this is the first of a microwoman ‘takeaways’ feature series, in which i share brief observations from the various conferences, symposia, workshops and other events that allow me to learn and grow and claim some power as a microwoman.
the idea for this series came to me while sitting in a one-day symposium on deep seabed mining in the pacific which was held on 4 april 2015 at the university of hawai’i-mānoa in honolulu. organized by kahea: the hawaiian environmental alliance, the symposium provided activists and interested members of the public with the opportunity to hear first hand from scientists, international public servants, non-governmental organizations and lawyers working at the intersections of mining and seabed research.
i was also inspired by a recent blog by pimpi, which summarized some of the highlights of an arts conference she attended in melbourne.
as someone whose family and entire ethnic group was displaced and relocated due to terrestrial mining of phosphate (see the microwoman interview with katerina teaiwa for more on that), i get concerned whenever resource extraction is presented as a viable development option for pacific people.
here is an image of one of the methods of deep seabed mining:
julian aguon, blue water law discussing the implications of deep seabed mining in international law.
note: satya nandan, the fiji lawyer who came to prominence for his work on oceans and the law of the sea, had been invited but was not able to attend.
the presentations were packed tighter than a can of sardines with information. these were some of my notes from the day:
charles morgan had had a ‘takeaway’ slide in his presentation, that prompted me to come up with my own takeaways.
here’s his slide:
basically morgan was saying that deep seabed mining was the lesser of two evils–the other evil being terrestrial mining. however, craig smith, lisa levin, les watling and chris kelley’s presentations documented such a rich seabed biodiversity that i was not convinced that mining is worth the risks.
so my big takeaways from this symposium were:
1. science is used against indigenous people more often than it is used in our favour. if you’re concerned about mining of any kind, you need to engage with the science and scientists. information is power. we need the information the scientists have. not simply to believe them. not necessarily to agree with them. just so that we know what they (think they) know. ignoring science gives scientists the perfect reason to ignore us. (see this discussion about the panguna mine on bougainville on the papua new guinea mine watch blog, for example) but some scientists share our concerns about seabed mining, and at this symposium, the biologists and some of the geologists were clearly reluctant to see deep sea fauna and ecology sacrificed in the name of ‘development’.
2. there are two legal contexts in which seabed mining is being proposed: one is within the framework of nation-states, and the other is in the framework of international waters.
2a. as maureen penjueli noted 1.5 million square kilometers of the pacific ocean seabed are already under lease to corporations–there is a wild west mentality surrounding seabed mining, especially where there are no proper legal frameworks to govern commercial interests. right now, only 4/15 member states of SOPAC, the pacific islands applied geoscience commission, have enacted specific legislation on deep sea mining–they are fiji, tonga, tuvalu and nauru.
2b. the international seabed authority, which is based in jamaica, governs what’s known as “the area”, i.e. ocean territory outside of nation states’ exclusive economic zones (eez), in international waters, and therefore deemed to be “the common heritage of all mankind.” the good news about “the area” is that under the law of the sea, it cannot be militarized. however, the international seabed authority can issue licenses to states (who inevitably partner with corporations) to mine in “the area”. significantly, developing countries that apply for such licenses are looked upon favorably, and nauru, kiribati, cook islands and singapore already have licenses for mining in the clarion clipperton zone near hawai`i. otherwise, the international seabed authority does not involve itself in issues that take place within a nation-state’s eez.
3. because most existing ngos concerned with seabed mining are working within the legal frameworks of nation-states and therefore focusing on what’s taking place within their eez’s, the pacific needs an ngo that can serve as a watchdog in “the area”. and as julian aguon reminded us, human rights are the most under examined aspect of impacts of deep sea mining, especially when the impacts are currently being measured or assessed where the mining would be happening rather than where the impact would be felt. article 82 of the law of the sea convention provides for revenue sharing from mining. one of the questions i wanted to ask but didn’t get a chance to at the symposium was “can article 82 revenue be directed towards ngo or civil society work around “the area”?”
i’m a newbie to issues of seabed mining, and i don’t plan to become an expert in it. but i’m determined to keep a watching brief and contribute in any way that i can to raising awareness about it. although i call myself microwoman, i do believe in the expansive vision of oceania that pacific intellectuals before me have fostered. and when i think of seabed mining, the words of the late epeli hau`ofa come to mind: “oceania is vast, oceania is expanding, oceania is hospitable and generous, oceania is humanity rising from the depths of brine and regions of fire deeper still, oceania is us.”
