The book touches on familiar themes of exclusion, subjugation, resistance, and the clash of worldviews. It focuses in particular on the role of low-wage manual labor in biodiversity conservation, the conservation agents who do the “grunt work” of protecting biodiversity in Madagascar. As well as building and maintaining park infrastructure, portering, guiding tourists, and policing protected areas, conservation agents are expected to spread Western conservation ideology and educate members of their own communities. Low pay and uncertain working conditions mean they must often continue with the swidden forest clearance practices that their bosses find so problematic. This is just one of the many contradictions at the heart of environmental management in Madagascar.
Despite the importance of these laborers, they have often been rendered invisible by the heroic view of conservation in Madagascar, where the intellectual labor of scientists and conservationists is privileged over the day-to-day practices of on-the-ground environmental management and rural life. Sodikoff's thesis is given empirical and analytical depth through its historical approach and comparison of contemporary conservation with colonial labor practices. The book covers a period of just over a century, starting with the arrival of French colonialism at the end of the nineteenth century. Sodikoff reveals the values that shaped colonial attitudes to both nature and labor. While the colonial state saw the island's natural resources as a potential source of great wealth, it saw the Malagasy workforce as a barrier to progress, reluctant as it was to undertake waged labor on concessions and public works. The French government's answer was to instigate a system of “moralizing taxes” and forced labor that it believed would not only supposedly encourage rural Malagasy into the cash economy but also convey a new work ethic and help its mission civilisatrice.