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Speaking wild plants in the languages of Global and Chinese capitalism

Toegether with Mongolia & Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU, University of Cambridge) and “Sinophone Borderlands: Interaction at the Edges” Project (Palacky University, Olomouc, the Czech Republic) we are organising a virtual conference on 25th of March, 2021.

With the global race for natural resources in full swing, and no signs of China’s appetite for natural resources abating, placing an emphasis on lesser known potential resources in remote and less accessible locations is becoming a key priority for the global extractive industries. One of the last global resource frontiers in accessible proximity to China’s borders includes natural environments with little human development. These areas are located on China’s margins: Russian Siberia and the Far East, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Reflecting contemporary anthropological interest in material culture studies (object oriented ontologies), the Workshop aims to make the botanical realm – namely plants of the region (wild and cultivated) – the centre of its own story. The idea of non-human objects – plants – speaking has an illustrious pedigree (Holbraad 2011, Kohn 2013, Tsing 2014, Laplante 2015, Russell 2019, to name but a few). We aim to further explore the economic relationship between humans and plants, focusing on how plants take on commodity status during times of global health and food crises. The Workshop focuses on multifaceted dependencies involved in these non human/human relationships, from the perspectives of persons (gatherers, growers, local practitioners and users, land owners, farmers, middleman, resellers, lorry drivers, manufacturers, etc.), agricultural enterprises, global pharm corporations, and states with their regulatory bodies (custom officials, natural resource managers, and public health). These dependencies show that, rather than being inert and passive players in global assemblages, plants collected in Inner Asian frontiers of global capitalism exert a strong degree of material agency in their relationship with humanity.

Taking into account the worldwide revitalized interest in wild plants (Laplante 2015) – particularly in China, where indigenous Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian medicine experience unprecedented rise in demand to become a biopharmaceutical – we argue that the resource frontiers from where it is sourced, call for an understanding of changes (both environmental, social and economical dimensions) that is created by human and plants agencies locally in rural communities. Thus, we ask: How have plants entered capitalist relations (land, capital, labour) ? How local environments and systems of shared access to common land deal with commodification of the wild medical plants? And finally, how do cultivated and wild plants manipulate and change the landscape ?

Based on such ideas, the Workshop welcomes contributions that include (but are not limited to) the topics mentioned below:

  • Seeing landscape of neighbouring countries as a resource deposit
  • Manipulating landscape through wild and cultivated plants
  • Plants that make people, heal them, and kill them
  • Reimagining ‘hunting and gathering’ in post-socialist and capitalist economies
  • Following the roots and routes: mobilities of wild plant gatherers
  • Criminalization of the wild plant-related business
  • From indigenous plants to biopharmaceutical power in the post-Covid time

Proposed timeline:

Prospective contributors should submit an abstract of their paper not later then Sunday March 20, 2021 to the following emails: (to Stephanie Ziehaus) or (Sayana Namsaraeva).

Decisions will be sent out on by 23th March 2021.


Heywood, Paolo. 2017. The Ontological Turn, In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology.

Holbraad 2011. Can the Thing Speak? Open Anthropology Cooperative Press, Working Papers. Series #7.

Holbraad, M. Pedersen & E. Viveiros de Castro 2014. The politics of ontology: anthropological positions. Cultural Anthropology (available on-line: 

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Laplante, J. 2015. Healing roots: anthropology in life and medicine. New York; Oxford, England: Berghahn, 2015.

Li, Tanya M. 2014. Land’s End: Capitalist relations on an Indigenous Frontier

Bloch, Maurice. 2005. Why Trees, too, are Good to Think: toward an Anthropology of the Meaning of Life. Routledge.

Moore, Jason. 2015. Capitalism in the web of life: Ecology and the accumulation of capital. London: Verso.

Russel, Andrew. 2018. Can the Plant speak ? Giving tobacco the voice it deserves. Journal of Material Culture. Vol.23(4): 472-487.

Russel, Andrew. 2019. Anthropology of Tobacco: Ethnographic Adventures in Non-Human Worlds. Routledge.