Media Library, Plants, Practices, Technologies

VIDEO: Taking Plants and People Seriously: Multispecies Entanglements in the West Papuan Oil Palm Nexus, by Sophie Chao

Drawing from long-term ethnographic fieldwork in rural West Papua, Sophie Chao’s talk examines how Indigenous Marind communities conceptualize plants as particular kinds of persons within a multispecies cosmology. The talk took place on November 10, 2020 in the framework of the 4A_Lab online seminar series.

4A_Lab, Sophie Chao
Video preview: "Oil Palm children:" Cross-section of a mature oil palm fresh fruit bunch. Credits: Sophie Chao.

In this presentation, Sophie Chao explores the moral, biotic, and ecological contrasts that Marind people identify between native sago palm and introduced oil palm, against the background of widespread deforestation and agribusiness expansion in Indonesian West Papua. For the Marind, each of these plants accrues multi-layered political and cultural significance, especially in the light of broader processes of Indigenous dispossession and ongoing colonization that shape the geopolitics of West Papua. Drawing from multispecies ethnography and related posthumanist currents, Sophie Chao argues that oil palm—an introduced “settler” cash crop in Merauke—comes to embody in sensory, contested, and more-than-human ways, the destructive yet promissory lure of capitalist modernity for Indigenous Marind communities. At the same time, due to its foreign origin, unknown lifeway, and subjection to technocapitalist regimes of control and exploitation, oil palm is an object of wonder, curiosity, and pity. This paper discusses the ethical, political, and practical challenges involved in reconciling Indigenous theories and practices surrounding the more-than-human with multispecies studies and posthumanist approaches, which remains largely anchored in the unmarked space of settler white colonialism.

The talk “Taking Plants and People Seriously: Multispecies Entanglements in the West Papuan Oil Palm Nexus” took place on November 10, 2020 within the framework of the 4A_Lab online seminar series.


For more information about Sophie Chao’s research, please visit her website

About the Speaker


Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney. Her research explores the intersections of Indigeneity, health, capitalism, and ecology in the Pacific. She holds a Ph.D. in environmental anthropology from Macquarie University, Sydney. Interweaving multispecies studies with ontological anthropology, her doctoral research examined how Indigenous communities experience, conceptualize, and contest the adverse social and environmental impacts of large-scale deforestation and monocrop oil palm expansion in Indonesian West Papua. Prior to her academic appointment, Sophie Chao worked for the Indigenous rights organization "Forest Peoples Programme" in the United Kingdom and Indonesia. Her scholarly research has been published in several anthropological and interdisciplinary journals, including "Environmental Humanities," "Cultural Anthropology," and "Ethnos."