Diverse Foods, Diverse Hungers: An Ethnonutritional Approach to Insecure Food Futures in a West Papuan Plantation Zone

Dr Sophie Chao2

1University Of Sydney, Sydney, Australia, 2Macquarie Univeristy, Sydney, Australia

Drawing from eighteen months of fieldwork in Merauke District, West Papua, this paper explores how indigenous Marind communities conceptualize the rising food insecurity provoked by deforestation and oil palm expansion across their customary lands. I begin by examining the bodily and social transformations provoked by the substitution of once-diverse, native, and forest-derived diets with nutritionally poor, imported, and processed commodities such as rice and instant noodles. I then analyze “hunger” among Marind as a plural, phenomenological, and moral disposition that speaks to the breakdown of social ties among Marind communities and between Marind and the kindred forest organisms from whom they traditionally derived their sustenance. At the same time, I demonstrate how hunger is considered by Marind to be a fundamental attribute of animate and inanimate entities that they associate with the palm oil sector – the state, government roads, bulldozers, and oil palm itself. Finally, I outline how an ethnonutritional approach to diet and food in Merauke and beyond can pave the way for a culturally informed understanding of diverse foods and diverse hungers across socioeconomic contexts. I also examine the applied value of this interdisciplinary approach in forging locally sustainable and culturally meaningful food systems for future Marind generations.


Dr. Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Center, and an Honorary Postdoctoral Fellow at Macquarie University. Her research explores the impacts of deforestation on indigenous food systems in Indonesia.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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