The Familiar Strange · Ep #59 The Palm Oil Frontier: Sophie Chao & Walking the forest with the Marind People
“Because for a few hours, maybe sometimes a few days, you can shed your human skin and you can take on the body of a creature that will allow you to fly, to swim through the rivers, to glide across the canopy”
This week we bring you an interview with Dr Sophie Chao, who won the 2019 Australian Anthropological Society’s PhD Thesis Prize with her thesis titled “In the Shadow of the Palms: Plant-Human Relations Among Marind-Anim, West Papua”. Dr Chao is a multispecies ethnographer who utilises the ontological turn in her work. Broadly, The Ontological Turn” is a movement whereby we don’t just consider if people have a different perspective on the world, but live in a different world.
If that sounds confusing, don’t worry, because Dr Chao does an excellent job in describing how ontology is used in her work. Dr Chao has published multiple writings about her time spent in Western PNG such as In the Shadow of the Palm: Dispersed Ontologies Among Marind, West Papua and The Plastic Cassowary: Problematic ‘Pets’ in West Papua among many others. Dr Chao’s research interests include dreams, medical anthropology and environmental anthropology.
Dr Chao sat down with Familiar Stranger Alex D’Aloia in Sydney University’s podcast studio to discuss her experiences with the Marind-Anim people and their relationship to the growing palm oil industry. Dr Chao details the conflict between the native Sago palms and the introduced oil palms. She discusses how the introduction of these oil palms is damaging the community in more ways than imagined. Dr Chao makes constant reference to ontology and how it has informed her experience of “walking the forests” with the Marind-Anim people.
“Practically everyone I knew had at some point or another been eaten by oil palm”
“This idea of taking seriously a dream for instance, the idea of taking seriously the possibility of someone being eaten by a plant really really mattered for ethical as much as political reasons”
“The idea of ontological anthropology is not that I necessarily have to believe what these communities are telling me is their reality, but I should at least allow myself the possibility of believing that it may be true”
“It is less me going into the field as an ontologist, than me trying to understand Marind themselves as ontologists of their own changing worlds”
“I suppose my stance as an anthropologist, first and foremost my commitment is to the people I work with. And it’s their perspectives their making, their fashioning of reality that for me takes precedence”
[00:00:00] Alex: Hey, everyone. First off, we at The Familiar Strange want to acknowledge and celebrate the First Australians on whose lands we are producing this podcast and pay our respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples as well as the Cadigal peoples of the Eora nation where this interview was recorded, past, present, and emerging. Let's go
Hello, and welcome to The Familiar Strange. I'm Alex, your Familiar Strange for today. Welcome to the podcast brought to you with support from the Australian Anthropological Society, the Australian National University's College of Asia Pacific and College of Arts & Social Sciences, the Australian Centre for Their Public Awareness of Science, and produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.
Today I'm speaking with Sophie Chao, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sydney and winner of the Australian Anthropological Society's PhD thesis prize in 2019. Do you remember that year? Feels like a lifetime ago? Now, having worked in an activist space, Sophie received her PhD from Macquarie University for her thesis titled In the Shadow of the Palms: Plant-Human Relations Among the Marind, West Papua, which is currently in the process of turning into a book. This is primarily what we talked about during our interview, as well as a similarly titled article for cultural anthropology, In the Shadow of the Palm: Dispersed Ontologies among Marind, West Papua.
To kick us off, Sophie tells us a little about the West Papuan context and the situation of the Marind as the lands are taken away in order to grow yet more oil palm. We pretty quickly move into a discussion of the nonhuman and the ontological approach more broadly. This is an ongoing conversation in anthropology that I've always struggled with. It was great to get a chance to talk to someone about it, who was really in the know. Sophie really helped me understand some of these complicated issues and concepts, and I hope we do the same for you. In particular, Sophie discusses the real value in taking the life wealth of others seriously, even if they are incredibly divergent from our own.
Indeed, she emphasizes that this is important when they are the views for people who are in the midst of being dispossessed. Hence, Sophie places great importance on her work in the community and working with them on many projects. Finally, I would like to thank Tegan Nicholls from the University of Sydney, who helped us record this interview in their studio on-campus, academic collaboration at its finest. Before we dive into today's interview, did you know that we have a Facebook chat group? Join us on The Familiar Strange chats on Facebook and provide some valuable insight on today's interview. Here it is, my interview with Sophie Chao.
Sophie, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed.
[00:02:43] Sophie Chao: Thanks, Alex. It's wonderful to be here.
[00:02:45] Alex: Just to kick us off, would you like to tell us a little bit about your research?
