I took this photo exactly one year ago today on the East shore of Buka Island, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. I also recently wrote an Anthropology essay on the experience, a significantly modified version of which I have added below. As part of Decolonising Environmentalism, I hope there will be more discussions around conservation and animal rights which genuinely prioritise the voices and perspectives of indigenous people, many of whom have some of the smallest environmental impacts yet have endured some of the longest running genocides and ecocides in history.
For more information on Decolonising Environmentalism, please do check out the amazing work of Survival International and to find out more about the history of Bougainville, please read this insightful article by New Internationalist and the Brighton based organisation Solidarity South Pacific.
Tsibong, Peace! x
Coming out of the shell
Having spent much time in Papua New Guinea and particularly Bougainville, I have long been intrigued by Melanesian approaches to environmentalism, from forest agriculture (planting produce without logging trees), to certain cosmological approaches, of human souls transcending through plants.
Along with West Papua’s inspiring fight against Indonesian colonialism and environmental destruction, of the most incredible struggles for environmental justice has been Bougainville’s campaign against the Panguna mine, which was successfully closed down in 1989. The people of Bougainville fought a brave struggle against Rio Tinto, international mercenaries and the Australian and PNG governments. Over 20,000 Bougainvillean people (over 10% of the population) died in the crisis until peace was finally won in 2002. Bougainvilleans successfully fought for their self-determination and will have their own historic independence referendum in October this year.
Watch the trailer for The Coconut Revolution documentary about Bougainville below
As the Bougainville Interim Government stated in the early 2000’s, ‘Bougainvilleans agree that environmental concerns cannot be disasssociated from human concerns. “Environment” encompasses both ecological and cultural rights; the two are too often sacrificed side by side. Government tactics such as forced evictions and population transfers are part and parcel of development that, in the name of economic growth, justify ecological destruction and the dispossession of peoples.’
While I am highly wary of romanticising indigenous peoples, I have always assumed that with such attitudes to the environment, Melanesian societies were far more ecologically sustainable than my own and as an environmental activist, my concept of animal rights has been cornerstone of such ecological sustainability.
My perspective evolved considerably last year on the island of Buka, in the North part of Bougainville where I was returning to a village (which I won’t name here) on the East shore. As I approached, I heard many people calling me to come and look at the goroto someone had caught. Just before I got to the house, I saw a delighted looking man surrounded initially by a sizeable crowd and carrying a huge sea turtle. Lots of children craned into see, full of excitement at this amazing and rare catch. As the crowd began to disperse, the man asked me to take a photo of him with the turtle (this is it). The gentle giant of a reptile was obviously very distressed and was doing its best to flail about as if it was still at sea.
Hopefully anyone who has been to Buka island knows that in many places (including in this village) it is often a dangerous struggle just to get fresh water. Every day literally involves death defying climbs down perilous cliffs to collect kokoei (spring water mixed with sea water). Most food comes from gardens but crop failures from heatwaves can be devastating and climate change means that this is now likely to increase, with rising sea levels threatening to destroy the only sources of freshwater on much of the East shore. The 8 year long blockade imposed by the Papua New Guinea government at the advice of Australia also caused widespread lack of food, lack of access to medical supplies and loss of life. Even today, everyone talks about how Bougainville is literally the last place to receive anything from the central government and without seafood there would also be next to no meat at all.
Detailed map of Bougainville with Buka island to the North West.
Anyway, returning to the turtle, for people here sea turtle meat means a lot and would be shared out with many families in the community. As far as I’m aware, if this particular species of turtle is endangered, there was no awareness of this in the village, nor did I myself know that most sea turtles were endangered until several months later. I did however, know immediately that despite my personal feelings about wanting to see the turtle swim freely in the ocean again, I had absolutely no right (or want) whatsoever to tell Bougainvilleans what they could and could not eat. How outraged would most Westerners be if a Bougainvillean person came into their kitchens and told them they were not allowed to eat anything containing palm oil because it was responsible for environmental destruction and the forced displacement of human beings?
