Paige West on coffee, commodities, and community engagement

ENGAGEMENT editor Rebecca Garvoille recently caught up with Paige West, the Tow Associate Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University, to discuss her new book, From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea (2012, Duke University Press), and its broader contributions to promoting social and environmental justice. In this interview, Dr. West recounts the multiple and inspiring ways her ideas and knowledge circulate far beyond her book (and academia) to effect positive change. This interview kicks off an ENGAGEMENT series, which explores how environmental-anthropological book projects have profound and important impacts on the world around us and inspire meaningful engagements in study sites across the globe.

Paige West during fieldwork for her new book – Florence, Italy, 2006

RG: What is the theme of your new book?

PW: One theme, and a theme that I have also explored in other work, is the connection between places that are often imagined as far from modernity to places that are imagined as the center of industry and commerce.  Coffee is a commodity that has travelled around the world for literally thousands of years.  And it’s a commodity that we tend to associate with a rather urban lifestyle.  You know, you go a café in Hamburg, you go to a café in New York City, you go to a café in Sydney, and you have a cup of coffee—it’s something that we associate with a very particular kind of lifestyle.  Coffee and its circulation are one of the things that have for hundreds of years tied Papua New Guinea, a place that is almost always configured as stuck in the past or as the last bastion of a very different kind of lifestyle, to a modern global economic system.  So one of the themes of the book is the way in which commodities tie seemingly out-of-the-way places and seemingly less-than-developed people to very urban areas and to the industrialized world.

Another theme of the book is seemingly “ethical” consumption.  I ask what it means to try and create a kind of progressive politics around consumption and whether that politics is productive for people who are growing coffee and whether it’s productive for the people who are assuming that they’re enacting ethical, political choices through the act of buying. With a lot of certified coffee, with a lot of the fair-trade or organic coffee, with a lot of this notion of ethical consumption— the people in the coffee industry who are most often discursively constructed by advertising, marketing, and other forms of representation are growers.  And there are a lot of growers in the coffee industry, and they’re a very important part of the industry.  But one of the things I do in the book is expand our notion of who’s bringing coffee from Papua New Guinea to places like Hamburg, Sydney, and New York City.  So I look at the lives of growers, of people who process the coffee, of the people who work for shipping companies, of the people who import coffee, of the people who market coffee, and I really try to flesh out the global commodity chain for coffee so that the simple portrayal of poor rural growers and wealthy western consumers gets a little more muddy for people.

RG: Beyond what you’ve already hinted at, how does your book address broader questions in environmental anthropology?

PW: One of the things that my friend, colleague, and sometimes collaborator Molly Doane and I have been talking about for years is the fact that political ecology has not taken seriously the global consumption and circulation of commodities.  So many of the environmental ravages that we see today, so much of the environmental dispossession in the places where we work, is caused by the extraction of commodities. For political ecology to have a robust understanding of environmental and social change, we have to take commodities seriously.  Now this has happened with mining and oil.  The people who look at those forms of extraction do a really wonderful job of this.  But with agricultural commodities—things like coffee, sugar cane, and oil palm—we as political ecologists and environmental anthropologists really have to take this seriously, and through that we have to take very seriously the literature on circulation and commodification.

RG: When you were doing research for your book, how did you engage with different communities of local people, of scientists, of coffee growers? 

PW: One of the interesting things about this book is that it’s a very long-term project that in earnest began many years ago.  When I was finishing up my PhD project, I asked the people I work with in rural villages in Papua New Guinea what they thought an interesting second project would be.  They all said coffee because they live in this place where everyone thinks—or used to think—that conservation was a form of development.  It’s 1998, and I’m about to leave the village – maybe forever, nobody knows – and I say to a guy named Philip and a guy named Jonah, “So what’s a good research project?”  We’re looking out over Philip’s dad’s coffee groves, and they say, “Well, really the only development we have here is coffee and Christianity.  So maybe you should look at coffee and Christianity.”  I thought about it and decided that coffee was an interesting thing to look at, so the book project itself was generated from the engagements I already had with rural people living in the Lufa district of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

