Thoughts on Theses: Meenakshi Jani

Meenakshi Jani (she/her) is an environmental studies and history major writing a thesis about colonial forestry in India and the Philippines. Her thesis looks into the role of forest officers and forest department employees in the larger colonial project in these places.

Thoughts on Theses: Meenakshi Jani
Photo courtesy of Claire Beougher ’26.

Q: Why did you choose to study environmental studies and history?

A: I kind of always knew that I wanted to be a humanities major. When I started at Amherst, I was thinking English but was interested in history as well. And environmental studies was really not on my radar. To be honest, I didn’t know it was a discipline until I came here. But I took [BIOL-181, ‘Adaptation and the Organism’’] my first semester at Amherst. The rest of the stuff I was taking were humanities courses, and I was like, ‘You know what, I should take a variety of things: let me take a STEM class,’ and [BIOL-181] was the most interesting one to me. I really surprised myself by how much I enjoyed doing bio — it was not something I particularly liked in high school. So I spoke to my professor, who was actually the chair of the environmental studies department at the time, [Professor of Biology and Thomas F. Pick Reader in Environmental Studies] Jill Miller. I told her I was interested in this work, but I was not sure about going full speed ahead into STEM because I was still interested in the humanities, and I didn’t want to deal with all the prerequisites. And she was like, ‘Why don’t you think about environmental studies? It’s interdisciplinary; it brings together both the humanities and social sciences and the STEM stuff that you’re interested in.’ The next semester, I took [ENST-120, ‘The Resilient (?) Earth:] Introduction to Environmental Studies.’ And the nice thing is there are so many classes cross-listed with environmental studies that I was able to continue to pursue my own interests but then also have the environmental perspective. I ended up accumulating credits pretty fast because I was able to take so many things that were cross-listed. And so I actually declared environmental studies first. And then I declared history once I realized that I was interested in the discipline and the method of history, and I wanted to be able to dive more deeply into developing that for myself. So that’s how it started. And as we’ll talk about, my thesis came out of another class I took my freshman year with [William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of History and Environmental Studies] Ted Melillo, who’s my thesis advisor.

Q: Do you find there to be an overlap between Environmental Studies and History?

A: It was [Melillo’s class] “Environmental Issues of the Nineteenth Century” that really got me thinking about environmental history. I think what blew my mind about it is that we so often think about the environment and environmental issues as really contemporary. People are saying we need to save society from a climate crisis. And now, people are finally talking about environmental justice as a problem. And there’s this sense of urgency and … “in the now” mentality around environmental stuff. And I think it’s really important to think about how it’s actually not just a ‘current’ kind of topic. It was really interesting for me to learn how we actually got to this point historically. Not just from a climate perspective, but also from an ideological perspective. Like, how did our economy come to be this way and shape our relationships to the environment in this way? How did people historically think about the environment when the climate crisis was not on their radar? Because people have always been thinking about relationships between people and the environment, just in different ways and with different questions on their mind. For my thesis, I recently went to London to do archival research this past month. And while I was in the archive, I came across this source of British forestry officials talking about how important forests are for regulating so many other aspects of the environment, — not at the macro level, but climate patterns, and weather and things like that. This was from the 19th century, so people have been thinking about these questions for a long time. And I think recognizing that and learning about that really shaped how we do the work that we do today.

Q: What is your thesis about?

A: It’s one that I’ve been figuring out for months at this point, and it keeps evolving. But basically, it’s looking at the role that the forester — or a person doing work for Colonial forestry departments — played, and what space they occupied in the colonial project of forest conservation, specifically in India and the Philippines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So a really quick way of saying it: the role of the forester in colonial forestry in the Philippines and India at this time.

