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  • Ancestral Lines: The Maisin of Papua New Guinea and the Fate of the Rainforest
  • Aletta Biersack
Ancestral Lines: The Maisin of Papua New Guinea and the Fate of the Rainforest, by John Barker. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2008. ISBN 9781-4426-0105-5, x + 229 pages, illustrations, plates, photos (some color), references, index. Paper, C$29.95.

The Maisin live on Collingwood Bay, Oro Province, on the southeast coast of Papua New Guinea (PNG). When Barker first began studying them in 1981, Maisin thought of themselves as poor and their villages as "backward" and "dirty," and they were open to the possibility of logging. But as PNG communities became increasingly distrustful of overseas companies, Maisin became more uncertain as to which development path to pursue. By 1994, the consensus was against commercial logging. Beginning around that time, secret deals were made—by urbanized Maisin, by the premier of the province, by unidentified parties in collusion with the national government—to use the forest for one development scheme or other, without seeking the approval of traditional landowners. The Maisin would spend four years in court defeating the last such scheme and establishing their right to do with their land as they pleased. From 1996 onward, they did so under the umbrella of the Maisin Integrated Conservation and Development organization (MICAD). This organization was inspired by a national initiative to promote village-based integrated conservation and development initiatives but developed independently of the government, by the Maisin themselves, in alliance with environmentalist nongovernmental organizations, some of which are PNG-based and others, [End Page 260] like Greenpeace, that operate globally. The purpose of MICAD was "to fend off industrial logging and foster locally controlled economic development" (62). Representing all Maisin villages, sometimes vis-à-vis the national government, this constituted a new political level, one that, in spirit, could be called micronationalist.

Although the Maisin were against industrial logging, they were not against development. Decades of monetization and market integration made the Maisin dependent on some cash income. The need for cash was met to a degree through remittances from employed town-based Maisin, but Maisin sought another source of income as well. Maisin tapa cloth had begun to be shown overseas in the mid-1980s, and in the mid-1990s a major exhibition of Maisin tapa cloth took place at Berkeley Art Museum. Four Maisin men came for the exhibit, and Barker produced text for the related website and delivered a public lecture at the opening of the exhibit. The PNG ambassador to the United States flew in for the occasion. In the context of this growing international recognition for their tapa art, and given their refusal to commoditize their forests, the Maisin decided to commoditize their tapa cloth instead. This was consistent with their pride in their ancestral traditions (the "ancestral lines" of the book's title) and their desire to preserve their way of life as it was evolving under contemporary circumstances.

While the discussion of the commoditization of tapa cloth occurs in the sixth chapter, the entire book subtly leads up to it. In the first five chapters, Barker introduces us to the Maisin; their subsistence economy and its morality (and the downside of that morality: sorcery); indigenous religion and Maisin Christianity; the division of labor by gender and gender politics; marriage and related exchanges; political processes; and local-global articulations (beyond Christianity, these include a growing dependency on wage labor and commodity markets, and the struggle to live well in a globalizing world without succumbing to "modernization" or "westernization"). It is the tension between the local and global that enlivens the volume and helps the reader understand what is at stake—everything!—in the choice between commercializing the forest and commercializing tapa cloth. The Maisin path to development is here held up as an exemplary alternative to capital-intensive resource development because it allows the Maisin to preserve their environment and their evolving way of life and to do so with a degree of independence from the state and capitalism. Barker even suggests, in the closing lines of the book, that, in an era of global warming, to which some argue deforestation contributes, the Maisin are...


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