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Environment and History

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Environment and History

People in Peril, Environments at Risk: Coolies, Tigers, and Colonial Singapore's Ecology of Poverty

Miles Alexander Powell

Environment and History 22 (2016): 455-482. doi: 10.3197/096734016X14661540219393

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In recent years, scholars have demonstrated that affluent societies have a disproportionate environmental impact. A focus on wealth, however, can obscure how poverty also propels ecosystem destruction, particularly when combined - as in colonial Singapore - with uncaring administrators and the ruthless logic of imperialism. In this colony, poor Chinese, Malays, archipelagic South-east Asians and Indians struggled to eke out a living by razing rainforest, because they possessed no better options. As these workers struggled to transform forests into farms, houses and roads, they created an ecology of poverty that had catastrophic consequences for humans and tigers alike. Finding ever less forest in which to hide from humans, the mighty cats instead began to regard some people as prey. Unable to flee, poor Chinese, Malays, archipelagic South-east Asians and Indians sought to protect themselves by killing tigers. In the end, the humans vanquished the cats, but not without enduring hundreds of fatalities. Colonial Singapore's environmental history reminds us that the people who carry out the work of eradicating nature often do so because they possess limited alternatives for survival. As a corollary, caring for and protecting the environment is inseparable from aiding and respecting people.

KEYWORDS: Tiger, deforestation, hunting, class, race

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