Risky environments: ethnographies and the multilayered qualities of appropriation
Location J
Date and Time 9th December, 2008 at 08:30


Sandy Toussaint (University of Western Australia) toussain@cyllene.uwa.edu.au
Laurent Dousset (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) laurent.dousset@pacific-credo.fr
Monica Minnegal (University of Melbourne) mmam@unimelb.edu.au
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel is focused on the anthropology of ecological risk. The convenors are especially interested in papers that integrate ethnography with theory. The aim is to explore complex processes of appropriation (for whom, when and why) in the field of human/environment inquiry.

Long Abstract

Humans everywhere experience the environment by physically and/or vicariously interacting with it in a range of culturally attuned ways. In an age when the implications of climate change, global warming and ecological risk are features of contemporary life, political debate, and scientific research, such interactions have increasingly intensified bringing with them familiar experiences alongside the added dimension of ecological risk. Anthropologists are regularly contributing to academic and applied research in this field, generally referred to under the rubric of human/environment studies. Within this sphere of thought and practice, research is often concentrated on the various ways in which people use, transform, make meaningful and/or privilege the ecological environments of which they are a part. By way of ethnographic examples, this panel aims to extend foci to broader epistemological issues that include attention to how these terms and concepts are constituted and claimed. Topics could include how, and to what extent, local responses to the 2004 tsunami have been appropriated, by whom and for what purpose? In what way has indigenous knowledge been adopted or refined when explaining people's positive, negative or dis-engaged responses to landscape transformation, such as when urban waste areas are re-constructed into tourist-friendly wetlands, natural environments are turned into commodities, forests are degraded by mining, and introduced species generate unanticipated stress? We are especially interested in papers that emphasise the value of epistemological transparency, and integrate theory with ethnography.

Discussant: Laurent Dousset

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Appropriating Fish, Appropriating Fishermen: Tradable Permits, Natural Resources and Existential Uncertainty

Authors: Monica Minnegal (University of Melbourne) mmam@unimelb.edu.au
Peter Dwyer (University of Melbourne) pddwyer@unimelb.edu.au

Short Abstract

This paper examines the implications for fish and for fishermen of the imposition of current risk management strategies, the ideology and logic of which are underwritten by reification, commensurabilty, categorization and anonymity.


In this paper we ask what happens to fish and to fishermen who are subjected to modern forms of risk management. On the first count, we are asking how fish are being or have been reconfigured in the imagination of, at the least, all those who have some tie to the fishing industry. On the second count, we are asking how the imagination of fishermen is being reconfigured by the imposition of management strategies that, ultimately, translate the uncertainties inherent in macro-level biological and economic systems into lived experience. The two trajectories of meaning are connected. Each influences the other and each entails an appropriation of understandings. We shall argue that the two trajectories are driven by the same process; a process, that, in summary, may be understood as disembedding and, more precisely, as implicit in an imposed ideology and logic that are underwritten by reification, commensurability, categorization and anonymity.

Jumping fish. rice and sago: the language of ecological risk and appropriation in rural Papua New Guinea

Author: Alison Dundon (University of Adelaide) alison.dundon@adelaide.edu.au

Short Abstract

This paper argues that, for the Gogodala of PNG, jumping fish, rice and sago are central to not only discussions of ecological risk and environmental transformation but also anxiety about the potential appropriation of local elements of this environment and thereby transformation of their village-based lifestyle


This paper explores understandings of ecological risk and environmental transformation among the Gogodala of Western Province, PNG, through an analysis of local discussions about two events that occurred in the 1990s. The first was the drought of 1997, which resulted in a series of devastating fires that swept through the Province and wiped out several large stands of sago palms. Sago is the staple of village-based Gogodala and the destruction of such important sources of sago poses a considerable threat to their livelihood. While in general villagers have met recent attempts by regional and national politicians to counter the paucity of sago with the cultivation and consumption of rice with little enthusiasm, there has been some concern about what such changes in diet and practice may represent. The second event was the appearance of a small hardy species of fish in the local waterways, which quickly came to dominate the traditional habitats of local fish species. Known as the 'stone' or 'jumping fish', it has become part of wider discussion about transformations of the local environment. In this dialogue, jumping fish, sago and rice have come to embody not only ecological and communal change but to represent potential attempts to appropriate indigenous connections to the local landscape that derive primarily from a daily interaction with ancestrally derived and constituted sago and certain species of fish and game.

Responses to heightened ecological risk among fishers in the Philippines

Author: Michael Fabinyi (The Australian National University) mike.fabinyi@anu.edu.au

Short Abstract

This paper examines local responses to marine resource management in the Calamianes isalnds, Philippines. I focus on how such responses were bound up in particular cultural values.


