Palm oil is one of just four commodities driving the majority of tropical deforestation, and the second largest driver of global warming after beef production. The adverse social and environmental impacts of monocrop oil palm plantations are particularly marked in Indonesia, the world’s top palm oil producing country.
But how is oil palm – as plant and product – understood by Indigenous peoples in places where it is introduced and cultivated on an industrial scale? How does agro-industrial development reconfigure Indigenous peoples’ relationships to land and the environment? And how might Indigenous views of oil palm shed light on larger questions about the relationship between human and other-than-human life in an age of planetary unravelling?
In West Papua and across the tropical belt, industrial oil palm developments are systematically obliterating the multispecies worlds, social relations, and cultural practices of Indigenous peoples.
These questions lie at the heart of Dr Chao’s forthcoming monograph, which has been awarded the Duke University Press Scholars of Color First Book Award. Drawing on long-term ethnographic fieldwork and prior human rights advocacy in the Indonesian-controlled region of West Papua, In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua explores how deforestation and monocrop oil palm expansion radically transform the multispecies lifeworld of Indigenous Marind communities through its effects on the landscape, time, personhood, and dreams.
Thinking with and beyond species categories and hierarchies, the book highlights how the proliferation of industrial monocrops subverts the futures and relations of some lifeforms while opening new horizons of possibility for others. It situates these dynamics within West Papua’s violent and volatile history of political colonisation, ethnic domination, and capitalist incursion.
By approaching cash crops as drivers of destruction and human exploitation, Dr Chao makes a compelling argument for rethinking capitalist violence as a multispecies act that involves humans, but also plants, animals, elements, and ecosystems. Taking oil palm as its central protagonist, her book makes a vital contribution to our understanding of human-environment relations in an age of rampant ecological destruction.
“In West Papua and across the tropical belt, industrial oil palm developments are systematically obliterating the multispecies worlds, social relations, and cultural practices of Indigenous peoples,” says Dr Chao, who is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of History in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry.
“These developments routinely take place without Indigenous peoples’ free, prior, and informed consent, and often in the name of national food security and economic development. My hope is for this book to challenge the capitalist logic undergirding plantation expansion and to inform and provoke productive debate over sustainable environmental, economic and social systems, in Indonesia and elsewhere.”
Grounded in extensive ethnographic fieldwork and interdisciplinary theoretical approaches, In the Shadow of the Palms will appeal to scholars and students in social science and humanities fields including anthropology, multispecies studies, environmental history, environmental humanities, critical plant studies, cultural theory, and political economy, with an interest in the intersections of Indigeneity, ecology, and capitalism in the Pacific and globally. The book will also attract scholars in Southeast Asia and Pacific area studies and practitioners in development, human rights, and environmental and social justice.
The Duke University Press Scholars of Color First Book Award supports innovative and important books authored by scholars of color, as indicated through their review process. This fund supports and exemplifies Duke University Press’ commitment to publish works by rising stars and to celebrate books with exceptional promise by scholars of color. The award is made possible by Press authors who donated their book royalties to help support innovative work by junior scholars of color.
In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua will be published in May 2022. For more information, visit Duke University Press.
Dr Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Department of History and Affiliate Researcher at the Charles Perkins Centre, Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, and Sydney Environment Institute. Her anthropological and interdisciplinary research investigates the intersections of Indigeneity, ecology, capitalism, health, and justice in the Pacific region.
Dr Chao’s PhD thesis was awarded the Australian Association for Asian Studies John Legge PhD Thesis Prize (2020) and the Australian Anthropological Society Best PhD Thesis Prize (2019). Click here for more information about her research.