Imagining New Futures in West Papua’s Plantation Forestscape

leaves of sago palm, the tips of the leaves are light yellow

Content warning: There is mention of self-harm.

The story of the Marind people as told by environmental anthropologist and humanities scholar Sophie Chao through In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua is at once both hauntingly familiar and tragically unique. Characterized by their animist worldview, the Marind people face a specific threat of cultural erasure by the rapidly expanding Indonesian oil palm industry. The book outlines the destructive capacity of oil palm plantation as it relates to food security, physical, mental, and spiritual health, and women’s reproductive ability while also communicating the comfort, pride, and exuberance that the Marind people have in their environment. 

a book cover with silhouettes of palm leaves, above the image the words say "In the Shadow of the Palms," "More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua," and "Sophie Chao."
Sophie Chao’s In the Shadow of the Palms (Duke University Press, 2022)

By camouflaging herself as an uninterested English teacher and adopting other carefully crafted cover stories as each situation necessitates, Chao penetrates heavily surveilled and militarized oil palm plantation territories. To this day, protestors regularly disappear and Indigenous people are ruled by a settler colonial regime of race and capital. Harsh conditions on oil palm roads serve as metaphors for the environments inside monocrop plantations: devoid of shelter, shade, and sustenance for all lifeforms.

Traveling the oil palm roadways is physically and psychologically taxing for those who use them, whether to reconnect with family, hunt, marry, or perform rituals. Yet, the Marind people are not defined by their suffering. Individuals returning from travels are encouraged to eat traditional sago palm meals, walk in the woods, and share sweat through physical touch to restore their humanity. Abandoning customary lands might seem like an easier alternative to outsiders, but staying in the village protects the Marind people from rampant race-based discrimination in nearby urban centers and helps maintain family ties.

Certain aspects of the account of how oil palm agribusiness has enacted violence on the Indigenous Marind communities of West Papua resemble the plight of marginalized people fighting similar battles in other parts of the world. Accounts of Black communities uniting against pollution in Cancer Alley, Indigenous Amazonians standing against illegal gold mining in Brazil, and Native Americans protesting leaky oil and gas pipelines echo the opposition of vulnerable communities to environmental destruction caused by the limitless pursuit of economic gain.

Trauma, and Beyond

While living in one West Papuan community and observing their way of life, Chao documents the beautiful Marind culture in a visceral literary style while also narrating an inadvertent shift in her own way of thinking. Though she sets out to capture the impact of oil palm proliferation on the Marind people and their ancestral lands using a drone, she later explains how its unchanging viewpoint fails to capture the world as a living being, the way a cassowary darting through the underbrush might experience it. 

The dynamic, multisensory realm of the forest is differentiated by emotions of euphoria, sadness, and nostalgia. Within its bounds, one can hear human and more-than-human sounds of walking, eating, singing, and pounding sago. But this becomes drowned out by noise, indexing the point where time stops and oil palm exploitation begins. Land comes alive for the Marind people and cannot be adequately represented by static viewpoints, or “dead maps,” that cut the landscape into neat parcels for agroindustrial exploitation and control. Instead, rich cultural histories meld with the presence of amai (plant and animal ancestors) to create memorable and ever-changing places which can be depicted through living maps.

One might reimagine a future where the Marind people are the perceptive pioneers of a new forestscape.

Ignoring the existence and land rights of the Marind people and rewriting history through inaccurate or off-record mapping, oil palm proponents attempt to strip the Marind people of their visibility and power. Destruction of the forest’s life-sustaining attributes causes animals that do survive to flee, which enacts further trauma and mental anguish on the Marind people who are forced to watch as the surrounding forestscape morphs into something unrecognizable, and they become compulsory caretakers of disoriented wildlife. Despite enduring abuse at the hands of oil palm agribusiness, the Marind people grow to both despise and envy the settler lifestyle with its modern amenities. Chao witnesses the complex emotional reactions of Marind people to the environmental destruction that is underway when one individual publicly engages in self-harm to outwardly express their pain.

Such nuanced responses to agribusiness are also visible in the decades-long debate around pesticides in the US. Despite environmental organizations such as Beyond Pesticides and Pesticide Action Network fighting to eliminate their application, some farmers are enamored (initially, at least) by their ability to reduce disease and improve crop yields. Pesticide application is also a chemical control method for invasive species management recommended by the Department of Energy & Environment, North American Invasive Species Management Association, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Agriculture. Environmentally conscious home gardeners may find themselves covetous of pesticide users when their bounties fall prey to disease and insects, especially given that organic pesticides are not necessarily better than registered ones. Evidently, the Marind people are not the only group with a fraught relationship with agribusiness.

Making Kin with Plantation Crops

Bewildered forest creatures that hide out in the surrounding villages reflect the vulnerable state of the forest and forest-dependent communities. Corrupt agribusiness generates lasting mental and emotional trauma on forest dwellers. But, rather than allowing themselves to be consumed by anger, the Marind people refuse to adopt a singular stance on oil palm, instead allowing their moral dispositions to change over time. 

