Place is made of perspectives

Peter Brosius with a Penan man in the Bornean forest. Photo courtesy of Peter Brosius.

Peter Brosius with a Penan man in the Bornean forest. Photo courtesy of Peter Brosius.

“(I’ve known) since I was 12 that I wanted to be an anthropologist because you get to hang out with cool people,” said Peter Brosius. It’s a telling statement from the University of Georgia scholar and Director of its Center for Integrative Conservation Research.

Brosius spent the last year surfing in Fiji, serving as a witness for indigenous rights in Borneo and leading an interdisciplinary graduate program.

“I’m much more interested in conversations with people who I don’t understand than people I do understand,” said Brosius, who is a professor of anthropology at UGA.

Today, Brosius is especially interested in studying humankind through understanding how different people view conservation – the act of preserving place. As director of UGA’s Center for Integrative Conservation research, Brosius hopes to find ways to not only protect a physical location, but also meet the needs of people who interact with that place, from locals to government to industry.

Stumbling into conservation

Brosius’ family moved to the Philippines when he was 12, so he saw different perspectives on place at an early age. While his family lived outside of the Subic Bay Navy base where Brosius’ father pastored a church, Brosius often spent his weekends in the mountains with a local ethnic group called the Ayta.

It wasn’t until 1984, when Brosius returned to the Pacific as a young University of Michigan doctoral student, that he began to think about different perspectives on conservation. He lived on Borneo, a large island owned partially by Malaysia, and studied another ethnic group, the Penan. The Penan are hunter-gatherers, living underneath the canopy of the Borneon rainforest. Brosius lived at the settlement of a community called Long Jek for three years, where he experienced their lifestyle and learned their language.

Peter Brosius with Penan in the Bornean forest. Photo courtesy of Peter Brosius.

Peter Brosius with Penan in the Bornean forest. Photo courtesy of Peter Brosius.

“There’s this incredibly rich way of talking about place and space that’s very, very tied to biography, to genealogy,” said Brosius, explaining that the Penan often name rivers or other locations after people or events. “Everywhere you go in the forest, everywhere you walk, there’s stories.”
In 1987, just weeks before Brosius would return to the United States, logging companies brought bulldozers to the Bornean forests. The Penan set up makeshift blockade in an effort to protect the forests that provided both their home and the resources they used to live.

Campaigns to save rainforests had just begun around the world, sponsored by organizations like Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace. The Penan, looking photogenic and indigenous behind their blockades, quickly became the poster children for the movement, their story headlining publications from Time to Rolling Stone. The Malaysian government, on the other hand, pushed back, saying the Penan would benefit from roads and other features of development.

Brosius, now back in the United States, was thrown into the conservation struggle. He was one of two people who spoke Penan, so his phone began ringing with calls from the BBC and other media writing articles and making documentaries about the Penan.

Brosius began researching and writing about the situation. His three years with the Penan had given him a glimpse into their lives, showing him that the people were more than the romanticized image the conservation organizations were showing to the world. He also joined the faculty at UGA in 1992, not long after completing his doctorate. In the years that followed, he traveled around the world talking to other people involved in the campaign – from loggers to government officials. It wasn’t as simple as the Penan and the conservation groups versus the Malaysian government and the loggers. Each group had differing perspectives on what would be best for the now-famous rainforest. Brosius realized he was even putting forth a perspective by writing about the campaign.

“What struck me was how everybody was talking past everyone else,” Brosius said.

Every perspective is partial

The issue of multiple perspectives stuck with Brosius as he continued his career at UGA. Around fifteen years later, he found a new way to tackle this question: the creation of UGA’s Center for Integrative Conservation Research (CICR).

Brosius coordinated the center’s creation in 2007 to promote UGA research that uses multiple disciplines – from anthropology to geography to ecology – to tackle conservation issues. The center grew from a project started by the MacArthur Foundation, a private organization who also initially funded the center.
“You can’t just talk about conservation in isolation,” Brosius said. He explained a particular conservation program may not benefit every group involved; trade-offs exist. For example, a conservation program may save orangutans and promote tourism, but it may also harm the local people.

Brosius said that it’s important to recognize that each of these perspectives, or lenses, only tells part of the story, an idea promoted by feminist scholar Donna Haraway.

“We’re much more likely to have a productive conversation and an appreciation for the complexity of conservation scenarios if … we learn to think across lenses,” Brosius said.

Karen Allen, a doctoral student in the integrative conservation doctoral program coordinated by the CICR, uses multiple lenses like economics and anthropology to do her research. The doctoral program is a collaboration between UGA’s Odum School of Ecology, Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and Franklin College’s anthropology and geography departments. As a student in the program, Allen studies the way people in Costa Rica decide to use the land they own and how the tourism industry and government conservation programs influence their choices. For example, a government conservation program might influence a landowner’s decision by paying the person to keep forest on their land.

“I think that coming to it from that [economic] angle you can see certain things and coming to it from an anthropological angle you see certain things,” Allen said, referring studying people’s decisions about their land. “My hope is that by the end of my research I will be able to kind of fuse the worlds a little bit better.”

Lizzie King, a UGA ecologist who is part of the executive committee in charge of the CICR, said Brosius’ boldness gave him the ability to develop the type of program that allows for this type of interdisciplinary research.

“You can learn a lot about an issue using one set of tools and one approach,” King said. “But there are a lot of problems you can’t identify or solve unless you view things from a fundamentally different perspective.”

An ongoing battle

Brosius has been involved in a variety of interdisciplinary conservation research in recent years, but the rainforest campaign that first made him think about multiple perspectives continues.

In 2000, a company called Shin Yang tried to develop an oil palm plantation on land where Penan were living in order to produce palm oil, a common ingredient in processed foods. The law in the Bornean state of Sarawak, where the Penan live, states that if a group can prove that they’ve lived on the land since 1958, they have rights to the land. Based on this law, a group of Penan took Shin Yang to trial.

Brosius has returned to Borneo several times as an expert witness in the trial, helping to bring the Penan perspective to the table using data from the notebooks he kept while living with the group. His most recent trip was in February 2013, though the trial is not yet complete.

However, even while at home in Athens, Ga., Brosius remembers places can be seen from multiple perspectives, perspectives that may change over time.

Peter Brosius built a Penan-style hut or “lamin” on his land in Lexington, Ga. Photo courtesy of Peter Brosius.

Peter Brosius built a Penan-style hut or “lamin” on his land in Lexington, Ga. Photo courtesy of Peter Brosius.

He often spends time on a plot of land about 20 miles outside of Athens, where he has built his own Penan-style “lamin,” the word for the lean-to-type structure Penan live in. Sometimes he goes to the land to write, while other times he throw sticks for his dog.

“I think about my land and all that was there (in the past) … there’s all kinds of stories,” said Brosius. “I try to be on that land with respect for that.”


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