Faces of shame, masks of development: recognition and oil palm among the Baining of Papua New Guinea
Yaneva-Toraman, Inna Zlatimirova
This thesis explores the role of “shame” in the Vir Kairak Baining people’s understanding of the relationships that underpin positive social change. Previous studies of shame in the context of colonial and postcolonial transformation in Melanesia have suggested that encounters with outsiders humiliated local communities and incited their cultural and economic conversion. This thesis starts from the position that “shame” could be an inherent feature of and a virtue within a culture that offers both grounds for resisting and prospecting change and development. While previous studies have often discussed “shame” as a negative experience, this thesis argues that among the Vir Kairak Baining people of Papua New Guinea “shame” is cultivated through practice and understood as a highly productive behaviour that enables social ties within the community and forms the basis for development. The study draws on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork, which I conducted mainly in a Vir Kairak rural settlement in central East New Britain. Recently, the Baining region has become central to Papua New Guinea’s rapidly expanding oil palm sector and many local communities have agreed to lease their customary land for the establishment of monocrop plantations. This thesis shows how the transition from smallholder farmers to rentiers occurred as a result of people’s land and market insecurity driven by their resettlement by the Australian administration in the aftermath of World War II and the Cocoa Pod Borer (CPB) blight in 2006. It explores how people envisioned the oil palm plantation and their relationships with the company and the state, what outcomes they imagined for their community and customary land, and how the land-leasing process affected their sociality and identity. It traces the links between notions of landownership, local understandings of shame, and struggle for recognition, through which the Baining people conceive and position themselves in relationships with others and the environment. This thesis argues that whilst Baining experience of shame involves some degree of hiding, it is ultimately about shaping and displaying one in a particular form for others to see. This form enables people to relate in meaningful ways and orient their actions with respect to their future aspirations and expectations from that relationship. The thesis explores the ways in which the Baining make themselves visible and seek recognition by others (such as the state, international corporations, God, provincial bureaucrats, expats, NGO representatives, scientists, tourists, members of other Papua New Guinean and Baining communities) as persons and people with particular kind of capacities, in hopes to re-claim their land and bring development to their community. But drawing on the large body of anthropological literature that has highlighted the “looseness,” “fluidity,” and “instability” of Melanesian social identities, I discuss recognition not merely in terms of recognising individual identity, indigeneity, or legal rights, but as a condition for agency and relationships with others as well as realisation of personhood. I illustrate how people frame their “right to development” and deploy discursive and practical strategies that are shaped by local understandings of shame, in order to establish their recognition as a people, landowners, mask makers, and Christians. By showing the participation in and display of multiple identities by which local people want to be recognised and bring the kind of development they desire, this thesis offers a valuable contribution not only to the wider discussion of recognition and the role of emotions in producing visible and recognisable people and relations, but also to the studies of political ecology and development.