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.