Singing about the Land among the Biangai

Article excerpt

Political ecology, if nothing else, has proven to be a useful gloss for research that examines a broad range of topics, mostly combining traditional Marxist political economy with ecological concerns. This agenda has encouraged researchers to place local and global economies and ecologies in a dialogue about political, economic and environmental change. However, Watts and Peet have argued that such research must pay greater attention to the creative aspects of these dialogues as they 'derive aesthetics, innovative thinking, ideals, values and imaginaries from labor and residence', or what they term 'environmental imaginaries' (1996:267). Understanding such creative processes is central to understanding local agency, as well as imagining future ecologies and economies.

However, we must not assume that local imaginaries progressively engage the environmental concerns of Western academics and activists, nor that they always provide alternative conservation ethics. Instead, we must be open to the possibility that locally created environmental imaginaries might willingly engage capitalist desires as well as environmental concerns; and that communities will disagree and debate these issues. Only through a detailed ethnography of the micropolitics of nature/culture can such environmental imaginaries be brought to light (Moore 1998).

Here, my goal is to extend the gaze of political ecology to examine environmental imaginaries in the poetic practices of Biangai communities in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. The Biangai mix imagery of human agency with trees, gardens, and other natural resources in what Latour would have us call nature/culture hybrids (1993). These themes are portrayed in women's mourning songs (yongo ingi) and the songs of string bands. However, the examination of such songs also reveals transformations of and distinctions in how Biangai think about their environment as they re-imagine their relations to it in light of global economies and ecologies.


In The Gender of the Gift (1990), Marilyn Strathern argues that for Melanesians '[t]he singular person can be imagined as a social microcosm.' (1990:13) This she contrasts with Western notions of individualism in what amounts to a 'self-conscious essentialism' (Foster 1995) in order to highlight a cultural discourse about personhood. For Strathern, a Melanesian person is better thought of as divided; a 'dividual' instead of an individual. Following Mauss (1990), she argues that persons are made up of kinship and gender relations expressed in production, reproduction, and exchange. To produce, reproduce, or exchange--in other words, to act--is not to act separate from others, but in relation to them, if not because of them. This idea has been explored as it relates to exchange (cf. Atkins and Robbins 1999; Kalinoe and Leach 2001), gendered division of labor (cf. M. Strathern 1990), and leadership (cf. Lipset 1997; Godelier and M. Strathern 1991). What interests me here is what this conceptual model suggests about the relationship between human and non-human agencies.

According to M. Strathern, any given object produced for exchange carries with it the weight of the labor that went into it, even as it is given away. She argued that, 'the detachability of items has nothing to do with alienation; the parts circulate as parts of persons.' (M. Strathern 1990:192) While objects move among persons, they never lose the imprint of their (re)producer(s), carrying their names as they circulate well beyond the initial exchange (cf. Leach and Leach 1983; and A. Weiner 1992). For Melanesians, 'if they can trace a connection or recite a name then that relationship is part of what "ownership" means.' (M. Strathern 2001:6) This especially pertains to garden produce, pigs, and other culturally defined valuables (such as those in the Kula ring) that are contributed to exchanges. Mosko has described agency in such contexts as 'the strategic detachment, decomposition or de-conception of part of oneself and [the part's] attachment or composition as part of another person' in an endless network that incorporates kin and non-kin, human and non-human entities (Mosko 2001:260). …