i finished my phd in 2003 after lots of archival research and fieldwork (i called it “homework”) and then took a break while i taught at uh for 3.5 years. i then dived back into archival work at the macmillan brown centre for pacific studies at the university of canterbury in christchurch in 2006. john macmillan brown had shares in the phosphate company in the early 1900s.
i had to take another break after i began a new job at anu in 2007 with a few trips to the archives every year and visits to rabi in fiji. i had also collected many hours of film footage and archival photographs and transformed some of these into short visual studies and collaborated with artists and curators to share this history in visual and multimedia forms. finally, in 2010 i began to reimagine this as a book proposal and finalized that in 2011 while on a fellowship at the university of rochester in new york. thus began the task of taking apart my masters and phd research, reconstructing parts i could use in a book and writing 5 new chapters. this took almost 2 years and it went through a long process of feedback from 3 reviewers, and 3 editors at indiana university press in the same period. the challenge was to write this story for a wider audience and particularly american readers who are unfamiliar with oceania and pacific studies.
i think reimagining the book in this way made it better but it was a long, challenging process. for a 4-month period i was in my office till midnight on many days and lost at least 7 kilos but was so happy when everything finally came together at the beginning of 2014 and i had a real book ready to finalize for publication. i really appreciated the detail and attention that came to the book because of the rigour of the indiana university press team, as well as the additional readings and edits provided by great colleagues such as margaret jolly, carolyn brewer and rachel harvey, and my husband, nick mortimer.
so, the short answer is 15 years of research and preliminary writing, and 2 years of book writing!
mw: that’s a pretty epic process! but wait–so americans were the main or intended audience of your book?
kt:i tried to write the book for anyone (or everyone) but had banaban, i-kiribati, pacific islander, australian, new zealand, american and global audiences in mind, in roughly that order. i hoped people involved in environmental studies, activism, mining, resource extraction and agricultural research or activities might also pick it up and contemplate the impact of fertilizer manufacturing and mass agriculture on indigenous peoples.
this is a trailer katerina made for her book, using footage she’d either shot or collected while doing the research for the book:
mw: what plans do you have for making sure banabans have access to your book?
kt:i have been in conversation with banabans who have access to the internet through a facebook group- banaba: untold tales- run by kata tawaka. It has 299 members and i’ve posted all news or media and information to that page. i’ve also got a copy of the book for the community library on rabi and have given a copy of the book to the president of the banaban community in brisbane to share with the growing community there. i plan on sending copies to the presidents of kiribati and nauru as well. ummm and teresia, your copy is on its way too, as well as one for the museum of new zealand te papa tongarewa.
kt:indeed, banabans are familiar with certain versions of their history (from maude, grimble, williams and macdonald) and jennifer shennan, makin tekenimatang, ken sigrah and stacey king have produced recent books telling many banaban and european versions of this history and contemporary rabi life. i wrote to ken and mentioned that i do not cover the te aka version of banaban history as this is not something i know enough about. wolfgang kempf and elfriede hermann have also written many articles and book chapters about life and identity on rabi.
but i think what my book does that these works do not, is explicitly link banaban history to that of a deep history of land, global agriculture, phosphate mining and the significance of the phosphorus element. i thought as much about what happened to the land as to the people and previous authors have focused more on people. so i hope banaban readers will say: oh, that’s why they wanted our phosphate so much and this is the role it played in global agriculture. and they might ask: so what is “te aba” really, and why should we know more about the science and technical aspects of phosphate mining and environmental destruction? i argue that what happened to the land is like what happened to the people and both are still waiting to be rehabilitated in a just fashion.
kt:well, as a banaban, i became very, very, very interested in what phosphate and phosphorus were and why these were such valuable elements and commodities. if we lose an island what does everyone else gain and was it worth the sacrifice? turns out that the globe has these planetary boundaries and phosphorus has a key role to play in the maintenance of our ecological systems. this is something i think banabans need to know, the mining destroyed not just our island but phosphorus is a limiting factor for life on earth because it’s normally locked away in inaccessible forms like rock and takes a long time to naturally cycle back through the system. so messing with natural cycles in order to mass produce food might provide short term solutions for food security but results in all kinds of other problems in terms of siphoning off key minerals strictly for human needs while destroying landscapes, oceanscapes, plant and animal life, and cultures in the process.
