Q&A

The Entanglements of Oil Palm Plantations

SEI member Sophie Chao’s new book, In the Shadow of the Palms, examines the impacts of oil palm plantations on Marind communities in West Papua. Here, in conversation with Christine J Winter, we learn about her work in engaging with the Marind People, and the social, political and environmental demands of the oil palm.

Top down aerial view of deforestation removing rainforest for palm oil plantations via Shutterstock, ID: 1233664828.

Christine J Winter: Thank you Sophie for another opportunity to engage with In The Shadow of the Palms, the Marind people and you. I find new things to reflect on with each reading of the book, it’s a constantly enriching dance. My first question is (at first blush) rather pedestrian. What led you to the Indonesian-colonised region of West Papua and the Marind people? And it is not pedestrian I think, for the story of your engagement weaves through The Shadow of the Palms both overtly and covertly. You are observer, scholar and scribe, insider and outsider, ally, and foreign threat. So why engage with this community for this project at this time? From whence did you draw your motivation?

Sophie Chao: Christine, it’s an honour – or perhaps to borrow your words, a gift – to be in conversation with you. I first encountered the Marind People when working from the Indonesian branch of the international Indigenous rights organisation, Forest Peoples Programme. At the time, I was working closely with Marind communities to support them to secure their rights to land in the face of predatory corporate actors, including oil palm and timber companies. Over time, however, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the simplification of complex and messy realities so often required in achieving effective advocacy. I wanted to stay with that complexity and messiness and better understand Marind ways of being and becoming, through their own perspectives and knowledges. This prior relationship and engagement through advocacy remained absolutely central to the subsequent fieldwork that made this book possible, and meaningful.

“I became increasingly uncomfortable with the simplification of complex and messy realities so often required in achieving effective advocacy. I wanted to stay with that complexity and messiness and better understand Marind ways of being and becoming, through their own perspectives and knowledges.”

CJW: I ‘know’ the Marind only through you. And this brings to the surface things I’d like you to reflect on. The first relates to the role Anthropologists have in essentialising and Orientalising (to use Edward Said’s term) people and Peoples whom western scholars encounter outside of Europe/the western world. The second thing that arises relates to you Sophie, who I know as a person of principle, humility, strong values, and deep empathy – and of course as a dear friend. My question is then, how did you navigate that path between extractivism and integrity? I’m getting here at your method: of research and of writing, of engagement and ‘reporting’. How does In The Shadow of the Palms avoid being just another career-making individualist project?

SC: Navigating the path between extractivism and integrity, in all its ethical, political, epistemic, and methodological dimensions, is something that I continue to struggle with, and that I cannot assume to have done well – or well enough. As you say, Anthropology is haunted not only by a logic of extractive knowledge capitalism, to borrow Māori scholar Makere Stewart-Harawira’s term, but also by a deeply unsettling trope of the “heroic fieldworker” – a figure that, as Rachel Douglas-Jones, Nayanika Mathur, Catherine Trundle, and Tarapuhi Vaeau have incisively pointed out, continues to exist and be imagined as White, male, and privileged.

My attempts to push against this extractive and racialised paradigm were multi-pronged. They included involving my Marind friends in the design of the research project, methods, and questions from the very outset – from co-drafting human ethics applications, to discussing writings in detail prior to publication, and deciding jointly which stories would be made public, where, for what reason, and sometimes, why not. I also sought to remain faithful in my writing to the deeply poetic and philosophical ways in which Marind story and critique their rapidly changing environments and lives – not to overload the writing with western theoretical jargon, but rather to stick to Marind’s own concepts and terms for the worlds they inhabit and the relations these worlds make and unmake. I further paired my research with engaged activities in support of Marind’s grassroots land rights campaigns – for instance, my facilitating participatory mapping workshops, translating petitions and complaints, and contributing to international news and media platforms. These were efforts to level a deeply uneven field of power between myself and my ‘interlocutors’ – even as this field remains rife with structural inequities, and even as the book, ultimately, is individual in that its many human and other-than-human contributors cannot be named as authors, both because of existing strictures within publishing conventions and because of the very real risks to the safety and security of my friends in the field that might accompany their identification.

“My attempts to push against this extractive and racialised paradigm were multi-pronged. They included involving my Marind friends in the design of the research project, methods, and questions from the very outset – from co-drafting human ethics applications, to discussing writings in detail prior to publication, and deciding jointly which stories would be made public, where, for what reason, and sometimes, why not.”

