Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea by Paige West (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

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

This little book is intensely disturbing.

West starts off introducing readers to Papua New Guinea (PNG), theories of capitalist accumulation and dispossession, and a critique of the anthropology of Melanesia and PNG as "link[ed] to an anachronistic kind of anthropology" (28). Reviewing Marx'1 and Rosa Luxemburg's ideas2 on capitalism's relentless need for growth, West fast-forwards to understandings of dispossession focusing on ideological terrains. In his work on gentrification,3 geographer Neil Smith shows how urban renewal in New York involved casting inner city residents as "outside the natural order" and new residents as "discoverers" and "pioneers." West argues that similar representational strategies are at work in PNG. Drawing on her own research, West shows how journalists, developers, surf tourists and conservation NGOs produce images of Papua New Guineans resulting in the dispossession of representational and material sovereignty (36).

In Chapter One—"Such a Site for Play, This Edge"—West takes the baton from Michael Taussig4 and elaborates on the fantasies of "untouched nature," "purity," and the "undiscovered" frontier and "beyond" that draw the international surf community to Papua New Guinea's beaches. While expatriate and Australian-educated nationals established a PNG surfing association (SAPNG) in the late 1980s to regulate the industry and find ways for surfing to contribute to the local economy, journalists cast PNG as "exotic, unknown, undiscovered, secret, primitive, wild, lost, and beautiful, and the men who surf there as intrepid explorers" (42). Surf tourism pioneer Australian Martin Daly, who helped turned Indonesia into a global surf destination, was soon disillusioned by crowds of young surfers on packaged tours compared to people like himself who surfed for "pure reasons and want authentic experiences" (52). For Daly and other wealthy surfers, it is they who "discover" places such as Nusa Island in New Ireland Province and they—rather than the "easy-going" "natives" who live there—who are better suited to manage money and tourist businesses (62).

Chapter One ends with a caustic lead-in to Chapter Two: "Luckily, there are right-thinking international development consultants and experts" who—for a price—take local people "into the light of modernity via capacity building workshops" (62). Attending workshops throughout PNG, West found institutional actors repeatedly conceptualizing Papua New Guineans and their cultures and societies as barriers to development: women unable to hold onto money because of pressure from male relatives; fixed assets belonging to extended family groups and not individuals and, therefore, unsuitable collateral for loans (64–65). Narrowing in on the PNG Liquefied Natural Gas (PNG LNG) Project, West describes how a big international NGO (BINGO) that focuses on environmental conservation helped ExxonMobil create a Biodiversity Offset Fund, a mandated condition for financing the gas project. West, who is co-founder of the PNG Institute of Biological Research (PNG IBR, dedicated to helping Papua New Guineans become scientists and anthropologists), along with other board members and staff, met with representatives of ExxonMobil and the BINGO and were asked—without warning—how they would spend $100 million on conservation. Unable to come up with more than the smaller projects they were familiar with, the PNG IBR members were interrupted by the BINGO employees who shifted the conversation to how PNG "lacks capacity" and "cannot manage and administer a fund of this size," and how "most people in PNG live in pre-capitalist societies," do not understand money and have "a cargo cult mentality" (69). West gives more examples, looking at capacity-building's emergence worldwide and its expense and failure in PNG. The resource extraction boom threatening PNG's environment has resulted in a surge of deep-pocketed BINGOs out-competing national organizations, effectively dispossessing Papua New Guinean landowners and national experts of funds, representational sovereignty, and land (through land registration and leasing).

In Chapter Three, West uses tree kangaroos to demonstrate how Papua New Guinea is a site of constant discovery and how that constant discovery has a narrative form associated with it and is a site of accumulation and dispossession. For the Gimi people...


pdf