i used to wonder if i’d ever use my bachelor of science degree from santa clara university but it sure came in handy for this research. i could generally follow the geology, biology and chemistry i had to read to write new chapters of the book but i was still unsure so went to the commonwealth scientific and industrial research organisation (csiro) in canberra and spent a bit of time with an agricultural scientist checking things. i hope banabans will rethink te aba, or abara, in these material and global terms and realize what role our small ancestral island played not just in terms of developing australian and new zealand agriculture but as part of a global environmental and agricultural system. tracking banaban lands and peoples is a global tracking in many ways because of the chain of phosphate and superphosphate commodities and the agricultural commodities and processes that are linked to fertilizer production and application.
this is a promotional video the anu released about katerina’s book:
mw: there was also another american guy (not part of the indiana series) who was doing a global history of phosphate, right? what was his name? are you and he saying similar things about phosphate’s role in processes of globalization?
kt:greg cushman wrote about guano: guano and the opening of the pacific world. i discovered it just as my book was finished and wrote to him to say, yay, great, i’m interested in your work. he never replied and I’ve only seen small bits of his book via google books but it does tell some of the banaban story based on archives and sigrah and king’s book. i’m not sure if he travelled to rabi and banaba. his is very much a global history linking south america and the pacific.
but guano and phosphate are a bit different in terms of geological life, access, mining technology required for extraction, and proportions of phosphoric acid available for agricultural use, or in terms of what industries need to do to the raw material in order to unlock the phosphoric acid (that’s what you need to help improve the capacity of plant roots to take in nutrients and thrive).
guano mining played out a bit differently in south america and oceania but the same companies (like the pacific islands company) were involved in both types of extraction and exploitation of labour and indigenous land.
guano really is piled up bird and bat poo while phosphate–which can be formed by guano leaching through and reacting with a coral bed and then sedimenting over time–is locked away in rock formation.
mw: that’s interesting. you did a lot of archival research for the phd and this book, but your doctorate was awarded in anthropology. how important was anthropology for the way you’ve ended up writing the book?
kt:my writing is ethnographic. i tell stories, many in rich detail so i’d say ethnography rather than anthropology per se was very important. however, anthropologists’ previous work was very important, as was that of historians and a few scientists. so this could be described as historical ethnography but it not written to debate some particular theory or issue in the discipline.
mw: so the discipline of anthropology is not the focus. the people are. that’s cool. but your spoken kiribati is minimal, because dad didn’t use it much in our household when we were growing up. did you feel that was a barrier at any point in your research?
kt:it’s not only because our dad didn’t speak directly to us in his first language. i have studied kiribati, fijian, hindi, chinese, japanese and french over the years. and i cannot speak any of them though my kiribati comprehension is best. i believe my japanese teacher thought i was an imbecile and my french teacher similarly. but i can write any word in mandarin with the correct directional strokes—i see chinese characters, i don’t comprehend them.
anyway, yes, not paying closer attention to language did influence my project—the downside was not going deeper into banaban epistemologies and stories rooted in language, the upside was paying attention to materiality, to land, to commodities, to bodies. i am a visual and choreographic person; unlike you, languages are way, way beyond me in spite of time in kiribati and on rabi surrounded by kiribati speakers and listening to my father speak the language on and off since we were little. but i can learn any dance quite quickly; dance is my language. and when i look at a page, i don’t read words, i look at the shape of the text (i’m hypersensitive about fonts), spacing, blocks, tabs and margins, before i read anything.
i did, however, work closely with our father to translate many interviews that were in gilbertese (kiribati) and I published them in the book with english translations.
here are some pictures of katerina using the language of dance over the years–from ballet to contemporary kiribati dance and other genres. we couldn’t find a photograph from her years of chinese dancing in time for publication:
mw: have other disciplines influenced your analysis and writing in this book? how?
kt:history and anthropology have been the major disciplinary influences (i adore archives, they are so exciting) but interdisciplinary pacific studies is where my work sits i think. and that includes the indigenous studies and cultural studies elements of pacific studies. cultural studies and women’s studies on their own have also influenced my thinking and work, especially in terms of the politics of knowledge and cultural production.
it’s not a discipline per se but analytically, methodologically and politically, feminist ethnography had a major impact on my phd years, especially the writing of kamala visweswaran (fictions of feminist ethnography), dorinne kondo, ruth behar, deborah gordon, all the women writing culture folks, especially kirin narayan. she is such a master storyteller.
dance studies also had a massive impact on my work, especially the work of susan leigh foster, deidre sklar and sally ann ness. i think I write as a dancer, even when i’m not writing about dance.
