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alm oil is everywhere. It is ubiquitous, in so many of the food and cosmetic products consumed around the world every day. You probably know that it is one of the “bad” oils. Thinking of the trail of impacts that palm oil plantations leave in their wake may call to mind deforestation, perhaps articulated as images of confused orangutans being rescued by international conservation actors. My understanding of palm oil’s impacts has generally been hazy, unfocused, and geographically indistinct. Sophie Chao’s powerful monograph In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua offers an important intervention into the vague sense of dread, discomfort, and culpability that thinking about palm oil may evoke. Here, palm oil is situated, and its impacts on a specific group of people in a specific place are drawn out with unflinching clarity and precision.
Chao examines how the introduction of the cash-crop of oil palm has violently transformed the environment, livelihoods and lifeworlds of the Indigenous Marind people who live along the Bian River in West Papua, an area which Chao describes as an ‘out-of-the-way place’ (5). Oil palm is conceived of by Chao to be representative of a kind of ‘lethal capital’ that, for Marind, stops the very passage of time itself and distorts and disrupts their relationships to the forest, the beings that dwell there, and the culturally and practically significant sago palm. Palm oil is both an effect of and an agent in the colonisation of West Papua by Indonesia, and the State is a constant presence in Chao’s text. The State is simultaneously spectral - appearing as the drift of airborne herbicides, as the sound of unseen aircraft, as the sense of tense anticipation that leads Chao’s interlocutors to change vehicles and switch number plates as they move through the landscape - and strikingly corporeal, manifested in the hostile attitude of machine-gun toting plantation guards.
In many ways, the book is the story of two palms, sago and oil palm, and the relationship between them. Marind people are entwined with both of these trees, one of which is life giving and central to how Marind understand themselves and their relationality to all the non-humans who comprise and dwell in the forests, and the other which is bound up in the destruction of Marind land, resources, and lifeways. Chao understands many of these relationships to be abu-abu, a term meaning ‘grayness’ which denotes the ambiguity that characterises multispecies relations under neoliberal capitalism and planetary collapse.
Throughout the book, but particularly in chapters 3 (‘Skin and Wetness’) and 5 (‘Sago Encounters’), Chao attends to the intimate relationship that Marind people have with sago, describing the significance of sago to Marind ontology and cosmology. Chao recounts long periods of time spent in the sago grove, comprised of activities like harvesting and processing sago, as well as exchanging touch and spending time in quiet contemplation. Marind people place a high value on spending time together in the forest, moving through the landscape and interacting with sago, in order to ‘absorb each other’s wetness along with that of plants, animals, rivers, and soils in the form of sap, meat, pith, mud, grease, water, and more’ (79). It is through time spent in the grove, in relationship to sago, exchanging ‘skin and fluid’ (81) with the plant, that Marind people become persons, or anim.
Skin and wetness are the central concepts which Marind people articulate to explain how they come into being with sago, and with the non-human world more broadly. Similar to the co-constitution with the land that has been written about with regard to Aboriginal Australia (Povinelli, 2016; Rose, 1992), Chao describes a seeping in and out of the land – of skin, of wetness – that functions to create a reciprocal relationship between Marind and the landscape; one that requires labour and ongoing activity and care. Chao writes that, ‘just as Marind people come into existence through their bodily relations, so too the sago palm as a symbiotic multiplicity emerges from its fluid and fleshly alliances with different lifeforms at different scales, in a process of perceptual transspecies becoming’ (130). Marind become with sago corporeally and ontologically. Importantly, Marind peoples’ identification with sago is not just about subsistence, nor is it just about their ontological orientation. It is also a political positioning, functioning to connect Marind people through ‘gastro-cultural connections’ (141) with other Papuans – other ‘sago people’ – and to differentiate them from non-Papuans whose main starch is rice, not sago.
Oil palm represents a rupture to this ongoing reciprocity and relationality; it saps the forest of its wetness, is held responsible for long periods of drought, and the chemicals that allow for its proliferation seep into the land and waterscapes of the region. Chao describes how these chemicals rise ‘like a noxious sweat from tropical soils’ and ‘infiltrate the pores of the poor’ (84). Oil palm’s impacts are many and varied, ranging from herbicide and pesticide use, widespread land clearing, and an increased military presence in the forest, to the destruction of sago and violent erasure of a multitude of other species. Oil palm plantations, as a tool of colonialism as well as agribusiness expansion, remake the land violently, and transform the ways in which Marind people can move across and through their home. Chao attends to very tangible and material impacts of this expansion in chapter 1 (‘Pressure Points’), discussing the exclusion of Marind people from previously accessible areas, and the creation of new roads throughout the landscape that, rather than leading to increased mobility, constrain the flow of movement for Marind people, restricting them to certain places, to prescribed ways of moving through the land and creating a ‘topography of fear and control’ (37).
