Sylvan Sovereignty: Multispecies Struggles for Justice on the Papuan Plantation Frontier



In the colonial context of West Papua, Indigenous communities mourn the forests destroyed to make room for oil palm plantations. In this text, Sophie Chao describes how Marind people consider the struggle for “sylvan sovereignty” as mobilizing all human and other-than-human species whose lives depend on it or, on the contrary, participate in its demise.

Chao Funambulist 3
Marind activists participate in a land reclaiming protest. / Photo by Sophie Chao.

In a rural corner of West Papua, a group of villagers are returning home from a two-week foraging expedition in the forest. They bear handwoven sago fiber bags of all shapes and sizes across their backs and chests; but the bags are empty and dangling. With vast swaths of forest being replaced with industrial oil palm plantations, game that once abounded across the landscape is increasingly difficult to encounter. Birds and reptiles have fled in the wake of bulldozers and chainsaws. Aquatic critters, including fish, turtles, and crocodiles, have been poisoned by plantation pesticides, and are no longer captured or consumed by Marind. Oil palm trees surround the group all the way up to the entrance of their village, which marks the boundary of the plantation. Children emerge from the huts and shacks, clamoring for sago, rambutans, and taro. They walk away empty-handed and hungry. As dusk falls, the silhouettes of the towering oil palms cast ominous shadows over the village. The shadows stretch, grow, and extend, until eventually, darkness engulfs the landscape. A solitary owl hoots in the distance. Villagers say it is weeping the loss of its native forest to oil palm. And it is not the only one.

In West Papua and across the tropics, oil palm plantations are a major driver of deforestation, their expansion radically undermining forest biodiversity and ecosystemic health. The environmental impacts of monocrop expansion are particularly marked in Indonesia, the world’s top palm oil producing country and the source of nearly sixty percent of global palm oil exports. In the last decade, the Indonesian palm oil frontier has gradually moved east into West Papua, home to the world’s third largest rainforest after the Amazon and the Congo Basin. This eastward expansion is driven by growing international demand for renewable biofuels, as well as national economic development policies that frame Papuan forests as unused, un-owned, and idle land, freely available for conversion into productive resource frontiers by state and corporate actors. Oil palm developments in West Papua are also routinely promoted by the Indonesian government in achieving the aims of poverty alleviation, social advancement, and civilizational progress among the Indigenous inhabitants of West Papua, who have traditionally relied on the forest for their everyday subsistence and whose forest-based ways of life and livelihoods are often recast in state and corporate discourse as backward and primitive.