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2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

Place in the Anthropocene

A mangrove lagoon in Papua New Guinea
in the time of rising sea-levels

David Lipset, University of Minnesota

This article is an ethnographic account of one place during an unpromising moment in an

epoch some have begun to call the Anthropocene. In the Murik Lakes, at the mouth of the
Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, the Anthropocene calls logocentric and political views
of “place” into question. Instead of being a site where the world is endowed with moral
personhood, or where dialogue takes place with the global, “place” has now taken on a dark,
conditional mood. In the Anthropocene, “place” is a site of pending tragedy, pervaded by
the loss, rather than the creation, of meaning.
Keywords: Anthropocene, rising sea-levels, place, tragedy, mangrove lagoons, Sepik, Murik
Lakes, Papua New Guinea

Moralities of place
Attributes of “places,” such as houses and trees, appear all over twentieth-century
ethnography. They are often taken to refer to how people express what belonging
to a community in a particular environment is like. In the course of everyday life,
for example, Western Apache allude to “place-worlds” on the landscape, such as a
tree where an owl-spirit lived, by way of making indirect appeals to social norms
(Basso 1996: 6). Features of “place,” that is to say, are logocentric sites in which a
moral “inside” can be discriminated from an immoral “outside.” On the one hand,
“places” consist of signs of collective belonging. On the other, they are defined by
moral boundaries (van Gennep [1912] 1960: 15–25).
In the New Guinea Highlands, to cite another example, the inclusiveness
and exclusiveness of “place” were made clear when Tsembaga men planted little
rumbim bushes. On these property markers they all laid hands. By doing so, they
asserted “connection to the land and . . . membership in the group” that claimed
it (Rappaport 1968: 19). The Berber house offers another useful example of the

 his work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © David Lipset.

ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.014
David Lipset 216

contradictory value of “place.” One’s spatial disposition toward the house, so Bour-
dieu explains, depends on gender.
Whereas for the man the house is not so much a place he goes into
as a place he comes out of, the woman is bound to give the opposite
importance and meaning. . . . For her, movement outwards consists above
all in acts of expulsion, movement inwards, that is, from the threshold
towards the hearth, is her proper concern. (1982: 280)
In other words, the Berber house is a moral site that simultaneously excludes and
Perhaps some of the sheen has worn off the conceptual brilliance of Bourdieu’s
structuralism amid the hurly burly of the globalized moment. Boundaries, in my
terms, have become dialogized, polyphonic in a multiple and multileveled way that
confound moral binaries. The encounter of inner and outer voices, of cosmopoli-
tan and parochial interests, now signifies not belonging and property, but contested
belonging and contested property. Attributed specific values and subjected to spe-
cific practices, places are now subject to a dialogue among parochial interests and a
dialogue, or argument, between local and interests representing the state as well as
other, universalized, globalized concerns. Donald S. Moore has called this dialogue
“a cultural politics of place” (1998: 346).
Similarly, Rodman also construed “place” in Vanuatu and Fiji as “politicized,
culturally relative, historically specific, local and multiple” in construction, or,
in her terms, as “multilocal” and “multivocal” (1992: 641; see also Escobar 2001,
2008). In French Tahiti, Kahn could not have encountered this kind of “politics of
place” in any more flagrant circumstances. “Always present . . . were conflicts be-
tween Tahitian ideas about land as nurturing mother and Western ideas about land
as expendable resource. These tensions were greatly exacerbated by the arrival of
the nuclear testing program” (2011: 69). In this equivocal view, “place,” qua prop-
erty, is subject to legal pluralism (see von Benda-Beckmann, von Benda-Beckmann,
and Griffiths 2008). It is claimed in terms of local discourse, through tropes, gene-
alogy, and ethnohistory, as well as through the state and the marketplace. If “place”
is an argument, sovereignty over places must be viewed as political, polyphonic,
and the site of inconclusive dialogue. No longer does “place” refer to a monologue
in which its “wisdom” or “the senses” prevail and have the last word (cf. Feld and
Basso 1996).
Recent ethnography has also seen the emergence of a related perspective of
“place” which Viveiros de Castro has called “perspectivism” (1998; see also Kohn
2013). According to this radical relativist view, animals, persons, and places are
imbued with their own autonomous personhood. For example, in Athapaskan and
Tlingit accounts of the Saint Elias Mountains in the Yukon, glaciers are “willful,
sometimes capricious, easily excited by human intemperance but equally placated
by quick-witted human responses” (Cruikshank 2005: 8). Being sentient, they are
“offended” by the smell of grease used in cooking and “resent” being watched by
people wearing sunglasses (ibid.: 229). Animate places may be seen as possessing
ontological moral agency. But, as in the glacier example, they declare that they are
also caught up in fraught political contexts where they are subjected to modern
forces of dispossession that seek to define them as “unmarked, abstract entit[ies],

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

217 Place in the Anthropocene

emptied of any social and cultural content” (Braun 2002: 42). As perspectivism
privileges precapitalist “voices” of “places” themselves over modern ones, at least
implicitly, it brings to bear a thoroughgoing commitment to value pluralism (Weber
1946). Regardless of its claims about particular realities, I think that perspectivism
necessarily culminates the more explicitly equivocal, plural view of place that has
been emerging in the past twenty-five or so years.
Now in this article, I want to think about these concepts of belonging, sover-
eignty, and territory—that is, of “place”—during a historical moment when it is
coming under threat not from the state and capitalist interests but from their nox-
ious side-effects, the anthropogenic environmental forces (rising sea-levels) for
which institutions neither take responsibility nor guarantee the future against po-
tential loss. In the present epoch, which has begun to be known (at least in come
corners) as the Anthropocene, human–nature relations have not only come to be
viewed as a unity rather than a binary, but have also been put at risk by the damage
people have done (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000; Sayre 2012; cf. Crist 2013; Malm
and Hornborg 2014). What impact does the Anthropocene, both as concept and as
phenomenon, have on the concept of “place”?
Here, I analyze the dialogics of one place during an unpromising moment in
the Anthropocene. The vulnerability of my ethnographic exemplar could hardly be
greater. The Murik Lakes are the world of the littoral. In this tide-dominated estu-
ary, narrow, barrier beaches divide a large system of mangrove lagoons from the
Pacific Ocean (see Figure 1). There is some ambiguity, it is true, about the impact of
sea-level rise on mangroves in deltas of major rivers, because the rate of sediment
discharge may be able to keep pace with erosion (Hogarth 2007: 232). This much
is clear, however. Since the beginning of the new millennium, rising sea-levels have
annually knocked down coconut palms, left shoreline trees for dead, and breached
the beaches on which the Murik villages stand. Their place-consciousness aroused
by these warnings, the Murik have been left to ponder the future (and past) of and
in their lakescape—and I’ve been listening.1
I begin by introducing the Murik environment, its ethnohistory as a commons,
and the signifiers of moral personhood in terms of which boundaries are intel-
ligible and locally disputed. Arguing that the contemporary lakescape continues
to be construed in ethnohistoric and cultural terms, I next analyze the property
regime in the postcolonial era. A survey of damage caused by rising sea-levels and
resettlement initiatives ensues. The last section focuses on property rights amid the
prospect of carbon payments for the Murik mangroves. To conclude, I argue that
the Anthropocene calls views of “place,” in each and every register, into question.
Now a dark, conditional mood is pending, where tragedy, that is to say, the loss,
rather than the creation, of meaning, may be foreseen. 

