State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Paige West, Environmental Anthropologist, Wins Guggenheim Fellowship

West in Papua New Guinea at the top of a canopy crane in Madang Province, 2019. (Ben Ruli)

Paige West has won her second prestigious award of 2021 and it’s only April. News of her Guggenheim Fellowship win this month follows closely on the heels of her selection as one of the Explorer’s Club 50 in February. She is one of two Earth Institute faculty to win the Guggenheim Fellowship this year, joining her colleague Sidney Hemming from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

West, who is the Claire Tow Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College and director of the Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University, reflected on her career thus far, and shared thoughts on what she’s doing next and what the Fellowship means for her.

According to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, these fellowships are offered “to exceptional individuals in pursuit of scholarship in any field of knowledge and creation in any art form, under the freest possible conditions.” What will you do with this opportunity?

Since 2010, because of the unprecedented climatic changes that the people who I work with in Papua New Guinea now have to understand and contend with in their daily lives, I have been conducting a study of climate-change related knowledge-making practices. In the research I ask: How do diverse groups of people make new knowledge about the changing climate? Are those knowledge making processes transforming along with the biophysical environments in which people live? Do people’s understandings of, and knowledge about, the places they live transform as their knowledge about climate change transforms? Are the affective connections that people have with place also changing as those places are transformed by climate related events?

This work began in New Ireland Province, where I have conducted research since 2008, and continued in the Eastern Highlands Province, where I have conducted research since 1997. But then it moved to unexpected places. Directed by the questions that elders across Papua New Guinea asked me about my family, friends, and student and how they understand climate change, I also conducted research in Georgia, where I am from, and in New York, where I live, as well as with some of my former Barnard and Columbia students and their families around the world. 

I have conducted participant observation for this project in both rural and urban sites in seven countries and I have interviewed long-time friends, collaborators, and colleagues in Papua New Guinea; former students and their families from Australia, India, Mexico and Botswana; family members in Georgia; colleagues in Europe, and friends in New York City. 

The Guggenheim Fellowship is supporting the completion of Aunty: A Prayer for the World, a book based on this research. The book will be a collection of eight interlinked ethnographic essays. In it, I’ll tell the stories of some of the people I’ve spent time with and some of the places where they make their lives, make their livings, have familial and non-familial connections to, and have both deep, and not-so-deep, historic connections with. 

As an environmental anthropologist, your work focuses on both culture and ecology. Can you tell us a little about the history of your scholarly interests? 

My training as an anthropologist began at the University of Georgia, where I studied anthropology in their MA program. Having come to anthropology after studying neuropsychology and sociology in college, I brought a background in both biological and sociological approaches to human behavior with me. I moved to anthropology because of a deep dissatisfaction with the lack of attention to cross-cultural explanations for behavior in my previous fields of study, as well as my interest in people’s relationships with their environments which, at the time, in the early 1990s, was under-addressed in both psychology and sociology. 

For my master’s thesis, I did a six-month long research project in which I examined the purchase and subsequent conservation of the Pinhook Swamp, a 68,000-acre swamp on the border of Georgia and Florida. The Pinhook connects the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia (the largest blackwater swamp area in North America) and the Osceola National Forest in Florida, creating the largest protected wetland in the American south. During that work I became fascinated by the discursive practices that enabled, resulted from, and authorized both the conservation of the Pinhook Swamp and the opposition to its conservation, and that is what I wrote my thesis about.  At the same time, I realized that I loved fieldwork. That I loved spending time in the swamp with the people who lived there, that I loved learning about how they used the plants and animals that they shared that space with, that I loved learning the ecology of the swamp and the behavioral ecologies of the creatures who make their homes there, and I realized that in order to understand these kinds of socio-ecological systems I would have to have a grounding in both anthropology and ecology. 

