Research (Highlands)

My long term interest in dispossession stems from the research I undertook for my second book, From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social Life of Coffee from Papua New Guinea (Duke University Press 2012). The book is an analysis of the global commodity circuit for coffee grown in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and of the images of coffee growers that circulate along with that coffee. Drawing on ethnographic materials I collected in PNG, Australia, Germany, England, and the United States, I make four interrelated arguments. First, that structural changes in the global market for coffee since its deregulation in the late 1980s have resulted in the emergence of third-party certification schemes (Fair Trade, Organic, Bird Friendly, etc.) that are meant to check and enforce social and ecological protections that were, in most coffee-growing countries, done away with at the state level during structural adjustment programs that were also implemented in the 1980s. Second, that these structural changes at the global and state level are made invisible by certification because of the media driven, slight-of-hand whereby “the market” for certified coffee is configured as emerging from the socio-ecological morality of people in the global north. Third, that this media and marketing slight-of-hand relies on images of coffee growing peoples in PNG that are drawn from both long-existing fantasy-forms of otherness that are shot through with ideas about primitivity and temporal locality. In the minds of seemingly well-meaning consumers who buy certified coffee in order to enact a particular form of liberal politics, these forms of stereotypy are merged with ideas about poverty and the role of the market in moving people in the global south towards the lifestyles deemed appropriate for them by people in the global north. Fourth, that these fantasy-formed images do not only fail to match Papua New Guinean’s ideas about self and subjectivity, but that they also have disastrous material consequences in PNG: instead of allowing people to engage with the market in a more socially equitable and ecologically sustainable way, they actually work to dispossess people of land, labor, and the right of self representation. From Modern Production to Imagined Primitivewas the runner up for the 2013 Julian Steward Prize (the Society for Anthropology and the Environment) and was one of three finalist for the 2014 Society for Economic Anthropology book prize.

All of my work draws on my long-term experience in PNG that began in the mid 1990s.  During my dissertation fieldwork there in 1996-1998 I examined the interventions associated with biological conservation and economic development projects located in the rural mountains of the Eastern Highlands. That research resulted in my first scholarly contribution to anthropology, Conservation is our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea (Duke University Press 2006). 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, which offers an examination of the ways in which environmental conservation projects produce space, place, and nature. It is both a specific and detailed ethnographic account of the social lives and relations that brought a particular world into being and a careful critique of the international conservation and development intervention ideologies of late liberalism.

The book serves as an examination of the ways in which environmental conservation projects produce space, place, and nature.  The first section contextualizes the Crater Mountain project, using published data, colonial patrol reports, and ethnographic interviews revealing the transnational connections between the multiple sites in which my research was carried out.  In the second section, I analyze the theories and ideas behind, and the practices of, conservation and development and their intended and unintended consequences. Using narrative accounts by local people, biologists, environmental activists, and others I construct portraits of the different local and expatriate visions of conservation and development, and show that the unintended consequences of the project, such as fundamental changes in property relations and women’s labor requirements, are more salient than the intended consequences. I then examine the lack of ecological data with regard to the actual human uses of the environment on which this conservation intervention was based and argue that interventions that are not based on both ecological science and anthropological science are bound to fail. Finally, I conclude with a critique of the integration of rural villages into commodity markets as a method of environmental conservation.  This strategy does not work in PNG, and I conclude that it is a flawed approach to conservation.  With this I demonstrate the effects of neoliberal economic models on local social and ecological lives and offer a critique of the global push for market-oriented conservation and development.