1. I draw from long-term research among the Murik, but in particular from a project I un-
dertook on the meaning of the Murik Lakes in the time of rising sea-levels (2010–14).
Following Boas’ model ([1888] 1964), the main goal of my project was to elicit the eth-
no-geography of the Murik Lakes. However, instead of having informants draw maps, I
used participatory geographic information systems (PGIS; see Rambaldi et al. 2006) to
co-construct a social map of their lakescape.

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

David Lipset 218

Figure 1: Murik Lakes and North Coast of Papua New Guinea.

A disputed commons
Some 6000 years bp, sediment from a vast inland sea flowed out into the ocean
through two openings located close to where contemporary Murik people place an
ancient shoreline. Prograding plains began to form by 4500 years bp that featured
beach ridges, sand barriers, and mangrove-fringed coastal lakes, as well as sago
swamps near higher ground. By a thousand years ago, all that was left of the inland
sea were two river systems, the Sepik and the Ramu, and an estuary made up of
the Murik Lakes, to the west of the Sepik mouth, and the Watam Lakes, to the east
(Swadling 1997: 5). The two lake systems are basically inshore marine ecosystems
in which the boundaries between land and water not only shift but do so regularly.
At some point in the past, perhaps as recently as two hundred and fifty years
or so ago, ancestors of contemporary Murik speakers resettled in this dynamic en-
vironment from two unrelated parts of the region (Lipset 1997). The two migrant
groups did not speak the same language or even share the same adaptive strategy.
One was a group of fishing people who had fled a previous settlement 50 miles
up the Sepik, while the other was an inland, land-based group from “Mwarik,” a
hilly region about 40 miles up the coast, where they presumably specialized in yam
gardening, hunting, and animal husbandry, like other horticultural peoples in the
region. The Sepik River group say they settled on the eastern side of the channel
called Bok, while the land-based group settled on its western side. Rivals and en-
emies, they both encountered indigenous, lake-dwelling property-owners. Some
Murik still refer to this era as a “civil war.” Initiatory male cults not only sponsored

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

219 Place in the Anthropocene

war parties against the indigenous villages, thereby taking rights to their property,
but also attacked their fellow immigrants. That is to say, the lakes region was no less
subject to pre-state violence than was the inland region surrounding it.
The Murik Lakes, or at least their prodigious fish stocks, became a common-
pool resource. They are subject to joint ownership by these two communities of
resource users and cannot be appropriated or alienated by any individual or in-
dividual group of fishermen. However it may be viewed as a commons, use of the
lakes must nevertheless be understood as restricted. Social structure, consisting of
names and lineage relationships and community membership, provides the bona
fides from which “a bundle of rights” to the commons may be asserted and negoti-
ated (Schlager and Ostrom 1992: 249).
Ownership and use-rights of the vast, becalmed lagoons (about 120 square miles
of lakes and mangroves) are disputed. On the one hand, fishing rights are said to be
unrestricted to all “Murik,” defined residentially and genealogically. On the other,
fishing rights are more or less divided between the two ethnohistorically derived
communities, each of which is subdivided into three villages. The central boundary
between eastern and western communities lies at Bok, the aforementioned entry
to the lakes (Figure 2). Rights to fish west of this channel are held by each of three
villages, collectively called Big Murik (Jangaimot, Wokumot, and Aramot). Rights
to fish the half east of Bok are claimed by the three Karau villages (Darapap, Karau
itself, and Mendam). The central boundary more or less divides the lakes into two
equal fishing zones, but the mangroves are clearly asymmetrical. As an eastern
stakeholder flatly avowed about Aramot, the westernmost of the three Big Murik
communities: “They do not own any mangroves.” Meanwhile, Aramot villagers as-
sert claims through use. They fish and harvest shellfish on a daily basis, and have
built “mangrove shacks” many miles east of the boundary. This long-simmering
conflict, exposed and aggravated by the social mapping component of my research,
added tension to it. I now discuss two sites along the disputed boundary.

Figure 2: The contested boundary of the Murik Lakes.

I boated with some western villagers along the edges of their mangroves, marking
GPS waypoints and jotting down place-names of channels, bays, islands, and so on,
in the lakescape. We came to the northern shore of the central boundary (Figure 2).
Here, my informants said, a spirit lived underwater at a channel they called Brag
Yangan, a brag being a warrior-ancestor-spirit in Murik cosmology. The channel, they
added, was the property of one of the lineages domiciled in one of the western villag-
es. We boated along the landward shore, perhaps a half-mile further, until we arrived

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

David Lipset 220

at another channel, which they called Aran’taum. Down its middle, the men alleged,
was “the border.” But this channel was not the border with the eastern Muriks. Rather,
it was a border with other lower Sepik River and inland villages. Our warriors, the
informants said, “used to stop here, check for [men armed with] spears.” Should they
spot no evidence of the enemy, “they would rest and go back to the village.”
Immediately after returning these informants home, exasperated, astonished
men from the eastern villages, who were helping me with logistics, stopped biting
their tongues, or, as Murik would say, stopped “swallowing their saliva.” One of
them asserted that
the border was Brag Channel [not Aran’taum]. The name of the spirit-
man underwater there is Yamerap’ase. We call it Yamerap Channel, not
Brag Channel. One side of it belongs to [the western Murik village of]
Wokumot. The other side belongs to [the eastern village of Karau]. Before
[e.g., prior to the colonial state], if you crossed this border, you would die.
Many locales in the lakescape are said to be haunted by spirits, spirits who are at-
tributed differing moral predispositions, some dangerous, others benevolent, or
at least nonthreatening. I registered no disagreement that an underwater spirit
dwelled at the first of the two channels in question or that he was reckoned benign.
And, it is the case that such spirits usually inhabit places of ecological or social
distinction in the lakescape, such as whirlpools or ethnohistorical events (Lipset
2011a: 29). Furthermore, both sides agreed that the spirit-man was not a creator-
spirit, merely a watchful presence. Still, what they differed about had both cosmo-
logical and territorial implications. Their dialogue was about (1) the location of the
boundary, (2) the name of one of the eponymous spirits and one of the channels in
question, and (3) whom the border divided.
The dispute evoked an egalitarian, autonomous era during which rival male
cults possessed more or less equal power and resources (Kuper 1988) and place was
bounded by the cosmological threat of unmediated violence, or warre, in Hobbes’
famous term ([1651] 1944). In pre-state times, honor was a commonplace value that
ought to be defended, but unavenged murder was also a commonplace outcome.
This era, and its unfulfilled obligations, continues to haunt the Murik Lakes, giving
rise to contemporary fears and resentments that people prefer to, but cannot quite,
forget. The ethos of warre, in which the whole lakescape was and to a certain extent
remains contested, also had important descent-based and gendered dimensions that
called and still call into question signifiers of order that proliferate throughout it.
Rather than a seamless symbolic integration with the moral community, the lakes-
cape was a place of irreducible risk, a liminal kind of terrritory, not quite domesticat-
ed yet not quite other, that gave rise to an anxious sense of vulnerability. This anxiety
is clear in the iconography men still carve on the prows of Murik lagoon canoes, the
prows where society encounters the water (Lipset 2005b, 2014; see Figure 3).
Contending voices, unstructured by any non-participating third party, met and
go on meeting at the central boundary of the lakes. In order to elaborate on the
pre-state sentiments and tropes in their dialogue that persist to divide the lakescape
today, I now turn to two other channels that were part of this same boundary dis-
pute. The channels in question were located several miles to the east of the bound-
ary drawn in Figure 2.

