Culture, Food and Environment: Indigenous Experiences of Hunger in West Papua

Sophie Chao reflects on the interconnections between processed food, hunger and Indigenous sovereignty in West Papua, where vast swathes of rainforest, and the local food sources within, are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations under the guise of national food security.

Rainforest jungle deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations. Image via Shutterstock: 1098811376

Over the last decade, indigenous Marind communities in the rural district of Merauke, West Papua, have seen vast swaths of their forests and savannas razed to make way for monocrop oil palm plantations. These developments are promoted by the Indonesian government as part of efforts to achieve national self-sufficiency in basic commodities, including palm oil, sugar, and rice. On the ground, however, agribusiness expansion is undermining the local food and water security of Marind communities, who have traditionally relied on the forest for their subsistence. Once-plentiful game, such as cassowaries, kangaroos, and wild pigs, have become difficult to encounter. Aquatic lifeforms, such as fish, crocodiles, and crustaceans, have become contaminated with chemicals and sludge from toxic pesticides and palm oil mill effluents. Edible fruit, nut, and seed-bearing trees are increasingly rare.

During my fieldwork in rural Merauke, I found that many Marind associated the destruction of the forest and the arrival of monocrops with a pervasive and constant sensation of hunger. On the one hand, this hunger is visceral. Deforestation, water contamination, and biodiversity loss have resulted in widespread protein and micro-nutrient deficiencies, infant malnutrition, and food poisoning. On the other hand, for Marind, hunger is also more than just the desire to eat triggered by the lack of food. Rather, the experience of hunger provoked by the disappearance of nourishing ‘forest foods’ has significance that extends far beyond the quantitative measurements of calorific intake and nutritional value.

As I learned from my interlocutors, forest foods are “more than just food” for Marind. These foods, obtained through hunting, fishing, and gathering in the forest, derive from plants and animals with whom Marind entertain relations of kinship through shared descent from ancestral spirits, or dema. The relations of Marind to these ‘grandparent’ or ‘sibling’ species are anchored in principles of reciprocal exchange and care.Plants and animals grow to support their human kin by providing them with food and other resources. In return, humans offer respect and perform rituals as they encounter, hunt, gather, and consume kindred plants and animals in the forest. Marinds’ own bodies, too, are a part of the multispecies food chain of the forest – when people die, their flesh decays to feed organisms in the sacred groves where bodies are buried. Exchanges of flesh and fluids across species lines thus serve to commemorate and sustain the relations of humans to non-human lifeforms within the cosmology of the forest and endow forest foods with their nourishing qualities.

Deforestation disrupts the morally and affectively imbued relations of reciprocity between human and other-than-human lifeforms. The disappearance of forest foods in particular is often associated by Marind with adverse transformations in their bodily constitution. Village women, for instance, spoke of their breasts becoming dry and their skin sallow from the absence of sago. Many community members noted a loss of ‘wetness’ – a Marind concept that refers to bodily substances such as blood, sweat, muscle, and fat – in children whose bodies had become skinny and grey rather than glossy and taut.

A Marind woman processing sago in the grove. Image by Sophie Chao.


People also described how the experience of hunger and of witnessing the hunger of others gave rise to feelings of sadness, pity, and in particular, a pervasive sense of loneliness arising from a severed connection to the forest and its diverse lifeforms. For instance, women mourned the decimation of sago groves where they had once celebrated their role as mothers in the company of a plant whose fertile flesh and fluids, much like their own, had provided Marind children with nourishing sustenance. Marinds’ plant and animal kin, too, were said to ‘go hungry’ because of oil palm’s arrival. Robbed of their water, nutrients, and symbiotes, species that once thrived in the company of humans wilt and starve. Marind thus conceive of and experience hunger as a multispecies phenomenon, one distributed across humans, plants and animals who once sustained each other through nourishing exchanges of flesh and fluids.

The disappearance of forest foods and the arrival of processed foods also marks the introduction of the unknown into Marind culture. As Evelina put it, these foods do not taste of the land and forest because they come from faraway places and are produced by people – and made from plants and animals – that are foreign to Marind. Not only do these foods fail to satiate those who consume them – they also exacerbate their hunger. Children, for instance, clamour for more food within hours of eating instant noodles. Women described snacking on processed biscuits throughout the day, but always craving more. Young men also talked of having become ‘addicted’ to rice, which they would eat in copious amounts without feeling full. As Pius, a young man from Khalaoyam, described, “When you eat from the forest, you can go without food for an entire day. But when you eat foods, you become even more hungry. The more you eat, the more you want to eat. This hunger never goes away”.

In his study of hunger in imperial and modern Britain, historian James Vernon argues that cultural histories of hunger matter “not just because hunger hurts, but because how it has hurt has always been culturally and historically specific”.The culturally-shaped ways in which Marind sense and make sense of the pain of hunger opens a rich space for inter-disciplinary research on changing foodways and nutrition in an era of troubled local and global food systems. How, for instance, might indigenous interpretations of hunger as a multispecies phenomenon inform the primarily humancentric focus of the nutritional sciences? And how can indigenous notions of health and wellbeing – physical, psychological, and social –inform (or indeed, remedy) the primarily top-down processes through which food policy-making and governance operate?

Addressing these questions will require inter-disciplinary approaches to food and nutrition that are culturally sensitive, locally specific,and scientifically informed – or what one might call a sub-field of ‘ethno-nutrition’. Such approaches would attend to the sensory, emotional, and moral dimensions of hunger as lived experience. They would situate hunger within its geographically and historically divergent political, economic, and social contexts. They would examine how different foods – and the people, places, and practices these foods encompass – give rise to different kinds of hungers. Importantly, such approaches would take as their starting point the perspectives and experiences of those directly subjected to the deleterious effects of hunger – chronic, structural, and hidden – in designing and planning healthier food systems across local and global scales. Knowing each other’s hungers, to return to Pius’ words, may pave the way for the development of nutritional and dietary frameworks that account for the cultural values and norms of different human societies, along with the diverse ecologies that feed and sustain them.

1. James Vernon, 2007. Hunger: A Modern History. Cambridge, M.A.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Pp. 8

Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Oriental Studies (First Class) and a Master of Science in Social Anthropology from The University of Oxford and a PhD (Cum Laude) from Macquarie University. Sophie’s research explores the intersections of capitalism, ecology, and indigeneity in Indonesia, with a specific focus on changing interspecies relations in the context of deforestation and agribusiness development. Her current research deploys inter-disciplinary methods to explore the nutritional and cultural impacts of agribusiness on indigenous food-based socialities, identities, and ecologies.