Toxic tomatoes: Using object biography to explore Inle Lake's sustainability crisis

By Anthe Snowsill
Toxic tomatoes

Author/s (editor/s): Anthea Snowsill
Publication year: 2020
Publication type: Article
Publisher: University of Hawai'i Press
Find this publication at: The Journal of Burma Studies

In this special issue of The Journal of Burma Studies (JBS), Anthea Snowsill uses object biography to explore the life of the Inle tomato and the world it inhabits in its movements through three phases of life. Her article seeks to denaturalize and complicate simplified narratives of sustainability and environmental change to question how these topics might be creatively reimagined.


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.