Plantations as sites of displacement

It is sometimes difficult to understand the complexities of a globalised economy on an emotional and embodied level when we are cut off from almost all sites of primary production.

I have always felt this strongly in the case of logging, which is the source of much of the wood used for furniture, flooring, paper and other products we are surrounded by. Even though we know on a rational level that these products were once trees, it is difficult to imagine the trajectories they underwent from the place they originated in to our living rooms. It is one of the things that motivated me to undertake my PhD research in an area where the logging of natural forests, as opposed to plantation forests, is one of the dominant industries.

The production of palm oil is a similar case. Palm oil is present in an unending range of products on supermarket shelves, so much so that it is nearly impossible to avoid. And yet it is difficult to imagine the environments, the people, relationships and structures that are all part of the process of producing it.

During my work in Sarawak we drove through many kilometres of oil palm plantations each time we were on our way to the villages where our research was located. If we went by plane, we flew over seemingly unending patches of it, in varying degrees of maturation. During all the years of going back and forth to rural villages in Sarawak I tried to document the embodied experience of being inside the plantation through photographs, because it has always evoked in me an odd mixture of awe and anxiety.

The anxiety derives from the knowledge of the destruction of wildlife habitat, the annual burns that release CO2 into the atmosphere, the conditions of foreign workers involved, and many more of the issues that are frequently reported on by the media. At the same time they are in their own way formidable, the different interest and knowledges coming together to bring about a vast transformation of the landscape, the mighty rows of mature trees, the violent disruption of the soil. This emotionally charged sensation of being inside a plantation was something I have tried to document in my photographs.

I am very happy that some of these photographs have recently been published online as part of ‘The Plantationocene Series: Plantation Worlds, Past and Present’ by ‘Edge Effects’, a digital magazine produced at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE), part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

Some friends have since told me that the photo essay was interesting but also sad, because it created a sense of helplessness in the face of the forces that bring such places into being. This was not my intention, and in fact I think that there is probably a place for plantations and for palm oil. The fruit of the oil palm is a very efficient source of vegetable oil in terms of land and water used, and because of its adaptability and yield. Unfortunately the cultivation of palm oil is not often practiced in a way that supports local biodiversity and wildlife habitats, or contributes to the well-being of workers and local communities. If there is any take-home message it should be that it is not necessarily what you do but how you do it that makes all the difference.