Current Research Project
Agriculture under the gold mine
In my current project, I am exploring the relationship between mining and local agriculture. I’m interested in understanding how mining and mining labor opportunities shape local resource practices, especially with respect to cash crops and subsistence gardens. In addition to interviews, participant observation and garden surveys, I am trying to get a sense for land use through GIS mapping techniques. In 2001 my Biangai assistants and I surveyed every yam, sweet potato and coffee garden in two neighboring communities. One community is the beneficiary of a medium sized gold mine, the other is outside the mining area. The mine at the time was still under exploration.
During June and July of 2011, we repeated these surveys. Ten years had past, and much had changed. The mine started production, and along with production started to employee greater numbers of Biangai. However, while 100% of the households in the mining beneficiary community had at least one person working for the mine, only 13% of the households in the neighboring community had such opportunities. The impact on agriculture was notable.
With funding from the Wenner Gren Foundation, three academics summers (2014-2016) will be spent examining the impact that mining labor and training opportunities are having on community agriculture and sociality. The planned project will be comparative in that research will take place in two Biangai communities: Winima, adjacent to a large-scale gold mine that started production in 2009, and Elauru, which is outside the ambit of mining development. After many years of exploration, Harmony (South Africa) and Newcrest (Australia) built the Hidden Valley Gold mine on land controlled partially by Winima landowners, who gain income from royalties and are given priority access to employment and community education programs in business, health, etc. Neighboring Elauru villagers, however, are largely excluded from these benefits, and receive only limited opportunities to work for the mine. For both communities, swidden agriculture is of central importance: yam (Dioscorea spp.) gardens are critical for depicting enduring social relations between ancestors and their descendants; sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) gardens are the subsistence base produced throughout the year; while coffee, grown as a cash crop, provides money for purchasing store-bought items, paying school fees, etc.
However, at its core, Biangai agriculture centers on the yam garden. Planting a yam is a process of claiming land in the present and for one’s descendants. These gardens are managed by cognatic kinship groups which ensure that both men and women inherit land and resource rights from male and female parents and grandparents. Preferred marriages reunite parcels of land (and families) giving the couple rights in conjoined garden areas. The practices associated with yam gardens can likewise be seen in the practices of tending to other crops, where an emphasis on sociocentric subjectivities is expressed through a continued reliance on kin groups. Thus, the intersection of neoliberal economics and garden practices has significant implications for community identity, gender, and social relations. Combining geospatial and ethnographic approaches, this project will develop our understanding of experiences and processes of agricultural change by comparing villages with different levels of participation in the mining economy.
As an extension of my primary research in Morobe Province, I am examining the historical encounter of naturalists and miners. While the township of Wau has a noted history of mineral exploration and exploitation, there is an interesting parallel history of biological exploration and one might say exploitation. Of particular interest is the emergence of Wau Ecology Institute, founded by J. Linsley Gressitt. Gressitt was a rather well known, well published figure within entomology. Based originally out of the Bishop Museum, Gressitt founded the Wau Ecology Institute in 1961, and was its director until his death in 1982.
This project explores Gressitt’s role in Pacific entomology, the connections between Wau and biological research, and local interactions with naturalists over the course of almost 90 years.