CJW: In In The Shadow of the Palms, you engage with the deep, ongoing philosophical thought of the Marind community. Can you reflect on the ontological and epistemological foundation of Marind engagement with the natural and spiritual realms, and their astute reckoning with the impact of oil palm plantations on their culture, philosophy, spirituality and physical survival? How do they philosophise the ramifications for their culture, knowledge, philosophy itself, and kinship relationships of the rampant growth of oil palm plantations and the Indonesian government’s complicity?

SC: The onto-epistemological foundations of Marind engagements with the world are, as I understand, first and foremost anchored in a recognition that beings, human and other, exist, act, and relate in multiply situated and divergent ways. None can be reduced to any singular ontology, for each comes into being through relations that are grounded in particular places, times, and communities of life. This way of thinking about life and beings through their dispersed ontologies profoundly shaped my friends’ characterisations of oil palm – an introduced cash crop that is understood both as a resented coloniser and invader, and pitied as a vulnerable and exploited victim of human, institutional, technological, and biological control.

There is something immensely powerful in the way Marind refuse to reduce oil palm to any one identity – even as this plant also comes to embody and perpetuate the occupying violence of the Indonesian government. I see it as a form of resistance also to the simplifying regime of the plantation itself – a material formation and enduring logic that is rooted in the pursuit of homogeneity, singularity, and mastery over a supposedly inert and therefore exploitable ‘nature’.

“The onto-epistemological foundations of Marind engagements with the world are, as I understand, first and foremost anchored in a recognition that beings, human and other, exist, act, and relate in multiply situated and divergent ways.”

CJW: And finally, a crescendo of urgency underscores In the Shadow of the Palms: it is I think a call to action, it invites the reader to actively engage with unutterable violence and repeated human rights violations that are happening this very day to one small and perhaps otherwise unknown and unseen Peoples in an isolated corner of the world. Can you describe the urgent need, what you want from your readers? And perhaps more pertinently, given the editorial voice and involvement they have had in the book, what do Marind want from In the Shadow of the Palms?

SC: Indeed, there is an urgency to this book in light of the rampant environmental destruction and loss of biocultural diversity provoked by monocrop oil palm expansion in contemporary West Papua – although my Marind companions I think would concur with Kyle Powys Whyte that this urgency is less a new phenomenon than a “colonial deja-vu” in light of the long-standing processes of settler-colonial incursion and occupation that have plagued the region since its forceful incorporation into the Republic of Indonesia.

“There is something immensely powerful in the way Marind refuse to reduce oil palm to any one identity – even as this plant also comes to embody and perpetuate the occupying violence of the Indonesian government. I see it as a form of resistance also to the simplifying regime of the plantation itself – a material formation and enduring logic that is rooted in the pursuit of homogeneity, singularity, and mastery over a supposedly inert and therefore exploitable ‘nature’.”

Many of my Marind friends told me they hoped this book would help global audiences – academic and other – understand not only the violent realities of life on the plantation frontier, but also the meaningful acts of survivance, continuance, and resurgence that Indigenous Papuans pursue as part of their ongoing struggle for social, environmental, and multispecies justice. At the same time, a single book can only do so much. But together, we hope it can shed light on how Anthropocenic transformations undermine possibilities for more-than-human coexistence. Conceptualising these transformations, as I hope the book illustrates, cannot and should not be done without a grounded, sustained, and humble engagement with Indigenous standpoints, and in respectful conversation with Indigenous Peoples as theorists of their own changing worlds.

Join Dr Sophie Chao for the launch of her book, In The Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua, at Gleebooks, Sydney on Friday 5 August. Find out more information via Gleebooks. Purchase a copy of In The Shadow of the Palms, published by Duke University Press, here.


Dr Sophie Chao is a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow and Lecturer in the Discipline of Anthropology within the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney. Her research explores the intersections of capitalism, ecology, and Indigeneity in the Pacific. Sophie previously worked for international indigenous rights organization Forest Peoples Programme in the United Kingdom and Indonesia, and for United Nations bodies including the Food and Agriculture Organization. Learn more about Sophie Chao.

Dr Christine Winter is a Senior Lecturer in the Politics Program at the University of Otago Te Whare Whānanga o Ōtākou and a research affiliate of the Sydney Environment Institute. Her research focuses on the ways in which justice theory perpetuates practices of domination, oppression and violence in the settler states broadly and specifically for Māori of Aotearoa New Zealand. Her key areas of interest are multispecies, environmental, intergenerational and climate justice.