Most generally, my research asks the question: How do people collectively respond to risks, hazards, and disruptions in their societies and environments? Since 1998, I have been exploring this topic at my primary research area in the Porgera valley in Enga Province in the Papua New Guinea highlands, where I have been studying the impacts of gold mining on the society and ecology of Porgera. I have also started two ancillary projects, one in western Enga Province that extends my interests in responses to risk and hazards linked to climate change, and another in southwestern Colorado that explores sustainability and resilience in post-mining landscapes. You can read more about my various projects below.
In Papua New Guinea, my research 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-official landowners,” i.e., Porgerans who receive few benefits from the mining operations. Central to the non-official landowners’ concerns are critiques about the ways they are left out of the mining development. Claiming connections to the compensation-receiving “official” landowners based on mythological precedent, traditional exchange ties, and kinship linkages, non-official 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 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 and the on-going impacts of environmental pollution from abandoned mine lands. 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. At the same time, many of these communities are surrounded by legacy mines, many of which were abandoned well before the modern era of environmental regulation and reclamation. Acid mine drainage and the loading of toxic metals into streams constitute a complex set of problems that most of these communities face. My research seeks to understand how communities, non-governmental organizations, and governmental institutions coalesce to resolve these complex social-ecological problems. 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 and varying levels of post-mining reclamation. 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 processes of environmental reclamation and Superfund designation in various communites in southwestern Colorado and the responses that people have made in negotiating tourism development with pollution mitigation.
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: