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Evil Infrastructures in Oceania


Robert J. Foster, Heather Horst

Session presentation

Chris Kelty has given the designation of “evil” to infrastructures that “prohibit or frustrate participation rather than extend it, or that support inequality and racism rather than trying to neutralize it, or that facilitate closure rather than extending openness.” This panel seeks to document the history and social life of evil infrastructures in Oceania. How might an ethnographic focus on infrastructure bring into comparative view the ways in which citizens, states and companies negotiate the terms of their obligations to each other? We will highlight public, private and public-private material infrastructures—grids, cables, pipes, towers, roads—that ostensibly distribute and deliver essential social goods such as water, housing, electricity, transportation and telecommunications. We also invite papers that discuss infrastructures such as platforms and applications related to emergent financial services (e.g., mobile banking). While a burgeoning multidisciplinary literature concerns infrastructures in urban contexts, this panel welcomes papers that consider effects and experiences of infrastructure in rural areas. We welcome papers that treat the subject of infrastructure as a means for creatively describing and critically appreciating the moral and material economy of everyday life in Oceania.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

The Road to Dispossession: From Economic Autonomy to (Oil Palm) Plantation Laborers

Nancy Lutkehaus (University of Southern California)

This presentation analyzes the Papua New Guinea government’s proposed Manam Development Planed as a form of “evil” infrastructure in and of itself. Not only is it predicated on infrastructure—the construction of a new road—the very plan itself, in the form of Powerpoint slides with copious graphs and charts, can be conceptualized as a type of visual infrastructure. The proposed road is necessary to link the coast of Madang Province, where 10,000 Manam Islanders have resided in three temporary Care Centers since their evacuation from their island due to a volcanic eruption in 2005, with a yet-to-be developed resettlement community 23 kilometers inland. An example of “disaster capitalism” at work, the plan requires international aid for its execution as well as the cooperation of overseas corporations. Using Stoler’s analysis of the conceptual linkage between imperial formations, such as colonies, and contemporary refugee camps articulated in Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Time, I analyze the Manam Development Plan as a neo-colonial project of the PNG state that would create a form of infrastructure that would restrict the economic autonomy of the Manam Islanders and transform them into laborers dependent upon wages earned at a proposed oil palm plantation.

Infrastructural connections and disconnections on an oil palm plantation in Papua New Guinea

Tuomas Tammisto (University of Helsinki)

This paper examines how infrastructure and "legibility" associated with large-scale a large-scale oil palm project in East Pomio, Papua New Guinea, creates different forms of connections and disconnections.

The oil palm plantation was established in 2008 as a part of combined logging and agriculture project intended to bring income, employment, infrastructure and services to the remote Pomio District of East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. According to the plan, in exchange for logging concessions and land leased for oil palm cultivation, logging and plantation companies would build roads and fund services that the state was unable or unwilling to provide. Logging and the plantation have produced a network of roads that until 2016 were connected only to the plantation. The plantation itself has become an infrastructural hub with a port, mobile telephone tower and services. Unlike the surrounding rural areas, the plantation is also a highly "legible" environment for state officials and particularly the police.

In this paper I examine how the rural people of Pomio make use of the private road and plantation infrastructures and how workers organize themselves on the plantation to make claims on how the company and the state should work. Finally, I examine how infrastructure and the increased legibility of the plantation connects and disconnects people in different ways with both extractive capital and the state.

Negotiating Infrastructural Hopes and Inequalities in Post-Conflict Bougainville: Upgrading a Highway in Buka Island

Marlit Rosolowsky (University of St Andrews)

