We sit on the veranda of a house on the outskirts of Goroka, Papua New Guinea (PNG), while two international oil company representatives describe the benefits that will flow to environmental conservation organizations in PNG once the biodiversity offset program associated with the huge oil and natural gas pipeline that their company is building comes online. Biodiversity offset funds are monies put into trust by resource-extraction companies to offset the damage to plants, animals, and ecological processes caused by their projects. Companies must create these funds to secure global financing for their projects. Once created, the funds pay for environmental conservation and restoration efforts. The two representatives have come to PNG to determine who should be given management responsibilities for this project’s offset fund, which, depending on the revenue the project generates, could be in excess of $100 million. Because of the interest this amount would earn, it would serve to fund the managing organization for many years to come. Our visitors are accompanied by four employees of an international conservation organization with offices in thirty countries and hundreds of projects all over the world; it is an organization vying to gain management of this fund.

Our meeting takes place at the office of the Papua New Guinea Institute of Biological Research (PNGIBR), a small organization dedicated to providing opportunities for young people from PNG who want to become environmental conservation experts. One of its founding principles is that the conservation of biological diversity in PNG can only be achieved if Papua New Guineans have full sovereignty over it, and that this sovereignty has been slowly stripped away by big international organizations. PNGIBR fosters the growth of national science and focuses on creating and managing small-scale conservation projects cofounded by scholars from PNG and the indigenous peoples on whose lands these projects are carried out.

Over the course of the afternoon, PNGIBR staff are asked how, if given the opportunity to manage the fund, they would use it to conserve biodiversity. Their answers are complex and draw from the staff’s collective seventy-five years of experience working in PNG. The answers are met with the following comments from the international conservation workers:

Papua New Guinea does not have the internal capacity to manage and administer a fund of this size. . . . People in Papua New Guinea live in pre-capitalist societies [and] do not understand money and have a cargo cult mentality. . . . Handling this much money would just disrupt society. . . . Most well-educated people in Papua New Guinea who work for the government or for most of the organizations that do deal with large amounts of money are corrupt. . . . National management of this fund would be a disaster. (West 2016, 69)

In the hours that follow we witness the deployment of other representational rhetorics by the international conservation organization’s staff. These attempts to persuade and motivate the oil company are an excellent example of the ideological work that underpins dispossession in the Anthropocene.

Historically, when we thought of dispossession, we often thought of a process by which someone is stripped of possession of a material object or state of being through the loss of land, labor, life, or natural resources. We know that Karl Marx (1977) wrote about this process in the first volume of Capital using the term primitive accumulation, and that in The Accumulation of Capital, Rosa Luxemburg (2003) corrected Marx’s sense of this process by showing us that for capitalism to thrive, it needs a constant source from which to draw or dispossess. This understanding lies at the heart of classical anthropological inquiry into environmental issues. And yet, today, things are more complicated than this.

Now, environmental dispossession needs to be theorized in terms of the representational rhetorics that underlie it as well as in terms of its material aspects. Dispossession is material and ongoing and in the Anthropocene, it is increasingly intertwined with discursive and semiotic practices, resulting in turtles all the way down. Here is how.

First, the ecological conditions that have given rise to the state of the planet today have been generated, in large part, by fossil-fuel production and consumption. The oil company in question is also at the epicenter of a series of well-founded revelations regarding the corporation’s knowledge about the links between fossil-fuel use and climate change dating from the 1970s. These documents further reveal a systematic effort to fuel climate change–denial science and policy.

Second, international conservation organizations have worked to wrest control of the management of biological diversity in PNG since structural adjustment programs in the 1990s hollowed out funding for the various national institutions with that mandate after decolonization in 1975. The organizations have done this with top-down, nonconsultative conservation projects. With the bid for the biodiversity offset fund described above, they were attempting to do this economically by using financial resources acquired from the oil and gas patrimony of PNG to fund their organization.

Finally, the discursive devices used by conservation organization employees are an act of rhetorical dispossession and deprivation of representational sovereignty. They cast people from PNG as lacking, as incapable, and as living in a prior state, unable to manage anything.

After this meeting, in an acknowledgement that international NGO management of the fund would be tantamount to depriving PNG of its natural sovereignty, a member of the PNG parliament spoke to PNGIBR and two other organizations, ultimately pressing the oil company to either manage the fund itself or contract with a national organization. In the end, the oil company created its own national management team, which manages the fund today. How, exactly, the funds will be used is yet to be determined.

What is clear is that Anthropocene dispossessions confound the relationship between resource acquisition (like oil extraction) and the management of its consequences (like biodiversity conservation). Equally apparent is that these processes are scalar in reach, predicated on massive environmental disruptions and infinitesimal semiotic gestures, each of which may work to erode sovereignty. The accretions of dispossession do, indeed, go all the way down.


Luxemburg, Rosa. 2003. The Accumulation of Capital. Translated by Agnes Schwarzschild. New York: Routledge. Originally published in 1913.  

Marx, Karl. 1977. Capital, Volume One. Translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Random House. Originally published in 1867.

West, Paige. 2016. Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea. New York: Columbia University Press.