- Conservation Is Our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea
The year 2006 was a stellar one for the anthropology of Papua New Guinea. Major publishers produced monographs that demonstrate the continuing ability of Melanesianists to produce important and original works. Conservation Is Our Government Now is a fine example of this trend; detailed and yet accessible, it is an excellent book that deserves to be widely read by anthropologists, students, and development and conservation professionals.
Conservation examines the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area, [End Page 626] a biodiversity project that was active in the late 1990s. The argument could easily go down the well-worn path of examining the "impact" of "global" forces on "local" people. Instead, West chooses the more ambitious goal of examining how Crater Mountain is imagined as a place by multiple stakeholders, and how that imagination affects the political economy of Papua New Guinea.
West's approach is shaped by work in political ecology, the critical geography of Neil Smith and David Harvey, and, most surprisingly, Vincent Crapanzano's literary-philosophical anthropology. In my opinion, much of this literature hinders rather than helps the work of understanding what are already extremely complex issues. However, West makes the best out of what might not be the most promising literature. For this reason Conservation will be of great interest to those concerned with issues of scale-making discussed in the literature on economic and political geography.
West's grasp of the literature in her field is excellent. The bibliography of Conservation is remarkably deep and demonstrates a thorough knowledge of dissertations and the published literature as well as the enormous "grey literature" of reports, conference papers, and unpublished studies that are so central to contemporary conservation. However, most of the citations, along with technical notes, are relegated to footnotes in order to keep up the pace of the narrative. This is a kindness to nonspecialists, but academics will want to be sure to consult the end matter closely since it often contains important parts of her argument.
Although the theoretical stakes of this work are high, the strength of Conservation is its ethnography. West's writing is itself an example of the activity she examines, and issues of reflexivity are inescapable. Additionally, she speaks to multiple audiences: other anthropologists (including the senior scholars who have worked in her area), her Papua New Guinean informants, and conservation biologists. This problematizes any easy ethnographic authority. Luckily West avoids narcissistic postmodern reflection and solves the problem by adopting a simple, almost confessional style.
In her remarkable opening chapter, for instance, West cuts across time and space recounting episodes of her life in order to demonstrate the multiple connections between Crater Mountain and Manhattan. Here West manages to downplay her expertise while quietly demonstrating a sure-handedness with the data that leaves no doubt as to the extent and depth of her knowledge. She also minimizes her own authority by quoting at length. At one point when West's husband visits her in the field, she receives advice from her adopted mother about the importance of observing menstrual taboos—a speech that is printed verbatim. The end of the book also includes an appendix featuring the demands of dissatisfied residents of Crater Mountain, a move that allows West to keep her promise to them to make their voices heard.
This is a difficult line to walk and West's prose is not particularly sophisticated or literary—this is Hemingway, not Henry James. At times West's heart-on-sleeve style threatens to veer into naïveté, and I suppose not every [End Page 627] reader will be charmed by the picture of her and her informant recreating scenes from the 1975 documentary, The Ax Fight. On the whole, however, I think this sort of thing is delightful and opens the ethnography...