My long-term research experience in Papua New Guinea began with my dissertation fieldwork in which I examined the interventions associated with biological conservation and economic development projects located in the rural mountains of the Eastern Highlands Province. That research resulted in my first contribution to anthropology, my dissertation, and also served as the basis for my first book, Conservation is our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea.
This book is an ethnographic and historic account of the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area, an internationally funded ‘sustainable development’ project located on land held by Gimi-speaking peoples. The book emerged at the front of what has become a large literature in anthropology on “neoliberal conservation.” It was the first full length ethnography of a conservation project.
Part of my argument in it is that the hollowing out of state structures that supported environmental stewardship in PNG during the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s created the conditions of possibility for international Non- Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to come in and insert themselves in the role of the arbiters of conservation stewardship in the country. These NGOs were run exclusively by white scientists from the global north.
Another part of my argument was that these scientists rarely learned anything about the Indigenous communities who held highly biological diverse lands in their possession and because of this they failed to see and understand in situ Indigenous practices that fostered conservation. Indeed, their projects and assumptions about how people living in forests use forests, ultimately ended up hurting Indigenous systems of engagement with the natural world and dispossessed these communities of sovereignty over their own biodiversity futures.
My larger contribution was to show that this process had happened globally and not just in PNG but my real interest was critiquing conservation in PNG so that it could become more equitable and connected to Indigenous ways of being in and seeing the natural world.
Duke University Press
Papua New Guinea
New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century
Maimafu village airstrip
Credit: Paige West