International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples: Celebrating the Custodians of Global Biocultural Diversity, A Guest Post by Sophie Chao

Today marks the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, an observance instituted by the United Nations in 1994 to celebrate the protection and promotion of the rights of Indigenous Peoples globally. The date of this observance —9 August —commemorates the first meeting in 1982 of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, a platform pioneered by and for Indigenous Peoples and a precursor to the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which assists UN Member States in implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

 Alongside its significance as a testament to Indigenous Peoples’ historical and ongoing efforts to secure recognition of their rights on the international stage, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples offers an important opportunity to reflect upon and acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ vital role as custodians and guardians of biodiversity. Numbering around 300 – 500 million, Indigenous Peoples represent approximately six percent of the world’s population and own, occupy or otherwise make use of some twenty-two percent of global land area. Yet Indigenous Peoples protect over eighty percent of global biodiversity —even as their roles as holders of ecological knowledge and as intergenerational environmental custodians continue to be denied due recognition.

Recognizing and supporting Indigenous Peoples’ vital contributions to environmental health and sustainability is becoming all the more urgent in the age of the so-called “Anthropocene,” an epoch in which large-scale industrial and extractive activities are undermining conditions of life on a planetary scale and thwarting the shared futures and relations of human and other-than-human communities of life. This epoch finds root in violent histories of imperial incursion, settler-colonization, and racial capitalism. The afterlives of these histories continue to entrench the logic of accumulation through dispossession on the one hand, and the fictive division of the human from the non-human on the other —both of which run deeply counter to Indigenous philosophies, protocols, and practices of more-than-human coexistence.

Over the last decade, I have had the immense privilege of encountering and understanding this ethos of more-than-human relationality through the course of long-term ethnographic fieldwork I conducted among the Marind-Anim, an Indigenous People inhabiting the Indonesian-colonized region of West Papua, whose customary lands, forests, and territories are rapidly giving way to state and corporate-owned monocrop oil palm plantations. In this rural area, mass deforestation and agribusiness expansion are radically undermining Marind’s livelihoods, food security, health, and socio-economic conditions of life. Just as importantly, these transformations are severing Marind from their intimate and ancestral relations to myriad forest organisms with whom they share common descent from ancestral spirits and with whom they entertain relations of reciprocal nurture and care —sago palms, cassowaries, birds of paradise, rivers, rocks, soils, mangroves, and many, many more. Each of these living entities’ futures are jeopardized by the incursion of oil palm monocrops. Each of these jeopardized futures in turn undermine Marind’s ability to become-with plants, animals, and elements, in ways that are bioculturally, spiritually, and ethically meaningful

Much like Marind extend agency, sentience, and personhood to their native forest kin, so too they consider the plant of oil palm to be endowed with its own particular kind of animacy, needs, and desires. On the one hand, the proliferation of this introduced cash crop undermines multispecies forest futures by destroying the environments necessary for Marind and their other-than-human kin to survive and thrive. And yet, as Marind often remind me, oil palm itself is also subject to the dictates of human, biotechnological, institutional, and economic prerogatives. For this reason, Marind whom I worked often expressed pity and compassion towards oil palm —a plant that they described as an assailant, invader, and colonizer, but whom they also empathized with as a suffering victim, uprooted orphan, and object of technocapitalist violence. Oil palm, then, exists to Marind not only as a driver of more-than-human destruction, but also as a rightful subject of multispecies justice and a potential ally in emergent forms of multispecies solidarity.

There is something incredibly powerful about Marind’s multiplicitous characterizations of oil palm. Marind refuse to reduce oil palm to any singular ontology —good or bad, friend or enemy, or plant or person. In doing so, my companions articulate a kind of epistemic resistance to the homogenizing logic of the plantation itself —a material form and enduring ideology that lies at the heart of Western colonial logics and a nature-culture divide that may be fictive, but whose violent effects ripple within and across species lines. Instead, Marind ways of knowing and relating to both native forests and introduced monocrops speak to their sense of self, struggle, and survivance as more-than-human processes. Within these processes, the fates and futures of beings both human and non-human, and lively and lethal, are at stake. In this age of planetary unraveling, Marind philosophies of more-than-human coexistence thus bring us to reimagine which beings count in the world, and which worlds get to count.

For a non-Indigenous scholar like myself, operating within a discipline (anthropology) that has historically been instrumental to furthering colonial agendas, the labor of reimagining more-than-human relationality has demanded that I attempt to do justice in my writings to the richly complex and transforming ways in which Indigenous Peoples themselves experience, theorize, and contest the attritive effects of colonial-racial-capitalist regimes on Indigenous ways of being, thinking, and doing. Just as importantly, it has meant centering in my work the knowledges of Indigenous scholars and practitioners, in a collective effort to challenge the hegemony and boundaries of established intellectual canons. Thinking-with Indigenous scholars brings to the fore oft-effaced dimensions of more-than-human coexistence—Christine Winter’s framing of plants, animals, and land as subjects of dignity, for instance, Makere Stewart-Harawira’s attention to the sacrality of ecology within Indigenous spiritualities, Max Liboiron’s critique of the ambiguous alignment of environmental science with the colonial project, and Kim TallBear’s invitation to think beyond “species” in reimagining planetary animacies.

As my Marind companions in West Papua remind me, a Day (officially observed and recognized or not) matters only so much as what one does with it —practically, intellectually, affectively. Today, my friends tell me they plan to sit by the highways and mourn their forest kin-turned-roadkill. They will visit former sago groves and pay their respects to deceased and uprooted plants. They will weave rattan bags in the forest and sing to the birds and animals who once populated them. They will also celebrate the stories of the rocks and rivers who birthed them, exalt the rains and soils that hold them, and praise the wetness and skin that bind them.

An Asian woman with long dark brown hair swept off to the side smiles at the camera. She is wearing a blue shirt and a necklace with a round blue pendant.
Photo by Louise M. Cooper

These acts of reverence, my companions explain, will be about grief and loss, but also about continuance and resistance. They speak to the indissociability of human and other-than-human beings, becomings, and belongings as an expression of what Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart and Tamara Kneese might term “radical care” —that is to say, a refusal not to care, even in the face of violent multispecies presents and potentially darker multispecies futures. In doing so, these acts of remembrance celebrate Indigenous lands and lives whose stories have been violently stolen, silenced, and sanitized, yet that remain vibrant sites and sources of Indigenous survivance, continuance, and resurgence.

Sophie Chao is Discovery Early Career Research Award Fellow and Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Sydney. She is the author of In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua and co-editor of The Promise of Multispecies Justice. Watch the trailer for In the Shadow of the Palms here. Save 30% on In the Shadow of the Palms with coupon E22CHAO.

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