Anthropologies #21: ‘Patabea se bariu’–Rethinking environmental change

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

Our next essay comes from Elena Burgos-Martínez, who is currently completing her PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at Durham University. Her research explores local conceptualisations of the environment at the intersection between cultures in coastal Indonesia. She is interested in linguistic variations brought about by semantic expansion and new forms of rationalization which define local senses of modernity and belonging. Elena has background in Education, Geology, Chemistry, Sociolinguistics and Social Anthropology and strives to integrate different scientific paradigms when undertaking research. –R.A.

Kala ale’ boe mecin’, shouted Ila, while starting a Bajo song which is intended to ask the wind for help in very hot days. Wind, as stated in the song, travels from deep under sea water up to the surface, all the way through to what is above sea level. Winds mimic humans and humans mimic the wind – each featuring different attitudes towards what is in between wind directions (‘barat’/’west winds’ tends to be a bit volatile and impatient). Winds are an important feature of the environment for the Bajo of Nain Island, in North Sulawesi (Indonesia) and as such they regulate socio-ecological understandings and practices. Although intimately connected to conceptions and representations of climate change, this essay centres its critical consideration on environmental change rather than climatic discourses. I approach my subject by looking at ethnographic data collected through participant observation and posterior analysis on different conceptualisations of the environment and perceptions of the physical environment as un-detachable from the social.

The term ‘change’ often functions as an unsettling category that leads to diverse forms of adjustment. But are change and adaptation complementary or inherently the same? Contemporary discourses and narratives of climate change frequently presuppose a rupture between nature as a third person entity and the human, with human beings being held responsible for the changes that the other side of the living world experiences. Thus, it is an exhausted and popularised ‘nature’ (shifting all signifiers; land and seascapes) that is posed as a threat to human stability, forcing us to what we think is the only possible alternative: adapting to a new unpredictable environment. Nevertheless, such approaches to the environment as related to humans but detached from human features continue to overlook the relational complexity of the processes where signifiers and signified are produced and of what becomes an active feature of human perception first.

Whether the public affirms or denies climate change as an imminent catastrophe, a portion of the globe still bases their assessments on an implicit detachment from nature. But not everyone’s understandings of our global world follow the same rationale. Until recently, the Bajo of Nain Island in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, for example, did not have a word for ‘nature’ in their language, Baon Sama. The concept of nature became part of their language via social programs that used international sources which had been translated into Bahasa Indonesia (the official language of Indonesia). International utopias of a very well-known register called ‘development’ claim to work towards the empowerment of the ‘marginal’ but often ignore local notions and interpretations of the concepts in matter. These convictions seem to be taken for granted, and often intersect with notions of the human and the non-human that do not rely on nature/human dichotomies simply because these philosophies have not emerged from the same conceptual systems.

Amongst the islanders of the Celebes Sea, nature can only be human: all that belongs to the Bajo sphere is human, regardless of foreign categorisation sets, since it is only animated through collective human cognition and perception. Thus, the signifiers are made such through the collective understanding of their quality as referents for meaning; meaning-making comes always first, lived experience becomes the medium and the message.

Change, an intrinsic feature of all cultural systems, means buoyancy for the Bajo, an intrinsic and defining feature of resilience and capability to remain Bajo amid processes of cultural intrusion and change. There’s no antithesis for change since their vernacular perception of stability is intrinsically dependant on change, both being interweaved to the point in which they become parts of the same reality. For the Bajo, the ability to collectively endure social change and rationalise it, in the intersection with different cultural groups, is the cause of environmental change.

A series of international environmental organisations, driven by a self-proclaimed expertise in ‘emancipating’ smaller communities (via pre-designed developmental programs), build entirely on the basis of the socio-political agendas of donors. These paternalistic initiatives encouraged the establishment of new local businesses as ways of belonging to international networks of dependency. Nevertheless, local efforts to ascribe to bigger profit were bolstered by the politics of international resource management, which maintained and perpetuated corporate power structures across Indonesia.

Similarly, other coastal communities around the Celebes Sea, consider what we call “adaptation” a response to human confluence rather than environmental fluctuation, allowing them to accommodate physical transformations. Bajo environments are all-inclusive; the human and the non-human are part of the same fluid ontology and often interchange. In Nain Bajo, ideas of what qualifies as human or as non-human were introduced by foreign concepts and semantic expansion through development programs. Contemporary Bajo have adapted such concepts and made them environmentally friendly with a renewal of the cosmology of ‘iblis’ (a hybrid spirit that is not human or nature but both). These ‘iblis’ can take the shape of any non-human animal, human, or the wind itself—and they regulate socio-ecological interactions and relations.

Changes in climate take the shape of unpredictable winds on the Bajo side of the world. An animated nature, which often mirrors the human, operates across perception, understanding, and thought through most cultural groups—but it relies on different values and philosophies when it comes to defining the non-human aspects of it. Nevertheless, when we legitimise expert knowledge as the sole basis of environmental science, we can think of unpredictability as a threat to the transmission of any type of consciousness.

However, rather than relying on expert knowledge, generations of Bajo have long considered experience-based knowledge as the key to understanding how things exist and work. In light of cultural intersections, they deal with the so-called re-adjustment of previous and new socio-ecological ontologies from within them and as they happen. They do not consider themselves observers or victims of change but active regulators of such. Thus, change and its unpredictability carry its own agency in defining how the Bajo environment functions. In view of upcoming discourses constructed around the diversity of environmental knowledge and rationalisation, we must allow sufficient room to register the fluidity of local narratives as well as we need to challenge and the so-called universal categorisation canons.

