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  • Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea by Paige West
  • Foley Pfalzgraf
Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea, by Paige West. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. isbn cloth 978-0-231-17878-5; isbn paper 978-0-231-17879-2; isbn e-book 978-0-231-54192-3; 195 pages, map, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, us $90.00; paper us $30.00; e-book, us $29.99.

What do a middle-aged Australian surfer, a capacity builder fluent in bankspeak, and a tourist-scientist interested in "discovery" all have in common? In Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea, Paige West argues that these sorts of positionalities are capitalist and assist in perpetuating rhetorical and physical acts of dispossession against Papua New Guinean (PNG) individuals and communities. West's multisited analysis of rhetoric situates dispossession temporally, in terms of autochthonous imaginings of PNG communities as beyond and before; spatially, in tourism, development, and conservation-mediated landscapes; and personally, in the stories and articulations of dispossession provided by research partners. This work extends our recognition of the implications of Western ontology and epistemology on PNG people and places while also [End Page 294] moving beyond criticism to construct something entirely new.

West begins by reminding readers situated in environment or conservation science of the significant need to engage social and critical theories. Contributing to conversations in Marxism, political ecology, the ontological turn in anthropology, and decolonial methods, West links theorizations of dispossession by accumulation to the ahistorical production of peoples and places in Papua New Guinea by outsiders. She explains how processes of accumulation and dispossession "today rest… on the discursive, semiotic, and visual production of both Papua New Guinea and Papua New Guineans as outside of the natural order of things—with the assumption that the natural order of things is a kind of linear progression fantasy in which everyone… should have come to live, in urban, cosmopolitan ways" (23). The vignettes that follow surf tourists, development projects, conservation science, and PNG philosophy illustrate how rhetorical moves affect PNG sovereignty: spatially, economically, and discursively. Additionally, throughout the text, West documents that Papua New Guineans are not passive recipients; rather, they viscerally experience these acts of dispossession and resist and theorize them.

Chapter one analyzes the representational practices of the surf industry and those who fall within its currents. West discusses the replication of historic forms of travel writing, which emphasize discovery, frontier, and "primitive" places. In this imagining, Papua New Guineans are cast as "easygoing" locals, at risk of being changed by the world or losing something essential about their simple (idyllic) lives serving the benevolent surf tourists at resorts owned by Australians. Drawing from Vincent Crapanzano, West incorporates the idea of the "beyond"; for Western surfers, both Papua New Guinea and Papua New Guineans are ahistorical, liminal, and disappointingly out of reach—beyond. This imaginative process not only entails rhetorical dispossession, since "the found 'primitive' justifies the assumed modernity and superiority of the Australian," but also has material effects on accumulation within the tourism industry (61).

Drawing once more from the rhetorical imagination of foreigners, in the second chapter, West interrogates how this casting as before or beyond enables the framing of Papua New Guineans as unable to understand modernity and its accoutrements, like how to manage money (at household or organizational levels). West searingly shows that "underlying all this well meaning do-gooder-ism, there is an inherent focus on creating particular types of state-citizens and particular types of relations to land and natural resources that set the stage for ongoing dispossession" (73). Development projects are not merely about increasing incomes for rural Papua New Guineans; they are also about destroying customary tenure to allow for new forms of economic activity (including conservation) and creating new consumption-oriented citizens. This formation also obscures infringements on sovereignty and acts of dispossession that play out through capacity building sessions, such as discussions about the administration [End Page 295] of conservation funds in which PNG Institute of Biological Research scientists are reduced to laborers for big international nongovernmental organizations (bingos).

In Chapter three, West...