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« There Are No Straight Lines in Nature » : Making Living Maps in West Papua

Droning destruction — aerial view of deforestation in Merauke. Source: Sophie Chao.

« There Are No Straight Lines in Nature » : Making Living Maps in West Papua by Sophie Chao, 17/05/2017, Anthropology Now

With land growing scarce in Sumatra and Borneo, the oil palm frontier is rapidly moving eastward into West Papua, where rainforest and savannah are being razed at an unprecedented rate [2]. In particular, oil palm expansion in the Papuan regency of Merauke, a remote region of swamplands and savannah on the border with Papua New Guinea, has been the subject of growing campaigns led by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including advocacy at the level of the United Nations [3]. Largely implemented without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous Marind-Anim people (hereafter the Marind), oil palm expansion has been facilitated by widespread collusion among corporate, state and military interests.

Along the banks of the Bian River in northern Merauke, I carried out fieldwork among several Marind communities whose lands and settlements are encircled by large-scale oil palm plantations established in the last decade. Participatory mapping with local communities is one of the key tools being used in the area to protect remaining forest areas in indigenous territories from oil palm incursion. This article explores maps as objects and mapping as practice, both of which are part ethnographic method, part advocacy tool.

As ethnographic tools, maps and mapping can provide important insight about how our research participants conceptualize place within their particular cultural value systems and cosmologies. Among the Marind, for example, mapmaking reveals that place is a dynamic entity shaped by the lives and doings of multiple actors, both human and nonhuman. In producing their own maps, the Marind convey this sense of place as a multispecies endeavor by emphasizing the role of different organisms in shaping it and giving it meaning. In this respect, places and the maps that represent them are lively entities, characterized by constant movement and transformation. The consequence of this is that Marind maps themselves keep morphing and never sit still, in the image of the multispecies world itself.

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