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Environmental costs, benefits and possibilities: Q&A with anthropologist Eben Kirksey

  • The environmental humanities pull together the tools of the anthropologist and the biologist.
  • Anthropologist Eben Kirksey has studied the impact of mining, logging and infrastructure development on the Mee people of West Papua, Indonesia, revealing the inequalities that often underpins who benefits and who suffers as a result of natural resource extraction.
  • Kirksey reports that West Papuans are nurturing a new form of nationalism that might help bring some equality to environmental change.

Indonesian New Guinea holds some of the largest remnants of old-growth tropical forest on the planet. Yet the region faces increasing pressure to share its riches with the rest of the world. Mining companies have dug for gold and copper, leaving scars visible from space. Loggers have razed rainforest and built highways into previously remote areas. And with Indonesia as a whole producing half the world’s palm oil, the hunt for new plantation sites threatens to fragment what’s left of the region’s standing forest.

These development projects have taken place as Indonesia has divided the territory, splitting the western half of the island of New Guinea into West Papua and Papua in the 2000s.

Map of West Papua and Papua (in red) in the Indonesia-controlled part of the island of New Guinea. Map courtesy of Eben Kirksey

Eben Kirksey, an anthropologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, has spent nearly two decades investigating what the push for natural resources has meant for the people of Indonesian New Guinea. His own discipline has left him uniquely positioned to dig deeper into the crossroads of changes to the ecological environment and to our ways of life.

“Anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences, and the most scientific of the humanities,” Kirksey said, quoting cultural anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber.

But Kirksey is also a leader in the emerging discipline known as the environmental humanities, drawing from the tools of both anthropologists and biologists.

Mongabay spoke with Kirksey to discuss his recent article, published in the journal South Atlantic Quarterly, which looks how the balance of power metes out – often inequitably – the consequences and benefits of harvesting natural resources and of the ensuing changes to the environment. In his essay, he explores how the Mee people of the village of Unipo adapt to clear-cutting of the forest that had been their home for centuries, and the ways in which the construction of a road, originally intended to shuttle timber from the hinterlands, set different parts of society on a collision course.

During the conversation, Kirksey also delves into current politics and how a more constructive, nascent form of nationalism arising in Papuan communities might bring some equality to the sharing of nature’s largesse.

Collecting mushrooms in the forests of West Papua. Photo and caption by Eben Kirksey

Mongabay: Can you explain what environmental humanities is and how it’s emerging as a discipline right now?

Eben Kirksey: Basically, biologists used to study the domain of nature, and anthropologists, which is my own discipline, used to study culture. Folks in the environmental humanities are interested in the intersection of the two, where nature and culture meet. People are studying the dynamics of power, how political and economic systems influence that nature-culture dynamic, and asking this question of who benefits when species meet. We are thinking about who lives and dies amidst encounters amongst humans and other kinds of life – how clear cutting a rainforest or having an industrial project impinges upon particular communities.

Mongabay: In your essay, you talk about how these dynamics affect individuals’ lives but then also the global balance of power.

Eben Kirksey: Yeah, it’s a really exciting moment because a lot of people are using these new tools to follow global assemblages [and] be really specific in tracing how a commodity moves, for example, through pipelines or through transnational shipping systems [and how they] change people and ecological communities all along the way. A lot of folks are also looking at chemicals on a global scale that are in the atmosphere, like carbon, that are changing the very possibilities of life on Earth.

I think we’re getting increasingly specific in terms of how we link things up. What sorts of lives and deaths matter in this world that I inhabit? What sorts of chemicals impinge upon my existence? What sort of consumer choices do I make that are shaping this world that I’m creating here but also the global assemblages that let my life exist in this particular moment?

Mongabay: You talk about the differences you observed between your first arrival in the late 1990s and your return in 2015. What was most striking?

Eben Kirksey: I’ve been back a number of times since the late ’90s. I think one different thing was just a real sense of hope and possibility [then]. On the heels of the resignation of this dictator, President Suharto, who had been in office for 32 years, there was this real sense of political possibility. He left office in May ’98, and I got there a couple of weeks later.

Within Indonesia, this archipelago of some 12,000 islands, there was a sense that a democratic reform project could be actualized. In 1999, East Timor got independence. West Papua had high hopes that they would get independence with momentum building toward the year 2000, the new millennium, as a new president took office in Indonesia.

I was visiting rural places – spaces by the side of the road that had only emerged recently in the last few years as a logging company clear cut the forest and built a road connecting the lowlands with the highlands. A lot of extraction projects were going on, and there was also a sense of hope and possibility with development projects, even as people were in vulnerable and precarious situations.

Over the next couple of decades, the vulnerabilities and precarities that people were experiencing intensified at the same time that this sense of political possibility started to evaporate. As those hopes were dashed, people started to still hold onto dreams of getting liberated from this military occupation, amidst the everyday violence, amidst targeted killings of leaders, but also just everyday killings like the one that I describe in the article – teenagers basically getting assaulted by the police with very little pretext.

Against the backdrop of that ongoing violence, I think that hope for a change that resolves all of this politically, the possibility of that political outcome, is increasingly elusive.

Oge Bage Mee children washing sweet potatoes. Photo by Eben Kirksey

Mongabay: In the essay, you talk about the fragility of happiness in a touching story about the young people you spent time with there. Later, you talk about the fragility of that moment. Was that a way of capturing that sense of possibility and then what’s happened since?

Eben Kirksey: I spent many of my days just foraging for edible insects with children who learned that in clear-cut rainforests, you have a proliferation of these delightfully tasty treats. This was a sort of happiness amidst tragedy, right? Yeah, I did find, as with a lot of forms of happiness, it was fragile, and this space of hope was destroyed in the coming years.