[00:02:50] Sophie: Sure. Over the last five or six years, I have been doing fieldwork in the Indonesian-controlled region of West Papua, working with an indigenous community who over the last decade or so has seen around a million hectares of their customary lands and forests raised and converted to monocrop oil palm plantations. So, my research in West Papua among these communities really was looking at the ways in which rural forest-dwelling peoples of West Papua experience, conceptualize, but also contest the adverse social and environmental impacts of radical landscape transformations in the guise of monocrop or palm developments.
This brought me to explore the ways in which the emergence of these capitalist natures reconfigures people's sense of place, of time, their senses of personhood, their identity as indigenous communities. Also their relationships to forests, plants, and animals whom they consider to be kin and with whom they share all kinds of fascinating relations through ancestral kinship and common descent from spirits.
I also looked at the way in which this sort of dystopia of everyday life that has been caused by these radical environmental shifts finds magnified expressions in people's dream experiences where people are now having all kinds of really dystopic nightmares about being possessed, eaten, consumed, or devoured by oil palm, this plant that is slowly but surely taking over their lands and forests.
The research really is looking at indigenous modes of analysis, the ways in which indigenous peoples themselves theorize, philosophize, and critique the kind of transformations that one would associate with the Anthropocene or an era in which humans have become an influential geological force. But interestingly, also looking at the ways in which plants themselves come to play a part in the story. This is as much an Anthropocene as it is a planthropocene, to borrow the Natasha Myers terms because plants matter in the story.
[00:04:43] Alex: For sure. This idea of plants as people is something I really want to talk about. For those who might not be as familiar with the context, could you tell us a little bit about palm oil in West Papua?
[00:04:53] Sophie: Indonesia, it's the world's top palm oil-producing country with some 20 million hectares to date. The fact that land is going scarce now in Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi means that the old palm frontier is starting to move east into West Papua, which is a region where there's still a huge amount of tropical and subtropical forests. That, unfortunately, is also often framed in government developmentalist discourse as the terra nullius, unused, underdeveloped landscape that is just waiting to be exploited or rendered productive in a capitalist, colonialist logic.
[00:05:28] Alex: Now, I know this could be a thorny question once we get into the concept of multispecies ethnography. Again, just for the sake of context, these plantations when they're expanding into the West Papuan jungle, who's doing that? How's it occurring?
[00:05:44] Sophie: What usually happens is that the corporations that are seeking to acquire land in West Papua often rather than approaching the community who are the traditional custodians of these lands will engage with the Indonesian government. Now under national law, there are requirements for the government and the corporations to then go and consult the local landowners and to seek their consent.
Now, what my research investigative and academic has shown is that, in fact, there's very little free prior or informed consent in these processes. Often, committees don't have enough information about what the project is. They don't know, for instance, the legal terms of the contract that they're signing. Often they may be illiterate, they don't even understand the written contracts and that they're being asked to sign or put a cross on in guise of a signature. Often, companies will foreground the potential positive aspects of the project benefits in the form of employment opportunities, compensation, but much less the potential adverse impacts in terms of environmental contamination and the long-term legal impacts of ceding one's land today for future generations. Can you get the land back? Under what terms? These sorts of questions of ownership.
In the particular context of West Papua, which is renowned to be a highly politically volatile and violent region of Indonesia, all of these problems of consent are compounded with a pre-existing framework in which indigenous Papuans often have very little voice in the developments, economic or other, that are happening on their territories.
Indeed, many of the people that I was working with and who are very much against palm oil expansion often face criminalization on the part of government or accusations of being independentist, of seeking autonomy from Indonesia, when, in fact, all they're really seeking, as they themselves would put it, is the right to their land, the right to their forest, and the capacity to be able to feed their children and future generations and the right to continue becoming with an ecology that is very much sentient, that is very much animate, and that is indeed crucial to their own sense of what it is to be human.
[00:07:45] Alex: This takes us into the research that you did, the actual, on-the-ground day-to-day research. Ethnography is the anthropological method where we go, we hang out with people for a long period of time, try to get involved in their day-to-day lives. Now you're conducting what's called multispecies ethnography. No?
[00:08:02] Sophie: Yes, that's right.
[00:08:04] Alex: What does that look like? What is multispecies ethnography?
[00:08:07] Sophie: Multispecies ethnography, I would describe as a quite eclectic, interdisciplinary current of research that is interested in displacing notions of human exceptionalism or the human as necessarily the core object of ethnographic inquiry, and expanding the subject of ethnographic inquiry to include all manner of other than human organisms. These can be plants, these can be animals, microbes, fungi.
Some multispecies ethnographers work with elements, so a multi-elemental approach. The idea here is not to abandon the human, but it's rather to rethink or reframe the human through its relationships to the other than human and look at the ways in which, in fact, humans have always very much being entangled with the more than human world. Multispecies ethnographers are really interested in looking at the dynamics of care and violence and interspecies relations. They're looking at non-human entities as agents in their own right, that have a consequence and an impact on the world that can sometimes seem to be the prerogative of Homo Sapiens.
