Tag Archives: Nature, Ecology, the Environment

The Translation of TEK

My previous post on the strategic uses of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) spawned a discussion about the history of the label and identified similar or complementary approaches to the documentation of knowledge about the land held by indigenous peoples. Adam Henne’s comment (#5) is particularly provocative. In it, he writes:

… for the knowledge and practices of indigenous people to have standing in court they must be turned into “TEK” by a credentialed representative.

This point can be extended to the application of TEK more generally – TEK studies fuel the consulting industry in places like British Columbia in large part because the government and industry want (require) the outside expert to offer information related to land use and the environment in a non-native idiom. To do so, the outside expert is often expected to ‘translate’ native ways of seeing the world into maps, reports, and databases.
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Strategic Uses of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

I have had a long-standing interest in Traditional Ecological Knowledge (shortened often to TEK) and it is a topic that comes up with some frequency on SavageMinds. Paraphrasing Berkes, TEK is a body of knowledge, practice, and belief, transmitted culturally and identifying relationships between living beings and between living beings and their environment (Berkes 1999:6-8). My experience with TEK grew out of participation in TEK research projects as an applied anthropologist. Later, I developed an academic interest in critiquing the use of traditional knowledge in biological and geographical studies and in questioning the label itself; for me, conducting TEK studies created the academic interest.

Critiques of the TEK concept and its applications are not new. TEK studies can remove ‘data’ about the environment from the contexts in which it is used. TEK is noted to be a bureaucratic buzzword, particularly in places where consultation with aboriginal communities is desired or required; when such situations arise, documenting TEK is sometimes seen as the best way to engage an aboriginal community in conversations about local lands and resources. And, some have looked at the label, questioning what is meant by ‘traditional,’ ecological,’ and knowledge, particularly from the point of view of the community of people identified as users of TEK (see, for example, Nadasdy 2003; Cruikshank 1998).
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Reflections on 30 tons an ounce

While my dissertation project is not incredibly obscure, it usually only matters to a small number of people — most of whom live in Australia, Papua New Guinea, or Vancouver. So I’ve been really amazed to see the New York Times’s series “on the impact of gold mining”:http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/24/international/24GOLD.html?ex=1131166800&en=f6813b1da0b375a3&ei=5070&pagewanted=1 that has been running recently — suddenly my area of expertise is literally news. How do I feel about the article, and how do I feel about the gold industry more generally?

I study the relationship between indigenous people in Papua New Guinea and the white senior management of a gold mine that they work with. As someone who had studied Melanesia for years before I lived there, and who lived in a local community, the biggest problem I had was fitting in with the white mining executives and not the local Papua New Guineans. Call it the narcissism of small difference. Culture shock and fieldwork with Papua New Guineans was easy in some sense, since no one really expected me to fit in when I first arrived. Mine management, on the other hand, were supposedly ‘from my culture.’ Learning to like and respect these men (they were almost entirely men) was one of the hardest parts of my fieldwork. They were mostly Australian and Canadian, and had the usual Commonwealth suspicion of Yankees. I was an artist and an intellectual, and over-educated to boot. While many of my informants in the mine had some form of tertiary education it tended towards the vocational, or the physical sciences. And they were MEN in a way that I was not — they talked about rugby and worked with their hands and had pictures of naked (or nearly naked) women on their walls, in there calendars, on their screen savers. And, of course, in the struggle between landowners and company, I was sympathetic to my indigenous hosts.

Of course, I can imagine how strange I must have appeared to them: hopelessly young, over-educated, exotically Jewish, under-nourished and unshaven. In fact of all of my fieldwork experiences, one of the things that I am most proud of is the fact that I established as close a rapport with them as I did. It was, for me, one of the classical lessons of anthropological relativism: no matter how savage and barbaric your natives — in this case, Canadian capitalists — may seem to you, you need to learn to understand them.

Reading the New York Times article I can just imagine the reaction of several of my informants. A lot of it is about how they are misunderstood, how naive people are who aren’t familiar with the industry, and so forth. A lot of it is exculpatory (or straight up self-congratulation) but they do have certain insights as well.

The power of the Times article comes from its title: Thirty tons an ounce. The massive amount of effort undertaken — and hardship inflicted — for a single ring’s worth of gold is tremendous. And yet for the post-fieldwork me it is also emblematic of the nature of the primary industry which supports first world lifestyles. As one mine executive once remarked to me “if it’s not grown, it’s mined.” When staring at an open cut or touring float mills its impossible to escape this fact. But the existence and extent of primary industry is occluded from the view of most Americans. Times readers may be disturbed by the process of gold mining, but what this should really cause them to do is rethink not just gold mining, but their lifestyle in general. Look up from your computer screen for a moment and look around the room — how much metal do you see? Imagine the copper wires and metal pipes and lines of nails that stretch around you for thousands of miles. Where did they come from?

