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In the Shadow of the Palm: Dispersed Ontologies among Marind, West Papua

By Sophie Chao

Cite As:
Chao, Sophie. 2018. “In the Shadow of the Palm: Dispersed Ontologies among Marind, West Papua.” Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 4: 621–649.


This article explores how indigenous Marind of West Papua conceptualize the radical socio-environmental transformations wrought by large-scale deforestation and oil palm expansion on their customary lands and forests. Within the ecology of the Marind lifeworld, oil palm constitutes a particular kind of person, endowed with particular agencies and affects. Its unwillingness to participate in symbiotic socialities with other species jeopardizes the well-being of the life forms populating a dynamic multispecies cosmology, including humans. Drawing from ontological theories and the multispecies approach, I show how people in a remote place engage with adverse environmental transformations enacted by an other-than-human actor. Assumptions of human exceptionalism come under question in the context of a vegetal being that is exceptional in its own particular and destructive ways. Arguing for greater attention to other-than-human species that are unloving rather than unloved, I explore the epistemological frictions that arise from combining the anthropology of ontology with multispecies ethnography. I also attend to the implications of these theoretical positions in the real world of advocacy for those struggling in and against growing social and ecological precariousness.


multispecies ethnography; anthropology of ontology; West Papua; agribusiness; oil palm