Ep #59 The Palm Oil Frontier: Sophie Chao & Walking the forest with the Marind People

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” 

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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If you like what we do and are in a position to do so, you can help us to keep making content by supporting us through Patreon.

Our Patreon can be found at https://www.patreon.com/thefamiliarstrange

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)

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