In Buka Island (Papua New Guinea) major road works framed within a wider set of post-conflict rehabilitation projects have recently transformed sections of the Buka Ring Road (John Teosin Highway), which links the villages along the east coast with the administrative center Buka Town of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, from a coral surfaced all-weather road into a tarmacked highway. Based on 15 months of fieldwork in 2016 and 2017, this paper explores how various actors involved in the construction works negotiate their infrastructural hopes with regard to the highway and their expectations and obligations towards each other. The paper will approach these negotiations between state actors and politicians, private companies as well as rural communities and their leaders from two different angles. On the one hand, the paper will outline the history of the highway and the infrastructural hopes attached to it. It will describe how its poor condition and the lack of funding for maintenance has been conceived for decades by regional politicians and rural communities alike as a manifestation of inequality, outstanding promises and rehabilitation payments following the Bougainville Crisis. On the other hand, the paper will look at the construction process itself and how its realization required continuous negotiation of expectations and obligations in the light of royalty payments, clearance works and the presence of companies carrying out multimillion projects in a rural area.

« Man paoa airport »: dealing with remoteness, building an airfield on Mere Lava, Vanuatu.

Marie Durand (Université de Strasbourg)

In Februray 2011, the little two-seat, single-engine plane of an Australian doctor coming from the neighbouring island of Gaua officially landed on Mere Lava, inaugurating the newly finished airfield made from local rocks, gravels and sand. This was duly feasted by inhabitants that had come from nearly all the villages of this small and rural island situated in the northern province of Vanuatu. At last, they had the possibility to evacuate sick people towards government hospitals of the archipelago or the private clinic that the Australian doctor had built on Gaua.

This airfield, entirely constructed by Mere Lava inhabitants themselves with shovels, a few wheelbarrows and their will as only tools, was a private enterprise embedded in a long and complex history of requests sent to the government, Church led initiatives (the Australian Doctor is also a leading Seventh Day Adventist Church member), local committee discussions, and customary land inheritance questions as well as economic expectations. After only a year of use, a “taboo” palm was set that shut the service down for several years. Based on field observations and interviews led from 2010 onwards, this paper will examine negotiations, strategies and tensions between the diverse actors involved in this infrastructure building and in its maintenance process. It aims at highlighting the mechanisms by which such an infrastructure effectively produces equalities and inequalities.

“It will be like a town here, things are really coming up!”: Inequalities and frustrated expectations in village-based PNG cruise ship tourism

Michelle MacCarthy (Saint Mary's University)

In mid-2013, construction began on a jetty at Kaibola Village in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea, to much expectation. The jetty would facilitate the arrival of large P&O Cruise ships, carrying up to 2500 passengers to this tiny village of a few hundred inhabitants. As with other large-scale infrastructure projects such as mines and telecom towers, debates surrounded issues of landownership and kin ties, which would determine who would get what share of funds for land use. But beyond this were contestations about who would benefit from the arrival of tourists in large numbers for short bursts, sporadically, potentially for years to come. Indeed, the title reflects the sentiments of John, the patriarch of a family that was poised to benefit significantly from this development, but many others were less optimistic. On my next visit in 2016, the jetty was complete and other infrastructure had been installed to support cruise ship tourism: a pavilion for selling souvenirs, an area for cultural performances, a passport-stamping station, and (most popular), a generator-driven refrigerator filled with chilled cans of local lager. Such developments generate income for some, and ill-will and jealousy for many who feel left behind economically and disrespected culturally. This paper explores the dynamics of contested spaces and the distribution of wealth in the context of infrequent (but coveted) cruise tourism traffic in a small village community in Oceania.

Water, Light, Toilets, and Tourists on Tanna (Vanuatu)

Lamont Lindstrom (University of Tulsa)

When I arrived in SE Tanna’s Samaria village in 1978, this small community was off the grid. In years since, government and NGOs have funded a variety of development projects: a truck spur road, sundry water catchment tanks and then a reticulated water system, VIP pit toilets, electric generators and solar arrays, and recently a mobile telephony tower looming atop the neighboring mountain. Villagers were more-or-less committed to this infrastructure, using it or not according to their own interests, and usually they permitted it to decay. Reticulated water supply systems and roads were most problematic in that they, unlike other infrastructure that is incontestably emplaced within a single community, extend across several landowning groups from mountain to shore. Village infrastructure projects frequently created more problems than they solved, exacerbating community discord. VIP toilets proved particularly useless. In recent years, resistance to infrastructure has weakened and they have been induced to accept, sometimes pay for, and look after these systems. Samaria is close to Tanna’s Iasur volcano, and surrounding communities have gone into the bungalow business as increasing numbers of overseas tourists flood the island. Local entrepreneurs must deal with touristic demand for light, water, and toilets. As everywhere, life on the grid brings certain benefits but also many constraints. Infrastructure binds a community together but creates new cages and many wedges.