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221 Place in the Anthropocene

Both sides called them Sapak and Moka’s Sapak channels. They also agreed that
they were “very old.” And they agreed about what they were used for. But who built
them? And who owned them? A western villager held that “a man called Munding
cut both channels for his wife, Mwangama, so she could harvest shellfish from
them. Munding belonged to a descent group called Aruk.” When I asked him who
Moka was, he shrugged his shoulders.
The point is that ownership of the two channels, and implicitly the location of the
central boundary dividing the lakes, was claimed and counterclaimed through rival
narratives about their construction and history. Eastern informants alleged that “the
two channels had belonged to the Kanian people; the Kanian were living along the
lakes when our [Sepik River] ancestors first arrived. They fought the Kanian who fled
inland, but marriages also took place with Kanian women.” The claim that Munding
made the Sapak channel for his wife, Mwangama, was also challenged by an eastern
Murik man. “Kemat cut the channel for his grandson, my ancestor. His girlfriend
harvested sandcrab from it. I gave the channel to my sister, Nancy, and now she is
its ‘mother.’” Names of, and genealogical connections to, the channel builder and his
female recipient were nominated as part of the contentions (see also Harrison 1990).
Ethnohistory and descent group names were also cited. But it would be wrong to as-
sume from these accounts that the lakescape was solely a human construction.
Autochthonous creator-spirits, it is true, do not enter into these or other stories,
as they do in middle Sepik River cosmologies, where it is crocodile-spirits all the
way down (see Moutu 2013). As a place, the Murik lakescape rather bears the mark
of human and totemic origins. The “great other,” whose absence might otherwise
constitute and guarantee meaning, is imagined in terms that are less differentiated
from the self at the mouth of the great river. Spirits dwell underwater here and there
(as above), but their agency is viewed as more or less equivalent to that of men and
women. Spirits are seen as more like human beings than not. One major similarity
between them is that both must resort to vehicles to supplement a lack, which is not
just of mobility, but also moral. Both possess multiple, totemic “canoe-bodies” in
which they travel through the space, air, and water of the other. One sees this com-
mon agency and exposure inscribed on canoe prows (see Figure 3). In pre-state
cosmology, both human and ancestral “canoe-bodies” traversed the lakescape and
left their mark upon it.
Let me return to the other Sapak channel. A senior, eastern villager disclosed
a startling chain of events associated with Moka’s Sapak channel. To support the
authority of his account, as well as his title to the channel, my informant claimed
descent from Kombiit, one of his story’s antagonists.
When the [eastern Murik] reached the lakes, they fought with the
[property owners] they found living there, among whom were the people
of Gaut village. . . . Moka was a Gaut woman. She was killed in revenge
for a previous murder [by the Gaut] of a Murik man called Kombiit. . . .
After killing Kombiit, the Gaut warriors seated his body on the roots
of a mangrove at the mouth of Sapak channel and put a betelnut in his
mouth. His son became enraged and retaliated by killing Moka, the wife
of his father’s killer. He cut her genitals and draped them over a branch of
the mangrove tree that had grown over the mouth of her channel. They
[finally] . . . dried out and dropped into the water.

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David Lipset 222

Figure 3: Lagoon canoe prow. (All photos by the author.)

These redolent images, the original murder of Kombiit, his pose, seated on the
roots of a mangrove with a betelnut in his mouth, and Moka’s genitals draped above
her channel, could hardly express the absent other to whom I have just alluded in
any more intimate, as well as altogether perverse, terms.
I would therefore like to ask a Lacanian kind of question. Recall that for Lacan,
the psychoanalyst and semiotician, signifiers substitute for “the lack.” What is miss-
ing behind symbolic order is that which has been irretrievably and irredeemably
lost, which is the other, or what Lacan (1977) calls the phallus. Beyond the specta-
cle of male violence, who is or what was “the other” that would, but cannot, guaran-
tee the unity of prestate space within this commons? What is the hidden “element
which represents within it its own impossibility” (Žižek 1989: 127), but at the same
time may fix or suture place into a structure of meaning?
To get a grip on such a paradoxical view of place, I turn to betelnuts. Murik
people chew betelnuts for the mild pleasure they arouse. Betelnuts are an object
of sensory desire here as everywhere else in Papua New Guinea (PNG). But in
Murik, they are an object of exchange, bartered for or purchased, but never grown.
Betelnuts are not only dissociated from labor, they are also dissociated from hu-
man reproductive capacities. For Murik joking partners, whose mockery of de-
sire lends an ever-present, ever-adapting comic tone to daily and ritual discourse
(Lipset 2004), betelnuts denote “testicles,” of course, and the stringbean-like pep-
pers chewed with them stand for the phallus. While betelnuts are associated with
male genitalia, they do not refer to organic fertility. They rather connote another
form of agency, the capacity to coordinate kin to produce seafood to sell or barter
for them. Which kin, in particular? Female kin.
In staging the victim, how was Kombiit posed? He was posed as a man “eating
his own balls.” At this moment, he was both a man who had met his fate and one
whose kin had failed him. “What is it that the subject is deprived of? The phallus:

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223 Place in the Anthropocene

and it is from the phallus that .  .  . desire is constituted” (Lacan 1977: 15). Both
Kombiit and his kin have been deprived of the phallus: they have been symbolically
“castrated.” This interpretation is supported by the schismogenic reply (Bateson
[1936] 1958) it provoked in Kombiit’s son: an image of female castration, the geni-
tal dismemberment of the wife of his murderer, displayed at the entrance of her
channel. What irreducible gap, or fragment of it, guaranteed the meaning of the
lakescape? Indigenous, property-owning groups and Murik warriors were not just
violent men; they were castrators, bearers of deprivation of a particular sort. “If you
crossed the border,” so one informant recalled, “you would die.”
The lakescape was said to be surveilled by vigilante warriors ready to attack
anyone who trespassed boundaries. The lakes were “a system” of signifiers of the
absent other, whose absence could be identified by property markers that would
“castrate” the phallus and deny its penetration. Boundaries, I suggest, evoked sig-
nifiers of symbolic displacement from the other rather than simply from material
places. In other words, as elsewhere in PNG, property is constituted by relations
among persons with reference to place, rather than between people and places
(Leach 2004: 43).
The story of Moka’s death was first and foremost narrated for rhetorical purposes:
it was part of a strong, political claim to channel tenure that was also meant to dis-
credit (castrate?) a rival claim to the position of the central boundary in the lakescape.
This kind of revelation, together with the recitation of the names of the kinsmen and
kinswomen involved in making the channel, suspends the lakescape in a web of sig-
nifiers, not only of the other from whom the phallus is deprived but also “the name of
the father,” for example, the eponymous selves who created the lakescape.
Another episode in this controversy perhaps occurred sometime during the
early 1960s. Although I have been unable to find reference to it in patrol reports
filed by colonial officials, Murik accounts nonetheless reveal the reach of legal plu-
ralism in the colonial, postwar era. To what extent was the state viewed as an ad-
ministrative resource in support of a lawful recognition of property rights in the
lakescape? The case seems to illustrate that the bundle of de facto rights originat-
ing in and organized in situ by the resource users went on defining it; rights that
remained contested in terms of Murik social structure and ethnohistory and that
authorized de jure rights contributed little by way of enforcement or regulation.
I do not know what events prompted which parties to take their dispute to the
district seat. For whatever reasons, patrol officers apparently boated downriver
from Angoram and heard arguments about the contested boundary. Along with
speeches, a weapon and a prestate valuable were revealed. These objects, which
signified the presence of a high-status, male warrior, were said to have won the
day for the eastern villagers who displayed them. The authenticity of the objects,
a timeworn spear and an old boar’s tusk, substantiated the claim that they had
been handed down to contemporary claimants from two ancestors who lived on
and walked the beaches on the eastern side of the channel. The western villag-
ers, I was told, could not deny their evidential weight in support of their rivals’
claim. The case was decided in favor of the eastern Muriks; and the border was
affirmed to extend northward from Bok Channel to the landward edge of the lakes
(see Figure 2). The patrol officers erected boundary markers, signage that had long
since vanished.

