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Paige West Works to Uplift Indigenous Voices and Traditions in Papua New Guinea

paige west standing in shallow water along coast
Anthropologist Paige West’s work supporting Indigenous sovereignty over biodiversity in Papua New Guinea was recently recognized by the Explorer Club on its list of 50 people who are changing the world. Photo: J.C. Salyer

As we take steps toward a better world that is inclusive and equitable, Paige West is at the forefront, pushing boundaries in the field of anthropology. Her primary goal is to strengthen Indigenous sovereignty over biodiversity and tradition and to develop ways in which anthropological methods can add to this practice. She holds the Claire Tow Professorship in Anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University, where she serves as a director of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Social Difference. She has worked in Papua New Guinea since 1996, to understand biodiversity and traditions of Indigenous people and help them conserve their cultures, languages and environments. She is the author and editor of numerous books and the co-founder of two conservation-focused non-governmental organizations.

This work and her exceptional career recently received special recognition. She was selected among a pool of hundreds of nominees as one of the “Explorers Club 50: Fifty People Changing the World the World Needs to Know About.” The new honor was created by the 117-year-old organization to “not only reflect the great diversity of exploration, but to give a voice to these trailblazing explorers, scientists, and activists doing incredible work.”

In the Q&A below, West speaks about this honor and her transformative work.

The Explorers Club has spent more than a century celebrating the courageous game-changers of the world. It counts among its members the first to the North Pole, first to the South Pole, first to the summit of Mount Everest, first to the deepest point in the ocean, first to the surface of the Moon. How do you feel about being among the inaugural class of its “Fifty People Changing the World”?

I am deeply honored to be a part of the “Fifty People Changing the World” inaugural class. The Explorers Club has been thinking about its history and its future for the past few years and with that, they have been thinking about what inclusive and expansive science, art, activism, and scholarship can look like today and what it should look like going forward.

The other 49 people in the inaugural class are incredible as individuals and collectively we show a huge range of contemporary and timely interests and approaches in our work. But two things appear to me to run throughout everyone’s work. First, every person on the list seems to see that part of their role should be pushing their field forward in terms of uplifting and amplifying the voices and the work of others. No matter the scientific field, the form of activism, or the kind of job each person has, everyone is pushing towards making their field’s practice more diverse. And I don’t say “diverse” in a banal way that simply focuses on optics. I mean that if you look at everyone on the list, they all see a new vision of their field’s future that is better because more voices, approaches, and subject positions are brought to the table and centered. Second, everyone also has a focus on doing work in the world that transforms it in positive ways. Every single scholar on the list breaks down the previously assumed barriers between scholarship and practice, and every artist or activist on the list does work in the world that connects to the production of new knowledge. For me, as someone who has been doing engaged scholarship and working to uplift others for a long time, to be recognized in a group where everyone is doing that, is just incredible.

The Explorers Club recognized you in part because of your amazing work starting two NGOs in Papua New Guinea. Could you share more about this work, and what made you passionate about it?

My long-term experience in Papua New Guinea began with my first research there in the late 1990s. In that work, I examined the interventions associated with a biological conservation and economic development project in the rural mountains of the Eastern Highlands Province that had been conceptualized, designed, and funded by actors in the United States. That research resulted in my first book, which emerged at the front of what has become a large literature critiquing conservation as a neocolonial, neoliberal, and dispossessive practice.

Part of my argument in the book is that the hollowing out of state structures that had supported environmental stewardship in Papua New Guinea right after independence in the late 1970s created the possibility for international non-governmental organizations to come in and insert themselves in the role of the arbiters of conservation stewardship in the country. These NGOs were run exclusively, at the time, by white scientists from the Global North. Another part of my argument was that these scientists rarely learned anything about the Indigenous communities who had sovereignty over the highly biologically diverse lands that were targeted for conservation, and that because of this they failed to see, and understand, in situ Indigenous practices that fostered healthy plants, animals, and ecological systems. Their projects, and assumptions about how people living in forests used forests, ultimately ended up hurting Indigenous systems of engagement with the natural world and dispossessing these communities of sovereignty over their own biodiversity futures. My larger contribution was to show that this process had happened globally and not just in Papua New Guinea, but my real interest was critiquing conservation in Papua New Guinea so that it could become more equitable and connected to Indigenous ways of being in and seeing the natural world.

Something unusual, for an untenured academic anthropologist, came out of this initial work. Because I wanted to contribute to the project of conservation in Papua New Guinea through something more than critique, and to do so in a way that fostered Indigenous sovereignty over biodiversity futures, I co-founded the Papua New Guinea Institute of Biological Research (PNGIBR) with six of colleagues from Papua New Guinea and two colleagues from the United States. They had all read my first book and challenged me to do more than just critique conservation. They challenged me to contribute to changing conservation in Papua New Guinea and to work to support people from Papua New Guinea who wanted to become ecologists, biologists, environmental anthropologists, and conservation managers.

group photo
West with colleagues at the Papua New Guinea Institute of Biological Research, which she co-founded.

