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Research Consortium Commodifying the "Wild"

With growing anxieties about climate change, the loss of biodiversity and irreversible destruction of nature, interest in ‘wildernesses’ has risen sharply in recent decades. Despite the ubiquitous use of this term and the deeply embedded notion of ‘wilderness as the other human culture' in large parts of the western world, a definition of the term is surprisingly difficult and the question of its ontology has led to ongoing controversies amongst scholars and activists. The two projects of this research consortium study processes and dynamics of ‘commodification’ of ‘wild’ things, namely, ‘wild’ plants and ornamental fish. They explore their value chains and the resulting tension between singularisation and mass consumption in order to shed light on the processes, dynamics and contradictions of late capitalism and nature conservation in the Anthropocene.

Processes of Commodification and Standardization in Tropical Freshwater Fish Value Chains – Current and Historical Perspectives

The invention of the aquarium in the mid‐19th century spurred people’s desire to re‐create a piece of seemingly unspoiled ‘nature’ at home: a controlled ‘miniature wilderness’ with some self‐regulating characteristics. The early imports of tropical fish to Europe and the US were subject to high rates of mortality due to the use of simple technologies and the long duration of transport. Organizational and technological improvements boosted commodification processes, and the trade with tropical fish became more professional. These advancements also made it possible to breed more freshwater species in captivity, leading to an increase in the supply of tropical fish on European and North American markets. Today, more than half of all vertebrates in the global wildlife trade are fish species. Between 2000 and 2500 freshwater and marine species are traded regularly, but about 30 freshwater species dominate the global market. This not only reflects a high degree of standardization in the species traded and being commodified, but also the important role of international breed standards for popular species. Processes of standardization can be observed in at least three fields: (1) breed standards, (2) packaging standards for air and land transport, (3) the adoption of industry standards by farms, handling facilities etc. Global trade is channeled through and controlled by a network of dominant trading hubs: e.g. Singapore, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Miami, Los Angeles. The existing studies on trade of ornamental fish have provided useful overviews of geographical trade patterns and the relevance of different species. Little attention, however, has been paid to the associated local and global value chains. Commodification of ornamental fish and their trade raise a number of ecological, social, and moral issues, such as the degradation of ecosystems, post‐shipment mortality, or the protection of livelihoods of small‐scale fishers and breeders. The focus of this project will be on commodification processes and the development of standards that are related to it. Conceptually, this research reflects both discursive and non-anthropocentric (multi-species) perspectives. The aim is to study two different and partly competing types of value chains for farm‐raised fish and for fish caught in the wild. The methodology shall be mainly based on qualitative interviews with actors along the value chains in (1) Singapore and neighboring fish‐farm regions (value chains of farm‐raised fish), (2) Tanzania (wild catch value chains), and (3) Frankfurt and Amsterdam (importers, wholesalers). In addition to these interviews, leading fish keeping journals from the 1870s onward will be analyzed to gain a deeper historical perspective on commodification and standardization processes. These analyses will also provide deeper insights into the changing understanding of tropical fish being something natural, authentic or wild, or domesticated pets.

S(m)elling the Wild: The Political Ecology of Arboreal Essential Oils and the Making of Olfactory Resources.

Global demand for natural cosmetics and organic care products has led to increasing commodification of numerous ecological niche species. This project focuses on the sourcing of arboreal essential oils, which are an important ingredient mainly due to their fragrant properties. Growing demand increases pressure on these wild, rare, and often endangered resources, and also gives rise to calls for more conservation efforts. This leads to the search for alternatives to wild collections, such as plantation cultivation or attempts at biochemical development of near-natural or nature-identical alternatives. This project sets out to explore these processes from two angles. One the one hand, it explores the political ecology of arboreal essential oils, and, on the other hand, it examines the substitutability of wild for bioengineered ingredients. The thus project explores the materiality and making of olfactory value chains in Africa and Europe, and – by using approaches from sensory ethnography and immersing in the worlds of olfactory experts – the creation and valuation of smell, its associative relations with wilderness, and the consequences of sensory difference on sourcing practices in Kenya, Namibia and South Africa. More broadly, the project explores how things become resources, and raises critical questions about the commercial use of rare natural products in times of global environmental change and neoliberal conservation.