My long-term research experience in Papua New Guinea began with my dissertation fieldwork there in the mid-1990s, when I was a PhD student at Rutgers. Because of my MA project, I had experience with environmental conservation areas and the people who live in them and who use them for their livelihoods. So my advisors and  I decided that I should do my fieldwork in a place called the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area. At the time, this was the largest protected area in Papua New Guinea, and it was interesting because it was connected to the Bronx Zoo and The Wildlife Conservation Society. I was interested in asking questions about what happens when you have ideas about nature and culture that are generated from a very Euro-American tradition of understanding the natural world that are then transported to a very different context. This was the case at Crater Mountain: The Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area is owned by Indigenous people who have maintained their stewardship over the area for thousands of years, and who have an extraordinary system of social relations with their landscape. My first research there asked what happens when you have western science, and scientists, interacting with Indigenous knowledge keepers who use their lands, and the plants and animals on them, in traditional ways. 

As with my master’s thesis work, the part of my field research in Papua New Guinea that meant the most to me was the time that I spent with the stewards of the land. Every second that I spent in the forest with Indigenous hunters learning about animals was a treasure and every moment that I spent walking along the river banks or working in gardens with women and learning about plants was a gift. Those initial years in Papua New Guinea taught me that the extraordinary biodiversity that we find there, and in places like it, exists and is healthy because of the stewardship of the Indigenous people who hold those places in sovereignty. And it was that fieldwork that really set me on the road that I’ve been on for the past 25 years, a road that has had me writing academic books and papers and maintaining a university faculty position while at the same time thinking about how I can help to educate the broader public about the importance of Indigenous sovereignty.

You joined the faculty of Barnard College and Columbia University in 2001. Have your interests and topics of research evolved over these past 20 years? What’s the next chapter in your work?

I really can’t believe that I have been here that long! The biggest change in my work since I have been here has been a shift towards doing a combination of both what we might think of as “pure science” and a much more engaged kind of work that ties my scholarship to foster positive change in the world. 

My first book, Conservation is our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea (Duke University Press, 2006) emerged at the front of what has become a large literature in anthropology on “neoliberal conservation.” Part of my argument in it is that the hollowing out of state structures that supported environmental stewardship in Papua New Guinea during the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s created the conditions of 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 by white scientists from the global North. 

Another part of my argument was that these scientists rarely learned anything about the Indigenous communities who held highly biological diverse lands in their possession, and because of this they failed to see and understand in situ Indigenous practices that fostered conservation. Indeed, their projects and assumptions about how people living in forests use forests ultimately ended up hurting Indigenous systems of engagement with the natural world, and dispossessed these communities of sovereignty over their own 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 at the time for an untenured academic at a place like Barnard and Columbia 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 colleagues from the country and two colleagues from the United States in 2005. They had all read my first book and challenged me to do more than just critique conservation. 

PNGIBR is a small NGO that focuses 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 date we have over 30 professionals working in environmental conservation and economic development in Papua New Guinea who have been through PNGIBR’s programs. We work to create conditions where young people who have an interest in research can hone their scholarly skills with us and become competitive for international scholarships. 

Because of my work with PNGIBR, I met my long-term conservation collaborator John Aini, a fisheries management scholar from New Hanover Island, PNG. By 2008 John and I had come to the same conclusions about conservation: most conservation projects don’t work in Papua New Guinea, and one of the reasons is because they fail to take into account what Indigenous communities want from conservation. Together, we have developed a methodology for fostering local conservation consensus building that starts from the premise that conservation matters to communities because people maintain their livelihoods through their relations with their biophysical surroundings. Through the NGO Ailan Awareness, we have worked with numerous Indigenous communities to help them develop marine conservation plans based on Indigenous ecological practices and community plans for sustainability. In 2009 we co-founded the Ranguva Solwara Skul, in Kavieng Papua New Guinea, a school dedicated to teaching at the nexus of Indigenous and scientific knowledge. 

What are you most proud of about your work so far?

I’m proud that I have taken the extraordinary privileges I have as a tenured faculty member at one of the best schools in the world and turned them into a scholarly life that both helps us to understand the world and that makes the lives of the people I care about in Papua New Guinea better. 

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments