Apr 14, 2024 Last Updated 4:19 AM, Apr 12, 2024

Review essay: In the shadow of the palms

Published: May 31, 2023

Isabell Herrmans

In the Shadow of the Palms by Sophie Chao is first and foremost a book about oil palm and how it has affected the Marind of West Papua, an indigenous people who live in its shadows. In essence, and at its heart, it is a critical study of aggressive agribusiness at a tropical resource frontier and its accompanying dark sides of deforestation, dispossession, and desolation. However, it is about much more than that.

In equal measure a work about the changing political ecology and multispecies relations of the Marind, as well as the phenomenological dimensions of their recent thoroughgoing lifeworld changes, it is a rich and theoretically dense ethnography of multifaceted interest. Its greatest virtue perhaps lies in how it cross-illuminates and demonstrates the mutual constitution of these spheres, and in how it sheds light on them through the stories, personal reflections, affective experiences, and dreams of Marind subjects. Through this agenda, the book provides a refreshingly distinct contribution to the evolving field of anthropological oil palm studies, and to political and more-than-human anthropology in general.

Spotlighting the radical nature of change caused by oil palm cultivation, Chao describes how ‘time came to a halt’ for the Marind, when in around 2011 extensive industrial monocrop oil palm plantations of several hundred thousand hectares were established on their customary forest lands without their informed consent. Oil palm not only transformed their physical and relational landscape, and brought deforestation, water pollution and biodiversity loss, but came to form a two-way temporal marker, which erased the past inscribed in that landscape; it deprived them of hope and their imagined future.

Chao’s account of how oil palm refigured the Marind’s sense of time, and life as they knew it, resonates closely with how the Luangan people in Kalimantan with whom I have done fieldwork, conceptualise the onset of oil palm cultivation. There is a clear demarcation between life before and after oil palm. While this demonstrates the immensely disruptive collateral effects that oil palm has on indigenous lifeworlds, it is, as Chao rightly observes, important that we attend to the singularity of such experiences. To me, it is precisely in her commitment to exploring indigenous epistemologies and lifeworld experiences on the ground, beyond objective socio-environmental facts, that Chao’s book makes its strongest impression.

‘A multispecies act’

A striking feature of the Marind, vouching for Chaos’s multispecies approach, is that they have been more intrigued by oil palm as a puzzling and destructive plant-being, than in blaming the politics or market forces that drew it into their region in the first place. For them, oil palm is crucially a source of curiosity, fear and wonder, which speaks powerfully to their imagination and subconscious. A central and vivid expression of this is the remarkably prevalent dreams of being eaten by oil palm, experienced and collectively shared by numerous Marind. Documenting how the Marind consider the oil palm as a wilful alien agent with mysterious but predominantly malevolent intentions paves the way for Chao’s central argument that the violence inflicted upon them through oil palm plantations and politics in the form of deprivation, estrangement and anguish, must be considered ‘a multispecies act’. The plant itself holds agency and its distinct intrinsic qualities are essential to how this violence plays out.

On the one hand, this enables Chao to justifiably criticise a bias in multispecies anthropology toward viewing plants and human-plant entanglements as intrinsically benevolent. On the other, her inclination to challenge universalist assumptions of human exceptionalism and her methodically adopted ‘ontological stance’ to take plants seriously as more-than-human agents, may come across as somewhat biased toward certain Marind understandings at the expense of others. Even as the oil palm is in some ways eminently suited to the plantation economy’s production and racialising regime, it does not really choose a solitary relation-negating life in monocrop plantations. Rather than its own qualities or agency, the reasons why the oil palm is not ‘good to live with,’ mainly reflect the fact also deplored by Chao’s interlocutors, that ‘every stage of the plant’s growth is determined, or controlled, by human agents’. Elsewhere, Chao devotes plenty of attention to the capitalist and racialising structures mediating oil palm violence and criticises the multispecies turn for failing to do this.

