage and promoting tourism and sustainable development. In both cases, a key issue in the debate was whether Latvia's national parks should give precedence to local meanings and uses, in other words, cultural heritage and agrarian landscape, or to global norms, such as international guidelines for biodiversity protection.

After describing the larger context of participatory planning efforts on the southern Kurzeme coast, which had been largely isolated and undeveloped due to Soviet-era military restrictions, chapter 6 focuses on a specific project in the area, the Lake Pape project for sustainable rural development and ecosystem restoration. The introduction of semi-wild Konik horses brought in with the help of Dutch consultants stimulated dialogue about development strategies in the region. Like the debates about national parks, here, too, there were competing visions of an agrarian landscape shaped by farming and herding, on the one side, versus a pre-agricultural landscape shaped by large wild grazing animals, such as the horses, on the other.

Chapter 7 describes efforts by WWF-Latvia to introduce Western-style sustainable forestry practices, including forest certification, to Latvia. Traditional forestry was criticized as being ecologically and economically irrational, particularly in the context of Western consumer interest in green products. The campaign was resisted by many in Latvia's forestry establishment, which traced its roots to German scientific forestry and Soviet utilitarian productivity and focused on maximizing timber production. In part, the resulting debate stemmed from different theories of forest health and conflicting notions about what constitutes a well-managed forest. But, at the same time, WWF-Latvia's campaign was seen as an attack on the honor of Latvian foresters as good stewards of the resource.

Environmental issues in postcommunist Eastern Europe have received considerable donor and media attention but only limited ethnographic treatment. And, as Schwartz points out, nature conservation and sustainable development in the region have received relatively less scholarly attention than pollution and environmental destruction. Nature and National Identity after Communism is consequently a welcome addition to a growing body of ethnographically informed studies of postcommunist societies. It seeks to understand the relationship between nature and national identity in post-Soviet Latvia, examining contrasting visions of what an "ideal" rural landscape might look like. The author concludes that territoriality is not losing its significance for identity in today's increasingly globalized world: "In navigating their return to Europe, Latvians' visions of rural development and nature management have been and will continue to be shaped by discourses of nation and homeland" (p. 201).

As someone who has studied nature conservation, sustainable rural development, and environmental organizations in Bulgaria, another postcommunist country that borders on Western Europe, I found the discussions about these topics in Latvia particularly interesting. Both countries had relatively undeveloped regions along their borders with the West as a result of communist-era restrictions. Following the collapse of their communist governments and with greater interaction with the West in the 1990s, both countries were addressing questions of how to protect their natural resources, and in so doing, were feeling the influence of both international and domestic interests and concerns. In both cases, conservation efforts involved the assistance of outside donors and hard work of domestic environmental organizations, although I wondered what factors had led WWF to establish a lasting presence in Latvia, while its presence in Bulgaria was more fleeting.

Overall, Nature and National Identity after Communism is well written and informative. I found the thick description in the prologue a delightful means of introducing the book's main themes. This book will be of interest to scholars of nationalism as well as those interested in political, social, and land use transitions in postcommunist Eurasia.

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Citation: Barbara Cellarius. Review of Schwartz, Katrina Z. S., Nature and National Identity after Communism: Globalizing the Ethnoscape. H-Soyuz, H-Net Reviews. October, 2008. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=22857

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