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David Lipset 224

As I say, I know little more about this incident other than what I have reported.
Still, I think the eastern Murik version of its result and the subsequent disappear-
ance of the markers illustrate several useful points. First, the state’s adjudication of
de facto rights in and claims to ownership of the Murik Lakes was determined from
the ground, or in this case the water, up. Second, the outcome did not incorporate
the Murik very thoroughly within the colonial, legal order. And thirdly, from a
Lacanian viewpoint, foreclosure of the lakescape remains slippery, if not altogether
impossible. Boundaries do not hold.
Having introduced the prestate and symbolic background of the property re-
gime of the lakescape, and having just suggested that colonial institutions (1880–
1975) left only a trace on it, I now turn to the postcolonial lakescape (1975–2014).

The gender of customary marine tenure

The state of PNG granted legal recognition of customary land tenure in 1974, the
year before independence (see Fingleton 2007). It manages land titles, particularly
in disputes between landowners and extractive industries, such as mines and oil
companies (Kalinoe and Leach 2005). At the local level, contemporary community
political order is overseen by a series of democratically elected officials, a councilor,
assistants, and a magistrate. These officers link communities with the postcolonial
state and will intervene to mediate domestic conflict, but rarely, if ever, attempt to
resolve property disputes.
Use-rights to harvest from the commons are asserted or operationalized in
canoes by kinsmen and kinswomen. While such rights are subject to norms that
broadly correlate lake access to village-based zones, they are, at the same time, pos-
sessed by every family living in the lakeshore Murik communities. That is, eastern
villagers are free to fish anywhere on their side of the lakes, just as western villages
may do so on their side. Fishing spots are not assigned, for example, to individual
kin groups. No license is required. Fishing is limited by proximity and convenience.
The lakes being huge, men and women can only paddle so far from home and still
return before nightfall.
As sporadic government and Murik efforts to start cooperative, commercial
fishing ventures have repeatedly failed, the primary unit of production remains the
household, with specific tasks being assigned through a sexual division of labor.
Travel to the provincial market town has become progressively more expensive in
recent years, with one outcome being that attendance at regional markets has in-
creased. In short, the articulation of the Murik fishery to petty capitalism should
be read as slouching along, but without teleology. Such a relationship, one could
call it poverty, is not at all unique in PNG, where the commitment of rural folk to
exchange-value is halfhearted at the best of times (see Akin and Robbins 1999).
If anything is distinctive about the Murik environment, which is essentially
a lagoon-based, marine ecosystem, it is that what little land there is—e.g., mud-
flats and beaches—is not arable. While most Pacific Islanders depend on marine
and terrestrial resources, the integration of the Murik Lakes with adjacent land is
mediated by trade relations, rather than by direct cultivation. Unlike most fishing
people in the South Pacific, the Murik are not “part-timers” (Ruddle, Hviding, and

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225 Place in the Anthropocene

Johannes 1992: 251) who combine fishing with gardening. Other than crafts and
folk dances, they produce nothing but fish and shellfish, coconuts, and a few pigs.
Everything else they acquire through trade and commerce of one sort or another.
Nevertheless, their concept of a corporate estate does include territorially based
resource zones and dwelling sites. Thus one term for descent group, at least among
western Murik, is “land-place” (aji’pwap) and a term for boundary is “land border
mark” (aji’aurosan).
At the same time, tenure, management, and exclusionary rights in the Murik
marine lakescape, as well as to intravillage property, are authorized through cer-
emonial exchange within lineages. Status is symbolized and allocated by the rights
of persons to sumon, the ornamental paraphernalia that signify authority over the
material and social estate of the lineage. The sumon are transacted by senior men
and women in the context of mortuary ritual.
Now property regimes of this sort, which delegate exclusive rights to (subdivi-
sions of) lagoons, reefs, and seas, and derive these rights from local jural institutions
that may or not may involve the state, have been called systems of “customary ma-
rine tenure” (CMT) by Hviding (1989, 1991) and others (see also Johannes 1978;
Ruddle and Akimichi 1984).2 The characteristic feature of CMT systems in the
Pacific Basin is that “the local community is often the sole owner that controls the
local spectrum of marine habitats” (Ruddle, Hviding, and Johannes 1992: 250).
More concretely, however, rights to these habitats vary from “sole quasi-ownership
of specific localized sites by individuals, families, clans, or other small social groups
to the complex . . . legal system of Japan” (Ruddle 1988: 353). In other words, by
privileging local constructions of sovereignty, CMT systems assert a strong voice
in marine legal pluralism.
Anthropologists have documented the extent to which rules limiting fishing ac-
cess are part of larger jural systems consisting of relationships, inheritance, and ob-
ligation (Ravuvu 1983; Carrier 1987). Throughout Oceania, marine resources, no
less than land, are subject to various degrees of exclusiveness that limit use-rights
to specific fishing grounds during particular seasons, as well as to specific species,
even to a specific type of gear (Carrier 1982). In addition, Pacific Basin CMT re-
gimes have been lauded for their resiliency. They persist in spite of external pres-
sures from colonial as well as postcolonial administrations, industrial fishing, tour-
ism, and, not least, an accelerating market economy (Baines 1985; Hviding 1998).
The Murik rarely fish in the ocean but for a week or so every year in early June
when the tides completely subside. My point is that other than as a route to market
and overseas trading partners, the Murik make little use of the ocean. But the Murik
Lakes may nevertheless be viewed as an inshore, marine environment governed by
CMT. In the botanical literature, mangrove lagoons are known for the richness and
diversity of their marine fish populations, which use them as nurseries, and which
may range from fifty to two hundred species (Hogarth 2007: 182). Despite the pen-
etration of petty capitalism in rural life, the pre-state roots of Murik small-scale
fishery remain perfectly evident in its ongoing basis in household production and

2. Marine tenure systems in PNG have been documented in several locations (see
Malinowski 1935; Gaigo 1982; Olewale and Sedu 1982: 253; Carrier and Carrier 1983;
and Pomponio 1992).

