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Environment and History

The Fight Against Heaven-Sent Insects: Dealing with Locust Plagues in the Emirate of Bukhara

Jeanine Elif Dağyeli

Environment and History 26 (2020): 79-104. doi: 10.3197/096734019X15755402985578

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The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of crisis and change for Central Asian societies. Land reclamation, an agricultural shift to cash crops, trophy hunting and war led to the deterioration of a fragile ecosystem and encouraged outbreaks of agricultural pests. Among the most conspicuous were locust outbreaks which troubled the Emirate of Bukhara during this period. Large swarms destroyed most of the crops, making the population dependent on grain imports. Locusts were a well-known pest although traditional land use practices seem to have constrained long-term outbreaks. Dealings with the insects once they appeared were modest, though. The establishment of Russian colonial rule in the region deeply interfered with existing conceptions of human-environment relations and increased the pressure on resources. Combating locusts was a controversial subject between colonial and Bukharan officials as well as their subjects: like other kinds of natural disasters that were beyond human control, locusts were perceived as a heaven-sent visitation in Bukhara, turning combat into an activity against divinity. The fight against locusts reached a political dimension around 1900 when the Russian colonial administration tried to pressurise the Bukharans into using modern insecticides and blamed their superstition for the resistance they met. This article examines the reciprocal effects of changes in land management and pest outbreaks, and the controversies between traditional responses, colonial demands and religious conceptualisations in relation to combating locusts.

KEYWORDS: Locusts, human-environment relations, environmental imaginaries, colonialism, agricultural change, cosmology

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