My primary research area is in the Porgera valley in Enga Province in the Papua New Guinea highlands. I have been working there since 1998 studying the impacts of gold mining on the society and ecology of Porgera. I continue to work there and am currently examining the ways that development changes indigenous ecological knowledge and resource management practices. I have also started two ancillary projects, one in Uganda that extends my interests in local environmental knowledge and climate change, and another in the western US that explores sustainability and resilience in post-mining landscapes. You can read more about my various projects below.
My main research topic examines the social and ecological implications of mining development in the Porgera valley. In 1990, a burgeoning indigenous mining industry was supplanted by the development of the Porgera Gold Mine, which to date, has removed over 17 million ounces of gold from the heart of Mt. Watukati, a site of significant ritual importance for Porgerans. My research addresses the experiences of “non-landowners,” i.e., Porgerans who receive few benefits from the mining operations. Central to the non-landowners’ concerns are critiques about the ways they are left out of the mining development. Claiming connections to the compensation-receiving landowners based on mythological precedent, traditional exchange ties, and kinship linkages, non-landowners creatively and actively assert their right to development initiatives through recourse to court cases, public protests, and tribal fighting. Environmental impacts, namely from the dumping of mining tailings and waste rock into the Porgera River watershed, have destroyed gardens, covered former alluvial mining zones, and polluted waterways with sediments and chemical pollutants for hundreds of kilometers downstream from the mine. Porgerans interpret environmental degradation through a cosmological perspective in which humans, once active participants in ecological well-being, are unable to mitigate social and ecological declines. My latest project explores the effects of various aspects of globalization on Porgeran environmental practices and beliefs.
Theoretically, my work highlights the complex politics of nature in contemporary development contexts. It also contributes to the examination of the limits of sustainability and resilience in the frontiers of global resource development. To better understand the impacts of mining development on Porgerans, I use ethnographic research combined with vegetation surveys and remote sensing. These methods enable me to document the impacts of mining at different scales as personal histories, deforestation, and changing vegetation patterns tell a more complex story of human-environment interactions in a resource frontier.
In 2016, I started a project that explored the relationships between ENSO events, migration, and resilience among people living in western Enga Province, PNG. The Porgera valley has long served as a refuge for high altitude-dwelling Enga speakers during climatic disturbances caused by ENSOs. Frosts and droughts devastate staple crops during ENSOs and the most recent El Niño in 2015-16 has created food insecurity for nearly 2 million Papua New Guineans. Goals of this resarch were to understand how people mitigate livelihood disruptions through migration and other forms of resilience building. Three months of research funded by the National Science Foundation during the severest impacts of the 2016 ENSO helped to understand how people make fast, short-term decisions in the face of socio-environmental crises to help us better understand the relationships between environmental risk and resilience of coupled social-ecological systems.
My most recent project combines my previous research foci on mining and conservation by examining the multitudinous ways that communities and regions reshape their social, economic, and environmental landscapes in the wake of mine closure. Throughout the American West, former mining communities and landscapes have been transformed from sites of production into sites of consumption, especially in terms of recreation and outdoor activities, due to their locations in areas of natural scenic beauty. What are the tensions inherent in such transformative processes? How have some communities and regions maintained resilience in their social-ecological systems throughout this process? At one level, this project seeks to inform my research in Papua New Guinea by examining the ways that communities have rebuilt sustainable livelihoods after mining production. At another level, the research on post-mining landscapes will contribute to the larger dialogue on socioeconomic shifts and the changing values of the environment in the US as the economy moves from an economic system built on production to one based on consumption and service-based economies. To that end, in 2017 I initiated a comparative project examining the process of Superfund designation in the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site in southwestern Colorado. Listed as a federally funded mining cleanup site in September 2016, I will compare Bonita Peak with the California Gulch Superfund site in Leadville, CO, which was listed in 1983. Understanding how the community of Leadville negotiated the process of being listed as a Superfund site, will provide critical information on sustainability in post-mining communities that can be applied in the Bonita Peak case.
I owe the greatest debt to the people who have worked with me as research assistants. It would have been nearly impossible to gain access to the communities and lands of the various peoples I have worked among without the assistance of the following individuals:
Papua New Guinea. Front: Solomon Kaipas; Row 2: Timoti Peter, Kala Kaipas, Iki Peter; Row 3: Jerry Loa, Wanpis Kaipas, Epe Des
Papua New Guinea. Left: Ben Penale; Right: Peter Muyu
I gratefully acknowledge funding for research from the following sources: