Toxic Tomatoes: Using Object Biography to Explore Inle Lake's Sustainability Crisis

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    In addition to being one of Myanmar's most popular tourist destinations, Inle Lake is also the country's largest tomato growing centre. As a cash crop grown year-round by Intha ethnic farmers upon the floating gardens for which the lake is renowned, the Inle tomato is not only embedded in commodity networks and flows of exchange, but also moves through a complex intersection of ecological, sociocultural and political networks. Considered symbolically, the Inle tomato represents the region whose communities, culture and livelihoods rely dependently on the lake's water. However, contemporary environmental discourses on Inle Lake's current sustainability crisis present the floating agriculture as toxic, due to the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used to generate high yields of tomato crops. Popular environmental narratives combine these concerns with wider fears about the pressures of climate change, pollution, silt accumulation, a growing population, and the processes of dispossession, exploitation and contestation that result in order to construct Inle Lake as an ecosystem in severe threat of destruction. Based on ethnographic fieldwork completed in 2017 and 2018, this article will use object biography to explore the life of the Inle tomato and the world it inhabits in its movements through three phases of life identified as: 1) symbol; 2) seed; and 3) commodity. In doing so, this article seeks to denaturalize and complicate simplified narratives of sustainability and environmental change to question how these topics might be creatively reimagined.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)119-146
    JournalJournal of Burma Studies
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2020


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