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

David Lipset 226

the sexual division of labor. Women regularly paddle into the lakes (Figure 4). On
a daily basis, kinswomen take dugout canoes and go fishing, using nylon droplines
and store-bought hooks. Kinsmen, and occasionally married couples, use nylon
drift nets for the same purposes. Kinswomen also go to harvest shellfish, either by
diving and collecting them from shallow lakebeds, or by paddling to private “meat
channels” (garap yangan; Figure 5).

Figure 4: Murik women paddle off to fish and harvest shellfish, 2012.

Yangan is one key vernacular term, not only for appreciating Murik CMT, but
also for appreciating how the lakescape is valued by the community. The lakes
(nemar) are shallow, and flats become exposed at low tide. Their size ranges from
great swathes of water that reach as far as the eye can see to little ponds. They are
divided up into bays, islands, and large areas of dense Rhizophora mangrove for-
ests (bar), with their legendary aerial or stilt root systems that loop off to adapt to
brackish, saltwater and ­­­anoxic, waterlogged soils. The gnarled roots and lush green
foliage of these amphibian forests form dense, impenetrable tangles. Completely
lacking in understory vegetation, this is “a universe until itself, utterly unlike other
woodlands or jungles” (Ghosh 2005: 7). In addition to the lakes, the mangroves are
divided up by channels, large and small, as well as by long, narrow creeks that snake
through them. Meanwhile, along the edges of the mangroves, man-made inlets
prod the mud. All of these sandy waterways the Murik call yangan (Tokpisin: baret).
There are several classes of yangan. The Murik distinguish between “meat”
yangan, from which women harvest clams and sandcrabs and men hunt croco-
diles, and “water” and “sago” yangan. They differentiate “old” from “new” yangan,
“public” from “lineage” yangan, “male” from “female” yangan, and, evoking sibling
birth order, “big” from “small” yangan. Both men and women may and do hold ex-
clusionary, alienation, and management rights to yangan. According to the sexual
division of labor, only men build channels—normally for kinswomen.
Channels should be built on lineage property in the lakes. Place-making in the
mangroves, I have heard it said, requires work, but “cutting a channel is not hard,”
allowed Tom Sauma, a middle-aged father. He recalled a project undertaken on be-
half of an elder daughter, the right to do so having been granted by the elder sister
of his deceased father, the father’s sister being a lineage headwoman. Evoking the
division of labor in swidden horticulture, he went on to catalogue the steps: “You
cut [down] the mangroves. You wait a month or so. You collect the dead wood for
firewood and then [it] is ready” for kinswomen, his daughter, the “mother” of the

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

227 Place in the Anthropocene

Figure 5: Young woman having just returned from harvesting clams, 2010.

inlet, her sisters, and their daughters, to begin to harvest shellfish from the new
inlet (Figure 6). That is to say, in addition to the degree of effort it may or may not
require, place-making is here conceived as a moral activity structured by age and
gender. It fulfills and creates obligations between men and women through which
the labor of the former may reproduce kinship, a female child, the new inlet. The
“father” creates a new channel, a “daughter,” with a new “mother.” It is referred to
by the “name of the father.”

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

David Lipset 228

Figure 6: A new inlet (woman) in the making, 2011.

Channel use is jealously guarded, and this vigilant attitude is expressed in resent-
ment, angry disagreement, and, not least, magically empowered boundary mark-
ers (Figure 7). “No Trespassing” signs, made from palm fronds, are erected in the

Figure 7: Property marker with knotted phalluses. Credit: David Lipset

mud at low tide at the mouths of channels. Knots are tied in palm leaves, knots
that are said to bind “phalluses.” The message to intruders, which cannot but
(analytically) evoke the image of Moka’s mutilated genitals hanging over the entrance

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

229 Place in the Anthropocene

of her channel, might thus be rendered as something like this: “Do not fuck this
[daughter/sister/wife/woman], or face the consequences.” The inference associat-
ing “meat channel” as a signifier of the Lacanian signified, the lost other, becomes
difficult not to draw. If so, channels become metaphorical objects of desire, women
who must be protected not just from material trespass but also from vulnerability
to a form of symbolic rape. We might thus speak of the gender of the Murik CMT.
As a system of signifiers, meat channels “inscribe” (Low and Lawrence-Zuniga
2003: 13) the edges of the mangroves with metaphors of kinship and women, but
also they inscribe them not as pristine countryside but only as slightly remote lin-
eage property that also includes its residential plots and coconut groves located
within and/or adjacent to the community. The lakescape is not a natural environ-
ment, just a useful one. Use-rights to channels (conjugal or parental rights?) are
held by their “mothers” and “fathers” and a network of cognatically related actors
(and affines) who bear personal names given them by mutual kin. The channels are
named and gendered, some even have siblings, and as such are afforded attributes
of “persons” in these collectivities.
The extension of this metaphor of personhood onto yangan channels is perhaps
epitomized by the “mangrove shacks” (bar iran) erected on their shores (Figure 8).
These are alternative work-residences to which people go from time to time. Al-
though terminologically differentiated from their village homes, these encamp-
ments, built by kinsmen, and named for the builder, resemble domestic houses,
but are smaller, and are frequently left cobbled together, walls unfinished, draped
with plastic tarpaulins and the like. I once saw the house ladder of a mangrove
shack cut out of the diagonal trunk of a living mangrove tree against which the
front side of the building had been built. Murik people opine that mangrove shacks
are “quiet” places where all there is to do is work. They do not liken this ethos to
pre-modernity. But there are no nonkin, and the social scale is miniscule, to say
the least. Community they leave behind, community with its “noise,” the steady
appeals for goods and services, children at play, as well as rows, in return for the
precapitalist virtues of the kin group.

Figure 8: Mangrove shacks, 2012.

Shack-dwellers usually return to the village to attend church and visit kin on
weekends. But for weeks, months, and even, for complicated political reasons, for
years in a few cases, they live secluded, amid the mangrove ecology. There are, I
think, about seventy-five such places in the lakes, some occupied, many vacant.

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David Lipset 230

The “quiet” quality of life extolled at the mangrove shacks does not distinguish
them as superior, morally authentic, natural utopias, à la Walden Pond (Thoreau
[1854] 2008), from which spiritual awakening might be found. If not about self-
fashioning, the ethos of the mangrove shacks consists in the reproduction of the
kin group through (partly) unalienated labor.
If the lakescape and Murik CMT are uniformly understood in terms of moral
personhood, it is important to emphasize that channels are not evenly distributed.
While headmen and headwomen of Murik lineages serve as ritual actors who may
manage their patrimony independently of the rest of community, lineage owner-
ship of the commons is not equally distributed. Some lineages and even whole
communities claim large mangrove zones, some claim smaller zones, while others,
to put it frankly, are said to possess no claims at all. Perhaps this inequality, embel-
lished by the association of mangroves with women, is the ultimate cause of the
ongoing boundary dispute between eastern and western Muriks discussed above.
Thus far, I have presented the Murik Lakes as a kind of restricted-use commons,
and a CMT property regime that has largely remained semi-autonomous of the
legal bureaucracy of the state (S. F. Moore 1973). Now, the division of labor, the
channels, and the mangrove shacks have been introduced as part of a system of sig-
nification through which Murik moral personhood is inscribed onto the lakescape.
But the signification of order is a semblance, rather than a substance, that fills out a
void opened up by the breakdown of representation, like the suspension of Moka’s
genitals over the entrance of the Sapok channel that bears her name. Before con-
cluding this section, I want to mention two other kinds of inscription that I think
support this Lacanian interpretation.

