Sophie Chao is an activist and environmental anthropologist, whose research explores the intersections of economy, ecology, and Indigeneity in the Pacific. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, where she investigates the nutritional and cultural impacts of agribusiness on Indigenous food-based socialities, identities, and ecologies. Her twice-awarded doctoral dissertation was based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in rural West Papua, where she examined how deforestation and monocrop oil palm expansion reconfigure the multispecies lifeworld of Indigenous Marind communities and their plant and animal kin. Drawing from this project, Chao’s talk Taking Plants and People Seriously: Multispecies Entanglements in the West Papuan Oil Palm Nexus opens up manifold possibilities for further research in different directions, a few of which we focus on in this interview.
Sanja Savkić Šebek: You critique powerfully the capitalist motivations and ecocidal policies that, concealed by a language which advocates for progress, continue to displace and dispossess Marind communities. What happens when the experience of relating to land and its inhabitants over centuries, and even thousands of years, comes into conflict with systems that privilege mastery and exploitation of nature over its guardianship?
Sophie Chao: Progress-oriented, modern capitalist paradigms—embodied most starkly in the plantation form—stand radically at odds with the relational and reciprocal ethos that undergirds Marind’s relationship to the environment. The clash between these paradigms accrues heightened significance in light of West Papua’s long and violent history of Indigenous displacement, dispossession, and disempowerment as a site of ongoing settler-colonization. Indigenous Marind’s responses to capitalist incursions vary in form and effect. For some, the arrival of agribusiness plantations is accompanied by new kinds of desire, hope, and aspirations—for different futures, material wealth, and expanded social worlds. For many others, however, the arrival of capitalist projects severs them from their intimate and ancestral relations to the forest and its diverse, other-than-human dwellers. In so doing, capitalist projects rupture the interspecies connections from which Marind derive their very own sense of identity and belonging.
Can you tell us more about the notions of nature and culture and their relation as understood by West Papuan Indigenous Marind communities, in comparison to the model implicit in the Western epistemology?
There are no equivalents to ‘nature’ or ‘culture’ in Marind language. This tells us something important about the situatedness of this binary in the first place. For Marind, as for many Indigenous peoples the world over, nature and culture do not function separately from each other as finite, bounded categories of being. Rather, nature and culture are co-constitutive from the outset. Humans come into meaningful being through their relations to other-than-human entities—plants, animals, soils, rivers, ecosystems, and more. By the same token, other-than-human wellbeing and flourishing depends on the capacity of humans to interact with the environment based on principles of care, kinship, respect, and reciprocity. An illustrative example of this is how Marind conceptualize food. Rather than simply products or resources, food is understood by Marind to encompass all beings that offer nourishment to others – including humans, whose blood, sweat, flesh, and eventually decomposing bodies sustain the forest’s myriad organisms and elements. Eating well, as Marind put it, is not just about humans extracting food from the environment. It is also about humans becoming good food for others.
Can you elaborate on ‘more-than-human-worlds’ and the conceptualization of personhood within the Marind multispecies cosmology? Who are the different actors and in which way do they cohabitate?
I use the term ‘more-than-human’ to push against assumptions of human exceptionalism in Western philosophies, protocols, and practices, and to more accurately convey the nature of personhood as articulated by Marind. Marind personhood is distributed across humans, plants, animals, and elements with whom different Marind clans share common descent from ancestral spirits, and whom they consider to be sentient, animate, and agentive. These entities are referred to as ‘siblings’ or ‘grandparents.’ They enliven the forest through their symbiotic relations—the thriving of one sustaining the future of the other. This is not to say that violence or harm is not also part of more-than-human living. Not all interspecies entanglements are necessarily benign—but they nonetheless demand a stance of respect and care that manifests in the form of rituals, everyday consumption practices, journeys to the encounter of the forest, and more.
Can you comment on the approaches you undertook while doing your research among the Marind, and specifically on the relationship between dominant models of research in academia and ‘local’ Indigenous modes of thought?
My research aims to push against the colonization of knowledge when knowledge is taken as something produced by and for the Global North based on lives lived in the Global South. This remains the dominant approach in research and does extreme violence to Indigenous and other non-Western peoples’ own ways of theorizing and critiquing the world and its transformations. Instead, I seek to place at the centre of the stories I tell Marind’s own, richly complex theories of change, produced by peoples who persist in the face of imposed invisibility and who have something important to say about what it means to live under entrenched regimes of colour and capital.
In your opinion, what is and what should be the place of Indigenous knowledge(s) and practices in educational, cultural, governmental and other institutions, as well as in broader societal processes?
Rather than incorporating Indigenous knowledge(s) and practices into existing institutional architectures, I think that we should be seeking to restructure these architectures in the first place. This entails considering how these institutions came into being—at whose cost, and at whose benefit. An additive approach will not do—instead, we need to grapple with the systemic power asymmetries, denied sovereignties, and thefts of lands and bodies, that together have enabled today’s institutions to persist as colonial-imperial afterlives. In this, we need to wary of what Anangax scholar Eve Tuck calls “settler moves to innocence.” We are all implicated in some way or another in colonial-racial infrastructures. Overcoming and transforming these infrastructures demands humility, openness, and reckoning. It also demands that we acknowledge Indigenous modes of survivance, resilience, and resurgence, that speak powerfully to the force of subaltern social and environmental justice movements in an age of planetary undoing.
Sanja Savkić Šebek is a historian of Amerindian art with the focus on Mesoamerica, as well as on artistic and intellectual connections and exchange between New Spain and Europe. Her scholarship draws on cross-disciplinary approach of art history, anthropology, archaeology, and ethnohistory. She was honoured as the most distinguished graduate in art history in 2012, and received the Alfonso Caso Medal for her doctoral dissertation from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Sanja has received several Post-Doctoral Fellowships: Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas – UNAM (2014–16); “Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices” research program at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien (2016–17); Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut (2018). She collaborated with the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin on the preparation of the information and conceptual solutions for several media stations related to the exhibition of its Mesoamerican collection at the Humboldt Forum (2017–18). Presently, she holds the position of research associate in the framework of the international research group “Bilderfahrzeuge: Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of lconology,” and works on her research project “The Lives of Things in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and Early Colonial New Spain.”