This past March, Dr Sophie Chao presented on how Indigenous Marind communities in West Papua sense and make sense of the temporal transformations wrought by the agroindustrial expansion of oil palm plantations. Drawing on one of the chapters of her recent monograph, Dr Chao argued that Marind’s explicit disavowal of hope in the face of monocrop expansion constitutes an act of Indigenous epistemic resistance to the future-oriented, linear temporality of technocapitalist modernity. In doing so, she highlighted how disempowered communities creatively harness hopelessness to reclaim the very terms of their existence, amidst and against attritive histories of ontological occupation, intergenerational injustice, and multispecies violence. The recording of the lecture is available on our YouTube channel.
Dr Chao is Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow and Lecturer in the Discipline of Anthropology at the University of Sydney. Her research investigates the intersections of Indigeneity, ecology, capitalism, health, and justice in the Pacific. Dr Chao is author of In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua and co-editor of The Promise of Multispecies Justice. She previously worked for the human rights organization Forest Peoples Programme, supporting the rights of forest-dwelling Indigenous peoples to their lands, resources, and livelihoods. Dr Chao is of Sino-French heritage and lives and works on unceded Gadigal lands. For more information, please visit www.morethanhumanworlds.com.
Sebestian Kroupa: Let’s start with a bit of a warm-up question: how did you end up working with the Indigenous Marind communities? Can you tell us about your experience of conducting fieldwork in Western Papua?
Sophie Chao: First of all, thank you being in conversation with me, Sebestian, and for giving the Pacific Circle Lecture a meaningful afterlife through this interview. My first interactions with Marind communities took place in 2011 – 2015, when I worked as Project Officer for the Indigenous rights organization Forest Peoples Programme in the United Kingdom and Indonesia. At the time, I collaborated closely with Marind communities and local NGOs in documenting human and environmental rights abuses caused by industrial plantation expansion across Marind’s customary lands and territories, which invariably took place without local landowners’ free, prior, or informed consent. These investigations were primarily based on interviews and focus group discussions and formed the basis of formal cases and complaints that were then submitted to human rights bodies including the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Over time, I came to realize that a human rights framing alone was insufficient in encompassing the ways in which Marind themselves understood, experienced, and theorized life on an emergent plantation frontier. Such insights would surface in the course of conversations on the sidelines of advocacy-centered activities I was involved in – for instance, during participatory mapping, land reclaiming, and institutional lobbying. It was these insights that brought me to conduct eighteen months of sustained, ethnographic fieldwork among the Marind, anchored in the methods of participant-observation, the analysis of local narratives and discourses, and a deeply sensory engagement with the material textures of their rapidly changing landscapes. In these and other respects, the fieldwork was shaped first and foremost by Indigenous methodologies, including centring Indigenous storywork and theories of change, acknowledging the phenomenological, spiritual, and aesthetic dimensions of local onto-epistemologies, recognizing refusal and silence as integral to respectful research, problematizing the ethical stakes of my own disciplinary and individual positionality. and reciprocating for communities’ time in the form of engaged outputs and ongoing support for local activist movements.
SK: In your fascinating talk, you showed how the Marind conceptualise and experience time. I was struck by how the Marind find time embedded in the materiality of the forest surrounding them. Time is tangible, one can feel it manifest in nature, ripple through space, and tick away. You argued that the arrival of oil palm plantations therefore wrought both environmental and temporal transformations. For the Marind, as they put it, “time has come to stop.” Can you tell us more about the temporalities at stake?
SC: As you intimate, the plantation frontier that Marind now inhabit is a zone animated by multiple temporalities in friction. They include the temporalities of growth, migration, reproduction, and senescence of native plants and animals who, much like Marind, are threatened by mass deforestation and industrial monocrop developments. They include the regimented temporalities of plantations as capitalist neo-natures, where cash crops like oil palm are subject to the dictates of corporate productivity and profitability. They include also the temporalities of mythical and historical time, which Marind distinguish within local historicities – the former encompassing the life-sustaining creation of human and other-than-human lifeforms by ancestral spirits, or dema, and the latter encompassing the life-diminishing effects of dual colonial regimes (Dutch and Indonesian) and more recently, of industrial oil palm proliferation.