Figure 9: Mangrove graffiti at low tide, 2012.

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231 Place in the Anthropocene

Mangrove trees along the lakeshores are “tagged,” as urban youth in North
America say. Young men carve names, initials, or numbers onto tree trunks
(Figure 9). Another occasion when graffiti were drawn on tree trunks—in this case,
imported logs—comes to mind. During a latter moment in the launching rites for
new outrigger canoes, boys were allowed to draw rudimentary motifs, such as stars,
zoomorphic and humanoid figures, on the sides of the new vessel, as if perhaps to
lend their vitality and potential to the ritual transformation of the log into a person
that was underway (Barlow and Lipset 1997: 15). In the past, instead of using nu-
merals and the English alphabet as they do today, young men etched mask motifs
of war-spirits (brag) onto the trunks of mangrove trees. But I haven’t seen the latter
for some time. So I suppose that this shift in their graffiti may reflect a familiar tra-
jectory of modern identity—toward individual identity, and decentered from local
forms of agency (Giddens 1991)—that is ongoing in Murik culture and the nation
as a whole (see Lipset 2005a, 2011b, 2013). But in the West, while graffiti pieces are
also eponymous, they are meant to defy the boundaries of bourgeois space. They
are a medium of illicit communication for dislocated, disenfranchised, urban male
youth, that is, for youth who are to all intents and purposes ur-modern (Ferrell
1998; Austin 2001; Snyder 2006). By contrast, the meaning and intent of contem-
porary mangrove graffiti in the Murik Lakes are rooted in, rather than alienated
from, prior forms of signification, and it occurs within their commons. If it is not
an expression of delinquent art, what are Murik young men trying to do or say? If
their mangrove graffiti conveys membership in a sociosymbolic field, what is that
field? What kind of a legible presence is it? The mangrove graffiti might be seen as
a reply to “a lack in the Other” that enables an author to “avoid the total alienation
in the signifier not by filling out his lack, but by allowing him to identify . . . his
own lack . . . with the lack in the Other” (Žižek 1989: 122). In other words, amid
a commons that remains embedded in the phallus, Murik graffiti, now inscribed
in arbitrary signs that are separate from the iconic figurations that preceded them,
signifies a place, a relationship to the Murik Lakes, that has become doubly empty
(Lipset 2011b).
A related representation inscribed across the lakescape supports this Lacanian
reading of Murik graffiti. Coastal environments, like the Murik Lakes, have been
called “landscapes of protection, providing hiding places .  .  . for pirates, smug-
glers, poachers, illegal immigrants and refugees” (Griffith 1999: 5). Murik youth
also see the lakes as a site of privacy for another kind of defiance: desire for the
other and the pleasure of sexual fulfillment (Lipset 2009). Protruding erect above
the canopy, appearing quite distinctly against the sky, the uppermost branches of
the occasional tree have been hacked off, exposing a thin, vertical trunk rising up
to a bushy, rounded-off cluster of leaves left revealed at the top. These tailored trees
(asimen), visible from great distances, are most often said to memorialize gratifi-
cation occasioned by this privacy. They may commemorate any sort of event and
experience, but in particular they commemorate pseudoanonymous sites where
a young, unmarried couple has had sexual intercourse, the secret trysting-place
being a canoe or a small platform a man has built (cf. Gregor 1985: 32). What is
the location of the rendezvous and the asimen tree? Is it on lineage property of
either of the lovers? The relationship of the signifier to property may be elusive,
but the explicit reference of these trees is not. The yangan channels have “mothers.”

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

David Lipset 232

Figure 10: Twin asimen, 2010.

When tabooed, they become kinswomen, but generically so. The asimen trees,
meanwhile, may stand for specific women. A young man may name a tree after a
girlfriend. In one story I collected, a youth cut a pair of asimen trees and named
them for twin girls, Clara and Lydia, his lovers, who observed the project, which
is simultaneously an act of machismo.3 The lakescape is manfully decorated with
signifiers of the desire of the other.
In which case, perhaps it is not surprising to find that these trees are also associ-
ated with an impulse to reciprocity. In addition to cutting the asimen tree, a man
may decide to build a new “meat channel” for his girlfriend—in return for having
received sexual access to her. Thereafter, should their intercourse yield a baby, he
may donate use- and transfer-rights in the channel to the child. While such a re-
sponse connects meat channels to marriage and reproduction, that is, to the fulfill-
ment of conjugal obligation for female fertility (indeed, Murik practice brideser-
vice), the asimen are signifiers of a memorable deed. They are what William Blake
([1791] 1994) called “lineaments of gratified desire.” The trees represent neither
biological nor social reproduction. They lend the illicit ethos of dalliance, rather
than alliance, to the lakescape, dalliances displaced from the community. Again, in
a Lacanian sense, the asimen trees become signifiers, not only of male agency—of
the young, virile id—but also of masculine lack, the phallus. The asimen, I argue,
are both signs of gratification and a cri de coeur. They momentualize an object of
desire, at once possessed, yet lost.

3. However, a young woman may climb up a mangrove and fabricate an asimen in honor
of a boyfriend with whom she has had sex.

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233 Place in the Anthropocene

If nothing else, the channels, the story of Moka’s murder, the “No Tresspassing”
signs, the mangrove shacks, as well as the boundary dispute, the young men’s graf-
fiti, and their asimen trees dispersed throughout the mangroves, depict a lakescape
that was and remains distinctively Murik. Taken all together, they seem to combine
to make a claim to sovereignty over place by conceding that the desire of the other
fails to annul or complete the absences, material and social, that otherwise saturate
its meaning.

The time of rising sea-levels (2007–2014)

In the Pacific, there are two seasons. During the “dry season,” from May to October,
the winds blow from east to west, the tides contract, and shorelines expand. Dur-
ing the “wet season,” from November to April, the winds blow from west to east,
the tides expand, and shorelines erode. From 2007, the range and height of the
“wet season” tides eroded the Murik coast. The barrier beaches were breached, cut-
ting innumerable channels through to the lakes. Sand poured through them. Tidal
surges tore across villages, leaving behind a spectacle of severed trunks of coconut
palms and dead shoreline trees, drifting canoes, trenches, and gullies (Figure 11).
Entire villages had to be evacuated, once in the middle of the night, when people of
all ages were forced into their canoes to seek the shelter of their mangrove shacks.
From the lake side, the range and depth of the tides, which rose twice a day, also
expanded, and the mudflats on which the villages were built could not dry out, as
they did in the past. People either poled canoes between the houses at high tide,
walked along the beaches, or had to trudge through squishy, sucky, grasping paths
along the mudflats, which they detested.

Figure 11: Stumps of coconut palms along the beach at Big Murik, 2010.