But more specifically, I’m focusing on the forester as a figure because there’s a lot of scholarship that talks about how this discipline, of what some people have called Empire Forestry, developed. So essentially, what happened in India, and in the Philippines a little bit later under the U.S. as well as Spain was the [colonizing] empire tried to consolidate state authority over forests. So in the case of India, in the 1860s, the British colonial state was like, ‘Okay, we need to have this coordinated forest management department that has a bunch of different branches in different regions. And we need to have this very hierarchical system of foresters who control or manage forest resource use.’ This was in response to a few things: it was in response to concern about private interests, like logging excessively, and all of that. But it was also very antagonistic towards communities that used forest land and were dependent on forest resources. It was an early form of what you maybe could call environmentalism, but it wasn’t necessarily from a ‘save the trees’ perspective. It was a lot more of, ‘Let’s make sure that we are able to use these resources for Imperial interests for the longest period of time possible.’ And there was also a romanticized thing about preserving the forest that was obviously rooted in really problematic imperialist ideas. In the Philippines, the U.S. was also doing some similar things in terms of creating this forestry bureau, consolidating forestry in the hands of the state. And what I’m really interested in is how it used people as part of that process. Who did it hire, both from the U.S. or from Britain, but then also from local communities to actually do this work of forest management or conservation? I argue that in both contexts, foresters occupied a liminal space, constantly renegotiating their place within academic institutions, colonial hierarchies, and government bureaucracies. Using India and the Philippines as case studies, I demonstrate how, like the discipline of empire forestry, colonial understandings of the forester as a state-builder and myth-maker developed transnationally. And so that’s a very long-winded description. But that’s basically what I’m investigating. And I feel sometimes I have to give that explanation because I realized that the word ‘forester’ isn’t even one that people necessarily use or think about so I feel like I needed to give that context.

Q: What inspired you to pursue this topic?

A: I’ll reference ‘Environmental Issues in the Nineteenth Century’ again. In that course, I wrote a paper that was looking at taking scholarly books that we had read for the course about U.S. conservation policy, and seeing how I could apply that to British India in the 19th century. How it fit in, [and] didn’t fit [in]. So that was kind of the initial comparative lens that I started to take. And then, I studied abroad in Spain in the spring semester of my junior year and started thinking more about Spanish imperialism. And that’s kind of how the Philippines came into this question. It was really kind of all inspired by a paper from that class. And I had kind of known that I wanted to do an environmental history thesis just because of my interest.

Q: How does it relate to your lived experience?

A: Thanks for asking, because I hadn’t really thought about it that much. But, I mean, I have an interest in South Asia in general, just from other academic work that I’ve done. That was definitely part of my motive to write the thesis. And I’m Indian American so I have that connection heritage-wise. And actually, I don’t think this is what inspired the thesis topic, per se, but it has been interesting to think about, because my great-great-grandfather was a forester in India. I guess I had known for a couple years, but I don’t think it necessarily was the reason I wrote the paper. I was talking to my grandpa about it earlier. And we’ll see if the stories that he’s told me will make their way into my thesis. It’s interesting to hear him tell stories about his grandfather’s experience that have been passed down, because seeing them through the lens of the literature I’ve been reading and the questions I’ve been asking, he’s giving me a whole new perspective ... So yeah, I do have some personal connections in different places. But I think also just, in terms of my own life, I’m really interested in doing environmental work after college.

Q: How has your thesis journey evolved?

A: My thesis is completely different than what I originally planned. So, I was studying abroad in Spain, which actually was a little weird being abroad while realizing I had to start thinking about my thesis. But at that point, I just started thinking about the Philippines because I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to put this in conversation with Spanish colonialism?’ And I don’t think I actually gave a lot of thought to what it means to take a comparative history perspective in the beginning. And that’s definitely something I’m still learning through the process of writing the thesis. But I think I do generally have an interest in courses and topics that are transnational and span multiple contexts. That is an approach to history that does interest me. And you know, I started out with that. And then I ended up looking more at the U.S. because I was finding more sources about it and seeing some of that consolidation of colonial power over forestry happening more once the U.S. took power. And that seemed a little more parallel to what was happening in British India, or what had happened a few decades before. Then over the course of the thesis, figuring out this thing about the role of the forester, that was not something I had thought about before. And over the course of time, after doing research in the archives, it changes everything. And every time you look at a new document, you’re like, ‘Wait a second, this changes my question.’ So I went from a lot of thinking about ideology, and gender, and lots of different issues, and then I eventually sort of came to a topic that I was like, ‘This is what I want to look at and I feel like I’m able to contribute something different if I focus in this way.’

Q: Were there any obstacles you’ve faced along the way?