While the book focuses on the new and adverse multispecies and political-ecological relations that oil palm has brought in its wake, it also provides a contrast – and intended positive light – by giving an account of the Marind’s continuing traditional subsistence and life-generating relations with beings of the local forest and swamps. This includes the oil palm’s ‘vegetal antagonist,’ the sago palm, the Marind’s main food staple. Whereas the oil palm is seen as mainly destructive and debilitating, the influence of sago is perceived as providing life and sustenance. Beyond offering alimentary nourishment, the extraction of sago starch through strenuous but valued collective work in sago groves is essential to Marind conceptions of wellbeing by entailing the ‘sharing of skin’ and the acquisition of ‘wetness’. These are vitalising processes whereby they grow as human persons through sensory interaction with more-than-human entities in the environment. While it may be questionable, as Chao suggests, that the Marind should therefore be perceived as practicing a ‘posthuman ethic’, and that this claim furthers her aspiration of giving voice to ‘Indigenous epistemologies’, her rich, ethnographically detailed account of these processes, and her accentuation of their affective constitution through concrete lived practices, represents a particularly fruitful use of her multispecies perspective.

Shadows

A central argument of the book is that due to oil palm, the Marind’s world has turned shadowy not only in the sense of being darkened, but also hazy or ambiguous. She describes this condition through the concept of abu-abu, a Papuan-Malay and Indonesian term which most literally designates greyness – such as of the haze of burning forest cleared for plantations – but also uncertainty and opacity. This concept is used to analyse the realm of ambiguity or the state of ‘onto-epistemic murk’ of the Marind’s present life conditions, and she proposes that it represents ‘an affect and an atmosphere’, and even a ‘force’. In much of her multilayered use of the term, it designates the same semantic space and is deployed for the same polemical ends as Anna Tsing’s resource-frontier analytical tools ‘friction’ and ‘margins’. It is taken to highlight the indeterminate, multidetermined and unexpected qualities of an in-between, interstitial sphere, and prominently, to show its potential for subtle resistance through imaginative everyday acts.

In the Shadow of the Palms is based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork, and Chao often allows ethnography to take centre stage in the book. Each of its eight chapters start with sensuous and sensitive ethnographic storytelling opening up to different aspects of the abu-abu condition. The main chapters are interspersed with translated songs and poetic dream accounts. Part of the theoretical discussion is suitably relegated into an extensive system of endnotes. Even so, Chao continuously draws upon and situates her observations and interpretations within an impressively erudite, if somewhat analytically overpowering, framework of current posthumanist, postcolonial, and critical indigenous studies theory. This has the effect of sometimes indulging the reader in the company of other anthropologists and philosophers more than her Marind companions. Chao may succeed in her aspiration to ‘avoid imposing a carapace of theory over the moving flesh of ethnography’, in the sense that no single theoretical perspective significantly restrains the multidirectional ramification of her arguments. However, the constant positioning of her observations in relation to other theorists is sometimes diverting, and arguably undermines her ambition to ‘collapse hierarchical distinctions between Western theory and non-Western cosmology’.

Dissonance

Another concept which runs through the book to a somewhat similar effect as abu-abu is the counterpoint, an analytical term derived from music, which Chao uses to describe the differential relation of contrasting, typically opposed, elements. These are phenomena and concepts that are salient or observably important, in the Marind’s lifeworld or their ontology, but the synchrony of which, unlike in music, mostly produces not harmony but dissonance. Focusing on the contrapuntal dynamics that affect Marind lives works to demonstrate the co-presence and conjunctive influence of opposing and often irreconcilable forces in them, and typically, their greying or muddling ‘abu-abu effects’. A contrapuntal, dialectical, style of argumentation also pervades Chao’s argumentation throughout the book, at times even down to the level of singular sentences. In addition, the concept is also adopted as a compositional device to structure the book itself, which she presents as being organised around four ‘contrapuntal couplets’.