For many of my Marind companions, the destruction of physical environments represents not just the destruction of meaningful space but also of meaningful time, as it is embedded in and decrypted through, the sentient materiality of multispecies landscapes. To destroy a forest, in other words, is to obliterate the pasts and relations of human and other-than-human beings inscribed within the forest, which in turn jeopardizes the possibility of shared multispecies presents – and futures. Whereas the forest is often described by Marind as a zone animated by human, vegetal, animal, elemental, and ancestral temporalities and relationalities, the plantation is often characterized as a space of deadening sameness and singularity – both spatially, ecologically, and temporally. This is a space where everything looks identical, no matter how far or in which direction one walks. In the process, people talk about losing sense of the passage of time – or of time itself coming to a halt. Such experiences of atemporality or temporal stasis are both terrifying and haunting. They sit awkwardly alongside the temporal promise of plantations in corporate and government discourse as landscapes of progress, development, and modernization, whose proliferation will purportedly uplift Papuans from their putative primitivism – even as Papuans on the ground experience these landscapes as spaces of stunted or negated justice for themselves and for their other-than-human forest kin.
SK: Your talk revolved around the politics of the ‘time stop.’ I especially enjoyed the powerful example of the time capsule, which the Indonesian state buried in Western Papua, to be opened in 2085. In his speech, President Joko Widodo declared that the capsule is to embody and unite the dreams of the Indonesian nation and assured the Marind that they would not be left behind in the nation’s future. Yet for the Marind, the capsule represents a time bomb of their own history. The capsule reifies extremely well the frictions between the two different notions of time and the destructive force of modernistic futures. Drawing on the lessons of history and applying them to the present, how do you see the Marind envisaging and forging their futures in this world?
SC: This is a difficult question to answer, in part because envisaging and forging futures is premised on the assumption of a passage of time that many of my Marind friends would question, or refute. The statement that “time has come to a stop” crystallizes this sentiment. As I write in the book, Marind appear to be giving up on the future in order to avoid giving in to the particular kinds of futures imposed upon them by technocapitalist and nationalist agendas. So, the statement “time has come to a stop” speaks on the one hand to the shared vulnerability of Marind and their forest kin to the deadening force of the plantation regime. But it also points to the refusal of time as a form of resistance – one that refuses the hopes conjured by capitalist modernity itself and its linear arrow of time as “progress.”
That being said, everyday life continues in the villages of rural Merauke. People birth and tend to their children, tell stories around fireplaces and front porches, argue and gossip among kin and friends, and also in many instances, engage in advocacy and activism to protect their lands from further agribusiness incursions. What are under siege are the structures of meaning that once undergirded these everyday activities, and that rely on establishing and sustaining relations with the sentient ecology of the forest. This includes, for instance, Marind’s increasingly limited ability to travel to sago groves to visit and pay their respects to their plant and animal kin, the erosion of Indigenous sacredsciences provoked by the obliteration of sacred landscapes, and the racialized discourses that position Marind as sub-human and killable before the law. What is clear is that whatever future is possible will require that Marind find ways to relate to, and better understand, the needs, growth, and stories of oil palm – a plant whose lifeway currently undermines the very possibility of multispecies hope, but that is very much here to say. Whether, and what, that future can be, will thus depend as much on Marind’s attempts to know oil palm, as on the plant’s own willingness to look back in mutual response and respect.
SK: In addition to the state, corporations with their plantations introduced to the island new temporalities of labour, the body, and sociability. How do these changes manifest in everyday life among Marind communities?
SC: Labour is a complex issue in Merauke, in part because even as corporations promote oil palm plantations as key to alleviating rural poverty, many tend to bring in their own labor force from other parts of Indonesia that have longer histories of oil palm cultivation – for instance, Java, Sumatra, or Kalimantan. As such, Marind are subject to the corrosive effects of agribusiness developments, but also excluded from the sites, circuits, and opportunities of palm oil production. Racializing stereotypes of Papuan people as unable to keep time, maintain a schedule, or adhere to formal working hours, is a big part of this story of discrimination.
This being said, a small but growing number of Marind are now working within plantations as casual or seasonal fruit harvesters and pesticide-sprayers. These individuals are often criticized by their kin back in the villages – and particularly by those invested in land rights advocacy – because they are said to lose touch with the forest environments that once sustained them, and indeed, to contribute to these forests’ disappearance. Bodily idioms are central in these critiques, as people often describe plantation workers as having lost their “skin and wetness” – a Marind idiom that refers to the exchanges of bodily flesh and fluids between interacting human and non-human beings that make multispecies life in the forest possible. In the context of plantation labor, the loss or erosion of skin and wetness also takes on ominous literal meanings in light of the vulnerability of workers’ bodies to contamination from toxic pesticides and herbicides including paraquat and gylophosate, that have been linked to all manner of adverse health impacts.