As other Indigenous peoples face similar struggles, the Marind people are not alone in how they relate to a plantation crop as it encroaches on their homeland because of global economic demand. Similar to the way that Jessica Hernandez describes the relationship between Indigenous peoples of Latin America and the banana plant in the book, Fresh Banana Leaves, the Marind people have a complex attitude towards oil palm—filled with fear, pity, hatred, and wonder. Throughout the book, Hernandez describes the uses of banana for concealment, shelter, bandages, food, and cooking. Even though European colonizers first introduced banana trees between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, Indigenous people in Latin American feel that “bananas are not invasive” but are “displaced relatives that have adapted well to [their] climates and are now incorporated into [their] traditional diets.” This new plantation crop forced them to “form new kinships with [their] new land.” A similar process of shifting perspectives is evident in how the Marind people understand oil palm.

Banana tree with green leaves and a bunch of bananas hanging from it.
Banana tree under the clear blue sky. Photo by Kindel Media, 2021.

Just as Indigenous peoples relate to and appreciate the presence of banana trees in Latin America despite its negative connotations as a plantation crop, the Marind feel compassion towards oil palm in their ancestral lands. For instance, Marind women often express sorrow for oil palm seeds and fresh fruit bunches, referring to them as oil palm children or orphans. One oil palm plantation worker admitted, “My job is to care for oil palm and support its growth. … Oil palm has become a kind of kin to me.” Perceiving oil palms as plant relatives could provide an avenue for Marind to connect with future global markets, traders, and consumers while also preserving remarkable customs and practices of Marind culture.

Many instances in Chao’s book demonstrate how the Marind people are exceedingly capable of developing new attitudes towards plants and animals with time. The Marind people therefore must know oil palm, or have complete understanding of it, and either fight or reach a compromise with the plant to survive both literally and culturally. However, without the opportunity to form a relationship with oil palm, the Marind people are unlikely to ever embrace it as a form of more-than-human kin. More-than-human kinship is the enactment of empathy and respect for plants, animals, and spirits, which is seen through the Marind people’s routine embracing of sago palm.

Land comes alive for the Marind people and cannot be adequately represented by static viewpoints.

Dense clusters of sago near early Marind settlements further demonstrate their care for it since colonial and precolonial times. The Marind people continue to demonstrate their role as land stewards by transplanting young sago palm to maximize forest growth, selectively harvesting, weeding, pruning, controlled-burning, and more. Rotting or failing plants are also monitored carefully, then burned, to ensure complete decay. Notably, Chao documents how the Marind “immerse and participate in the bioacoustics of the grove, including through songs that celebrate the lifeforms, events, and stories associated with sago.” Experiencing the harvest and the cultural moments that come with it binds people together, or as the regional Marind people say, “sharing sago makes kin.”

Radical Refusal of Hope

Nuanced relationships between the Marind people and changing West Papuan forestscapes demonstrate that their fate cannot be foretold as something simply either good or evil. Community members share nightmares of being devoured by oil palm, while also experiencing the pleasurable act of shape-shifting, only to become a creature that is alarming or unsettling.

By mentally detaching from what the future holds, the Marind people allow themselves to continue living in the present while attaining some form of temporal sovereignty, or control over what is happening to them. Their refusal to accept fantasies of hope is a form of grievance antithetical to climate optimism, or the mindset that individual and group human actions have the power to slow or reverse climate change and other environmental issues.

Aeriel view of green forests and a coastline snaking around it, the water is blue and turquoise
Forests and coastline in West Papua, Indonesia, seen from a drone. Photo by Danang Himawan, 2021.

In the Shadow of the Palms is not a lamentation of the wrongs carried out by the State and agribusiness on the Marind people. It is a testament to the fact that the Marind people are still here, and that what happens to their culture will illustrate whether or not the world is capable of embracing a philosophy of being that considers both the human and other-than-human. This line of thinking frees them from colonial-capitalist ideology, which reduces the value of Indigenous peoples to the resources of the land they occupy. Colonial-capitalist ideology enforces property structures, economic organizations, and labor regimes to perpetually build economy. In contrast, the Marind people find humanity and richness in their connection with land, animals, and spirits.

Marind lifeworlds are places where human, animal, and plant movement are necessary for forests, savannahs, and swamps to flourish. Their open-mindedness towards plant and animal kin demonstrates their willingness to adapt and survive. Chao tempts readers through her words to conceptualize the value of other lifeforms, examine more deeply what it is to be human, and envision love during a period of extinction. One might then reimagine a future where the Marind people, once strangers to an unfamiliar plant and victims of an industry with an insatiable appetite for land, are the perceptive pioneers of a new forestscape.

Featured image: Sago palm close-up. Photo by Tatiana Syrikova, 2018.

Jessica Richardson is a Freshwater and Marine Scientist and alum of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, fascinated by relationships between culture, history, and the environment. She currently studies greenhouse gas fluxes in the coastal marshes of southern Louisiana but uses writing to highlight important environmental issues, empower readers, and inspire climate action. Contact. X (formerly known as Twitter). Website.