Competition for raw materials is nothing new, as historian Mark Swislocki knows. He's studying conflicts over forest resources in China's Yunnan province, as far back as the 18th century.
"I'm trying to figure out what determined who was allowed to do what with those resources," said Swislocki, an associate professor of history at NYU Abu Dhabi who spends every other January Term at NYU Shanghai.
Stele — inscribed stone columns — from as long ago as the late 17th century set out village rules on forest use and wood harvesting. Swislocki's research shows that many villages in Yunnan had well-developed local forestry policies. The practice of erecting stele continued into the early 20th century and hundreds have been identified across China’s southwest.
As time went on, local rules became increasingly invisible to higher authorities, notably the rulers of Yunnan province in the 20th century.
In some places forests were already under severe pressure, and when the higher government came in with its own ideas, things often got worse.
"In some places, forests were already under severe pressure, and when the higher government came in with its own ideas, things often got worse," Swislocki said. "I'm trying to understand that period of transition. When forest land is declared to be state property, that may work pretty well if there are no prior claims to manage it, but when there are … I'm examining to what extent there was conflict."
"At times, such as during the Panthay Rebellion of 1856-1873, governance became too thin. There was already a strain on resources that contributed to the rebellion, and then the government suppression of the rebellion was devastating; buildings burned down, and then there was a huge building boom to rebuild afterwards. It all put an added strain on the forests."
By early 1900, as the Qing dynasty and the imperial system came to an end, China faced a range of environmental crises, just as the country does in modern times. "These issues are increasingly a priority of the Chinese government today, and they were historically, too," Swislocki noted.
The China of 100 years ago, like today's China, sent students abroad, Swislocki said, "starting in the late 19th century a lot of people were sent to the US and Europe to study, and they came home with what they learned." He's particularly interested in learning more about Ling Daoyang, who studied forestry at Yale University a century ago and returned to China to become a leading forestry expert and advocate.
Concern over deforestation and the resulting flooding, shown clearly in old documents, foreshadows some of the environmental problems that modern China confronts, but also illustrates that villagers in imperial China understood forest ecology. Still, Ling would write: “China has always been held up before all civilized nations as a horrible example of forest neglect."
Swislocki's research takes him back to the 18th and 19th centuries when Yunnan was being more closely integrated into the empire. He has mapped more than 100 surviving stele setting out forestry regulations in Yunnan alone.