Bushfire Interview with Dr Sophie Chao

On Fire, the Climate Crisis and Environmental Anthropology

Dr Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Center. She received her PhD from Macquarie University in 2019 and holds a BA in Oriental Studies and a MSc in Social Anthropology from the University of Oxford. Sophie’s research explores the intersections of capitalism, ecology, and indigeneity in Indonesia. Her postdoctoral project deploys interdisciplinary methods to explore the nutritional and cultural impacts of agribusiness on indigenous food-based socialities, identities, and ecologies. For more information on Sophie’s research, please visit www.morethanhumanworlds.com.

You recently submitted your PhD and were awarded the Vice-Chancellor's commendation, and an AAS prize for your work. Congratulations! Could you please tell us a little about your research?

"As an environmental anthropologist, I’m interested in how human societies, past and present, engage in material and imaginative terms with the natural world. Over the last five years, I’ve been researching how indigenous Marind communities in the Indonesian-controlled region of West Papua experience, conceptualize, and contest the adverse social and environmental impacts of deforestation and monocrop oil palm expansion on their customary lands and territories. Drawing from long-term ethnographic fieldwork in rural West Papua as well as my participation in indigenous Marind communities’ anti-oil palm land rights campaigns, my thesis explores how radical ecological transformations reconfigure Marind’s relationships to forest plants and animals with whom they entertain ancestral and intimate forms of kinship. In theoretical terms, my work is very much inspired by posthumanism and the “plant turn” more particularly – an interdisciplinary current that moves beyond treating plants in purely functional and representational terms, and instead foregrounds the role of plants as sentient, communicative agents in their own right. Alongside my research on changing plant-human relations in the context of capitalist incursions, I’m now embarking on a new project that explores indigenous ecophenomenologies of hunger and satiety in West Papua."


You have previously done applied work for the Forest Peoples Programme, as well as consulting for UNESCO. You also spoke at the ANSA applied anthropology panel in December. What kind of work can anthropologists do in applied environmental contexts? What kind of work did your positions entail?

"Speaking at the ANSA Applied Anthropology Panel was a wonderful reminder of the diversity of ways in which anthropologists can contribute to concrete and positive change in the worlds they study, and I’m very grateful to have been invited. In terms of applied environmental contexts more specifically, anthropologists do work across a range of different themes – conservation, sustainability, development, resource management, and more – and within a range of different institutions – non-governmental organizations, government bodies, research centres, the private sector, and so forth. Anthropologists can play important roles across these various institutions and contexts because they bring a number of critical skills to the table. For instance, they are attentive to the connections between local and global environmental transformations and forces. They also take the perspectives of diverse stakeholders seriously and try to identify common ground across these perspectives in a culturally sensitive and historically informed manner. These were the kinds of skills that were central to the work I did at Forest Peoples Programme and, to a lesser extent, UNESCO. In the former, I was primarily involved in documenting human rights abuses in the palm oil sector through long-term investigative research with indigenous communities in oil palm plantations across Indonesia. In the latter, I was involved in drafting policy documents about gender, literacy, and health in Africa. In both positions, what I could bring to the table was an awareness of the ways in which culture shapes the way different actors understand and relate to the environment (built and natural, infrastructural and political), an understanding of the challenges involved in reconciling these diverse understandings in the context of power dynamics, local practices, and global forces, and a commitment to taking all of these understandings seriously."


Is there any further advice or encouragement you would like to give for those looking to work as an applied anthropologist or researcher in environmental anthropology?

"The environmental crises of the present are unprecedented in scope, magnitude, and impact. As such, now is a particularly important time for anthropologists to apply their skills to help better understand, address, and effect change in the ways we engage with the natural world. In terms of advice, I would encourage those interested in such a career path to find a work environment in which they feel they will be best able to deploy their anthropological skills. Working for an environmental NGO is very different to working for a government body or the private sector. And there are of course internal differences in the work culture of each organization across these sectors. For me, finding a work environment in which my opinions and expertise were valued, and in which I could continue to have critical and reflective conversations about anthropological knowledge, practice, and ethics, was absolutely central. It might take a few tries before you find the place you feel fits you, and that’s not a bad thing. For instance, working for UNESCO made me realize that I was more interested in doing ethnographic fieldwork and working with local communities on the ground than I was in drafting policy documents at the inter-governmental level. But my experiences at UNESCO also informed my understanding of how ground-level advocacy can best be disseminated and communicated to inform such policy work. So, every experience along the way adds to the critical perspectives and interconnections that, as anthropologists, we are trained to identify and analyse."


In your recent piece A World of Ashes, you mention the concepts of grief, repentance, rebirth, regeneration and the ability to transform the world as they relate to ashes. In and around these concepts, what do you see as anthropology's potential contribution to alternative climate futures?

"My recent piece was a personal reflection on the importance of staying with, and remembering, ashes, in a time of devastating environmental destruction and loss of life. Staying with the ashes, as I describe in the piece, is a form of mourning or grieving for all that has been irrevocably lost, and the vivid and slow violence under which this loss is taking place. For me, grieving and mourning are key to the forging of less violent futures for humans and other-than-humans. Looking back at mistakes made and lives unnecessarily cut short can help pave the way for different worlds to come – ones in which injustices are not limited to the human and subjects of justice must be expanded to include the non-human. Ashes are, of course, symbolic of rebirth and regeneration. Even just in material terms, ashes are fertile places that offer rich nutrients for plants and microbial communities to thrive from. But I want to be wary of the “Phoenix complex” here. Ashes will only offer hope for renewal if we remember that they are themselves, in the current context, the product of human exceptionalism, rampant resource exploitation, and ongoing colonial-capitalist forms of violence enacted towards Indigenous peoples and the lands they have cared for and nurtured since time immemorial. In broader terms, then, I see anthropology as offering an important contribution in terms of “looking back” in order to better “look forward” in an area of radical ecological decline. As anthropologists, we are attentive to the wealth of knowledge that indigenous cultures and environmental management practices can offer towards more livable and shared futures. We are aware that alternative climate futures – whatever forms these might take – are indissociable from long-standing histories of capitalist and colonialist violence that perdure in the present. It is this attentiveness to the intersections of capitalism, indigeneity, ecology, and species (human and non-human) that I think puts us in an important position to contribute to the emergence of alternative climate futures."


ANSA would like to thank Dr Sophie Chao for agreeing to be interviewed and providing such insightful answers.

To read her piece A World of Ashes click here.

For more information on Sophie’s research, please visit www.morethanhumanworlds.com