“The Marind people of West Papua deploy mourning not only to grieve their animal and plant kin but as political resistance.
“Marind communities have traditionally depended on the forest for their everyday subsistence, which they collectively procure through hunting, fishing and gathering. These plants and animals include sago palms, taro, yam, rambutans, papayas, bananas, rusa deer, riverine eels, lorises, possums, cassowaries, fowl, kangaroos, crocodiles and pigs. These sources of food are considered kin by Marind and often referred to as their ‘grandparents’ (amai in Marind) or ‘siblings’ (namek). They share common descent with Marind clans from ancestral spirits (dema) who fashioned them from primordial mud at the beginning of time. Marind relations to their plant and animal kin are grounded in principles of respect, reciprocity and care. Plants and animals grow to feed their human counterparts and, in exchange, humans must perform rituals, exercise restraint and demonstrate reverence towards these organisms and the ecologies they depend upon to survive and thrive.
“Land privatization, deforestation, soil erosion, water contamination and air pollution caused by oil palm expansion have radically jeopardized the Marind’s forest-based livelihoods and economies, as well as their food and water security.
For the Marind, “mourning the deaths of sago, bamboo and other plant and animal beings has prompted the revival of an age-old practice: making noken (handwoven bags). Fashioned by women and girls from filaments of bark and frond obtained from rattan palms, sago palms and gnetum trees, noken are used carry forest products such as vegetables, taro, cassava, kumara, fruit or firewood, and everyday items, including clove cigarettes, mobile phones, school textbooks and bibles.
As they journey across the landscape, the Marind “regularly encounter the mangled bodies, leaking entrails, scattered limbs and blood-stained feathers of their barely recognizable yet all-too-familiar kin. Nothing can be done in the face of these violent and often slow deaths. But, if you are Marind, you must nonetheless stop. You must turn off the engine of your motorbike. You must get off and stand by your dead or dying kin – a feathered ‘sibling’ or shiny-scaled ‘grandparent’. You must not turn away. And you must sing.
A Marind youth, “upon discovering the pulverized remains of his clan’s sibling, the snake, along a recently constructed stretch of the Trans-Papuan Highway, created this mourning song.
Here you lie, Sami, sister snake
I was not here to save you, I could not spare you death
Sami, Sami, in leaves and fronds, I’ll wrap you
With my arms and my legs, I’ll take you
To a quiet, green place, I’ll carry you
To that place where your fathers and forefathers were born.
And there, you will find rest
In the cool shade of the forest, you can sleep
There, no pain or dust will haunt you
The rain and soil will hold you
This nightmare will release you
I beseech you, accept from me this song
Through it you will live on.
“Planting constitutes a third art of mourning on the West Papuan oil palm frontier. This involves harvesting juvenile bamboo shoots or rhizomes from the forest and transplanting them along the boundaries of customary territories owned by different Marind clans – particularly where these boundaries intersect with oil palm plantations. It’s a practice introduced by Indigenous Marind land rights activists. On one hand, planting demarcates and reclaims lands wrongfully stolen from the Marind by agribusiness corporations. But planting is about more than defining boundaries. For the Marind, it’s a way of acknowledging a kind of death for which the healing practices of singing and weaving aren’t suited.
“Singing and weaving serve to commemorate the deaths of specific sites or particular organisms: a patch of sacred forest, or a snake-sibling murdered on the road. Planting as mourning, on the other hand, is directed to death at a scale that is difficult to see, touch or fully comprehend. It is a death that unfurls across the hundreds and thousands of hectares of land now converted to monocrops. It is a death that is distributed across plants and animals, but also the elements and the land itself as it is sapped of its nutrients and minerals through monocultural exploitation. Planting seeks to recreate vegetal life within and against the plantation itself as a zone of death.
“Though used in mourning practices, planting bamboo is also uncannily effective in undermining the operations and effectiveness of the plantations that state and corporate entities seek to control. For instance, bamboo shoots are largely invisible, subterranean and consequently overlooked. They lie dormant at first, and then erupt as they proliferate, creep and climb along and across each other to form thick clusters that are relatively resistant to herbicides and almost impossible to fully eradicate.
“The Marind peoples are aware that mourning alone will not achieve the social change needed to halt planetary ecocide. But these arts of mourning still matter. They mobilize pain – of humans and their many kin – to resist the trivialization of regimes of violence that naturalize the deaths of plants, animals or forests. They are modest and resilient, poetic and political. They embody collective modes of reckoning, refusal and resistance. Cultivating arts of mourning demands that we envision a future not just by looking forward, but also by looking back – by remembering those who have been obliterated in the name of productivity and profitability. In Merauke, along the upper banks of the Bian River, arts of mourning draw together human and more-than-human worlds through shared planting, singing, weeping and weaving."
How might we mourn the loss of forests and other wildlife habitats? What song might we sing? What actions might we take to resist eco-death on earth?
Sophie Chao, “How to Mourn a Forest,” Aeon, May 23, 2023, https://aeon.co/essays/how-to-mourn-a-forest-a-lesson-from-west-papua.
This essay is derived in part from Sophie Chao’s article ‘Multispecies Mourning: Grieving as Resistance on the West Papuan Oil Palm Frontier’ published by the journal Cultural Studies (Taylor & Francis, 2022).