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Refiguring Conservation in/for 'the Anthropocene': The Global Lives of the Orangutan

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - GLO (Refiguring Conservation in/for 'the Anthropocene': The Global Lives of the Orangutan)

Reporting period: 2019-07-01 to 2020-12-31

In recent years, conservationists have engaged in heated debates about whether and how conservation should respond to the challenges posed by ‘the Anthropocene’—a term increasingly used to encapsulate the overwhelming, transformative impact of human activity on the Earth system. How are these debates—and the wider ‘Anthropocenic’ awareness they embody—reshaping conservation philosophy, strategy and practice? How are they manifested in and across diverse contexts? How, conversely, are global conservation developments and ‘Anthropocenic’ phenomena apprehended and reshaped on the ground? This project explores such urgent questions through an unprecedented study of the global nexus of orangutan conservation at a unique historical juncture marked by flux and uncertainty. Combining in-depth ethnography and multiply-scaled cross-cultural comparison, it approaches orangutan conservation as a sprawling, uneven terrain across which the rapidly-evolving relationship between conservation and ‘the Anthropocene’ is being played out. Its objectives are 1) to examine if and how contemporary conservation is being ‘scaled up’ and re(con)figured in and for ‘the Anthropocene’; and 2) to cut ‘the Anthropocene’ down to size by exploring how it is experienced, conceptualized, contested or indeed refused across multiple conservation settings. Comprising four interlinked studies to be carried out simultaneously at the main nodes of orangutan conservation, this project seeks to pioneer a new synchronic, multi-sited approach to the analysis of global conservation, and lay the groundwork for an empirically-driven, theoretically ambitious new field of scholarship on conservation in/for ‘the Anthropocene’—one that will revitalize social scientific understandings of conservation while adding much-needed empirical depth and nuance to emerging cross-disciplinary discussions about ‘the Anthropocene’.
Following the set-up period (Jan-June 2018) and regular reading group discussions, research meetings, conference attendance and networking (2018-2019), we have spent 2019 and 2020 conducting our primary research.

Individual studies:
- PDRA1 and PDRA2 have completed their main research periods and are now writing up their findings.
- The PI’s research on orangutan visualisations is ongoing, having been disrupted by COVID-19 and a reduced time commitment (c. 50-60% since late-March 2020).
- The PhD student’s fieldwork was delayed by health problems and a long wait for her Indonesian research permit. Unfortunately, she arrived in the field in February 2020 but had to leave a month later due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She is currently doing desk-based research and planning to return in late-2020 (situation dependent).

Outputs: A conservation-social science workshop in December 2018 (below) led to an innovative interdisciplinary article that sought to reimagine the conservation-social science relationship through an exploration of social issues in orangutan conservation. Published in People and Nature (2020), it has sparked widespread interest and discussion. PDRA1 has published in Ethnos, and PI has a paper and special issue forthcoming (Cambridge Journal of Anthropology). We also writing up and submitting individual articles and have just submitted our first co-authored article to American Ethnologist.

Knowledge-transfer: PDRA1 participated in several capacity building and public engagement activities as part of her work with the Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF). Upon completing fieldwork in December 2019 she submitted an extensive report to BNF. PDRA2 analysed orangutan adoption trends and adopters’ motivations in collaboration with Orangutan Foundation UK and International Animal Rescue. She prepared custom-made reports and presentations that were well received. She will do follow-up research in late-2020 on the impact of her recommendations and on how COVID-19 is influencing individual supporters’ choices and relationships to charities.

Dissemination: We have disseminated our findings in various forms to different audiences. All team members have participated in academic meetings. The PI gave two keynotes (2018, 2019) and a public lecture at the HI (2020). We have also done talks and workshops for schools (PDRA2) and at Anthropology open days (PI). The PI discussed GLO’s work in an interview for the environmental website Mongabay (2019) and in two podcasts (Arch and Anth, Finding Sustainability, both 2020).

Conference organisation: In December 2018 we convened 'Conservation and the social sciences: beyond critique and co-optation', a groundbreaking cross-disciplinary/sectoral workshop between orangutan conservationists and social scientists. The PI and PDRAs are due to convene conference panels on key project themes in summer 2020. We are evaluating our options for a conference planned for early-2021, which may be postponed or shifted online.
- Novel ethnographic insights. Our project greatly expands extant understandings of orangutan conservation by generating new insights into its operations at specific nodes (visualisations, virtual adoption, national-level policy, conservation schemes, human-orangutan conflict, rescue) as well as the connections, gaps and tensions between them.

- Emerging analytics/optics. Our research is giving rise to several analytics/optics that partly overlap with those in the description of action. These include in/visibility, edges, invasiveness/indigeneity, and heroism and villainy. Our recently-submitted article develops an analytic of responsibility as a means of thinking both orangutan conservation and the Anthropocene.

- Cross-disciplinary collaboration. Our December 2018 workshop generated significant interest as an unusual—and, for orangutan conservation, unprecedented—cross-disciplinary conversation between conservationists and social scientists. Participants noted how unusual and unprecedented this opportunity to engage was, and concurred on the need to create more such ‘safe spaces’ for exchange across disciplines and sectors. Our relationship was taken forward via an unusual co-authored article in People and Nature (2020) that sought to reimagine the conservation-social science relationship through the lens of orangutan conservation.


Expected results:

Our project team keeps in regular contact through regular emails and video calls. Drawing on our research and discussions, we have identified several themes to explore further, including: visibility and invisibility, proximity, edges/lines/thresholds, invasiveness/indigeneity, and heroes and villains in the Anthropocene. We aim to write up and submit a number of articles on these themes, and explore these further through in-person or virtual conversations. We are keen to use our work to demonstrate the value of synchronous, ethnographically-grounded, collaboratively analysed research, especially for the study of global or planetary phenomena such as the Anthropocene. Finally, we continue to do public outreach and build on our collaborations with conservationists to explore further opportunities for engagement, including through our blog, virtual events, and audio-visual media.
Orangutan mother and child, Central Kalimantan
Borneo landscape