Anthropology and Environment Society
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
This study of the Abun people is based on the convergence of three remarkable characteristics of contemporary Papua, the Indonesian half of New Guinea: 1) it’s vast tracts of tropical rainforests contain extravagant biodiversity and large “carbon stores” considered a priority for international climate change mitigation efforts; 2) an ongoing proliferation of infrastructure development and government administration that is rapidly transforming Papuan landscapes and societies; and 3) ambivalence concerning culture and indigenous identity, which is both a source of pride as well as shame for many Papuans eager to shed a longstanding stigma of primitivity, a process they frequently refer to as “becoming human.” I explore how one ethnic group in West Papua, the Abun of Tambrauw, struggle to determine the role of their culture in the face of rapid change, particularly in relationship to conservation discourses and practices. Conservationists working in Papua – having learned from a previous generations’ failure with “fortress conservation” approaches – emphasize customary land rights and support incorporating indigenous values and practices into governance. The Abun, like many indigenous peoples, are proud of who they are, but “who they are” is rapidly changing due to external and internal forces, a fact the Abun people find both exhilarating, and disturbing. “Culture” is frequently raised in discourses and policy discussions conservation and sustainable development by the local government and supporting CSO’s, but in my research I found engagement with indigenous culture to be superficial in practice, in part because culture and identity resist institutionalization and bureaucratic action.