It is commonplace these days for people who drive cars to lament the way they are destroying the environment. Very few people realize what the set of silverware in their kitchen cupboard makes then an accessory to. So while gold exemplified the willingness of people to literally uproot the planet it is only part of a much larger dynamic that most of my readers have been living with their entire lives: the constant presence physical objects that were manufactured.

I am aware of this not only because of the time I spent with miners. My experience working with the Ipili also focused around a certain metal fetish — although in the Ipili case it was steel. Like most people of highlands Papua New Guinea, the Ipili did not experience any form of refined metal until the early 1930s, and objects such as axes and machetes (often the only metal object that many people own) were not ubiquitous until the 1960s. Living in a place where old people can remember a life without metal at all and where most people still don’t have much of it is a sobering experience. A world without plumbing or paving or silverware or screws is very, very different indeed.

Of course there are problems — lots of them — with what the mining industry is doing to the people and places that it impacts. There are ways to mitigate this impact — the best being constant and unrelenting pressure on the industry by NGOs and local people which makes bad behavior too expensive for the industry to afford. But if I had my way, the thing that readers of the Times article on gold would learn from that piece is not that the industry is bad, but that they are living balanced atop a massive pyramid of labor and extraction of which gold is only the most obvious part.

As for me, I own a computer and nice knives and pots and pans. After two years of living in rural Papua New Guinea I am more than ready to have the earth pay the price for my current abode’s indoor plumbing and electrification. But I’ve never owned a car, don’t want to, and I have various other idiosyncratic personal commitments to simple living. I know my adopted family in Papua New Guinea wants the same standard of living that I have (except for the car part, which they can get behind), and I think they should have the opportunity to have it as well. I just hope that the readers of the Time’s new series realize, as I did, that they have something to come to grips with beyond just the problems of the gold industry.

Saving the Great Apes

I have a soft spot for non-human primates, especially gorillas, as they got me interested in primatology and physical anthropology back in high school. This eventually got me to take a college-level anthro course and led me to adopting cultural anthropology as a career. So I’m pleased to see that 20 governments are getting together to try to “save the great apes”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4232174.stm from extinction.

I’d be curious to know if there are actual primatologists on board with the “Great Apes Survival Project”:http://www.unep.org/grasp/, the organism that organised the conference during which the declaration to save the great apes was signed. I would think that they do but I was unable to find the information on GRASP’s website.

Of course, non-human primates co-exist with human primates and GRASP seems to have grasped (I couldn’t resist) the idea that the activities of local populations need to be taken into account. As is indicated in the BBC news article, the agreement proposes that:

The agencies should ‘make it a priority to develop and implement policies which promote ecologically sustainable livelihoods for local and indigenous communities’

I think that this reflects an acknowledgement that government agreement or no government agreement, ultimately it is essential to obtain the cooperation of people who live in areas near our non-human cousins. This cooperation requires that the people in question have the resources that they need to live without having to resort to poaching. I’m hoping that they have at least consulted cultural anthropologists in that area to assess effective ways of carrying out this project while taking local realities into account.

Tracking Uma Adang

Somewhere between my undergraduate and two graduate programs, I lost a bundle of anthropology books. Before my short and unsuccessful stint as a salaryman in Tokyo a decade ago, I gave my small library away, thinking I would never enter a doctorate program.

But when I in fact did become a Ph.D. student, some of those books were required reading for my core classes. I should have kept those books, I told myself (all those margin notes and underlines!), but decided against buying them again. Except for the classics in anthro theory, I thought it was foolish to make the same purchase twice. Especially ethnographies.

But there were a few exceptions, and one was Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, a work that takes you right into the Bornean rain forests of South Kalimantan. I read this ethnography in 1994 and I remember falling in love it. At the time I didn’t quite understand her arguments, but I enjoyed the way she wrote about her encounter with Uma Adang, a shamaness, a local leader, and her main “informant” in the book. The photo of this Meratus Dayak woman, smiling while cradling a white doll, was for me what Tsing described as “a disorienting caricature of motherhood.”

That image of Uma Adang came to me when I read Tsing’s latest book Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connections. Prompted by a comment by Savage Minds regular Colin Danby, I thought I might post something on Tsing’s nuanced perspective on the way globalization is interpreted in South Kalimantan (The book is an on-the-ground look at the way different groups, such as conservationists, logging companies, and local communities, talk with and past one another in their relationship to the rain forest). But when I opened the book, all I could do was to recall the powerful image of Uma Adang holding a white doll.

