In West Papua, oil palm expansion undermines the relations of indigenous Marind people to forest plants and animals

Indigenous Marind in West Papua consider the forest and its plants and animals as kin. These culturally valued multispecies relations, however, are being disrupted by oil palm development projects. Sophie Chao, Author provided

It was the third night Rosalina (a pseudonym), an indigenous woman from the Marind community in Merauke, West Papua, dreamt of ‘being eaten by oil palm’. She had been having recurring nightmares over the last few weeks, in which oil palm’s sharp spines turned into bayonets, and hard and round palm oil fruit transformed into lethal bullets.

In her dream, Rosalina heard repeated shots before finding her father slumped next to her, covered with blood. She herself died the next night of hunger and thirst after losing her way in an oil palm plantation in the middle of the night.

Nightmares of being ‘eaten by oil palm’ or ‘shot by oil palm’ plague many Marind indigenous people in Khalaoyam village (a pseudonym), West Papua, where I have been undertaking ethnographic fieldwork since 2011.

The village is one of several Marind settlements affected by large-scale oil palm plantation expansion under the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), a government development project that will convert at least a million hectare of forests and swamp into privatised concessions.

Khalaoyam village is home to some two hundred Marind households who depend primarily on the forest for their subsistence - for instance, hunting, gathering, and fishing. However, the forest represents much more than just a source of food for indigenous Marind.

For instance, Gerfacius, another member of the Marind community, spoke to me of the soil still smelling of the ancestral forest that had once stood here, but that has been razed to make way for oil palm over the past few years.

To him, the soil that was once full of memories of his plant and animal kin was now full of death, loss, and sadness.

The forest is our family

For Marind people, the forest is a living, sentient ecology in which selfhood is extended to plants and animals.

Indeed, many Marind villagers whom I spoke to describe the forest as their “family” and many clan names represent the deep relationship of forest plants and animals to human communities, as shared descendants of ancestral spirits, or dema (in Marind language).

For instance, the Mahuze clan are “children of the dog” (mahu meaning dog and ze meaning “child of” in Marind) and the Balagaize clan are “children of the crocodile.”

Importantly, Marind also consider the diverse plant and animal species living in the forest to be sentient beings, endowed with will, agency and volition.

Each Marind clan, or bawan (in Marind language), is related to other grandparent (amai) or sibling (namek) species with whom they share bodily wetness (dubadub) and skin (igid).

Together, skin and wetness are primary markers of personhood among Marind and they take the form of sweat, tears, sap, mud, water, grease, and more.

Humans and amai (forest organisms) sustain their mutual existence through everyday practices of reciprocal care.

For instance, amai grow to support humans by providing them with food and other resources. In return, Marind exercise respect and perform rituals as they interact with amai (plants and animals) in the forests, recall their stories, hunt, gather, and consume them. Exchanges of skin and wetness, along with rituals of care and respect, enable humans and other-than-humans to thrive in each other’s company within the forest environment.

Forest foods, like sago starch, are considered nourishing by Marind because they derive from revered plants and animals. Sophie Chao, Author provided

Marind people and oil palm expansion

Since around 2008, however, the relations of Marind to their non-human kin have been undermined by large-scale deforestation and monocrop oil palm expansion, promoted by the Indonesian government in the name of national economic development and food sovereignty.

These agribusiness projects are largely being designed and implemented without the free, prior, and informed consent of Marind. Many communities report being forced into land surrender deals in exchange for derisory compensation.

One Marind family I spoke to, for instance, reported having been paid a one-off sum of Rp350,000 per hectare of land, or less than AU$35, for a lease of 25 years.

Other grievances shared by Marind villagers included unfulfilled Corporate Social Responsibility schemes, increased local food insecurity, critical water pollution, endemic biodiversity loss, and widespread deforestation, including through illegal burning.

Just as Marind do not see themselves as existing separately from the natural environment, so too the destruction of the forest is more than just an “environmental” problem for Marind.

Rather, this destruction undermines the historical relationships of Marind men, women, and children to the plants and animals with whom they share the forest.

It annihilates the past events, memories, and stories inscribed in the landscape – its trees, organisms, rivers, and hills.

Deforestation and oil palm expansion are taking place at an accelerated pace across Merauke. Sophie Chao, Author provided

Deforestation also deprives Marind of forest foods that are nourishing and meaningful because they derive from plants and animals whom Marind revere and respect, and whose futures and survival, too, are jeopardised by agribusiness expansion.

The obliteration of the forest, then, represents the devastating loss of the dynamic, multispecies world in which Marind’s sense of identity as human beings and as indigenous peoples is rooted.

Lesson learned from indigenous Marind

The conversion of forests to monocrops represents far more than just an “ecological” change for indigenous people like Marind.

Marind people believe that “nature” and “culture” are not separate and mutually exclusive realms. Rather, humans and their environment come into meaningful being through their relationship to each other.

The transformation of kindred forests to industrial plantations thus radically subverts the sense of social, moral, and collective self worth that Marind derive from living with, in, and from, the sentient forest.

The layered emotional, cosmological, and social meanings of the forest among the Marind people, and the cosmological and existential implications of its destruction, invite us to rethink state-promoted forms of large-scale land development that purport to improve socioeconomic wellbeing among rural communities in West Papua.

It is important to reconfigure such forms of development from top-down to bottom-up approaches that take as their starting point indigenous peoples’ own understandings of the natural environment, as these are shaped by local cultural norms, values, and aspirations.

This is not to suggest that indigenous cultures are static and unchanging, or that they are necessarily resistant to development.

Rather, it is to highlight the need for grassroots and culturally sensitive approaches that respect the cosmologies, beliefs, and practices of indigenous communities, whose wellbeing as humans is indissociable from the wellbeing of their multispecies forest “families.”