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

David Lipset 234

The government, whose prime minister at that time was none other than a Murik
native son, Sir Michael Somare, took action. The 2008 budget gazetted funds to
the Murik Lakes Resettlement Project (MLRP) to purchase land to relocate three
Murik communities to higher ground on the landward side of the lakes. A sparsely
populated venue was selected, one that was located inland from the lakes in the
vicinity of Marienburg, the site of a big Catholic Mission. Negotiations were un-
dertaken with landowners there. In other words, the tides rolled in the promise of
a new and expanded era of modernity in its most classic sense, territorially based
By August, 2010, however, the MRLP had fallen apart. Property around the
Marienberg Mission, which had been marked off, had not been purchased, much
less transferred. The senior bureaucrat in charge had been suspended by the pro-
vincial administrator, amid charges of corruption, misappropriation of funds, and
so forth. In the national government accounting for the 2010 budget, the Depart-
ment of Treasury listed the money for the MLRP in the “spent as allocated” cat-
egory. Both in town and in the villages, people were angry about the missing funds.
A substate initiative, arising from Murik ethnohistory, subsequently developed,
but came to naught. A tsunami, triggered by the earthquake in northern Japan
in March 2011 (measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale), drove Murik people off the
beach yet again to find safety in the mangroves. The storm broke open more new
channels into the lakes from the sea. Beach sand poured through, disrupting the
biodiversity of one of the lakes and making it too shallow to navigate at low tide.
The leaves of the coconut palms were yellowish in color. They bore no fruit, having
evidently been poisoned by the salinity of the tidal waves, which also tossed logs
about the villages and dug out huge depressions beneath some houses. Buildings
had been damaged. Villagers were suffering.
A community-based adaptation then began to emerge (Lipset 2013). In 2012,
villagers were starting to discuss establishing new communities in various locales
on the landward shores of the lakes, a plan that was rumored to be supported by
funds from the national government. There was no question that the property
already belonged to them, not as tribal “Murik,” but rather in terms of CMT, as
descendants of their particular and named, migrant ancestors. From a practical
perspective, this adaptation was viewed as eminently feasible, particularly should
the government construct a road to link the area up with current roads to the pro-
vincial capital and regional markets. What happened? Amid an ethos of criticism
and suspicion of the postcolonial state, the prospect of resettlement basically came
to a suspended ending. People went on trudging through the mud, although many
of them decamped to peri-urban settlements in the provincial capital.

Carbon trade, carbon cowboys

In the aftermath of the 2002 national elections, the Murik native son Sir Michael
Somare formed a coalition and returned for a third term as prime minister of PNG
after a hiatus of fifteen years. Not surprisingly, given that he had been raised in the
Murik villages (Somare 1975), Somare began to play a conspicuous role in interna-
tional climate negotiations during this period (2002–10). At the Global Roundtable

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235 Place in the Anthropocene

on Climate Change held at Columbia University in 2005, he called for the creation
of a Coalition for Rainforest Nations that would lobby for compensation to de-
veloping countries that reduced greenhouse emissions. Representatives from PNG
and Costa Rica then proposed a program called “Reducing Emissions from De-
forestation and forest Degradation” (REDD) to the Conference of Parties to the
2007 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on
behalf of the Coalition. At their subsequent Bali meeting, a process was initiated
to include conservation and sustainable management of forests and the enhance-
ment of forest carbon stocks, or REDD+. The goal of this initiative was to develop
policies and financial incentives to do so. Since REDD+ was first proposed, its fo-
cus has expanded to include a wider range of issues, including the provision of
support to help countries prepare for implementing REDD+ and assessing social
safeguards and environmental benefits. By the 2010 meeting in Oslo, seventy-five
partner countries had registered as stakeholders to support and finance REDD+ as
well as other programs and partnerships.
While the initial target of REDD+, or carbon trade, was to financially compen-
sate property owners for not degrading rainforests, the UN eventually recognized
the value of “Blue Carbon.” The capacity of ocean and coastal ecosystems, like man-
groves, salt marshes, and sea grasses, to store, or sequester, carbon in the biomass
in which they grow was twice, or possibly three times, that of tropical rainforests.
Worrying that one-half of the world’s original mangrove forests had already been
destroyed, in 2009, a UN REDD representative resolved that for developing coun-
tries it was “critically important to include mangrove forests in their strategies. Few
other forest systems offer as many benefits for climate, conservation and devel-
opment. It is thus strongly recommended that national governments consider the
incorporation of mangroves in their REDD+ readiness plans.”4
Having sponsored a market-based mechanism to reduce carbon emissions, the
Somare government found itself immediately embroiled in a humiliating scandal
in connection with the issuance of REDD credits to carbon brokers and traders, in
the absence of any policy or regulation. Meanwhile, hucksters, so-called “carbon
cowboys,” were roaming about the countryside hawking bogus deals and promis-
ing huge returns. Rural folk were handing over money to register as stakeholders in
carbon trading companies, after which the con men would cut and run, never to be
seen again. Of the misconceptions about what was being purchased, an exasperated
World Wildlife Fund official declared that “people in the bush . . . [were] calling it
‘sky money,’ or ‘selling the air,’ or ‘selling the gas above.’”5 A new government office
responsible for climate change and development was established in 2010, partly in
response to the critical media attention that the “carbon cowboys” had attracted
to PNG. At the same time, the UNREDD Program approved a budget for PNG of
US$6.4 million in 2011 to develop a national program. However, a USAID report
concluded that the momentum in PNG had “slowed . . . regarding REDD+” de-

4. http://www.un-redd.org/Newsletter16/Mangrove_Forests_and_REDD/tabid/51394/
Default.aspx. Accessed on December 4, 2014.
5. http://www.redd-monitor.org/2009/07/02/png-update-yasause-suspended-dodgy-
carbon-credits-and-carbon-ripoffs/. Accessed December 4, 2014.

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

David Lipset 236

spite the country’s initial leadership (Leggett and Lovell 2012: 118). Undeterred,
government officials began consulting with rural leaders about REDD+ in order
to raise community awareness about climate change and carbon payments and
begin to recruit local-level participation in sustainable mitigation and adaptation
As a result of these global interventions, I found discussion of “carbon” going on
in Murik villages during an August 2012 fieldtrip. At his weekly meeting, a village
councilor announced that people had better start “licensing families” before carbon
investors arrived. “A lot of money will be coming,” he predicted, “but we will only
get very little of it” unless kin registered themselves as Incorporated Land Groups
(ILGs). A university graduate who was on leave from work in Port Moresby at the
time added that he knew many companies were competing to represent carbon
trade in PNG. “Donors,” and here he included himself in the carbon rush, “were
emailing” him. The Murik Lakes “have no rival in PNG as far as the size of our
mangroves. We will make big money.” In the ethnographic record, of course, Mela-
nesians are famous for a great many things, sacred and profane, but their hopeful
optimism and huge expectations about what modernity might offer is certainly one
of them (Schwartz 1962).
What did villagers understand about carbon payments? One man told me that
carbon trade was for “wind. .  .  .It is dirty smoke that comes from machines or
engines that is destroying everything. They will be paying us for [our] air.” He, as
well as others, advised me to go talk to a Murik man called Erik Komang, who was
then living in town. A university graduate, and a sister’s son of the PM, Komang
headed a company called Pacific Carbon Trade Ltd. that was intending to register
kin groups and represent them to foreign investors it was enlisting. However, to
the very same extent that villagers held up Erik Komang as knowledgeable about
carbon trade, he was no less regarded with wariness and suspicion. That is to say,
many people did not view him as a neutral entrepreneur who could be trusted.
Rather than an opportunity to make money, they saw him as a kinsman who only
had lineage interests at heart.
I found Erik Komang in one of the peri-urban encampments where Murik
live in the provincial capital. Pacific Carbon Trade Ltd. was one of fourteen such
companies in PNG, he said, but it was the only one registered in the East Sepik
Province. “In the East Sepik,” he boasted, “it is me alone.” What, I asked, would
stakeholders be obliged to do in return for carbon payments? Not fish, harvest
shellfish, or collect firewood from a demarked area? Not cut new meat channels,
new asimen, or tag particular trees? In response, Komang talked about hectares of
rainforest, which seemed irrelevant to a mangrove ecology. He left his answer to
my question vague, in other words. Instead, he went on to list the several stages
by which the size and value of the Murik mangroves would be measured. The first
step was to register stakeholders into ILGs, a process well known for its cost and for
the frustration it inevitably created (Jorgensen 2007: 67). Identifying property and
proprietary units from an overlapping jumble of rival lineages was not going to be
an easy project, I allowed, and went on to mention the boundary dispute between