Similarly, a few oceans away, climate scientists, weather forecasters, and other experts trained in regions of the world where Western philosophies situated ‘nature’ as a subject for the physical sciences. This shift followed centuries of philosophia naturalis (a discipline that integrated cosmology, physics, and philosophy before the 17th century), which was grounded in an all-encompassing, interwoven rationalisation of the natural and the human. Nowadays, modern science’s expertise fills the gaps of instability when predicting nature’s patterns with an old utopia (that of ‘nature’ being an order separate from that of humanity, an entity needing new forms of control) and a newly-shaped conceptualisation of the world. This perceived need to monitor and manage the so-called physical world often forced upon all sides of humanity. Such managerial prospects present a different stand than the one discussed in previous paragraphs but have many common threads, including the defining agency of social change, which leads to human adaptation and its ultimate effect: environmental mirroring. For many, the causal force of change begins with, and in, the environment and culminates with human adaptation. However, habituation to new forms of collectiveness resulting from cultural intersection cannot be extracted from the physical environment, for the environment can only exist as a subject and object of changes in the conceptions that construct it and regulate its perception.

Environmental change is not perceived in the same manner worldwide; the human isn’t either. Shortly after the Age of Reason placed mind and body on different sides of the dichotomy that regulated an emerging rationalisation of the world as divided into the human and the non-human, nature came to be perceived as representing all other non-human features of the planet. Non-European locations were also influenced by the semantic expansion of 18th century philosophies and thought (be it through colonisation or exploration) and so ‘nature’ became the other; always under watch, always needing salvage. And a new conceptualisation called individualism, devoid of “natural” human beings, began to spread. This conceptualisation was often a constructed synonym for the urban, industrialised advocates of technocratic hegemonies of the time. The rest was presupposed as barbaric, savage or un-human.

Therefore, when defining the globality of environmental knowledge and its applicability in local settings, it is vital to critically examine what socio-political forces shape the underlining values that are included, secluded and excluded at the crossroads of global narratives, and the interplay of subjectivities in places where such different rationales intersect. Within the debate on environmental and climate change, such an approach is essential if we are to achieve a deeper understanding of the impact humans have in transforming a world that becomes unfamiliar and uncanny when defined solely on the basis of our detachment from nature itself and the values of a portion of it.

For some peoples, the positive qualities of change outweigh the risks of unpredictability. When the collision with the unexpected is understood as the basis of resilience (which in Baon Sama means ‘capability’- with capability being a translation of ‘mampu’, the ability to thrive within the group and become an active member of it following its own order and rationale) and offers a frame that allows processes of re-negotiation of cultural identity and collective agency to flow in the intersection between different social utopias and the reinforcement of centralised, globalised powers and authorities. The location of certain types of knowledge and understandings is by no means arbitrary, since it pertains to its own encompassing order and relational perceptions, which are subjected to change and as such have to be considered within the settings within which they originate and transform. That said, no space can be assumed to be a clearly demarcated enclosure where categories are prone to, or should, remain untouched by the juxtaposition of the global and the local.

Whereas wind unpredictability influences the maintenance of hierarchies of knowledge, when skilful members of the community fail to foresee difficulties that might arise at any time, wind is incorporated into the Bajo category of things that undergo change. These are not categorised as belonging to either the social sphere or the physical one, but as constitutive of both. Change allows room for improving the group’s ability to thrive in the socio-ecological environment, to become a competitive part of regional and national belonging. Change is always social, and it is through the social lens that it becomes physical. Thus, environmental causality takes a different turn when placing social change as cause and defining feature of environmental change.

Throughout debates that frame the contemporary concept of climate change as a matter of urgency, it is never clear whether the always derogatory ‘change’ functions as a consequence of an unpredictable human earth or as a driver of such a volatile ‘nature’. And at the very core of such contestations of human activity, contemporary conjectural ecologies still continue to base their relational judgements in determinisms grown in the divide between mind and matter, inherited from Western European enlightenment and post-enlightenment philosophies and objectifications. These systems of knowledge, while claimed to be of cross-cultural validity, can deform other voices and neglect relational and local complexity. Herewith, systems of objectification of the world that do not place human determinism and environmental determinism as individual and separated categories and do not coincide with rationalisation through oppositions are likely to be reduced, by dualistic machineries, to the antithesis of rationality, so-called belief.

Amongst advocators and deniers of climate change on our side of the hemisphere, the human and the non-human, for example, are distributed into differentiated essential systems, following a utilitarian logic, in the instrumentalisation of nature, where the human manages the non-human but, at the same time, is constrained by its biological needs which result in certain cultural responses. However, among the Bajo, it is the constraint of new social orders and needs (those introduced by international economic and political systems, such as fishermen strengthening programs, which created business links between Nain Island and other regions in Indonesia) that lead to environmental responses. In fact, the environment has always been human, as it is perceived and understood by humans and could never be otherwise. Thus, new socio-ecological relations that favour sociality, under Bajo terms, are likely to be positive; whether a foreign concept called ‘nature’ has to be metamorphosed, through semantic expansion, and into a fluid variety of Bajo narratives that circulate the every day. These narratives do not place the human and the natural in distant axes but as parts of the same coordinate—where a bottle of plastic is as human as a turtle nesting in it, both being perceived by the same Bajo systems of objectification, both belonging to the same Bajo space, none can be detached from the idea of ‘the natural’ and/or ‘the human’.

*Note about the title of this essay: ‘Patabea se bariu’ (Elena’s PhD thesis’s title) means ‘joining the wind’ in Baon Sama– a Bajo translation for the expression ‘gone with the wind’, a metaphor that means disappearance in some places whereas it accounts for staying and shape-shifting into more sophisticated forms of change that will always allow for permanence.

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Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.