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The Last Paradise on Earth: A Study of Coral Worlds and Their End in Indonesia

Carlsberg Foundation Monograph Fellowships

What

With the Carlsberg Monograph Fellowship I am honoured to have the opportunity to finish a book that I have planned to write for some time. The book, entitled "The Last Paradise on Earth", is a more-than-human ethnography of Raja Ampat, an archipelago off Papua in eastern Indonesia.

Building on long-term fieldwork in the region, "The Last Paradise on Earth" is a transdisciplinary but anthropologically anchored study of "coral worlds": of the ways in which the biological ability of corals to symbiotically entangle many kinds of species, many kinds of humans, and many kinds of histories creates lively worlds. "The Last Paradise on Earth" is the name used by tourist guides to refer to the region but also describes the hope that conservationists and locals alike attach to these coral reefs.

Why

The coral reefs of Raja Ampat are home to the most bio-diverse coral reefs in the world. More species of coral, fish, and invertebrates thrive here than anyway else in the world. Situated at the heart of The Coral Triangle, the region is the source for the abundance of fish life in the waters between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. A major destination for dive tourism, the region has since 2007 been protected by marine conservation regulations.

Critically, the area is also home to around 50,000 Papuans who depend directly on the coral reefs for their livelihood. And strikingly, these reefs have so far avoided the coral bleaching events that have decimated coral reefs elsewhere in the world. The project seeks to study this unique set of circumstances.

How

I have been studying the people and coastal regions of eastern Indonesia for almost 30 years and speak Indonesian as well as several local languages and dialects. In this project, I will be combining my experiences from ethnographic fieldwork with insights from marine biology and archival study to build a coral anthropology: a multi-species approach to coral worlds at a time of profound coral crisis.

The study uses marine biological insights and local millenarian cosmologies as ethnographic theories of each other in an explicit challenge to the academic division of labour between natural and human sciences. Coral worlds, as I will show, are natural-cultural worlds where biological symbiosis, eco-tourism, millenarian hopes, and post-colonial history are braided into each other.

SSR

The world’s corals face a colossal global crisis. Scientists warn that coral reefs will effectively be gone by 2050 if global trends continue: the first entire ecosystem to disappear as a direct result of human-made changes to the world’s environment. If this happens, results will be catastrophic. Coral reefs are not only the most biodiverse ecological habitat on Earth, they are also the source of livelihood for a quarter of a billion people, especially in the Global South.

We need an integrated approach across marine biology and social science to understand and prevent the crisis that corals and the people who depend on them face. "The Last Paradise on Earth" will seek to outline such an approach.