A lot of multispecies ethnographers also engage or are in conversation with emergent findings in secular science, that, in fact, point to notions of plant cognition, plant communication, plant sessions, and so forth. A lot of sort of science and technology studies approaches are mingled with eco-philosophy, environmental humanities in, again, what is a very interdisciplinary sort of approach to the more than human world.
[00:09:37] Alex: Then, what does that look like on the ground view?
[00:09:40] Sophie: When I went out to the field, I had done my literature review. I'd read all that I was to read at the time about multispecies research. Then when I went to the field, many of the methods or tactics of multispecies ethnography I found to be very much part of everyday life with the community that I was living with. I didn't necessarily have to reference multispecies theorists to come to cultivate arts of attentiveness or immersion in the more than human world because this was what everyday life was like for the community I was living with.
One of the first lessons that I had to learn, people often talk about ethnographic fieldwork as being like a child who has to learn everything from scratch. For me, learning to do multispecies ethnography was quite literally learning how to walk. By that, I mean that to talk about plants, to talk about animals, you had to go and walk the forest.
Also, many times when I was scribbling away in my notebook was I told, "Stop thinking, stop writing, start walking." Cultivating walking as a bodily way of knowing was really essential. With walking comes, of course, the apprenticeship that I, myself, underwent in observing your surroundings. This is a very, very multi-sensory multispecies pedagogy. It's about listening to the sounds of the species around you, the rippling of rivers, the cry of birds, the sound of the wind, the sound of sago pounding in the nearby grove where people are procuring sago starch.
It's about observing the texture of the bark of trees, reading in that bark the pasts, the fires, the epidemics that would have been part of the collective memory of that multispecies space. It's about learning to taste and to differentiate the taste of one sago palms pit from another, how wet it is, how dense it is, how sweet it is. Through that taste, reading, again, the pasts of that plant, and the nourishing environments or less nourishing environments that have enabled it to thrive.
[00:11:32] Alex: You're describing a lot of other sensory experiences, but then what still sets say older versions of anthropology, listening to something, smelling something, tasting something, what separates this from multispecies ethnography? What makes what you do different?
[00:11:49] Sophie: Really good question. It's one that multispecies ethnographers ask themselves a lot. I should certainly emphasize that the recent emergence of multispecies ethnography sits within a much longer history of anthropological attention to human-environment relations, human-plant relations.
Where I think multispecies ethnography differs, is it's about trying to rethink those sensory experiences not just in terms of the plant or the animal or the element as a symbolic entity that accrues meaning only in relation to what humans make of it, or what function they might serve to the human who hears, behold, smells, or even tastes it and rather trying to think about the way in which those senses, in some way, speak to the agency, to the self, to the consciousness of that particular entity, and to its own lifeworld or bubble.
Some of these bubbles we can engage with as humans. Some of them are outside our bounds. We might be able to encounter other species' lifeworlds through the sounds they emit, through the smells they emit, but there's always going to be a limit to our capacity to enter another life form's bubble.
[00:12:59] Alex: Could you introduce us to a couple of the non-human entities that played a big role in your fieldwork that were important to your contacts in the field?
[00:13:09] Sophie: I would say certainly the two other than human protagonists that were central to the story that I tell in my book were two palm species. One of these was the sago palm, which is a native palm endemic to West Papua and also the source of a lot of indigenous communities' staple food, the sago starch. The second plant protagonist was oil palm. This introduced foreign cash crop that is now taking over a lot of former sago groves and proliferating in a very different guise, not as a semi-wild, natural-like formation, but in a very industrial controlled, homogeneous monocrop formation.
Those are the two plant protagonists that were really central to the story because it was often through the lifeways, through the doings of these plants that the community that I worked with would talk about the forces of capitalism, of colonialism more generally. There was something about capitalism and colonialism that manifested itself in very material and semiotic ways through the bodies of these two distinctive palm species.
[00:14:14] Alex: I know semiotic, difficult word for a lot of people. Would you like to expand on that?
[00:14:18] Sophie: Sure. Here I'm borrowing the terms semiotic and material from Donna Haraway, who in her book, When Species Meet, talks about other than human entities as material-semiotic figures. What's the key idea here? What she's trying to move away from the entrenched nature versus cultural divide in which humans are culture and everything else is nature. Humans are the agents, nature is a passive raw material that becomes useful only to serve human ends.