Sago palm / Kari Nousiainen @Flickr CC

The first of these couplets, ‘place and maps’, concerns two distinct contrapuntal dynamics, which are the subject of the book’s first two chapters. Chapter 1 describes the making of the Marind landscape through the movements of the Marind within it and the obstruction of movement by the state and corporations. While the forest, an instance of ‘place’, becomes relationally constituted and animated through the movement of its inhabitants (human and non-human), topographic pressure points in the form of roads, military garrisons and plantations essentially restrict or redirect movement. Chapter 2 contrasts ‘dead’ government maps with the practice of community-shaped participatory mapping, a sort of ‘counter-mapping’ introduced by non-government organisations (NGOs) to support indigenous peoples’ land right claims. The chapter recounts a concrete mapping expedition to exemplify the counter-mapping practice, which is advanced an example of abu-abu resistance. Contesting the straight lines and fixity of government maps, and the erasure of the Marind – their history and rights – through them, the maps produced by the Marind themselves ‘refuse to sit still’ and are ‘alive’ with the movement and sounds of the forest’s inhabitants.

The second couplet, humans-turned cassowary and cassowary-turned-human, refers to ways of becoming and staying human or animal, principally through the sharing of skin and wetness with other forest species, processes which Chao considers in chapter 3 and 4. Echoing descriptions from Amazonian ethnography, skin-sharing may turn into skin-changing, by which humans adopt the embodied perspective of another species, sometimes to irreversible effect, exemplified by a man who adopted the body and perspective of a cassowary and was unable to return to his human bodily being. Similarly, seeking shelter and nutrition in Marind villages when oil palm plantations have shattered their natural habitat, animals sometimes become too human, losing their wildness. This was the case with the orphan cassowary, nicknamed the plastic cassowary, which, having been brought up in the village and accustomed to human company and store-bought food, refused to return to the wild, provoking feelings of sadness and anxiety among Marind, reminding them of their own subjugation to Indonesian rule and their lost freedom and autonomy.

The third couplet considers the symbolic opposition between sago palm and oil palm, principally in chapter 5 and 6. Chapter 5, portrays the Marind’s intimate relations with sago. Chao describes a trip to a sago grove where Marind go ‘to know sago’, the practice of extracting and processing starch, which is much more than a technical activity. She details how the activities of extracting, processing, caring for, consuming, singing and telling stories of sago are deeply affective practices that affirm Marind social relations to each other, their animal kin, ancestral creator spirits and the living environment that supports them. Eating sago also constitutes a political action, Chao asserts, establishing the Marind’s collective identity as ‘sago people’, as distinct from rice-eating settlers. Whereas sago is relation-affirming, oil palm, as discussed in chapter 6, is experienced as alien, solitary and selfish, refusing reciprocal relations with Marind, producing food primarily for other people. While considered violent, oil palm is also subject to a great deal of curiosity among Marind and pitied for its solitary existence in monocrop plantations, far away from its native soil and kin.

‘Hopelessness and hope in dreams’, the subject of the last couplet, deals with temporal counterpoints. Chao returns to consideration of how oil palm stopped time, annihilating the future, but contrasts this with how shared dream accounts may provide for some small glimpses of hope. As Marind express it, ‘hope cannot exist if time has stopped’. Such denial of hope is the topic of chapter 7, which argues that giving up on the future forms a sort of resistance by which Marind refuse to give in to modernity’s future-building projects.

The book’s ethnographically compelling final chapter, ‘Eaten by oil palm’, examines the Marind dreams of being eaten by oil palm. In these haunting and seemingly contagious dreams individual Marind experience their own death, often repeatedly, arousing feelings of panic, fear and nausea. At the same time, the sharing of these dreams through dream accounts is supportive, according to Chao, creating solidarity among oil palm violence victims. While never downplaying the magnitude of the depredation and devastation caused by the oil palm, In the Shadow of the Palms thus never loses sight of the possibilities for agency and regeneration remaining in the ruination.

Sophie Chao, In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua, Duke University Press, 2022.

Isabell Herrmans is visiting research fellow at Center for Advanced Studies – Erlangen, Friedrich Alexander University. She is the author of Ritual retellings: Luangan healing performances through practice, New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2015.

Inside Indonesia 151: Jan-Mar 2023

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