Research (Highlands)

One of Dr. West’s projects, “Making Value in the Pacific Tropics,” is a long-term study of the linkages between indigenous ontology and epistemology and biological diversity. The majority of this work has taken place in the Lufa District of the Eastern Highlands Province. Specifically, Dr. West has worked with people from Maimafu village since 1997.

Today, among many activists and scholars, there is an increasing focus on the relationship between biological, linguistic, and cultural diversity in both the natural and the social sciences. Half of this literature focuses on the utilitarian values we might associate with these diversities while the other half focuses on ideas about diversity and intrinsic value.  Dr. West’s research on value takes a different approach by asking how value is created and how systems of evaluation change over time.  Using ethnographic material from the the highlands of Papua New Guinea the work shows that when it comes to animals, people’s knowledge about them, and the language that they use to describe them, value comes into being at a nexus of epistemology, ontology, and history.

The current part of this on-going research examines the ways in which actors evaluate the worth of animals when they occur in zones of conflict between conservation practitioners, agents of development, and local people. Tree kangaroos, large arboreal marsupials, have become a point of contention in the development of a gold mine at Crater Mountain because the proposed site of the mine is in the direct center of some of the most important habitat for the IUCN red-listed Macropodidae Dendrolagus goodfellowi (Goodfellow’s Tree Kangaroo). Conservation-related actors argue that these animals are critically endangered and that they must be conserved at all costs.  Development-related actors, in particular gold mining companies and government officials affiliated with these interests, argue that single-species conservation must take a back seat to economic development through resource extraction innovation.  Rural landowners are often caught in the middle of these debates.  On the one hand they desire economic opportunity and see resource extraction as a much-needed form of economic development.  On the other hand they do not wish to see their ancestral lands ravaged by extractive regimes. In examining how different actors evaluate the worth of these animals this work shows the processes by which arguments for and against development are constructed and the ways in which the systems of evaluation for the worth and value of animals intertwine with economic and political interests.