In a sense, she's arguing that other than human life forms too are material and semiotic in the sense that they produce their own meaning through their bodily corporeal material capacities, what they can and cannot do as species. They also create meaning through the symbolism, the ways in which they come to represent themselves, not just the way humans come to represent them, in their various encounters with humans across different contexts, from laboratories to forests, to the companionship of your dog at home, through the commodities we buy that derived from plants and animals and so forth.
[00:15:24] Alex: Then you've mentioned non-human entities as having agency, as having perspectives. What does it mean for us to say, a palm tree has agency? I think that would be unfamiliar for a lot of people.
[00:15:39] Sophie: When I think about agency in the more than human context, really, I'm trying to think about what Lesley Head might call plants’ plantiness. It sounds like a tautology, but what Lesley Head is trying to do there is to say that plants are actually something to do with the affordances, the biotic capacities, the ecological relationships of plants that says something about their identity, about who they are, and aren't able to forge relationships with and how mutual or not beneficial those relationships can be.
Here, in many ways, multispecies ethnography would want to engage with not just indigenous understandings of other than human consciousness and sensions, but also draw from what's secular Western science might tell us about how biotic affordances also speak to a consequential will or agency on the part of other than human beings, even if they don't necessarily have a brain, an intelligence, a cognition in the sense that we might understand it in a human context.
Indeed, a lot of scholars of the plant turn and that I work with are precisely trying to push against this idea that not just the nature cultural divide, but also the idea that the mind is a brain thing, and instead of showing that the mind or intelligence can be distributed across an organ within the body, and that plants have intelligence in a way that's almost too difficult for us to understand through a human concept of intelligence. We really actually need to rethink our terms, and the same goes for things like cognition, and perception, and possibly even also agency.
[00:17:12] Alex: Could you, maybe from your field site, give us an example of what this plant with sentients looks like?
[00:17:21] Sophie: The sago palm thrives in sago groves. It's a hydrophilic plant, so it often grows the mangroves, water-rich areas. It's the plant that Marind say knows how to live with others, and that includes humans, but not just humans, from large mammals to birds, to subterranean microbial communities, to fungal communities, and so forth. In all of these exchanges that Marind read in the biotic lifeworld of sago, there's always reciprocity at play.
The palm gives something to another species, for instance, its shade, that other plant will thrive. In return, that other plant will exchange micronutrients and share water resources with that plant. The same goes for the way the sago palm reproduces. Marind will talk about the plant, the sago palm reproduces vegetatively, so instead of reproducing by seed, which is sexually, it reproduces by producing suckers or stolons that emerge at the base of the tree.
Marind will notice the ways in which these suckers or sago children, as they call them, grow at particular distances and junctures from the parent palm, not just to allow the sago child to grow and thrive by accessing enough sunlight and nutrients, but also by enabling the parent palm to continue to thrive, to continue to produce offspring without having all of its nutrients sucked away by that sucker child in some ways. In that, they read a maternal agency. Those are the examples that I would give in terms of examples that shed light on a vegetal agency that may not be conscious, but that matters biotically and matters in the way in which sustains the life worlds of other species in and around it.
[00:19:02] Alex: When I was trying to talk about Marind as a people and their perceptions of these plants, could you summarize how they view these two crucial non-human entities in their world?
[00:19:14] Sophie: Sure. For the first six months of my fieldwork, there were a countless number of occasions when I would be sitting with a group of Marind villagers, and they would be criticizing someone. They would be saying things like, "It's come to steal our land again. It's come to deceive us. It's eating the rivers. It's drinking the rivers." For the longest time, I thought they were talking about oil pump corporations or the Indonesian government.
I, one day, volunteered a thought on what I thought about the Indonesian government and the corporations. Everybody looked at me a bit surprised, not really sure where I was coming from. I said, "Well, you're talking about the corporations, right?" "No, we're talking about oil palm. This is oil palm doing all these things. Oil palm is one who's eating the land, who's drinking the river, who's taking our soils, who's destroying our forest kin."
This was one of those diagnostic moments where I really had to rethink a lot of what I'd had heard. We were not talking about humans; we were actually talking about a plant that does things and a plant that does actually exceptionally destructive things. Sago palm and oil palm form this really interesting moral vegetal spectrum with each plant at an opposite end.
[00:20:21] Alex: For sure. Just to be clear, when the Marind say something like, "The oil palm is eating our land, it's drinking our water," we're not just understanding this as a metaphor, aren't we? We have to take a fairly literal understanding of what they're saying. Is that correct?
[00:20:38] Sophie: There were, I suppose, talking about the politics of how one does anthropology. What I'm going to say is going to reflect the way I approached these statements over the last 10, 15 years or so. There's been a turn to what's been called ontological anthropology, where it's very much about taking seriously people's experiences, realities, and discourses as real in their own right. Trying to move beyond the idea of discourse or even culture as purely representational of a singular world that everyone shares but perceives differently. Instead, trying to take seriously the possibility of different worlds in their own right.
