One torrid afternoon, I journeyed with an Indigenous Marind woman and her family to a patch of razed forest at the edge of the plantation frontier, where workers had cleared the way for oil palm trees. Her name was Circia*. A mother of three in her late 50s, Circia was imposing, but her footsteps were gentle, almost silent when she led us across the wet soils of Merauke, a district in the Indonesian-controlled western half of New Guinea known as West Papua. The patch of former forest that we travelled toward that hot afternoon in May 2016 was a sacred site that belonged to her clan, forming part of the customary territory of the Marind peoples, which today number around 600 families. Though the Marind rely directly on the forest for their everyday livelihoods and subsistence, Circia had not journeyed here with her three children and nine grandchildren to forage or hunt. They had come to mourn.
Towering piles of felled trees surrounded us, ripped from the soil days earlier to make way for a 50,000-hectare oil palm plantation. Among and between the trees lay the bodies of plants and animals who had once inhabited this sacred place. The air was stiflingly hot and still. It was quiet, too, until a distant chainsaw ripped to life. Somewhere in the remaining patches of forest, plantation workers were clearing the way for more oil palm.
I visited Merauke between 2011 and 2019 while doing long-term ethnographic fieldwork with the Marind. I came to learn how they understood the spread of oil palm in their home of West Papua, which has been under Indonesian rule since the 1960s. But during the 18 months that I lived with Marind communities along the upper banks of the Bian River, Circia and her kin taught me something else: the arts of mourning. This was not only a mourning for people, but for trees, animals and ecosystems.
In our age of planetary unravelling, mourning has become a crucial disposition. It is one that allows us to acknowledge and grieve loss, but also to create or revive connections with more-than-human others. [Continue reading…]