6. http://www.forestcarbonpartnership.org/sites/fcp/files/2013/PNG%20R-PP_For-
mal%20Doc%2025%20Feb%20Final_0.pdf. Accessed December 4, 2014.

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

237 Place in the Anthropocene

eastern and western Muriks by way of illustrating this challenge. Komang conceded
that aligning customary marine estates with corresponding statutory declarations
might well turn out to be impossible. His preference was to duck the problem. “I
would like to distribute the money village by village. The clan system [is] . . . too
complicated.” In any case, he went on, the whole process was not yet ready to move
forward. Villagers were not yet registered and the government had not yet issued
regulations for a carbon market.
Elsewhere in PNG, descent-based units have been pressured to register them-
selves into legal associations (Weiner and Glaskin 2007). As in the Murik case, the
problem they have faced is having to create an exclusive list, for example a leg-
ible group, not only because of indefinite lineage boundaries, but also because of
adoption, outmigration, and intertribal marriage in contemporary society. What
is more, I have argued that the lakescape is subject to cathexis, to an investment
not just of esoteric claims and jural rights, but of libido, or emotional attachment
and desire. The tense boundary, the hundreds upon hundreds of named channels,
many blocked off by the knotted phallus, “No Trespassing,” signs, and the asimen
trees all inscribe the lakescape not as a unified field of signification, but one rent
by “the trauma” that defies or resists jural and symbolic authority. Thus it is associ-
ated with intimate attachments and desire and arouses deep-seated, irresolvable
The volatile promise of compensation payments in return for “looking after” a
plot of mangrove forest exposed the main fissure in the commons. Potential ben-
eficiaries feared that they might not profit equally (or at all) from “carbon.” Their
anxiety did not arise from the invention of new social categories that never existed
in the past (see Ernst 1999: 88). It rather derived from the continued absence of
supra-community interests and identity in Murik culture, an absence that I have
traced back to precolonial times, and which today continues to inspire little by
way of fair-mindedness. In the contexts that rural Murik think about the tangible
boundaries of corporate groups—that own estates—they think of family, lineage-
based ceremonial exchanges, and community ethnohistory, but not tribe, much
less the nation-state and its legal bureaucracy. Eric Komang, equipped with Mem-
orandas of Agreement, is not understood or expected to advocate for the whole
society in an evenhanded way, only for a subset of relationships within it. Like an
asimen, he signifies desire, parochial as it must be.

Ethnography of place in the Anthropocene

At the outset of this article, I suggested that before it became a dialogic or political
site that pitted local against global interests, “place” was a narrative site of moral
belonging in modern ethnography. What lessons does the ethnography of a coastal
setting like the Murik Lakes, whose vulnerable environment will no doubt become
more commonplace as time goes on in the Anthropocene, have to offer the anthro-
pologies of place, in addition to the anthropologies CMT and legal pluralism?
Anthropocene ethnography certainly calls the logocentrism of place into ques-
tion. It calls into question the optimistic view that privileges place as a timeless
medium through which people sense and understand nothing less than who they

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 215–243

David Lipset 238

are as moral persons. Anthropocene ethnography also interrogates value pluralism

according to which property and resources are claimed and controlled. Instead of
essentially celebrating the articulation of customary and state-based concepts of
property, instead of dialogue between cultural and legal rights, Anthropocene eth-
nography must first and foremost acknowledge the prospect, if not the fact, of place
loss, the loss of sovereignty, loss of property, and loss of identity (Redfearn 2010; see
also Oliver-Smith 2009; Lazrus 2012).
Must the ethnography of place in the Anthropocene be a tragic genre (Shearer
2011)? Must it only focus on dislocation, displacement, and poverty to the exclu-
sion of logocentrism, for example the ways that people express belonging or the
way that places themselves do so? The acultural positivism to which environmental
anthropologists cleave, the one that rehearses the hoary triptych of vulnerability,
adaptation, and resiliency, would seem to suggest otherwise (Crate and Nuttall
2009; Crate 2011). Some bittersweet confection, I think, combining both loss and
resiliency, must be expected, perhaps not of place, but of people.
Nearly empty villages, schools shut down, and internal migration to overpopu-
lated, peri-urban, squatter settlements with the consequence of intertribal mar-
riage, acculturation, and language loss are indeed a conspicuous “adaptation” to
rising sea-levels. At the same time, as a result of the irremediable damage to place,
people like the Murik, drawing from all they have left, which is their social and
cultural capital, have no choice but to go on and try to make a living for their
families, reinvent their communities elsewhere, and devise a new nation—all in the
shameless and disgraceful shadow of a new, empty phallus, institutions near and far
which provide them with nothing at all.

Financial support for the fieldwork on which this article is based was supplied by
the Firebird Foundation of Maine, USA, as well as the Wilford Fund in the Depart-
ment of Anthropology and the Global Alliance, both at the University of Minne-
sota. Versions were presented at the Department of Anthropology and the Institute
on the Environment, both at the University of Minnesota, and at the Department
of Anthropology, University of Chicago.


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Le lieu de l’Anthropocène: Un lagon de la mangrove de Nouvelle-Guinée

à l’ère de l’élévation du niveau de la mer

Résumé : Cet article est un travail ethnographique portant sur un lieu, a une péri-
ode peu prometteuse que certains ont commencé à appeler l’Anthropocène. Aux
environs des lacs Murik, à l’embouchure de la rivière Sepik en Papouasie Nouvelle
Guinée, l’Anthropocène interroge les conceptions logocentriques et politiques du
“lieu”. Le “lieu”, qui n’est plus conçu comme le site où le monde se trouve doté d’une
personnalité morale, et où prend place un dialogue avec le global, a maintenant pris
une tonalité sombre et conditionnelle. A l’Anthropocène, le “lieu” est le site d’une
tragédie imminente, caractérisé par la perte, plutôt que par le gain de sens.

David Lipset is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota-Twin

Cities. He has conducted longitudinal research since 1981 on masculinity and mo-
dernity among the Murik Lakes people in rural Papua New Guinea. Lipset has writ-
ten two books, Gregory Bateson: The legacy of a scientist (1982) and Mangrove man:
Dialogics of culture in the Sepik Estuary (1997). He is the coeditor of two collections
and the author of articles on a variety of topics.
 David Lipset
 Department of Anthropology
 University of Minnesota
395 Humphrey Center
 301 19th Ave
S. Minneapolis, MN 55455

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