The idea is it's not that me and Marind and see things differently, is that we see different things. It's not that we have different worldviews, it's that we inhabit different worlds of vision.
When Marind tell me things like oil palm eats the land, oil palm drinks the river, my stance is to take that seriously. My stance is to take that seriously not just because of the politics or the way I do research, but also because, looking around me in the field, oil palm really was eating the land, in the sense that oil palm was taking over huge expanses tracks of land. Oil palm really was in some ways drinking the river because wherever oil palm went, irrigation ditches would be established, waterways would be diverted to feed, to nourish the oil palm, and therefore, water was less available to forests, to forest organisms. There were also some really mature realities that actually didn't make it that hard to take seriously the possibility of a plant devoured land and drinking rivers.
[00:22:33] Alex: At the side of your article, In the Shadow Of The Palm, you open with that nightmare of someone being killed by the palm trees in quite a violent manner. Is that the thing we're talking to, and would you like to run us through that nightmare a little?
[00:22:46] Sophie: Yes, absolutely. I opened that article with a dream narrative from one of my companions in the field who describes being eaten by oil palm. This is a Marind expression that refers to a form of nightly possession in which sleepers are tormented by oil palm in their sleep. They witness and experience their death repeatedly in these recurring, endless loops. Not just that, they also witness their own agonizing death from the perspective of other forest organisms who are equally jeopardized by the arrival of oil palm.
These are profoundly dysphoric experiences that in many ways amplify or distort the lived realities of what it is to lose your forest and to see your lands colonized by an invasive plant, and these dreams of being eaten by oil palm were increasingly prevalent. They became increasingly prevalent throughout the course of my fieldwork. Practically everyone I knew had at some point or another been eaten by oil palm.
[00:23:49] Alex: Then the ontological turn in anthropology has been somewhat controversial and marching has been spilled around what exactly is the ontological turn, why we should do it, et cetera. For you, why have you gone down the route of ontology? What do you think it brings?
[00:24:07] Sophie: I've tossed and turned with ontology for a long time, as you can read in my cultural anthropology article. The basic idea of taking seriously people's realities for me is what is really appealing. I'm not saying that anthropologists haven't always done this. Effectively, one could say it's the hallmark of our discipline. It is about taking people's experiences seriously.
I think in the particular context that I'm working in among indigenous West Papuans who are so very rarely taken seriously by any other actors in their social worlds, be it the government, be it the corporations, sometimes even environmental NGOs, sometimes even the church, this idea of taking seriously a dream, for instance, this idea of taking seriously the possibility of someone being eaten by a palm really, really mattered for ethical as much as political reasons. For me also, the idea of ontological anthropology is not that I necessarily have to believe what these communities are telling me is their reality, but I should at least allow myself the possibility of believing that it may be true.
In that sense, I don't ascribe to possibly more radical tendency of ontological anthropology. For me, what is attractive as this idea of sustaining the possibility, that openness to the possibility of difference. That openness to the possibility of plural ways of being. When people would come and tell me about someone who had shifted into a cassowary, how could I not, but take that as a really different form of difference, and more importantly, perhaps, to try to understand what difference that difference makes? That for me is where it becomes interesting to weave ontology with politics.
[00:25:33] Alex: Absolutely. Look, you picked my interest with that little story about someone being turned into a cassowary. Can you tell us that little story, and how do we look at that from an ontological perspective?
[00:25:43] Sophie: The story is the story of Octo. The cassowary man who was an elder in one of the three villages where I did most of my research. Octo was famous for his shape-shifting skills. By that, I mean that he could take on the bodily of other than human creatures, his favorite being the cassowary, and really have the freedom, liberty to inhabit the world as that particular creature.
[00:26:06] Alex: Is this someone? Are we talking an ancient figure in the past, or is this somebody who was there and living while you were in the field?
[00:26:15] Sophie: This was my neighbor in the village. He was the one who broke my GPS on day 3 of my fieldwork.
[00:26:20] Alex: As a cassowary?
[00:26:21] Sophie: We would've done much greater damage if he had. No, Octo was a neighbor of min. Shapeshifting is common. Men do it, not women or children. Women or children are said that their bodies are set to be too frail to be able to take on animal forms. They would most importantly find it hard to come back to their human form, primarily practiced by men. There's a lot of secrecy around it, but finally, there's also a lot of pride because there is an incredible-- People talk about shape-shifting as the most pleasurable freedom.
