In the Shadow of the Palms: Plant-Human Relations Among the Marind-Anim, West Papua – Sophie Chao, John Legge Thesis Prize Winner

In the Shadow of the Palms: Plant-Human Relations Among the Marind-Anim, West Papua – Sophie Chao, John Legge Thesis Prize Winner

Can you tell us a bit about your thesis. What’s the problem it explores and what did you find?

My thesis, In the Shadow of the Palms: Plant-Human Relations among Marind, West Papua, investigates how Indigenous Marind communities in the Indonesian-controlled region of West Papua experience, conceptualize, and contest the adverse social and environmental impacts of large-scale deforestation and monocrop oil palm expansion. The thesis examines how radical ecological transformations underway in the Papuan district of Merauke reconfigure Marind’s cultural, material, moral, and affective relationships to other-than-human beings – some of whom they cherish as kin through common descent from ancestral spirits, and others of whom they deem invasive and destructive. A striking example of the latter is oil palm, an introduced cash crop that many Marind fear and resent because it perpetuates in a vegetal guise the dispossession and displacement they suffer under imposed developmentalist and capitalist projects designed by the Indonesian state and multi-national corporations. What I discovered in the field was that the obliteration of biodiverse landscapes provoked by the introduction of oil palm was not a phenomenon that could be framed as purely an environmental or human rights problem. Instead, I learned that humans and their environments are so profoundly entangled that violence enacted upon the one inevitably also injures the other. Violence is a multispecies phenomenon – one in which humans are not always the perpetrators, and non-humans not always the victims.

How did you first become interested in this topic?

Prior to my doctorate, I worked for the international human rights organisation Forest Peoples Programme, partnering with Indigenous organisations across the tropical belt to help secure their rights to lands and livelihoods in the face of state and corporate development projects. It was in this context that I first visited West Papua, and I became interested in better understanding how Indigenous peoples conceptualize and engage with capitalist incursions upon their customary territories. During my fieldwork in Merauke, I became particularly aware of the multispecies dimensions of ecological crisis – namely, the intertwined ways in which humans and non-humans experience and participate in uneven processes of extraction, extinction, and emergence. Marind were my guides and teachers in cultivating attentiveness to the more-than-human world, eschewing human exceptionalism, and recognizing the agency of plants, animals, and ecosystems in local and global transformations. In an age of great planetary undoing, my interest in human-environment relations also stems from a pressing ethical and political concern to better comprehend and address the impacts of anthropogenic activity on vulnerable peoples, places, and species, that may seem distant and remote from our everyday lives, but with whom we are often unwittingly connected through global chains of production and consumption – including the ubiquitous and controversial commodity that is palm oil.

What was the most challenging aspect of doing this research?

Long-term ethnographic fieldwork poses all kinds of generative challenges (ethical, political, practical, among others). One of the most challenging aspects of this research was radically rethinking my assumptions about human and non-human agency. For my Marind interlocutors, sentience, volition, will, and even personalities, are distributed across human and other-than-human lifeforms. Taking seriously Marind’s lifeworld meant taking seriously the possibility of plants, animals, and elements as actors in a lively, multispecies world – some of them benign and nurturing, others lethal and rapacious. Expanding agency beyond the human runs counter to many premises of Western neoliberal epistemologies – the notion of rights as a human affordance, for instance, or the notion of plantations as produced only for and by human actors. Marind challenged me to imagine and inhabit a world where plants and animals have a say in processes of world-making and unmaking. They pushed me to rethink oil palm in particular as more than just a cash crop, and instead as a consequential agent, imbued with particular kinds of affordances, dispositions, and desires – at once a driver of ecological destruction and a victim to human and technocapitalist exploitation. Marind’s more-than-human philosophies, protocols, and practices offer a radically different, nuanced and capacious way of apprehending changing human-environment relations.

Do you have a favourite anecdote, moment or insight from doing your research?