A: Absolutely. I mean the reasons that I made this comparison [of India and the Philippines] are pretty organic and slightly random. But you have to be able to justify in your thesis why you’re making this comparison and why it matters. And also, [explain what] taking this approach allows us to do. So justifying that has definitely been a process in terms of figuring out what we can gain from looking at these two places. And what I’m seeing is that there were direct interactions between forestry officials and the designers of empire forestry. So there were direct connections between India and the Philippines. And I get really excited because it’s like this was a real connection, I’m not just making it up. So sometimes the connections are direct, sometimes they’re a little tenuous. And just finding those connections in the archive is definitely part of the process. The archives feel like a lot of work sometimes because you have to go to these archives to look at Philippine stuff, you have to go to different archives to look at India stuff. So it feels kind of overwhelming at times, but I think that’s where you just have to remember that it’s an undergraduate [thesis]. It’s not a dissertation or scholarly book or article. So that’s when you have to kind of limit yourself and say, ‘let me do what I can with what I have.’

Q: What has been the most exciting part of your work?

A:There’s this one letter I found in the Library of Congress that was really interesting. And I’m hoping that the story I write about it will either be in the intro of my thesis or be the beginning of a chapter. But basically the head of the Bureau of Forestry in the Philippines, this American guy named George, was writing letters to a forestry official in China. And he talks about wanting more Chinese students to come to the School of Forestry that they established in the Philippines. A school where the Chinese students can learn forestry and then go back to China and be these ‘missionaries in conservation,’ which is where the title of my thesis [‘Missionaries in Conservation: Foresters as State-Builders and Myth-Makers in Colonial India and the Philippines’] comes from. And I’m not planning to write my thesis about China, but seeing this example of how transnational exchange happened, that was a key moment for me, because I realized, ‘Oh, who are these people that are being sent between the Philippines and China to do this work? What were they thinking? Why were they doing this?’ And there’s obviously all these ulterior motives. George Ahern, he was justifying to the U.S. government why they need more Chinese students. The students going back to China after coming to the Philippines were going to help the U.S. in terms of timber trade and spreading U.S. influence in China. And so that’s where I really kind of started to hone in on my question about the role of the forester as a figure. Unfortunately, because of limited time and resources, I’ve never been able to find out what those kinds of foresters were thinking because it’s all through the lens of the colonizer. And a lot of what I’ve been trying to do is figure out what I can still say about those people, even if I don’t have their diary … So that’s been hard, but really interesting.

Q: What conversations do you want your thesis to spark?

A: I think it comes down to the broader question that I mentioned before, of decolonizing conservation; such as the ideas about preserving land, specifically pristine land, and managing land … [for] my senior seminar in environmental studies, [my final paper] looked at contemporary forest management strategies in India and the Philippines today, and specifically how those are gendered. So looking at community-based forest management, where instead of just the state managing everything, letting local communities, who already are stewards of the forest land in many contexts, have authority over the land. There’s a lot of movements for that and these programs sometimes are successful, sometimes not. Women are not always represented in community forest management schemes. So that’s what I looked at for that paper. And I think that’s a good example of a contemporary manifestation of my thesis topic, which is that everything that’s happening now in these places is trying to decolonize the practice of forest management. And that’s a really difficult task, given these histories, and so I think talking about these histories can allow us to take a new perspective on what does conservation mean? What is it going to look like now, given the fact that laws and policies and relationships to land are just the way those have been institutionalized in these places, and across the global South, you know, has so much to do with colonialism? So I think that’s the broader publicly relevant conversation that this is part of.

Q: What advice would you give to students considering a thesis?

A: I feel like I’m so deep in the middle of it, it’s really interesting to reflect on. I think it’s a really rewarding process. It’s an opportunity to do a lot of research, especially if you want to take your research to the next level from what you’ve done for research papers or class. I think at Amherst, theses are definitely ambitious ... So I would recommend using all the resources that you have access to, like talking to fellow students, talking to faculty, working with your advisor, and making sure you’re doing what you can to get feedback from your advisor, talking to the research librarian, that’s a huge thing. And depending on the discipline, just bouncing ideas off of whoever you can, and really kind of trying to lean on all the support that’s available. Also funding to do thesis research and all of that. But also, you know, keep in mind that there’s no need to put too much pressure on yourself because at the end of the day, you do have limited time and a limited bandwidth and mental health is important. So, keeping all that stuff in mind; using all the resources without putting much pressure on yourself, I think would be my main piece of advice. I think, obviously, you’re gonna take it seriously and do a lot of good work. And that’s all great. And just congratulating yourself for what you’ve been able to accomplish and feel fulfilled.