Mongabay: When you returned, you found that several of those kids died of malaria. That’s a poignant example of how those changes to ways of life and to the environment around us affect us.

Eben Kirksey: When I came back a few years later, a lot of these young children were dead. Many people had just fled. Often, when there’s a disease outbreak, people just disperse. In fact, [the strategy that] let these people live with malaria was being constantly on the move. Depending on the mosquito species, from the time they bite someone infected with malaria to re-infecting a new person, that’s usually about 30 or 60 days. If you’re constantly on the move, if you’re living in these bivouacs in the forest and shifting your location, you’re not going to get exposed to malaria epidemics.

This local tragedy is situated in a national context where Indonesia has used public health measures to protect certain people from malaria and while letting other people die. If you travel to Bali, for example, an international tourist destination, or if you travel to Jakarta, you’re going to be protected from malaria.

This Edage Bage woman is wearing a “t-shirt” that she has fashioned out of tree-bark string. This image shows how the Edage Bage have taken ideas from the outside world and made them locally distinct. Photo and caption by Eben Kirksey

Mongabay: In the essay, you discuss the construction of the Trans-Papua Highway and about how it brings different social groups together. Can you talk about the story you used to illustrate that?

Eben Kirksey: Basically, a young man was shot dead by the side of the road – Yoteni Agapa, whose dog was killed by a speeding car. This group of boys got mad when the dog was killed and the driver sped away, so they instituted an impromptu road block and started asking other cars for money. [The Trans-Papua Highway] was built by a logging company across indigenous land that didn’t formally pay any of these people for that right to cross their land.

This acute incident of a dog getting killed, coupled with longstanding senses of social inequality [and] economic injustice connected to this road, made the boys start stopping cars and saying, ‘Hey, our dog was killed. We’re mad. Give us five bucks.’ The amount of money they asked for was basically the equivalent of a local meal at a nearby food stall.

Those drivers got mad. They went back to local security forces and told [them] what was going on, that there was this roadblock happening, and the security forces came back and started shooting the children. A number of the children sustained wounds and managed to run away. Yoteni Agapa was shot repeatedly and then his body was mutilated after he was killed.

Mongabay: When you and your colleagues reported the incident to the UN, “Power continued to function predictably,” you write. What did you mean by that?

Eben Kirksey: I studied this incident in collaboration with some regional human rights defenders. We wrote up a short allegation to the United Nations [and] filed this with the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. And it was filed away. It exists in an archive somewhere, and nothing happened.

There are decisions being made that certain kinds of people don’t matter as much as others. The fact that a young black boy can get shot dead by the side of the road in West Papua, or in Ferguson, [Missouri,] or in many other sites in Africa or Europe, the fact that these killings are happening all the time – there aren’t adequate international legal institutions for dealing with this. I think it’s something that needs to be interrogated on a global level.

Mongabay: Can you relate that to what you’ve seen in Indonesian New Guinea and perhaps the difference between the nationalism you talk about in your first book, Freedom in Entangled Worlds, and the nationalism we’re seeing globally now?

Eben Kirksey: Yeah, I think there’s a return to a certain form of nationalism that is dangerous in the United States right now. In contrast, my first book, about West Papua, is all about rediscovering the promise of nationalism.

If you look at the long history of colonization, the nations of early modern Europe were formed through the exploitation of India, Africa, Southeast Asia, [and] the Americas. We are at a moment where people in the United States could reclaim the positive aspects of nationalism. In the case of West Papua, I found people harboring these dreams, not of this return to the tribe, this return to a place where it would just be Papuans and all the outsiders would just be killed or expelled, but a post-colonial situation where they’re learning to live more responsibly with their global entanglements.

Mongabay: How is that playing out in Indonesian New Guinea?

Eben Kirksey: There’s this big U.S. gold mine there called Freeport McMoRan. To paint it with a very broad brush, they’re basically stealing the natural resources of West Papua. The largest gold deposit known is in West Papua, and that wealth is being taken away, channeled to the Indonesian government in the form of taxes, to this U.S. corporation, which is making profits and distributing the gold around the world so that we have wires in our cellphones and computers as well as wedding rings.

A picture of the open-pit Freeport McMoRan mine, taken by an astronaut in June 2005 at an elevation of 353.7 kilometers (191 nautical miles). The hole is about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) wide. Photo ISS011-E-9620 courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

The West Papuans [are] not envisioning a world where they’re going to claim all that wealth for themselves and say that nobody else deserves to have a share. Papuans want to channel the theft of that natural resource into a gift, with all the obligations that gift giving entails. When you give someone a gift, very often, especially in a place like Melanesia, certain things are expected in return.

When the U.S. has a USAID program or the Soviet aid programs in the Middle East or Afghanistan, this is shaping foreign policy. Papuans want to give away their gold as a gift. They want to make sure that the people of Indonesia are fed. They’re imagining a new ethical world order where nationalism isn’t done away with, but very clear ethical principles inform how this excess wealth, how the valuable things on their land, might be redistributed.

Mongabay: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Eben Kirksey: In concluding about West Papua, I would like to say it’s an incredibly vibrant, beautiful, amazingly dynamic place. As people often hear about the ongoing genocide, the political problems, that fact is lost. There are all sorts of surprising encounters you can have there. It is still, outside of the Amazon, one of the largest undisturbed tracts of rainforest in the world. This is very quickly getting destroyed by oil palm plantations.

I’d just like to draw people’s attention to this remarkably beautiful, dynamic and surprising part of the world.


Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Correction (Mar 1, 2017): we changed references to “West Papua” to “Indonesian New Guinea” in the introduction to better distinguish between West Papua Province and Western New Guinea, which is the half of New Guinea controlled by Indonesia.


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