Why? For a few hours, maybe sometimes a few days, you can shed your human skin and you can take on the body of a creature that will allow you to fly, to swim through the rivers, to glide across the canopy. But shape-shifting is also dangerous. Why? If you spend a couple of days as a cassowary roaming the forest, frightening everybody with the sound of your grants and you're thumping through the canopy, you may not actually want to come back to your human skin.
It might actually be much more fun to be a cassowary. And therein lies the danger of shapeshifting. It can be an experience of freedom, of liberation, of multispecies metamorphosis, but it can also come with the risk of perspectival capture, where you actually become trapped by the skin of the creature whose skin you've taken on. This is precisely what happened to Octo. He loved taking on the cassowary form. There were so many times when we would walk the forest and people would tell me he was in the forest because they would recognize his very distinctive grunt, just something about his grant that they would recognize.
The periods of time that he would spend as a cassowary would become longer and longer. A few days, and then a few weeks, then a few months. His eating habits began to change even when he was back in human form. He would prefer to eat rotten fruit, sometimes even soil that cassowaries eat when food become rare. When everybody or when the men would go hunting, he would come back with things that community members would consider inedible like shells, or snails, or poisonous mushrooms and stuff. He would get yelled at by his wife and kids, I remember distinctly, and everybody in the village would laugh, and they'd say, "Oh, Octo's being hanging out as a cassowary again."
Eventually, Octo died. In the middle of the night, he died. We congregated at his house the next morning. He had come back from three weeks roaming the forest. No one really knew where he was. His feet were muddied and soiled. He smelled of sulfur and anaerobic bacteria that you find in the mangroves and swamps where the cassowaries usually go to drink and nest. And there was a lot of confusion in the villages.
What do we do? Are we burying a man, or are we burring a cassowary? Should we be doing the rituals for this particular clan, or is this a matter that's actually best left to the cassowary to decide? What a creature are we really talking about here? A cassowary turned human, or a human turned cassowary? Eventually, they did bury him in a sacred graveyard. People were very perplexed even afterwards. The case of Octo versus cassowary remained very much unresolved even months afterwards.
For me, that story, not only did it really force me to have to take seriously the possibility of shapeshifting because I could see that it was having very real impact in terms of people's conundrum about what do you do with the body and whose body is it really anyways but also because it pointed to the danger that comes with blurry human-animal boundaries. Inter-species relations are great when they sustain, which is multispecies thriving. But multispecies poorest boundaries can also be really dangerous. They can be lethal when one loses oneself to a rather than human body and perspective.
[00:29:33] Alex: I have to ask. So, I'm a fairly cynical person. I don't personally believe people can change shape. But of course, as an anthropologist, that's not our role to pass judgment, to decide. Then how do you, in that situation, you say you've got to take it seriously. What does it mean in really practical terms when either you're in the field or you're writing it up afterwards? What does it mean to take these thoughts and claims seriously?
[00:30:00] Sophie: In terms of writing techniques, I suppose one of the ways, just in terms of stylistic approaches, is to try to move away from the framing of reporting events. For instance, to go back to the context of dreaming, when Marina, one of my close friends, told me that last night she had been eaten by oil palm and that her entrails had been ripped out as she gave birth to oil palm children, this fruit, when I wrote this dream in the book, rather than writing, "Marina came and told me that she had been eaten by oil palm," I will start by, "Marina was eaten by oil palm. Her entrails were ripped apart by this oil palm fruit as it gushed out from her entrails."
Just in terms of the small stylistic devices, you're already taking that as a starting point, that that is the way things were for her at that particular point in time, for that particular person. It's a really challenging technique to deploy because then you come up with the issue of, okay, whose reality do I take seriously? When I'm talking about corporations and the government, am I to take equally seriously their points of view on Marind, on West Papua, on oil palm, and so forth?
Casper Jensen, who writes in the ontological anthropological vein, notes very nicely that, a lot of the ontological world has been about indigenous life rather than cosmologies, and much less about the ontology of the state, or of corporations, or highly destructive forces like racism, for instance. He says, "States and corporations have ontologies too, we just don't really like them. There are political questions, yes? Whose reality does one take seriously, more or less seriously? Those are political choices.
The question then becomes explaining or explaining why it is that you tell the stories you do, why it is that I will frame a dream as a reality because it was lived as such by the person who experienced it, and what that then says about the capacity to translate realities across different worlds.
[00:31:52] Alex: In these starts, you're touching on the idea of boundaries of people's ontologies, of their worldviews, right? Because as you've said in your work, the Marind do have their own way of seeing the world, but it absolutely rubs up against other groups: the plantation workers, the corporations, et cetera. For you and yourself, how do you get at this rubbing up against between these different worldviews?