The plantations have also dramatically reduced Marind people’s resource base, forcing them to rely on government and agribusiness handouts to survive. Chao attends to this in chapter 4 (‘The Plastic Cassowary’), and notes that much of the food that is provided to Marind people – lacking in the nutrition, vitality, and relationality of forest resources - contains palm oil. Oil palm has transformed the forest, creating eery silences that Chao describes in chapter 2 (‘Living Maps’). Recording these silences as part of participatory counter-mapping project, Chao writes, ‘represents acoustically the obliteration of life caused by expansion of oil palm’ (64). Oil palm also infiltrates the dreams of Marind people and, eventually, the dreams of Chao herself. These dreams punctuate the text and through them – viscerally, violently – Marind people recount their experiences of being consumed by oil palm. Chao attends analytically to these dreams in the final chapter (‘Eaten by Oil Palm’), describing how the dreams function in a sense as ‘idioms of distress’ (198) that work to allow space for Marind to reflect upon the changes they are experiencing to their home and lifeways.
Yet, despite the role of oil palm in the decimation of their forests, sago groves, and lifeways, Marind people make conceptual space for the tree to be complex; to be abu-abu. Marind people are able to simultaneously conceive of oil palm as an invasive species responsible for destruction, and as a plant species that also suffers for the benefit of the plantation. As Chao writes in Chapter 6 (‘Oil Palm Counterpoint’), ‘oil palm is a destructive assailant – but not only’ (152). Marind understand oil palm to be a victim of total human domination, doomed and destined to live a lonely existence outside of relation to others. They express curiosity for the plant, wondering where it came from and by what routes it came to be in their home. They also note the ways in which it is an echo of sago – the two palms are understood to be cousins, of a sort, both containing a wetness: one life-giving for Marind, the other valuable under global neoliberal capitalism. Alongside the violence that oil palm does to Marind people is this sense that the oil palms suffer. Oil palm is abu-abu, in between, and more than one thing at the same time. As Chao writes, ‘at once lively and lethal, assailant and victim, plant and person, foreigner and kin, oil palm, too, inhabits plural realities across space and time’ (163).
For Marind people, the proliferation of oil palm plantations is understood as the latest in a long line of attempts to erode their lifeways and autonomy over their ancestral lands. Different waves of colonisation and forms of resource extraction have penetrated Marind people’s lives, leaving lasting impacts. As a Marind elder said to Chao in chapter 7 (‘Time Has Come to a Stop’), ‘first, they came for our birds. Then, they came for our customs. Then, they came for our land. Now, they come for our life, and time has come to a stop’ (170). Chao describes how the spread of plantations has contributed to a sense among the Marind that time has ended, because it has become impossible to imagine a viable future living with oil palm. Chao writes about the end of time as a resistance to the idea that hope for the future can be generative, and an acceptance, in fact, that hope ‘can be toxic’ (181). Marind people’s resistance to imaging a hopeful future is understood by Chao to demonstrate how ‘disempowered communities creatively harness hopelessness to reclaim the very terms of their existence’ (182). In some ways, this discussion of hope and hopelessness brings to mind Munanjahli and South Sea Islander scholar Chelsea Watego’s (2021) refrain ‘fuck hope, be sovereign’. What Watego and Chao are both getting to – albeit in different ways – is that a refusal of hope is a refusal to accept the myriad ways that colonisation shapes, disrupts, and scars Indigenous ways of living and being.
Chao’s work is a welcome addition to the growing literature on human-vegetal relations and multispecies ethnography more generally. While plants have received anthropological attention – though, as Galvin (2018) notes, not nearly as much as animals - much of this work has focused on how people relate to plants that are long-known, familiar, useful, and native. One of the planty protagonists in Chao’s book – the sago palm – is just this; the sago palm is central both to Marind cosmology and subsistence practices. Yet, it is in her attention to the violent impacts of oil palm on the lifeworlds of Marind people that Chao questions whether it is possible to consider some plants to be immoral subjects. As Chao writes, ‘when a particular group of humans and their other-than-human kin are subjected to the damaging effects of a proliferating plants, we find ourselves forced to redefine violence itself as a multispecies act’ (11).