Like her earlier book, Friction also presents Uma Adang as a marginal voice that embodies Tsing’s critique of the global political and economic network of power. Although the Meratus Dayak shamaness has a much less prominent role in the new book than in Diamond Queen, I could not help but fixate on this figure.

For one, the way I imagined Uma Adang has now changed. The younger image of her now evokes a different set of emotions for me when juxtaposed against the photograph of her in the new book: she is sitting in what looks like a bar and her expression is solemn — broken but defiant. Behind her is a cigarette ad that has the word “BOMB” in huge letters. The caption reads “Better you had brought me a bomb…” Her explosive anger is directed against the deforestation of the jungle by the logging companies, which by her account is stripping away Meratak culture itself. The smiling figure in the first book now looks to me as one of naivete, expressing truimphant exuberance in carving out a political space for herself and other Meratus Dayak.

But Uma Adang and Tsing also retain their playfulness in the new book, especially in the chapter on biodiversity. And it makes for a nice comparison with a chapter in her earlier book.

In “The History of the World” chapter of Diamond Queen, Tsing writes about her friend’s version of global history, all in fragments, in different narrative forms and temporal registers, and full of parodic mimicry of the dominant discourse. This history, which Tsing treats as an “official” history, is to be read for its coherent unity and political message. But rather than celebrating it wholesale as a moment of political resistance, the anthropologist also recognizes aspects of the shamaness’s historiography that ends up serving the national interest of the Indonesian state. At the end of the chapter this nuanced examination of a local story leads the author to reflect upon the state of identity politics in the U.S., and writes that “the cutting edge of political organizing often is the simultaneously dissociating and validating effect of parroting dominant discourse out of context.”

In the new book Friction, she examines the concept “biodiversity” in a chapter titled ““This earth, this island Borneo” [Biodiversity assessment as a multicultural exercise].” In it she relies on a similar move of parody as a critical endeavor in which she too takes part. Citing both proponents and critics of the promotion of “biodiversity,” Tsing brings to this discussion an ethnographic account of what it means to make a list. Here Uma Adang lists all the flowers and mushrooms and the fish and lizards, in disregard of Linnaean nomenclature and full of strange and non-scientific markers of identification. This, however, is not a simple case of a local critique of Western discourse. Instead, they both acknowledge the pleasure of listing, of writing down and numbering, and hence, of having that very power to picture the world course through their veins.

Uma Adang loved the idea that I was writing down the list and enumerating each item. […] The list took on all the pleasures of writing, counting, and classifying: Uma Adang and I were pretending to be bureaucrats with the authority of state and international codification. We were ordering the world by naming it. As Uma Adang explained to me, “Everyone knows these names; but not everyone knows how to organize them properly.” (168)

Tsing’s virtuosity as a writer shines forth — a partial list of fauna and flora runs down the page margins — and it reminds me of the discipline’s excitement over “the poetics and politics” of experimental ethnographic writing (and readers of Levi-Strauss and Derrida will perhaps recall here “The Writing Lesson” in Tristes Tropique). There are some risks, in my opinion and acknowledged by Tsing herself, of investing in a figure such as Uma Adang a certain subjectivity that by virtue of representing her in an ethnography domesticates the marginal within our own political agenda [footnote 1]. Yet this issue is repeatedly taken up in the book, not only in Borneo but also in other parts of the world. And this moment of parody — playful but also serious — is at least a partial answer to the question surrounding the politics of representation.

I am sure there are other compelling “informants” who span multiple books (I invite readers to comment on who might be other such figures in the annals of anthropology), but for some reason Uma Adang has made an impression on me. There are, I think, many possibilities in writing about the same person in different books over time. At the end of the first book there was a sense of a closure for my understanding of Uma Adang; when the new books takes her up again, it for me opened up new avenues of thought. This opening and closing of someone’s character is a rhetorical strategy I think might warrant some further discussion.

Postscript: As I work on my dissertation, I am finding myself increasingly drawn to good ethnographic writing as models for my own work. So in hindsight, I really wish I hadn’t given away my ethnographies!

[footnote 1: I am thinking here Vicente Rafael’s comments on Tsing’s earlier writings, but I think it equally applies to Friction.]

What’s wrong with Yali’s Question

I finally watched episode one of the Guns, Germs, and Steel TV show last night. Its all on TiVo, but I’m finding it hard to sit and watch – it is a rather painfully made show. So many shots of Jared Diamond looking scholarly: peering out windows, looking at maps, walking back and forth, etc. Ugh! And do they really need to work the title of his book into every other sentence? I mean, in the first episode they don’t even get up to the invention of guns…

The show is framed by the motif of “Yali’s Question.” Yali is portrayed as some local guy (he looks like a worker) whom JD bumps into on the beach one day and asks him:

Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?