I left quite soon afterwards as I didn’t want to see the turtle being cut up but I was told by several people that they felt sad killing a turtle because they had “human eyes” and that just before you kill a turtle (with a blow to the back of the head) it “cries”. It was not until the evening when I discovered that I had been inadvertently eating the turtle with dinner that I began to reflect on environmental hypocrisy. Considering the decades of civil war in Bougainville, I became ashamed at how I had cared so much for a turtle, when every Bougainvillean I know has relatives who died in the war. In many conversations I have had with Westerners about this whole incident, people have expressed disgust and anger at how a turtle could possibly be eaten, yet they expressed little more than sympathy when I explained that over 20,000 Bougainvilleans died during the crisis. Many cannot see the link between the copper and gold in their devices (which we are all using now to read this post), and the mining companies which are responsible for the environmental destruction, killing and displacement of thousands of human beings in the Global South.
I believe that the deaths, suffering and poverty of people in the Global South has become ‘hypernormalised’ by the media to the extent that people feel more sympathy and more compelled to act when animals are mistreated than when they see bombs dropped on Syria or people starving to death in Yemen. Racism is embedded so deeply in our society that the suffering of people of colour is seen as inevitable and even “natural”, but the deaths of cute animals like turtles seem to be considered far more abhorrent, even when they are being eaten by people who rely on such food to feed their families.
This is made all the more serious by increasing cases of conservation organisations like the WWF funding highly militarised “wildlife militias” in Global South countries, who have been torturing indigenous people and forcing them from their own lands in the name of conservation.
There needs to be a conversation about animal rights in relation to people’s genuine needs of feeding themselves and their communities. Who are we, living as we do with so much privilege and many of us consuming in a day more than many people do in a week, to dictate to people in the Global South that certain animals are either too rare, too clever or just too cute to eat? Would Westerners react with just as much anger had I told them of endangered molluscs being eaten?
We condemn people for eating animals we judge to be special, while rarely if ever checking where the food we buy even comes from or if the species we consume are endangered. How many species have become endangered or extinct through colonialism? Let alone how many indigenous people have been the victims of genocide and slavery to build up the wealth and ever greater consumption of the Global North?
Watch Survival International’s comparison of contemporary conservation to colonialism below
Why are sea turtles endangered in the first place? It’s not because villagers in places like Buka have been catching them in canoes. Westerners condemn small scale hunting by indigenous people, but do we care that the palm oil from the food we buy contributes to the deaths and displacement of thousands of people and the destruction of the environment in places like occupied West Papua? And if we do care about palm oil then is our focus only on cuddly orangutans or on human beings in the Global South being killed by military backed multinational corporations?
A genuine concern for animal rights and conservation must start with the people who live with and around the animals in question. It is no romantic fallacy to state that there are no better conservationists than indigenous people themselves. When I examine the facts, I can honestly state that Melanesian societies are indeed far more ecologically sustainable than my own. We all have an obligation to fight against environmental destruction in our own communities while standing in solidarity with the human and environmental rights and decisions of others, especially those living in societies long dis-empowered and exploited through colonialism and ecocide.
Subsequently, I would highly recommend checking out and supporting a number of organisations working to Decolonise Environmentalism and support indigenous rights in general.
Survival International is an organisation supporting the rights of indigenous and tribal people around the world and it fights against colonial approaches to conservation and environmentalism which continue to cause the suffering and displacement of many indigenous people.
Climate Justice Alliance is a movement dedicated to Climate Justice and strives for a just transition to a carbon free world, including “redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations”.
La Via Campesina is a peasant led movement working to empower rural people to secure land, environmental and economic justice around the world,
So anyway, that’s the story behind this turtle and hopefully something to bear in mind when we next go food shopping and before we rush to judge people in the Global South for alternatives to Western versions of environmentalism.
Thats turtley it 🐢 (yes I know this is a tortoise emoji).