Sophie Chao is an activist and Environmental Anthropologist whose work is located at the intersection of economics, ecology, and Indigeneity in the Pacific region. Her twice-awarded doctoral dissertation is based on a long-term ethnographic fieldwork in rural West Papua, where she examined how deforestation and monocrop oil palm expansion have reconfigured the multispecies lifeworld of Indigenous Marind communities and their plant and animal kin. In November 2020, she presented her research at the 4A_Lab in an online talk titled “Taking Plants and People Seriously: Multispecies Entanglements in the West Papuan Oil Palm Nexus.” Her presentation has opened up manifold possibilities for further research in different directions, a few of which we tackle in this interview, conducted by KHI Research Associate Sanja Savkić Šebek.
Sanja Savkić Šebek: You are sharply critical of the capitalist motivations and ecocidal policies which, under the pretense of a supposed progress, continue to cause the displacement and dispossession of Marind communities. What happens when the alliance, or bond, between the land and its inhabitants—a bond built over hundreds, if not thousands, of years —comes into conflict with systems hinged on the exploitation of nature rather than its guardianship?
Sophie Chao: Progress-oriented, modern capitalist paradigms—most starkly embodied by the plantation form—stand radically at odds with the relational and reciprocal ethos that undergirds Marind’s relationship with 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 desires, hopes, and aspirations—e.g. towards different futures, material wealth, and expanded social worlds. For many others, however, the arrival of capitalist projects has had the effect of severing them from their intimate and ancestral bond with the forest and its diverse, other-than-human dwellers. In so doing, capitalist projects rupture the interspecies connections from which Marind derive their very sense of identity and belonging.
Can you tell us more about the notions of nature and culture and their interplay as understood by West Papuan Marind communities? Can you compare these to the model implicit in Western epistemology?
In Marind language, there is no equivalent to the words “nature” and “culture.” This tells us something important about the situatedness of this binarism in the first place. For Marind, as for many other Indigenous peoples around the world, nature and culture do not function separately from each other as finite, bounded categories of being. Nature and culture are rather conceived of as co-constitutive from the outset: humans come into meaningful being through the relationships they establish with other-than-human entities, e.g. plants, animals, soil, rivers, ecosystems, etc. By the same token, other-than-human well-being and flourishing depends on people’s capacity to interact with their environment in accordance to principles of care, kinship, respect, and reciprocity. Marind conceptualization of food well exemplifies my point: rather than a mere product of consumption or resource, food is understood by Marind as 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 they put it, is not just about humans extracting food from the environment: it is also about humans becoming “good food” for other living creatures.
Can you elaborate on the idea of “more-than-human-worlds” and the conceptualization of personhood within Marind multispecies cosmology? What different actors are involved and how do they co-habitate?
I like to use the term “more-than-human” to push against assumptions of human exceptionalism that underpin Western philosophies, protocols, and practices, and also to convey in a more nuanced way the nature of personhood as articulated by Marind people. Marind personhood is distributed across the 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 by virtue of their symbiotic relationships—the thriving of one sustaining the future of the other. This is not to say that violence or harm is absent from the “more-than-human” dimension: not all interspecies entanglements are necessarily benign—but they all demand a stance of respect and care that manifests in the form of rituals, everyday practices of consumption, journeys of encounter, and much more.
Can you comment on the approach you adopted while conducting research among the Marind—specifically regarding the relationship between dominant models of research in academia and local Indigenous modes of thought?
The aim of my research is to oppose the colonization of knowledge. i.e. 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 it does extreme violence to Indigenous and other non-Western peoples’ own ways of theorizing and critiquing the world and its transformations. What I do instead is trying to place at the centre of the stories I tell Marind’s own, richly complex theories of change—produced by people 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. Such a project entails considering how these institutions have come into being—at whose cost, and at whose benefit. An additive approach will not do; we rather need to grapple with the systemic power asymmetries, denied sovereignties, and thefts of lands and bodies that altogether have enabled today’s institutions to persist as colonial-imperial afterlives. In this, we need to be wary of what Anangax scholar Eve Tuck calls the “settler moves to innocence:” we all are, in a way or another, implicated 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, which speak of the force of subaltern social and environmental justice movements in an age of planetary undoing.