By: Grace Ingraham
Sophie is an environmental anthropologist and multispecies ethnographer. Sophie’s research has taken her to places such as a remote area of West Papua where she got to learn with the local Indigenous Marind population. Sophie is also a Postdoctoral Research Associate at University of Sydney’s School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry.
During a panel on multispecies relationships at the 2021 Food Matters and Materialities Conference, Sophie presented her research paper, “Sharing Skin, Tasting Wetness: Sago as Food, Matter, And Kin in West Papua.” After her fascinating presentation I had the opportunity to meet with Sophie and ask her questions about her work.
GI: To begin, I was wondering if you could briefly introduce who the Indigenous Marind population of West Papua are?
SC: The Marind are the Indigenous people of West Papua, New Guinea which is currently under occupation by Indonesia. The Marind are primarily hunter gatherers, which means that they rely on hunting, fishing and gathering for their subsistence. The Marind also have a very close and intimate relationship with the forest from which they derive their foods from.
The Marind number around six hundred individuals and within that there are subgroups. Each subgroup self identifies through an environmental landscape. For instance, there is the Marind of the coast which is separate from the Marind of the forest.
GI: In the title of your presentation, you refer to Sago as food, matter and kin which I thought was really interesting. Could you explain what Sago is? And how you became introduced to it?
SC: As an anthropologist, I always try to follow the topics that are of greatest interest to the people that I’m trying to learn from and think with.
The Sago Palm is a type of plant and a huge part of the Marind’s everyday life is about walking the forest to encounter Sago Palms which are used for their starch and act as a staple carbohydrate. Among the Marind, the Sago Palm is considered a kindred species, deserving of respect because of its importance to their everyday practices. However, unfortunately Sago Palms are increasingly threatened by deforestation and oil palm expansion which is destroying the Marind’s forest lifeworld.
GI: I noticed in your presentation that you used the phrase ‘forest foods are more than just foods’ – Could you elaborate on what that means?
SC: This is an expression which I heard over and over again throughout my eighteen months of field work spent with the Marind in West Papua. At the core of that statement, is the idea that food is something before it becomes something that humans eat. Food is: a plant; the soil that enables that plant to grow; an animal; and, the rivers that offer water to those animals. This demonstrates how food is about ecosystems and the multi-species world from which foods are derived.
To the Marind, plants, animals and ecosystems are anything but passive material resources. These resources are considered sentient, animate and out of the soul of personhood. You could even say these resources have a personality so when you’re eating food, you’re kind of eating a person. This demands a different kind of ethos and approach to what consumption means. In this sense, eating becomes a relationship between two agents, the human eater as one agent and food as the other. So that’s what they mean when they talk about food always being more than just food.
GI: In connection to your discussion on forest foods you used the term “gastrocolonialism” in your presentation. I was wondering if you could explain where that term comes from, what it means and why it is important?
SC: The term gastrocolonialism was first coined by the Indigenous Chamorro poet, scholar and activist, Craig Santos Perez, from the University of Hawaii. The term describes the ways in which capitalism is more than just a structure of control and disempowerment: it is also something we experience through our changing food systems. Craig specifically talks about the ways in which colonialism and imperialism have changed and impacted food-based ecologies, and the identity of Indigenous people in colonized parts of the world.
So, in my work, I have found it generative to think with Craig’s notion of gastrocolonialism and really try to think about colonialism through the gut, the metabolism and the nutritional dimensions of changing food systems. I focused on the erosion of traditional foodways and the substitution of these ways with commodified and imported foods that don’t have a place in Indigenous diets.
GI: How would you describe the concept of tasting wetness to someone that hasn’t had the opportunity to engage with your work yet?
SC: Wetness is a term that the Marind use, and it refers to the exchange of different fluids across living organisms which allow the Marind to thrive and survive. Living organisms include soils, rivers, and mountains because the Marind consider them to be animate. Therefore, I would explain tasting wetness as eating food in a way where you are conscious of the fact that you are taking in the wetness or life force of another sentient organism.
For instance, when you taste the wetness of Sago starch, you’re taking in the fluid of the Sago pit, trunk and its fruit. All these components came together to produce the organism that you are now consuming as food. Tasting wetness is also about being aware of the wetness of the human beings who have been involved in procuring and preparing the food that you’re eating. For instance, the Marind describe eating game as tasting the wetness of the hunters who captured the animal, touched it, prepared it, and then cooked it. So, tasting wetness is a rich cultural idiom that can be used to talk about the bodily connections established through eating foods and their labour relations.
GI: Earlier in the interview you mentioned how Sago Palms are being threatened by deforestation and oil palm expansion. Do you know of any work being done to protect the Marind’s traditional foodways against further oppressive influences and environmental damage?
SC: In the area I worked, the Marind have been involved in different campaigns and advocacy work over the past ten years since oil palm expansion began. This work is being done to address the violations to the Marind’s rights to land, food and culture. Food insecurity has been one of the major consequences of deforestation and has been raised in numerous complaints submitted by the Marind to the United Nations (UN). This has led to statements made by the UN directed towards the Indonesian government where they requested clarification on the situation and issued follow up investigations on the state of food security for the Marind.
However, despite the many attempts to bring the Marind’s cause to the public eye, advocacy campaigns have been limited by several factors. First, we’re talking about a very rural and remote part of West Papua, where it’s difficult for the UN and other bodies to gain access and engage directly with the community. Secondly, West Papua is a militarized and colonized part of Indonesia. This means that any sort of advocacy work or initiative has often been met with intimidation, harassment, prosecution, and other kinds of negative reprisals on the part of the military, corporations and state bodies.
So, initiatives are active but still struggling to secure and protect food and land rights. Often at cost of the Marind’s safety and security given the highly militarized and settler occupied dynamics that are present in Indonesia.
GI: Before we wrap up this interview, is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?
SC: The only thing I’d add is an invitation to continue thinking and asking questions. The Food Matters and Materialities conference has opened and brought in many decolonial perspectives and has encouraged individuals to think with Indigenous people who have always lived by a multispecies ethos. This offers proactive pathways to rethinking nutrition, diet and more broadly what it means to live well with non-human others from whom we derive our food. The Marind taught me that matter and meaning are deeply entangled and should be considered when choosing what food systems to participate in and contribute to.
GI: Thank you Sophie for taking the time to sit down with me and answer my questions. I have learned a lot about the Indigenous Marind population and their connection to Sago Palms. I have also gained a new perspective for thinking about food as living organisms and considering the labour relations involved when you eat a meal.
To learn more about Sophie’s work her book In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings is set to be released in Spring 2022 by Duke University Press. You can also visit her website More than Human Worlds through this link: https://www.morethanhumanworlds.com/
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.