The project became complicated in terms of the types of relationships I had with the people I was working with because the global commodity chain for coffee literally stretches globally.  With the rural farmers who grow the coffee that I write about, I have a long-term ethnographic relationship.  I go back to Papua New Guinea every year and spend time with them.  I speak their language, and I know a lot about local ontology and epistemology.  That kind of social relationship was very different from the kind of social relationship I had with, say, the people in Goroka, the mountain town where most of the coffee is processed.  Most of those people I knew socially because there’s a whole social world of middle-class Papua New Guineans and expatriates in Goroka, and before I ever knew I would do work on coffee, I was part of that social world.  So I had to approach people whom I already had a social relationship with and say, “Look, I’m doing this book on coffee, it would be great if I could interview you, it would be great if I could spend time at your factory.”  The initial part of the book—the rural research—was very ethnographic.  I mean ethnographic in the true sense—living in a village, spending all day everyday with people for months and years on end.  The sort of middle part of the commodity chain in Goroka and then in Lae and Port Moresby, two other urban areas in Papua New Guinea, a lot of it was ethnographic work, but also a lot of it was interview work.  I lived with people, I spent time in factories, but I also interviewed people.  And then as I moved farther away from the source of coffee, the project became much more interview based.  If you’re talking to, say, a head of one of the largest coffee importers in the world, you can’t go live with them.  You can’t really afford to spend seven months in Hamburg.  And so the part of the project that is about distribution and the international marketing of coffee, that’s much more interview-based.  I feel like I had a range of relationships with people—everything from the very traditional ethnographic to the much more interview-based style of ethnography that many people practice today.

RG: In the course of your fieldwork for this book and in your ongoing research, how has your work sparked on-the-ground engagements with projects that are meaningful to local communities?

PW: I have a couple of different projects now.  The coffee project is basically finished in terms of my research, but one of the things that came out of it is that I got connected with a lot of people in the coffee industry who do really interesting work around social justice.  One of the things I was recently able to do was bring a group of researchers from a large international coffee company to the villages in the Eastern Highlands to get them talking to the people about ways to have more money flowing into communities and less money slipping out along the commodity chain.  It has led to some really positive engagement.  One of the other things that’s come out of the coffee work is that pretty much everybody in the coffee industry in Papua New Guinea is reading the book, and I think that there’s an ongoing conversation now about ethical trade and ethical consumption and whether that’s actually benefitting people in rural areas that I have helped to generate.  And so I feel like I’ve contributed to a national conversation about coffee in Papua New Guinea in addition to connecting these rural growers with some really wonderful people in the coffee industry.

It’s interesting how, once you become an “expert” on something, you find people contacting you to ask you for advice.  Someone whom I interviewed and spent quite a bit of time with in London, and who owns five small coffee shops, recently contacted me to say, “Hey, I want to source some fair-trade, organically certified coffee from Papua New Guinea, and I want to do it from a great company.”  I was able to connect him with a locally owned company, with a company that is owned and run by Papua New Guineans, and they now have a relationship where he is sourcing all of his coffee from them.  And so in some ways I’ve been able to connect people with the rural growers whom I know so well.  And in some ways I’ve also been able to connect some of the people who get constructed as middlemen.  That’s another thing about the book that I think is important.  In the narratives that we hear in the Global North about coffee and all sorts of things, there’s this notion of the middleman as a kind of evil character who takes money away from the poor growers and who doesn’t add any value.  What I do in the book is show that the middleman in Papua New Guinea is actually a Papua New Guinean who is really trying to make a living as an ethical part of the industry and who is usually someone that has connections to growers, very intimate connections to growers, and also connections to these international houses that can buy the coffee.

In terms of other work, my first book is, in part, a critique of environmental conservation projects, and one of the things that has come out of that book is really sustained engagement with small, local NGOs.  I helped found an NGO called the Papua New Guinea Institute of Biological Research, and we work to get young Papua New Guineans who are interested in anthropology and biology into PhD and masters programs, and then help support their research.  So that’s one way that my work has led to engagement.  One of the critiques in that book is that conservation can’t always be this kind of western construct that gets put down on top of people in Papua New Guinea, so one way that I’ve tried to help move that idea along is to work with these young Papua New Guinean scientists.