In this, Chao moves away from the tendency in multispecies ethnography to focus on loving and affective relations, and which (with some notable exceptions) attend to relationships between non-humans and a generally undifferentiated ‘human’. At times, the multispecies turn has flattened difference between humans, obscuring the histories of coloniality and racialized categorisation that have positioned particular humans as ‘more’ or ‘less’ human (Ives, 2019). Such flattening has resulted in calls to incorporate Indigenous theories and analysis into multispecies ethnography (TallBear, 2011). In her work, Chao contributes to an emergent body of scholarship that takes seriously what happens in human-non-human relations that are violent, compromised and which – as she notes – do not, in fact, represent a promise of mutual flourishing. In bringing together multispecies ethnography, political ecology and questions of environmental justice, Chao explores the complexity of things which comprise the relationship between Marind people and this ‘invasive ‘settler palm’’ (11), attending to the complex of assemblages that support the plantation, including agricultural science, carcinogenic herbicides, broad scale land clearing and scouring, government employees, surveillance, and the military, among others.
Throughout the book, Chao’s deep personal commitment to her Marind friends, and to telling their story with sensitivity and care, is evident. She is upfront about some of the difficult ethical decisions that she was forced by the circumstances of her fieldwork to make. For instance, she notes that many of her interlocutors wanted to have their names attached to their stories. This desire to be named has been borne out in other scholarship, too. As Anna-Lydia Svalastog and Stefan Eriksson (2010) note, it has long been the default for researchers working with indigenous communities to use pseudonyms in order to protect people that are deemed to be more vulnerable than the general population. They argue that, sometimes, this tendency to anonymise can actually cause harm to research participants, who may see the omission of their names as a dispossessing process. As one of Chao’s interlocutors is quoted as saying in the text, ‘they [the government] have taken our food and future. We have lost everything. Yet still, you would take away our names?’ (27). Chao doesn’t dwell on her decision to use pseudonyms, aside from noting that it is against the wishes of some of her Marind friends. Yet it gets to an issue at the heart of engaged or activist research, which is about care beyond the field; about care enacted through the relaying of people’s stories. The more ethical decision is not straightforward or clear, particularly in this kind of situation in which naming people publicly could result in repercussions for them that cannot be foreseen or controlled, repercussions that could potentially be violent, or lethal. Chao’s sense of responsibility and care pervades the book, as does her grief for the circumstances of her friends’ lives. As she writes, ‘this story, then, is written from a place of grief and loss. But it is also a story written out of defiance and responsibility – the responsibility not just to tell the story, but to tell the story well’ (24).
In taking up Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (1999) provocation to ‘tell the story well’, Chao’s work demonstrates what it is to do engaged research. She doesn’t shy away from her own part in the story, from the risk that her presence may have created. She writes herself into the story as someone interested, implicated, and deeply committed. She describes her tactics to remain under the radar. In undertaking these deceptions, she perhaps enters something of a state of abu-abu herself. The effect is powerful; a precise story of grief, loss, and endurance in a world fractured by colonialism and untrammelled agribusiness expansion, beautifully realised in Chao’s poetic voice.
Chao S (2022) In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua. Duke University Press.
Galvin S (2018). Interspecies Relations and Agrarian Worlds. Annual Review of Anthropology 47: 233-249.
Ives S (2019). "More-than-Human" and "Less-than-Human": Race, botany, and the challenge of multispecies ethnography. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 5(2): 1-5.
Povinelli E (2016) Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Duke University Press.
Rose D (1992) Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture. Cambridge University Press.
Smith LT (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. University of Otago Press.
Svalastog A-L and Eriksson S (2010) You can use my name; You don't have to steal my story - A critique of anonymity in Indigenous studies. Developing World Bioethics 10(2): 104-110.
TallBear K (2011) Why Interspecies Thinking Needs Indigenous Standpoints. Fieldsights. Available here.
Watego C (2021) Another Day in the Colony. University of Queensland Press.
Mardi Reardon-Smith is an environmental anthropologist and early-career researcher interested in human-environment relations, political ecology, intercultural relationships in settler-colonial contexts, and visual anthropology. Her doctoral research project, which she is currently reworking into a book manuscript, explored the co-production of environmental knowledges, practices and care in Cape York Peninsula, far northeast Australia, a region of high and highly contested cultural, environmental, and economic values. Mardi is employed as a research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University.