Sunday, April 15, 2018

Stuart Kirsch's "Engaged Anthropology"

Stuart Kirsch is professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. His earlier work was influenced by two decades of advocacy on behalf of the Yonggom (or Muyu) people in New Guinea, including their response to the environmental impact of the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine. He is the author of Reverse Anthropology (2006) and Mining Capitalism (2014).

Kirsch applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Engaged Anthropology: Politics beyond the Text, and reported the following:
In Engaged Anthropology, I tackle questions about engaged research head-on, examining projects in which I have been involved in a number of different countries in the Pacific and the Amazon, as well as on campus. In particular, I ask whether engaged research methods produce adequate ethnographic description, whether they contribute to constructive political outcomes, and whether they provide results that are of value beyond the immediate context.

On page 99, I describe an attempt to establish a conservation and development project in Papua New Guinea in the 1990s. I originally visited the area to assess whether such initiatives offer viable alternatives to destructive forms of resource extraction like the Ok Tedi mine.

Page 99 describes differing attitudes towards development and protection of the environment among the four groups of people living in the Lakekamu River basin. For example, the Kurija reject:
mining and logging projects because of their likely impacts on wildlife and the local river system… Cut off from their political allies in the mountains to the east, and unsuccessful in their ventures in the closest urban centers of Kerema and Port Moresby, the Kurija regard subsistence agriculture and hunting as an integral part of their future; and consequently, they recognize the need to protect the resources of the river basin… Practical reliance on local resources, rather than conservation in the abstract, fuels Kurija desires to protect the Lakekamu River basin… In addition, by presenting themselves as responsible guardians of the southern half of the Lakekamu River basin, they hoped to gain support from Conservation International in their territorial disputes [with their neighbors].
In contrast,
The Kovio response to the initiatives sponsored by Conservation International differed significantly from the positions taken by their neighbors. Given their participation in the cash economy and their comparative political clout, they speak more favorably and confidently about the prospects of development... The Kovio make broad claims to much of the territory in the Lakekamu basin; and in the recapitulation of historical patterns of exchange, they regard the economic agenda for this territory as theirs to dominate.
The other two groups in the area
responded positively to some of the economic initiatives proposed by Conservation International… The major concern for the Biaru was that they continue to enjoy unimpeded access to their artisanal mining projects in the hills and mountains to the northeast… And while the Kamea had no objection to the projects proposed by Conservation International, they were equally interested in exploring other development options.
In revisiting an earlier article I wrote on the initiative, I acknowledge that while my ethnographic research correctly identified the reasons why the conservation project would ultimately fail—due to competing land claims and divergent aspirations for the future of the Lakekamu River basin—I remained optimistic about its prospects. Thus, the chapter shows how engaged anthropologists may be influenced by their desire to contribute to alternative outcomes.

Like the other examples discussed in the book, page 99 provides candid insight into the largely unexamined “backstage” of engaged research.
Visit Stuart Kirsch's webpage.

The Page 99 Test: Mining Capitalism.

--Marshal Zeringue