Conservation Is Our Government Now

The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea

Conservation Is Our Government Now

New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century

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Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 25 illus. Published: May 2006

Author: Paige West

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Australia/New Zealand/Oceania, Environmental Studies

A significant contribution to political ecology, Conservation Is Our Government Now is an ethnographic examination of the history and social effects of conservation and development efforts in Papua New Guinea. Drawing on extensive fieldwork conducted over a period of seven years, Paige West focuses on the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area, the site of a biodiversity conservation project implemented between 1994 and 1999. She describes the interactions between those who ran the program—mostly ngo workers—and the Gimi people who live in the forests surrounding Crater Mountain. West shows that throughout the project there was a profound disconnect between the goals of the two groups. The ngo workers thought that they would encourage conservation and cultivate development by teaching Gimi to value biodiversity as an economic resource. The villagers expected that in exchange for the land, labor, food, and friendship they offered the conservation workers, they would receive benefits, such as medicine and technology. In the end, the divergent nature of each group’s expectations led to disappointment for both.

West reveals how every aspect of the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area—including ideas of space, place, environment, and society—was socially produced, created by changing configurations of ideas, actions, and material relations not only in Papua New Guinea but also in other locations around the world. Complicating many of the assumptions about nature, culture, and development underlying contemporary conservation efforts, Conservation Is Our Government Now demonstrates the unique capacity of ethnography to illuminate the relationship between the global and the local, between transnational processes and individual lives.


Conservation is Our Government Now is highly recommended for those interested in exploring the politics of ecology, the social dynamics of NGO-coordinated projects and local peoples, the application of ethnography and history in exploring development discourses, social change among Gimi language-speaking people, and even for someone simply looking to read a beautifully written ethnography. Its journalistic style, combined with a careful explanation of anthropological methodology and perspectives, makes this volume extremely accessible to a wide readership.” — Kamal Solhaimi Fadzil, Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology

“[This] is a timely, well-written book about an important topic that deserves to be widely read and taught.” — Alex Golub, Contemporary Pacific

“[West] vividly describes the place and its history, documents the social life of the people and their economy, and explains the ways in which people conceptualize their relationships with land and forest and with the expatriate scientists and conservationists who established a conservation-as-development project in their midst. West offers a strong critique of the assumptions that many conservationists make about Melanesian people’s identification with environmentalist ideals.” — Martha Macintyre, Current Anthropology

“By elegantly weaving together multiple voices over multiple time scales and by describing and then deconstructing specific episodes that occurred during her fieldwork, West contributes greatly to the anthropological literature on how capitalism, commodification, imagination, discourse, conservation, and development are not static things that can be essentialized but, rather, fluid processes that should be appreciated for their inherent complexities.” — Sarah Hitchner, American Ethnologist

“In Conservation is Our Government Now, Paige West eloquently recounts the history of an integrated conservation and development project in the Crater Mountain region of Papua New Guinea. . . . Throughout the book West weaves together a rich and detailed account of Gimi narratives, as told by men and women, as well as accounts of project workers and her own experience and observations.” — John R. Wagner,, Environments

“It disabuses the reader of the simple assumptions about people, cultures, nature, space, place and development that underlie many conservation efforts today, and it should be required reading for development workers everywhere. Theoretically sophisticated yet accessible, Conservation is Our Government Now will also be much appreciated in the classroom. This book is a winner.” — Richard Scaglion, American Anthropologist

“One of the most appealing aspects of West’s approach to the issues outlined here is her refusal to generalize (in fifty-word snippets) in ways that would simplify what is obviously an extremely complex and still-developing encounter. In place of polemics, West offers grounded accounts of people saying and doing particular things in dense contexts, highlighting as she does so the capacity of individual participants on all sides of conservation encounters—and even those, like Gimi women, who have been excluded from such encounters— to influence policies and processes that are too often and easily imagined as overpowering.” — Andrew Walsh, Journal of Anthropological Research

“Paige West has taken the time and developed the sensitivity to genuinely understand and communicate with the people of Maimafu – a settlement in the South-Eastern Highlands . . . . This book should be essential reading for anyone working at grass roots level in Papua New Guinea.” — Elery Hamilton-Smith, Electronic Green Journal

“Reading this ethnographic longitudinal study . . . I am full of admiration for the empathy and passion that Paige West brings to this account of politics and ecology in the villages . . . of Papua New Guinea. . . . West’s talent is to show us through her anthropology discipline and ethnographic method, how the colonial legacy of the region is imprinted in the science practice around biodiversity—assumptions of extinction of species, the need for protection, the perceived inability of the locals to manage the birds in a sustainable way, the need for conservation science protocols; and how over time, each new step builds upon the previous, no matter how unproven.” — Ruth Beilin,, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

“This sophisticated and absorbing study in political ecology demonstrates the value of ethnography in revealing how global processes impact local economies and individual lives. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Specialists and students alike; all academic libraries.” — R. Scaglion,, Choice

“West’s work is important in re-asserting the local sense of place into a grand international project, and alerting supporters to the incommensurability of such local knowledge and worthy intentions from far away. . . . It helps too, when the views of locals and biologists alike are so well-written, with humour and compassion on both sides. Paige West has captured and unfolding drama that has parallels in many places. But in the end the success of this book is its historical and personal particularity.” — Libby Robin,, Environment and History

Conservation Is Our Government Now is a timely and significant contribution to contemporary critical scholarship on conservation. More than any other study of which I am aware, it provides an ethnographically rich, nuanced account of the encounter between conservation practitioners and a local community. It is an exemplar of the power of ethnographic writing to reveal other subjectivities and other ways of being.” — J. Peter Brosius, coeditor of Communities and Conservation: Histories and Politics of Community-Based Natural Resource Management

“Incisive, moving, and beautifully written, Conservation Is Our Government Now is an absolutely exemplary study and a completely absorbing narrative. It is quite simply one of the most sophisticated political ecology books I have read to date.” — Neil Smith, author of The Endgame of Globalization


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Paige West is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface xi

Acknowledgments xxiii

Abbreviations and Acronyms xxix

1. New Guinea-New York 1

2. Making Crater Mountain 27

3. Articulations, Histories, Development 52

4. Conservation Histories 125

5. A Land of Pure Possibility 147

6. The Practices of Conservation-as-Development 183

7. Exchanging Conservation for Development 215

Appendices 239

Notes 251

Bibliography 279

Index 311
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3749-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3712-6
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