The Aesthetics of Infrastructures: Mobile Phone Coverage in Fiji

Heather Horst (University of Sydney)

Telecommunications policies, companies and infrastructures have significantly transformed the experience of connectivity, channels of communication, information and exchange over the past two decades. Such changes reflect a series of material, financial, technical, political and social relationships bundled together through a range of infrastructural spaces and networks (Star 1999, Star and Lapland 2009, Dourish and Bell 2012). This talk draws upon three years of ethnographic research on the moral and cultural economy of mobile phones in Fiji to explore how mobile infrastructures are made visible (e.g. Starosielski 2015, Foster and Horst 2018). Through analysis of coverage maps, interviews with telecommunications providers and users, I examine Larkin’s (2012) suggestion that the aesthetics of infrastructures are “governed by the ways infrastructures produce the ambient conditions of everyday life: our sense of temperature, speed, florescence, and the ideas we have associated with these conditions" (336-37). Through this example, I reflect upon the ways in which coverage maps aesthetically naturalise the infrastructures of mobile phone speed, geographical coverage and the presence of mobile phone companies for a range of consumers, companies and states.

Currents of Identity: Spaces of Electricity Sharing and Informal Power Grids in Urban Fiji

Watt Lucas

The use of mobile phones is ubiquitous in urban Oceania. Access to electricity that enables mobile use is not. Informal settlements in particular have no formal access to electricity. Despite this, informal settlers maintain high mobile use by constructing their own informal electricity infrastructures. These informal infrastructural assemblages consist of wires, spaces, relationships, and traditional norms that improbably facilitate settlement-wide electricity access. In the informal settlement of Veitiri in Suva, Fiji, these infrastructural assemblages culminate as spaces of electricity sharing.
During my time in Veitiri, this infrastructural assemblage changed radically, prompted by an urban development scheme. Bulldozers destroyed these spaces causing residents to rebuild the infrastructural assemblages anew. The infrastructural assemblage that emerged reflected the commodification of relationships that the development scheme enforced. Informal power grids connected wires to a select group of houses in ways that excluded other houses and commoditised connectivity as a resource. This change blocked the currents of identity that flowed through the previous informal infrastructural assemblage and the alternative form of urbanism that it created. I argue that, through the manipulation of the informal infrastructural assemblage, a socio-political form of urbanism was installed that is antithetical to the vision of the settlement’s residents.

The Broad- and the Narrow- Cast: Christian radio in the making of colonial social relations

Courtney Handman (University of Texas at Austin)

In this paper I examine networked forms of radio communication in mid-20th century colonial New Guinea, particularly certain attempts to use radio as a restricted, narrowcast channel rather than a mass-mediated broadcast one. I focus on a non-denominational Protestant missionary radio network established in the post World War II era that connected far-flung stations across the rapidly expanding mission fields of the highlands. But even as the missionaries hoped to link these distant stations, they worried that too many radio-mediated social linkages with other missionaries, other colonizers, or the colonized would disrupt the colonial imaginary of the heroic missionary at work in rugged and isolated locales. Several aspects of the missionary radio network helped maintain the network as a limited, narrow-cast channel: the material circulation of objects like piezoelectric radio crystals and radio schedules that set the boundaries of membership; the network operators’ exhortations to keep people from listening in on transmissions; and the bureaucratic fight to maintain the missionary network’s independence from the colonial administrative network. The constant work to maintain the fragile colonial missionary radio network in New Guinea expressed a missionary desire to limit radio as a communicative channel even as they expanded their networks.