[00:32:23] Sophie: Friction. I guess I'm going to go back to Anna Tsing here. Friction. Anna Tsing in her book by the same name develops this notion of friction to describe the generative ways in which different worlds come in to encounter in ways that produce something new. Now, these encounters, such as the encounter between Marind and colonialism, Marind and capitalism, are profoundly violent, they're characterized by asymmetries of power, but they also in the process generate something new and different. For me, the most, I suppose, generative way in which I explored these frictions across worlds was by looking at Marind's own activism and land rights struggle.
[00:33:04] Alex: Could you offer us an example of these strategies here?
[00:33:06] Sophie: Sure, absolutely. For instance, as I was saying earlier, most mine that I worked with framed plantation development, capitalism, and colonialism through the plant of oil palm, this plant. All of these forces coalesce in the body and the effects of this particular plant. When they were in negotiations with the government and the corporations, and after long deliberations, they would often agree that that was not the most strategic way to go. Why? Because they tried it. When they did talk about oil palm as a problem, they were completely ignored by the companies.
I was there at this consultation, basically took this as evidence of primitivism, that these indigenous peoples were illiterate, acultured, and that they were superstitious, that they held onto these barbaric, animist beliefs. If anything, sticking to their particular way of understanding the reality of oil palm backfired dramatically by only further entrenching these preexisting stereotypes and forms of discrimination that already characterize a lot of Marind's interactions with the state government and military troika for that matter.
In ensuing deliberations, the idea was, we're not going to focus on a part of the problem. We're going to talk in the language of human rights. We're going to talk in the language of economic opportunities. We're going to talk in the language of development. We're going to talk in the context of indigenous activism and so forth. Deflecting or backgrounding oil palm in a form of strategic essentialism, one could say.
Now, these are not easy decisions to make and people remain contested for many talking about oil palm, but the problem is, that is the way we see the world as an act of ontological self-determination, to borrow Eduardo Viveiros de Castro's term, to talk about the world the way we understand and inhabit the world. For others, this needs to be strategic again in terms of what is foreground and background, it is absolutely essential for activism to succeed.
[00:34:52] Alex: I think you've really highlighted something that's important to talk about, that, when we talk about the ontology of the Marind, of course, we're not saying that every single one shares the same ontology, they can have as much diversity between them as any group of people, no?
[00:35:10] Sophie: Absolutely. Yes. In fact, in the book, I very much push against this problematic approach of the ontology of a people that does effectively flatten what is supposed to be the richness of ontology, which is its complexity and plurality and multiplicity by establishing these bounded, coherent, homogeneous, cultural complexes, to borrow a very antiquated language. What we're try to do is, a starting point is that, it is less me going into the field as an ontologist than me trying to understand Marind themselves as ontologists of their own changing worlds, so looking at the way they themselves theorize change, the way they themselves philosophize oil palm and other forest and non-forest critters, right?
[00:35:51] Alex: Absolutely. You actually mentioned something that I've wondered about myself, so this is a really good chance for me to ask somebody who really works in ontology. Is some of the way we're talking about the worldviews, the ontology of the Marind, of these ‘other people’-- I'm using air quotes around other here, just to be clear, is that their version of theory building?
[00:36:09] Sophie: I guess it depends on how you understand theory. I'm actually glad you asked this because it's something that I continue to struggle with, or that I think I'm beginning to get to grips with it, which is the relationship between ethnography and theory. If one were to take this idea of theory as an abstracted framework to understand a given situation and one that can then be transposed to understand other comparable situations, then in that sense, I would say, "Yes, we're talking about theory. Through their discourses about oil palm, is trying to understand the way in which this plant speaks to and is shaped by broader structural forces, like colonialism and capitalism, development and globalization, which are happening in different but also similar ways across the world.
In that sense, they are extrapolating from the specificities of the plant to effectively make broader ethical-political commentaries about the broader state of affairs and of transformation in both social and environmental terms.
[00:37:04] Alex: Are we talking about the ontology, the world view of the oil palm, or is it the worldview of the person of the Marind about the oil palm?
[00:37:13] Sophie: Really good question. It reminds me of a question that I asked one of my friends in the field after she just told me a dream of being eaten by oil palm. I asked her if oil palm dreams, and she wasn't sure yet. I have to go back to the field and find out. Yes, it's a really good question. That's been one of the biggest challenges in my research. multispecies ethnography invites us to take seriously the life worlds of other than human beings, as agents in their own rights, as selves. At the same time, the ontological turn invites us or exhorts us to take seriously the realities of people towards their self-determination, in both ontological and epistatic terms.
The challenge really for me, and it continues to be one that I grapple with is, how do I, on the one hand, take seriously the life thought of a plant, through its biotic affordances outside of the way it's represented or interpreted by humans, and at the same time, take seriously the perspective of a particular group of humans on a particular plant, given also importantly that these particular groups of humans that I'm working with have themselves been treated as subhuman or non-human before the law?