But Yali isn’t just some guy on the beach. He’s a politician. This isn’t JD’s fault. Here is what he says in the book:

I had already heard about a remarkable local politician named Yali, who was touring the district then.

But I can’t completely absolve JD for this portrayal. I believe there is something fundamentally wrong about the very question he is asking.

The modern U.S. is the richest, most powerful state on earth. It’s crammed with more cargo than most New Guineans could ever imagine. But why? That’s what Yali wanted to know. How did our worlds ever come so different?

By framing the question in this way, the show is forced to portray New Guniea as a land of poor people, and the US as a land of wealth. Although we are told that there are intelligent people from New Guniea, they are portrayed as hunter gatherers, or poor farmers. While the show does show the hubub of urban New Guinea at the end, one would hardly know that there is internet access in the country.

This gets to the fundamental problem I have with JD’s question. While it is interesting and important to ask why technologies developed in some countries as opposed to others, I think it overlooks a fundamental issue: the inequality within countries as well as between them. I assure you that logging industry executives in New Guinea live better than you or I do! Both New Guinea and the United States are far more unequal (by some measures) than is India. Moreover, inequality throughout the world is increasing more rapidly now than every before.

Although it is a contentious argument, economist Amartya Sen argues that inequality within countries can be more important than inequality between countries. I’ve collected a bunch of writings about this question on my wiki, and there was some lively discussion about it in response to this earlier Savage Minds post. But the main point Sen makes is that people in societies that are objectively poorer, but less unequal live longer than people who are objectively wealthier, but at the bottom rungs of a more unequal society. It doesn’t help to have more cargo if you can’t afford the dental work necessary to meet new standards of beauty. (Read this post about a US woman who couldn’t get promoted because of her teeth.)

Yes, it is interesting to know the environmental constraints societies have struggled against over the course of history, but it is a mistake to see this as an explanation of contemporary inequality.

To take a recent example, Nigeria (environmentally blessed with some of the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East) used to be one of the richest countries in the world. Corruption, aided by Western banks who provided the means of funneling the majority of the nation’s GDP into private bank accounts, and deep cultural divisions between North and South, destroyed that wealth. Yet there are still many, many, millionaires and billionaires in Nigeria, and their collective wealth would be enough to give them plenty of “cargo” …

So, no offense to Yali, but his question should be:

Why is cargo distributed so unequally both within and between our societies?

Once you frame the question that way, environmental factors seem rather incidental.

UPDATE: Brad DeLong, points out that I overstated my case with the Nigeria example. However, I still think my overall argument still stands. The comparative wealth of Nigeria is less important for my point than the inequitable distribution of that wealth within Nigeria.

I would also add that the poor farming conditions DeLong speaks of are partially a result of the oil economy:

During the oil boom, Nigeria’s small family farms became marginalized. Women and children largely ran the farms as men sought work in the cities’ industrial-development schemes, which were heavily subsidized by petroleum wealth.

UPDATE: My discussion with Professor DeLong continues in the comments section of this post – which also has links to discussion on other sites.

Anthropology’s Guns, Germs, and Steel Problem

Kerim suggested Savage Minds mount a response to the recent “PBS special”:http://www.pbs.org/previews/gunsgermssteel/ (link courtesy of Kerim) on the theories of self-described polylingual polymath “Jared Diamond”:http://www.truthout.org/docs_05/010805G.shtml (scroll down to “about the author”). Rex, our Melanesianist and thus an obvious choice to take up the task, was unfortunately departing for China just at that time. None of the rest of us leapt at the job, though we all conceded it was a worthy idea. Our collective reluctance points, I think, to anthropology’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0393317552/qid=1122176923/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl14/002-8361077-2211200?v=glance&s=books&n=507846 problem.

Has this ever happened to you? You are at a party, or perhaps a family gathering, or maybe even just standing in line at the DMV when the person next to you strikes up a conversation. If they don’t start talking to you about Indiana Jones at the mention of anthropology, there is a fair chance they’ll bring up GG&S – expecting that you just love the book. Now you’re in a pickle. Diamond showily positions GG&S as the definitive anti-racist take on human history. If you say you don’t really care for it, your interlocutor is likely to get a slightly baffled look on her face. What could you possibly mean, you don’t like Diamond’s noble tome? Are you… a racist? To explain why you don’t like the book would take more time than most people making friendly small talk want to spend, and – worse yet – your explanation will necessarily impugn the motives of people who do like it, a group that you now know includes the person with whom you are speaking. My own usual reaction in such encounters is to say that unfortunately I have not read the book but that boy, it sure does sound interesting. Continue reading