They Grow and Die Lonely and Sad
From the Series: Multispecies Care in the Sixth Extinction
In Indonesian West Papua, vast swathes of rainforest are being razed to develop monocrop oil palm plantations. Alongside rampant ecological destruction, a new breed of conservation—corporate conservation—is making its way into the Papuan “Plantationocene” (Haraway 2015, 162). Implemented by companies as part of their commitment to international sustainable palm oil certification schemes, these projects involve the demarcation and protection of zones containing high concentrations of endemic or endangered species.
Yet corporate conservation projects provoke anger, sadness, and frustration among Indigenous Marind communities upon whose lands these zones are established. Much like the plantations whose adverse environmental effects they seek to offset, corporate conservation projects are routinely implemented without landowners’ consent. These zones are out-of-bounds to Marind villagers, undermining their access to traditional forms of subsistence. Most importantly, corporate conservation projects rupture the long-standing kinship of Marind to forest organisms with whom they share common descent from ancestral spirits. Marind struggle to retain bodily and affective relations to the forest through daily acts of hunting, foraging, walking, and remembering the past as it is inscribed in the living landscape. With traditional practices of forest burial no longer possible, many Marind grieve the fact that their bodies can no longer feed the forest that once nourished them and their predecessors. “With conservation,” as a young Marind woman named Serafina explained during my fieldwork, “we cannot live well with our forest kin. Cut off from the forest, we live in loneliness. Cut off from the forest, we die in loneliness too.”1
Many corporate representatives I interviewed in the field frame conservation as a means to obtain certification from international commodity standards, which in turn enables them to benefit from trade tariffs and premiums on the EU and U.S. palm oil markets. Here, conservation is driven by economic, rather than environmental, motives. It perpetuates colonial forms of conservation that were instrumental to furthering the interests of those in power (e.g., trophy hunting, population management, and resource control). Other corporate actors, meanwhile, described conservation as a form of care for the planet as a whole and for global biodiversity. Here, the displacement and dispossession of Indigenous communities is rationalized as a violent but necessary form of sacrificial love. Corporate conservation, then, is deeply paradoxical. It involves preserving a select few areas in the name of a global “good” in order to justify the mass displacement of others by monocrop oil palm.
But Marind are not the only ones affected by the violence of corporate conservation. Many villagers affirm that conservation also harms its presumed beneficiaries—namely, forest plants and animals. Most notable among these is the sago palm, of central importance in Marind cosmology. Sago palms, I was often told, thrive in the company of humans who sustain its vegetative growth. This involves practices of “restrained care” (Chao 2018, 628) such as sucker transplanting, selective felling, and canopy thinning, all aimed at enhancing the palms’ environment in order to further its autonomous growth. The sago cares back for humans by providing them with food in the form of starch, which Marind obtain from the sago palm’s trunk. Other foods can be procured from the diverse ecology that flourishes in and around the sago palm: sago grubs that incubate in sago trunks, wild boars that come to drink in the grove, avian critters that nest in the palm canopy, and leguminous plants that thrive in sago’s shade. At once feeding and being fed, Marind, sago, and other critters of the grove support each other’s well-being through transcorporeal exchanges of “wetness” (dubadub), a Marind term referring to the life-sustaining exchange of fluids across species lines.
Palms segregated into conservation zones are deprived of the human care that enables them to thrive. Such palms reproduce sexually by seed, rather than vegetally by sucker. In hapaxanthic plants such as sago, which only flower once, sexual reproduction terminates the life of the parent palm and makes “orphans” (anak yatim) of its offspring. These seeds are carried to faraway places by pollinators, bear little morphological resemblance to their parents, and no longer remember their native soils and kin. “Conserved” sago palms and progenies, like humans, grow and die “lonely” and “sad.” Meanwhile, the absence of ecological corridors connecting conservation patches limits the capacity of other organisms to travel in search of food, water, and mates. They, too, as Marind put it, become lonely and sad.
What might a more just form of conservation entail in West Papua, a region whose peoples continue to be denied the right to political self-determination and whose landscapes have been subjected to decades of violent ecocide? Marind discourses and practices reveal that species coexistence is not merely a matter of enabling certain species to live on, but rather about ongoing attention to the multiplicity of what it means to live and die well. Species come into being through self-constitutive, nourishing, and reciprocal relations of care with human and nonhuman others. Multispecies care means transcending nature-culture divides that paradoxically position Indigenous peoples as concomitantly too close and yet not close enough to “nature”—a “nature” whose selective and exclusionary preservation conveniently serves as an alibi for corporate profit margins, obscured by the promissory language of shared planetary futures and sustainable consumerism, and detached from the fleshly materiality of situated interspecies encounters.
Just conservation, from the Marind’s perspective, demands a move away from care for nonhuman “life” defined in abstract, categorial, or absolute terms. At the same time, it extends conservation-as-care’s subjects beyond those species living on the brink of extinction. Just conservation demands a framing of care that is at once more conceptually expansive and empirically situated. At the heart of this multispecies care are the relations that shape the affective and moral textures of more-than-human lives lived and deaths shared. In contrast to the corporate framing of conservation as a sacrificial and utilitarian act, Marind care for nonhuman others is also care for the caring self. It defines the quality of collective and interagentive living, as much as the fact of life itself.
1. I undertook eighteen months of fieldwork in the Upper Bian villages of Khalaoyam, Mirav, and Bayau as a doctoral candidate between August and December 2015, March and July 2016, and August and November 2017, and as a human rights advocate between March and June 2013. My fieldwork explored how agribusiness developments reconfigure the multispecies lifeworld of Upper Bian Marind and conceptualizations of place, time, and personhood.
Chao, Sophie. 2018. “In the Shadow of the Palm: Dispersed Ontologies Among Marind, West Papua.” Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 4: 621–49.
Haraway, Donna. 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6, no. 1: 159–65.