I suppose my stance as an anthropologist, first and foremost, my commitment is still to the people that I work with. As their perspectives, they're making their fashioning of reality, that for me, it takes precedence. It's one of the reasons why, for instance, unlike a lot of multispecies ethnographers, I don't really engage very much with plant science or what Western emergent findings in plant communication recognition tell us about plants as a generic category. Because, first of all, I certainly don't want to try to justify indigenous theories by showing that Western science also shows them to be right. Also, because a lot of what Western plant science is telling us now are things like Marind have always known simply through different idioms.
[00:38:57] Alex: The last thing I haven't really asked you about is this book that's coming out. Now, you're turning your dissertation into a book, but I've got to say, with this real activist kind of background, turning that into a scholarly work must be a challenge, no? How have you kept that going?
[00:39:14] Sophie: For me, really, I started thinking about the book from the very outset of my research, and really from the moment I started putting together my ethics proposal. I went to the field with the ethics form from Macquarie University. I translated it into Indonesian and we worked on it together with the communities. I wanted it to be participatory from the outset, and that in itself was a fascinating process to see how they understood ethics, whether they thought the questions were meaningful. What did consent mean? Why should we use pseudonyms?
The politics of that was really, really amazing, and I write about that in the book. When I finished my research, I got a Winogrand engagement grant, which is a grant specifically to go back to the field and share your research findings with your host communities. It's a fantastic grant. I would encourage anyone to apply.
I went back. I had the draft of my thesis translated into Bahasa, and we sat together for three weeks and we talked about the book. We talked about things like what goes into it, what doesn't? Which stories do you want to have in which chapters? What do we want the flow of the chapters to be? Where do we put the dreams? How do we write the dreams? What about sounds and the maps? How do we incorporate those? Can we put drawings? I really wanted that whole process to be participatory. It was wonderful because the book really feels like it's shared at this point.
There are some executive decisions that I have made now. A lot will change as I go through the publishing process, but there are certain things that I will keep because they were things that the communities wanted me to have or not have in the book, and there are stories I don't tell. What I do do is the work of explaining why I don't tell those stories. I would say that for me, I've kept the book alive by taking it to the field, by discussing it from the outset with the communities, and also from having as a compliment to that scholarly work, all these non-traditional research outputs, to use the academic language, that accompany the book.
Things like the maps, things like the drone footage that's on YouTube, things like the documentary. Things like a manual about consent and human rights that I produced in Papuan creole for the communities. These are all appendages that together with the book form a much more comprehensive picture of everything that happened, and that is still happening in the field at the moment.
[00:41:17] Alex: That sounds amazing. It must be a crazy undertaking I've got to say. We wish you absolutely the best of luck with it. Thank you so much for appearing on the show.
[00:41:28] Sophia: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
[00:41:47] Alex: That was it, Sophia and me. Today's episode was produced by me, Alex, with help from the other Familiar Strangers, Julia Brown, Jodie-Lee Trembath, Simon Theobald, Claire Zhang, and Shan Lu. Our executive producers are Deanna Catto and Matthew Phung. Subscribe to The Familiar Strange podcast. You can find us on iTunes, Spotify, and all the other familiar places. Don't forget to leave us a rating or review with your likes and dislikes.
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[00:42:56] [END OF AUDIO]
Links and Citations
If you wanted to check out more of Dr Sophie Chao’s work, her website can be found here:
And her Facebook here
Dr Chao refers to the Natasha Meyer’s work on Planthropocene
Myers, Natasha. 2017. “From the Anthropocene to the Planthroposcene: Designing Gardens for Plant/People Involution.” History and Anthropology 28 (3): 297–301.
The reference for Donna Harroway’s When Species Meet
Haraway, Donna J. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis, M.N.: University of Minnesota Press.
The Leslie Head work mentioned
Head, Lesley, Jennifer Atchison, and Alison Gates. 2012. Ingrained: A Human Bio-Geography of Wheat. London: Ashgate
Sophie Chao’s Article for Cultural Anthropology:
Chao, Sophie. 2018. “In the Shadow of the Palm: Dispersed Ontologies Among Marind, West Papua.” Cultural Anthropology 33 (4): 621–49.
Sophie Chao’s Ethos article mentioned above:
“The Plastic Cassowary: Problematic ‘Pets’ in West Papua.” Ethnos 84 (5): 828–48.
Anna Tsing’s Friction
Tsing, Anna L. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1998. “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4 (3): 469–88.
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This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.
Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com
Shownotes by Matthew Phung
Podcast edited by Alex D’Aloia and Matthew Phung
Feature Image: “Ripened palm oil fruit” by Stratman² (2019)