Perhaps one of the most insightful privileges of my fieldwork was the slow, difficult, and ultimately transformative apprenticeship in noticing the natural world that I received from my Marind interlocutors. This apprenticeship was grounded in a practice of listening and walking. When I began fieldwork, I came armed with notebooks, manuals, recorders, and camera. I incessantly asked questions, scribbled notes, cross-checked local terms and concepts with extant scholarship and encyclopaedias. But I understood from my interlocutors that the best way to know the forest, its human and non-human dwellers, and its transformations, was through listening to forest sounds and voices, and through walking across a landscape animated by myriad more-than-human pasts and activities. Gradually, I learned to stop asking questions and instead pause, stop, look, and listen – at the flourishing clusters of sago groves, the ebb and flow of ancestral rivers, the chirrup and buzz of mangrove critters, the deep rumble of approaching cassowaries. Each of these sounds, my companions taught me, speak to the meaningful lives and relations of the sentient forest. This cultivation of attentiveness speaks to a form of respect for the more-than-human world – a humility and care that acknowledges their consequential presence and activities, in, with, and upon the world.

What are your hopes for the influence of your work?

My research has the potential to inform academic scholarship, targeted audiences, and the broader public on a number of fronts. The thesis makes a strong call for acknowledging and foregrounding Indigenous theories and philosophies in contemporary scholarship on human-environment relations across diverse fields. The research offers important insights for states, corporations, and NGOs in terms of Indigenous conceptualisations of wellbeing, development, consent, and sustainable multispecies futures. For the general public, I hope this research can help draw attention to a region of the world that remains vastly under-researched and where top-down forms of capitalist extraction are radically undermining local ways of being, thinking, and relating. At the heart of this research is a desire to raise Papuan voices to the international level – to make their stories and experiences known to global communities of consumers who are all in some way implicated and accountable in planetary ecological transformations

Is there a particular scholar(s) whose work you admire or shaped your academic trajectory?

Two scholars whose work continues to  inspire me are Epeli Hau’ofa and Anna Tsing. Epeli Hau’ofa is a Tongan and Fijian writer and anthropologist whose scholarly and creative works on Pacific ecologies, socialities, and relationalities resonate profoundly with the multispecies worlds I researched in West Papua. Hau’ofa’s views are also deeply anti-colonial – they challenge the Westerncentric paradigms that undergird disciplines like anthropology, and they draw attention to political and ethical dynamics of research. One particular work by Hau’ofa that I often return to is his collection of writings, We are the Ocean. These beautifully crafted essays, poetry and fiction narrate Oceanic peoples’ deep relations to the environment, the past inscribed in that environment, and how the environment shapes Pacific freedom and self-determination.

A second scholar whose work has been influential is Anna Tsing, an anthropologist and multispecies scholar whose research calls for acknowledging more-than-human forms of sociality in an age of great ecological unmaking. One concept that has been particularly good to think with is that of “friction,” a term that Tsing deploys to describe situations of conflict, tension and power asymmetries that generate something new and different. This concept has helped me understand the very many forms of dissent, disagreement, and incommensurability at play between stakeholders in West Papua’s emergent oil palm frontier.

Tsing’s recent work on emergent ecologies in post-capitalist landscapes, such as Mushroom at the End of the World, has shed light on the possibility of hope in the ruin and rubble of environmental destruction. This work asks difficult but necessary questions in an Anthropocenic era: what futures are enabled or pre-empted by capitalist incursions for situated human and more-than-human communities? What form does hope take for Indigenous activists? And what avenues exist for multispecies flourishing in the midst of plantations as landscapes of empire?

What are you working on now?

At the moment, I’m revising my thesis into a book, which is currently under contract with Duke University Press. In tandem, I’ve embarked on two new research projects. The first project investigates how Pacific communities theorise hunger and nourishment in the context of growing local food insecurity provoked by industrial land conversion and ecological degradation. Taking interspecies relations of eating and being eaten as its object of inquiry, this project asks: what does it mean to eat well in a more-than-human world?

The second project aims to develop more capacious and inclusive forms of justice that take as their subjects both human and non-human beings. Grounded in interdisciplinary collaborations with scholars in environmental anthropology, the environmental humanities, Indigenous studies and critical race studies, this project asks: how does expanding justice beyond the human and the law invite new possibilities for decolonizing multispecies relations, and the concept of justice itself?

Both projects are firmly situated within the wider landscape of Indigenous and postcolonial knowledge production related to ecology, health, and justice. The aim is to expand approaches for reimagining what is possible in multispecies worlds, that remain largely situated in the unmarked white space of Euro-American settler colonialism.

Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry. For more information, please visit

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