ENCOUNTERING NATURE IN THE ANTHROPOCENE


In the middle Sepik, the environment has started to change in heretofore unknown ways. Water levels rise and drop irregularly and villagers talk of rising temperatures, altered precipitation patterns, and unpredictable weather phenomena. Furthermore, introduced fish species feed on the roots of water-plants and drastically changed the ecology of Lake Chambri. Nature, people say, has started to change. Nature, however, is not that what exists outside of the human realm but that what is intimately connected with it: powerful spirit beings.


In my research project, I take a political ontology perspective and consider different forces that shape Nature in the Sepik River Region. With that I stress that ontology has a political dimension – ‘power-laden practices involved in bringing into being a particular world or ontology’ (Escobar 2016, 21). We live in a ‘world of many worlds’ (de la Cadena and Blaser 2018), but this world connects us in unequal ways. Because of its relationship with science, global politics, economies, and power, naturalist ontology has become a global force shaping our planet and impacting everything that exists on it. Naturalist ontology laid also the ground for fish-stocking activities in the Sepik River region, seeking to enhance the local fish yield. Whereas it is true that the introduced fish species are the basis of people’s household income today, it is also true that they have largely ousted local fish species and drastically changed the ecology of Lake Chambri. Furthermore, the interventions have transformed the local subsistence economy into an economy highly depending on market relations and the ability to catch and process large amounts of fish. Next to Naturalism, also Christian ontology and the politics of the Christian mission have transformed life in the Sepik region. Here, Christian ontology has merged with Nyaura ontology and provides the most important framework through which the Nyaura now perceive themselves and the world.


In their vernacular, my interlocutors do not have a word for ‘nature’ in the secular Euro-Western sense. However, they have appropriated the English term and it can frequently be heard. ‘Nature’ in the Sepik refers to powerful spirit beings and their tangible and intangible forms with which humans are connected through ancestral lines. Whereas their ancestors were able to control ‘the actions of the elements’ (Gewertz 1977), today ‘Nature’ increasingly appears to be out of control. However, not only naturalist ontology takes influence on people’s lifeworld, Christian ontology, too, is a powerful force that influences the way life is changing. God and His spirits are the most powerful beings that exist in local lifeworlds today and environmental change is framed in apocalyptic terms. Interestingly, ‘Nature’ has not only been connected to biblical narratives, it has also become associated with whiteness.


‘Nature’ in the Sepik can be studied as an outcome of what Tsing (2005) has called ‘friction’ in her study of global connections – ‘the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference’ (ibid., 4). Studying the ways in which my interlocutors encounter ‘Nature’, I suggest that ‘friction’ occurring between local and global ontologies might tell us something about environmental change and the persons and social relations involved in it while at the same time reminding us ‘that heterogeneous and unequal encounters can lead to new arrangements of culture and power’ (ibid., 5).


An important point I stress is that politics of ontology also take place on the local level, within local communities between different groups and individuals who are differentiated for example by descent group affiliation, gender, age, education or religious denomination. ‘[O]ntological difference, or the pluriverse’ (Escobar 2018, xvi) also comes into being on local levels that themselves are heterogenous and participate in ontological politics. Christianity and Naturalism came to the Sepik as part of unequal power relationships and the force with which they have transformed life there has to be understood from this background. Yet, the trajectory that change has taken especially in the religious sphere reflects people’s appropriation of naturalist and Christian ontology and their integration into local power relations. Thus, I am sensitive to the consideration of power relations between societies but also within societies of which the anthropologist becomes part during fieldwork.


De la Cadena, Marisol and Mario Blaser (eds.) 2018. A world of many worlds. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Escobar, Arturo. 2016. “Thinking-feeling with the Earth: Territorial Struggles and the Ontological Dimension of the Epistemologies of the South.” AIBR 11(1): 11-32. DOI: 10.11156/aibr.110102e.

Escobar, Arturo. 2018. Designs for the Pluriverse. Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Gewertz, Deborah. 1977. “On Whom Depends the Action of the Elements: Debating among the Chambri Peopoe of Papua New Guinea.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society 86(3): 339-353.

Stella, Regis Tove. 2007. Imagining the Other. The Representation of the Papua New Guinean Subject. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction. An Ethnography of Global Connection. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

West, Paige. 2016. Dispossession and the Environment. Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea. New York: Columbia University Press.