Fishers in the Calamianes Islands, Philippines, have seen declining fish catches and progressive environmental degradation in their fishing grounds since the late 1960s, when commercial fishing first began in the area. Since this period, fishing households have adopted strategies that usually have resulted in increased fishing pressure. Such strategies have included the use of destructive fishing techniques such as dynamite and cyanide; the expansion to new and more remote fishing grounds; the use of new gears and technologies; and the targeting of different species. In this paper, I focus on local responses to various forms of marine resource regulation that were implemented at the time of fieldwork. In particular, I analyse the significance of fishers' values that informed their opposition to such regulations.

Risky Places: Climate Change Discourse and the Transformation of Place

Authors: Christine Pam (James Cook University) christine.pam@jcu.edu.au
Rosita Henry (James Cook University) rosita.henry@jcu.edu.au

Short Abstract

This paper discusses results of a recent study on responses to climate change discourse on a coral atoll in Micronesia. We examine climate change research in terms of how it contributes to the constitution of ‘risky environments’, and focus on how the concept of ‘risk’ contributes to changes in the way people engage with and understand their island places.


Scientific predictions of climate change that place small islands 'at risk' from sea-level rise and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events are well accepted by Small Island States. This paper discusses results of a recent study on responses to climate change discourse on Moch Island, a coral atoll in the Mortlock Islands of Chuuk State, Federated States of Micronesia. Whilst a past history of human resourcefulness in response to social and environmental change in the Pacific is well documented in the literature, the contemporary phenomenon of climate change introduces the notion of risk and encourages doomsday scenarios. We examine climate change research that is focused on adaptation, vulnerability, and resilience, in terms of how such research contributes to the constitution of 'risky environments'. Our focus is on how the concept of 'risk' contributes to changes in the way that people engage with and understand their island places.

The land Was Smashed: Who Will Fix it?

Author: Judith Macdonald (Waikato University) jmac@waikato.ac.nz

Short Abstract

This paper examines the transformation of an island by a cyclone, and the effect this has had both on attitudes to the land and on internal power relations. There are also ideological repercussions from interventions by external eco-do-gooders.


In 2002 a serious cyclone devastated part of Tikopia, a small and isolated Polynesian outlier. Because of ethnic tension in the Solomon Islands at the time, the usual sources of relief (plant and building materials from other islands) were not supplied and the island was slow to recover. The Tikopia make an explicit connection between the bodies of the chiefs and the body of the land, the health of one reflecting and predicting the health of the other. This cyclone destroyed the villages and property of three of the four chiefs and scattered the bones of their dead. While other cyclones have caused destruction the villages were previously rebuilt on the same sites. This time, the chiefs lost confidence in the safety of their traditional sites and had to redefine their place on the island, both physically and in terms of power. The fact that the fourth chief had no damage to his village has caused some discussion of power, potency and status. A further complicating factor has been the intervention of some wealthy European yacht owners who, after seeing the destruction, decided to raise money and find expertise to repair the breach the cyclone made between lake and sea which caused the lake to become saline and freshwater fish to die. This private charitable enterprise was put into practice in 2006. The issues I will discuss cover identification with the land and damage to this identity as well as the effect of external eco-charity on internal power relations.

Board of Pollution: The new search for the perfect wave

Author: Patrick Laviolette (Tallinn University) patrick.laviolette@easaonline.org

Short Abstract

This paper outlines the development of certain task-networks amongst environmental pressure groups, charity campaigners and corporate surf companies who search to overcome the contradiction between using a toxic piece of sporting equipment and devising an ecologically sensitive alternative.


Surfers have recently been identified as perpetrators of a certain hypocrisy. Most abide by an ethos that pronounces the glorification of alternative lifestyles and a loving respect for nature, yet eschew to acknowledge a fundamental contradiction - that the contemporary pursuit of riding waves relies on an apparatus which is inherently offensive to the environment. The modern surfboard, made up of a toxic cocktail of plastics, resins, glues and fibreglass, is being held up as a model demon of un-sustainability in a world of growing ecological awareness. Hence, a niche for eco-friendly designs has opened up. Internationally, a handful of organisations have accepted the challenge of devising prototypes for green substitutes which are as light, durable and high performing as their synthetic counterparts. But benign alternatives, made up of biodegradable materials like hemp, potato peelings or wood veneer, face many public perception challenges. This paper outlines the development of certain task-networks amongst environmental campaigners, charity groups and corporate surf companies who are searching for green surrogates. Through ethnographic comparisons between Cornwall and New Zealand, I have begun research on the surf cultures of both these regions, mostly by examining such environmental pressure organisations as Surfers Against Sewage and Surfbreak Protection Society. Theoretically, the paper explores the relationship between risk perception, attention to consumption, awareness for the environment and appropriation of materiality when using benign vs non-benign products. The eco-surfboard thus stands as a material metaphor for the paradox that exists in terms of realigning behavioural change with shifts in public perception.