A tree of many lives: Vegetal teleontologies in West Papua

Sophie Chao


In this article, I analyze the ontology of the African oil palm among indigenous Marind communities in Merauke, West Papua. This introduced cash crop is conceptualized by Marind as tree and person, assailant and victim, and stranger and kin. Its ontology further multiplies through its material manifestations as plant, part, and product—from an individual stand to monocrop plantation, and from seedling to packaged oil. Drawing from two ethnographic accounts of negotiations between Marind and state and corporate actors, I then examine how Marind strategically foreground or background different facets of oil palm’s reality to serve the political ends of their activism, producing what I call “teleontologies,” or ontologies that serve an instrumental purpose. Essentializing the reality of oil palm is deemed necessary by many Marind for indigenous activism to succeed. But such essentializations are also deeply contested and can backfire unintentionally on the indigenous activists who deploy them.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/709505