My current research is in New Ireland, a province of Papua New Guinea, where I work with an NGO called Ailan Awareness.  We work with twenty small communities, and those twenty small communities all have teeny-tiny protected areas created using traditional conservation techniques.  These are communities who have decided they want to do something positive for the environment.  They want to work with some people like us, some external actors, but they want to have control over their conservation projects, and so I’ve helped a lot with that process.

RG: It’s interesting that people in the coffee industry in PNG are reading your book.  There is certainly a larger conversation to be had about the meanings of environmental-anthropology books beyond the academy.

PW: I’m an academic anthropologist.  My waged labor is to produce knowledge and teach people.  And I’m thrilled that the knowledge I’ve produced has an effect in the world and that people outside of the academy can learn from my work, benefit from my work.  But I think of myself very much as an academic, and I think that, if you’re an academic, your work can still have this much broader significance.

RG: What is the key message or key point that you hope people take away from reading your book?

PW: There are a couple of them.  One of them is that any commodity that you buy has an entire social world that lives within it.  And if you want to be an informed consumer, then you should understand that social world.  It’s more complicated than poor rural growers and evil middlemen and western consumers doing ethical politics through buying stuff.  If you really want to understand the world of commodities, you should understand the complicated nature of commodities.  Another theme in the book is a critique of the constant production of the idea of the primitive as it’s connected to Papua New Guinea—to New Guinea broadly, but to Papua New Guinea specifically.  And I end the book with a set of questions about the images used to sell coffee and their connections to ideas of pre-modernity and primitivity—how those images end up slipping from the selling of commodities into political discourse that negatively affects Papua New Guineans.  With any production of an image of others, we have to think very carefully about the life of that image after it leaves the commodity. Another key point is that when we connect images to commodities, given the rapidity of time and space in late capitalism, those images get marketed and sold very quickly.  What happens when those images are no longer valuable to marketers and thus no longer sold to the public as meaningful?  What happens when the lives of rural growers are no longer important to people buying coffee?  Do they get thrown by the wayside?  I think that’s something very important when we think about tying images of people and lifestyles to commodities.

RG: Finally, what are the broader contributions of your book to public and policy discussions about social and environmental justice?

PW: What I would hope is that my book raises questions about how we think about and talk about others.  And I hope it shows very clearly that the images that are associated with the production of coffee—while they may make money for people who sell fair trade and organic certified, while they may make money for coffee for people who sell non-certified coffee—that these images have real material effects, and we have to think about that.

In terms of public policy, I’m well connected with some people in government in Papua New Guinea, and I’ve talked with a lot of people in government in Papua New Guinea about the book.  I gave talks about the book at the U.S. Embassy and at the National Research Institute of Papua New Guinea.  And the former governor of the Eastern Highlands Province has read the book and has thought a lot about coffee production.  So I’ve had a good set of conversations with people in Papua New Guinea.  In terms of other policy, I’ve worked pretty extensively with this major, gigantic coffee company to help them understand how their work in places like New Guinea can be more ethical, how their work can take into consideration rural people in robust ways.  In terms of international policy, I’ve talked to EU people quite a bit, but it’s been really informally.  I would say that a lot of the policy-related work we do as anthropologists is through these informal social relationships that we make while we’re in the field.  You know, you meet someone who works for the EU while you’re in line at the airport in Port Moresby, and they say, “Oh, well, I’d love to read your book.”  Then you send a copy of the book, and they email you back.  So our contribution to policy doesn’t just have to be sitting at a NOAA roundtable or sitting on a NASA panel.  Our contribution to policy can be in these more informal situations where we can actually do what we do best— have sustained social interactions with people.  We help them understand the ethnographic worlds that we’re privileged to take part in.

RG: Is there anything you would like to add?

PW: I would just add that I feel really lucky to be part of a growing community of scholars that’s working on issues of global commodity circulation and political ecology.  In particular, if you are interested in coffee, Molly Doane and Sarah Lyon have done extraordinary work in Mexico and Guatemala respectively.

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