As for sociability, many Marind would characterize plantations as anti-social or a-social realms. In part, this is because the very possibility of creating relations with plantations is pre-empted by the fact that they are often privatized and out-of-bounds to non-personnel. In part, this is also because the ecology of monocrops is, to many Marind, anchored in an exclusionary logic that prioritizes one lifeform – the cash crop – over any other, in violation of the principles of reciprocal care and nurture that Marind associate with forest ecologies. What kinds of multispecies socialities might be unearthed within these industrial contact zones remains a mystery to many of my friends.
SK: Your work explores and contrasts different ontologies of time. As a historian of cross-cultural knowledge encounters, I have always grappled with how to do justice to the different temporalities and understandings of time at stake. This task brings both linguistic and conceptual challenges. As historians, how do we write histories that draw on differing conceptions and performances of time and chronology?
SC: I can completely relate to the challenge you’re describing, Sebestian. It’s one I faced in writing the Introduction to my book. Originally, I had a “setting the scene” section that gave the reader an overview of Merauke’s history. But then I realized this overview was primarily drawing on Western notions of time and history in the first place, rather than Marind’s sense of historicity. This kind of framing was deeply problematic. It gave the impression that what would follow – in other words, Marind’s own understandings of history – was a cultural interpretation of what dominant histories and historians know to be true. So, it really is an ontological question that you’re asking – as well as an ethical and political one.
I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to this question, not any particular words of wisdom when it comes to writing histories that draw on differing conceptions and performances of time and chronology. What Marind friends did teach me, though, was to approach time and temporality through the materiality of changing, biophysical worlds – the sites where organisms were created by ancestral spirits in time immemorial, the fires inscribed upon the patterned bark of nypa palms, or the sweat of deceased hunters shimmering still through the glossy feathers of cassowaries. Finding anchorage in these meaningful materialities helped me grapple with the inherent slipperiness of time as an abstract quality. It also helped me to work my way through the linguistic challenges I faced in documenting and describing a phenomenon that exists through many terms in Marind language, but which I was not privy to as an outsider and foreigner. Anchoring time in the material also brought up some bigger questions that were both challenging and I think, important to consider. One of these was the relationship between organisms and time – or more specifically, whether organisms produce time itself through their activities, or whether time exists as a neutral, passive backdrop within which organisms act and interact. Here, we’re veering into the realm of philosophy, which perhaps suggests that none of these big questions can really be addressed by way of any single field, and instead are best considered in conversation across different disciplines and knowledge production systems – history, but also anthropology, phenology, ecology, biology, and many more.
SK: In addition to fieldwork, you have also been involved in activism. Can you tell us more about that side of your work and how it complements your academic projects? How do you communicate your research back to the Marind and what are your plans for the future?
SC: Contributing in what small way I can to supporting Marind’s land rights movements and foregrounding their philosophies and theories of change in the process was something that my interlocutors and I agreed was vital from the outset of this research. As my positionality shifted from human rights advocate to academic scholar, my Marind friends and I had many conversations around changing expectations about what scholarly knowledge production can achieve – and what it cannot. It was these conversations that brought me to engage in a number of different activities of a more applied, or engaged, kind – for instance, producing a documentary on Marind’s relations to land, supporting participatory mapping initiatives and human rights workshops in the field, compiling a community information manual on consent in Papuan creole, speaking alongside Indonesian journalists and NGOs at public forums, and writing news pieces for international and national media outlets. These engaged activities are, in many ways, the least I can do in return for the many risks that my Marind friends took in accepting me into their world.
The book that my lecture draws on was also shaped first and foremost by the wishes of my companions in terms of what stories it tells and does not tell, in which order, and for what reasons. It can be challenging to put such an ethos of writing into practice – in part because of the often colliding or out-of-sync temporalities of academic publishing on the one hand and of events unfolding in the field on the other, and in part because communities’ own priorities and desires are not static, and instead fluctuate over time and context.
Giving back to the communities who made this research possible is directly shaping my current and immediate future research directions. My book, for instance, is currently being translated into Bahasa for broader dissemination in the field and across Indonesia. I’m also working with an artist to create a graphic novel derivative of this book, which will complement its text-based narrative with images and other kinds of multi-modal storytelling. Part of my current research agenda also includes writing a second book on hunger and metabolic (in)justice from the perspectives of Marind women specifically, who insist they want a work focused on their gendered experiences of life and injustice on the plantation frontier. Together, these ongoing projects, I hope, will help further foreground and flesh out the complex, creative, and critical knowledges and theories produced by people in an out-of-the-way resource frontier, who have vital things to say about what it means to live and die under entrenched regimes of race and capital.