mw: this is a microwoman interview, so can you tell us a bit about how women feature in your book? you’ve been influenced by feminist ethnography, so do you consider yourself a feminist? can you say more about how feminism informs your work?
kt:my two academic goddesses are kirin narayan and kamala visweswaran. yes, i’m a feminist but i find any superficial and simplistic varieties of western feminism irritating. i’m a feminist in a catholic, indigenous, eco-critical, multi or inter-spiritual kind of way. i tell my daughter god is not gendered and definitely not a man sitting in the clouds. i believe in gender equity and equality.
gender was not the focus of my research but i noticed it everywhere, including in the archives, and carolyn brewer, who worked with me on the index, found much more content then i remembered thematically on women, children and gender issues in my book. this was especially the case with respect to land, land rights, colonialism, christianity, spirituality, oral traditions, and resistance amongst the banabans.
mw: just changing tack a bit, we’ve been talking about academic influences a lot so far, but i wondered whether there were other less academic influences you might like to discuss. for example, have you felt our ancestors’ spirits intervene or assist in the process of researching and/or writing this book at any point?
kt:ok, i have. and it’s never popular or a good move to discuss this in an academic (or public) context, except with some indigenous or pacific studies folks in hawai’i, new zealand and the u.s. i have a couple colleagues who i can talk to about such things at anu but it’s usually a no-go zone, as is revealing you have any kind of membership in organized (or disorganized) religion. academics aren’t expected to be spiritual, and definitely not religious as, scientifically, your objectivity will be seen to be compromised.
usually i’m not sure if i’m living up to our ancestors’ expectations. right from the beginning of the research process, if not before, i had many dreams of people trying to instruct me on banaban, kiribati and other indigenous knowledge and ways of doing or seeing things. after i went to banaba i had several dreams of skulls or heads without bodies accompanying me on the research journey and prompting me or pushing me to keep going. keeping ancestors bones was of course a custom on banaba and throughout the gilberts. on tabiteuea—our other ancestral island—i think i was visited by more than a few spirits and on banaba i definitely had waking encounters with vivid things i couldn’t explain. in 2011 my husband said that a tall man visited him in a dream and said to tell me i could do this book and it would be good. he said it was our african american grandfather.
mw: that’s heavy. do you have any funny stories from doing your research or writing the book?
kt:yes, lol. many of them involve bodily functions, like most anthropologists. one of them involves an entire section of betio town in south tarawa accompanying me to the shop to buy toilet paper and then sitting outside the school toilet, waiting, while i went. others involve showering under the stars with some awesome nuns on tabiteuea only to find out that a toddy cutter was up a coconut tree somewhere in the dark and decided to reveal himself by singing one of those toddy-cutting songs.
a not so funny one was when a drunk young man climbed under my mosquito net in tekabwibwi, north tabiteuea, while my two uncles slept not too far away, claiming he just wanted to touch my hair. i woke up while his hand was inches from my face.
another one was when i thought i could play netball for our village, tabiang, on rabi but didn’t quite know the rules of the game and some clever woman put me into a match against the toughest village on the island. i think she wanted to show everyone how no amount of education will help you on the sports field. so i married a former athlete and he played volleyball for tabiang years later and his team decimated all the reigning champions (first time tabiang every won a trophy i hear)!
fun fact: i listened to lots of pop, hip hop, reggae, r&b and world music while finishing the book and danced in the chair as i was writing and editing.
mw: cute. 🙂 do you feel you have exhausted the archives on banaba? is there more work that could be done?
kt:no, no, no. the archives of the british phosphate commissioners, western pacific high commission, and others relevant to banaba, phosphate and mining are MASSIVE. they’re in canberra, melbourne, adelaide, london, auckland, wellington, suva and would connect to other records such as ship cargo manifests from many more countries. and this doesn’t include the content in private collections of former company employees and that of stacey king and ken sigrah on the gold coast of australia. there is a lifetime of work to be done and i’d love to keep going. i think it would also be great for younger banabans to study the humanities and social sciences and write more of our histories and contemporary stories.
mw: what will your next research and publishing projects focus on?
kt: my current work with indiana university’s “framing the global” project is called “indigenous peoples and the global remix” and is about the performing arts, policy, international cultural relations, regionalism and festivals. but i need to clear some months to finish it! i also hope to find funding to do more rabi and banaba research one day.
mw: well, that will certainly keep you busy! thanks for taking time to share with us on the microwoman blog. is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers before you go?