Working together, we created this incredible organization that focused on uplifting young people from Papua New Guinea. PNGIBR was a small NGO that focused on providing a pipeline for young scholars from Papua New Guinea to earn masters and doctoral degrees in the ecological and social sciences at international universities and then return to Papua New Guinea. To date, we have over 30 professionals working in environmental conservation and economic development who have been through PNGIBR’s programs. Working on this project changed my life and I would never go back to only writing scholarly books and papers. For me, practice-based work that is connected to my scholarship is the thing that keeps me hanging onto hope in what seems like a sometimes-hopeless world.

Through my work with PNGIBR, I met my long-term conservation collaborator John Aini. John is a fisheries management scholar from New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, and a maimai (an initiated leader and elder). By 2008, when we met, John and I had come to the same conclusions about conservation: that most big externally designed conservation projects don’t work in Papua New Guinea, and that one of the reasons why is because they fail to take into account what Indigenous communities want from conservation. Because of this, together with a bunch of elders from a range of communities in New Ireland, we developed a methodology for working with communities that focuses on helping them to revitalize social and ecological systems that they identify as needing to be revitalized. With this methodology and through the NGO Ailan Awareness, we have worked with a good number of communities now to help them develop conservation plans based on locally identified needs, desires, and interests. Most of these plans have included a mix of traditional Indigenous ecological practices and science-based management strategies.

paige west and john aini
West with long-time colleague John Aini, a fisheries management scholar from Papua New Guinea and community leader and elder. Photo: Mike Moore

In 2009, because we saw how much people wanted to work at this nexus, we co-founded the Ranguva Solwara Skul in New Ireland — a school dedicated to teaching at the nexus of Indigenous and scientific knowledge. The school, which is more like what people in the U.S. would think of as a summer camp model, brings K-12 students to Kaselock, where it is located, to learn from scientists and elders and to begin to think about the relationship between history, ecology, tradition, and today’s social and ecological problems.

With the EC50 program as one of the ways the Explorers Club begins to include more diverse people within its community, and as someone who has written extensively about the colonial, and contemporary, racist underpinnings of the very idea of “exploration,” do you see this as an effective way to do that?

As a scholar, when I think about the idea of “exploration,” my brain always immediately goes to the work of Bougainvillean literary critic Regis Tove Stella. In his masterpiece, Imagining the Other: The Representations of the Papua New Guinea Subject, he does a close reading of the colonial record to show how ideas about Indigenous people, the natural world, and exploration were always conjoined by British and Australian officials in colonial Melanesia, and how these ideas that constituted Indigenous people and their lands as sites for explorative extraction got lodged into the consciousness of people in the Global North. Since the early 2000s, building on his work, I’ve written ethnographically about international natural scientists, conservation enthusiasts, development practitioners, business people, gold miners, missionaries, and tourists who deploy an elaborated form of the same images that Stella identifies in order to achieve a whole host of goals in Papua New Guinea. Many of these people, in their representations of Papua New Guinea, also use the language of “explorers,” “exploration,” and “discovery” when they talk about themselves. In my second book, I show how the ideas about Papua New Guinea as “unexplored” and “undiscovered” create a complex and troubling market for commodities produced there. In my most recent book, I show how these enduring colonially grounded ideas about discovery and exploration in Papua New Guinea set the conditions of possibility for much of the racism, dispossession, and inequality that we see there today. So, as a scholar, the idea of exploration, when it is left critically unexamined, always throws up a red flag for me and I think we always need to be mindful of these histories and their contemporary material and social effects.

With that said, I think that the Explorers Club is grappling with its role in this history of exploration and I think is very brave of them to do so. My understanding is that their directors and members are having incredibly challenging dialogues to think through what it means to “explore” today both with attention to these histories and with attention to the relationship between them and most of the global crises that we all have to understand and work to fix today. This wonderful list that I have the honor of being on is not the only way that they have done this. They have an incredible public speaker series that has, for years, highlighted the scholarship of people working on climate change, the global oceans crisis, locally generated conservation projects, and the like. They have been champions of women in science — Sylvia Earl and Jane Goodall are members, as are a whole bunch of other incredible women. They have partnered with people and companies who are doing the most ethical tourism that I know about — companies and guides who have long-term relationships with Indigenous communities and who work with them to create forms of tourist experience that are guided by what communities want outsiders to know about them and see in the places that they live and own. And they have funded graduate students and undergraduate students from all over the world to do meaningful research into contemporary problems. They are doing this from a position of power and I believe they are following what I learned from J.K. Gibson-Graham’s work — that people in power need to repurpose institutions to do the good they want to see in the world. This is incredibly cool and I think all of this does a form of transformative work in terms of diversity for sure.

What is it about the work that you find the most rewarding?

Every single day I wake up, talk to or text with John Aini in New Ireland, and know that the work we are doing together makes people’s lives better and their environments healthier. That is a privilege and a joy. Then, I go and teach my classes and that is the second biggest privilege in my life. Right now, for example, I’m teaching a big class on the anthropology of climate change. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I get to spend time with very smart students who are keen to understand the socio-ecological causes for climate change and to think about mitigation, resilience building, and reparations. They inspire me and give me hope.

Sydney Williams is an intern in the Director’s Office at the Earth Institute.

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