The Manus Island Detention Center, decolonial practice, and the future of anthropological inquiry

In July 2013 the Prime Ministers of Australia and Papua New Guinea agreed to the Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea (colloquially known as “The Papua New Guinea Solution”) an international agreement that diverts asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, for immediate detention and processing, and then eventual resettlement in Papua New Guinea. Since 2013 I have been working with colleagues from the United States and Papua New Guinea to understand the social context that gave rise to this arrangement, the in situ reactions to the arrangement (in Manus province as well as in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea), and the broad social, political, and ecological fallout from the arrangement. Part of our hypothesis is that we see it as a kind of ‘test case’ whereby a contemporary global power, in this case Australia, uses its previous colonial relationship with a seemingly sovereign state, in this case Papua New Guinea, and its current aid-based economic power to erase the sovereignty of another nation. This is particularly jarring in the context of the predictions around how many people are going to be displaced globally over the next fifty years as the result of climate change.

We are moving into an era of global displacement. How can anthropology, as a field and as a practice, document, examine, and theorize the new global assemblages of dispossession that we see much more frequently today? While the field has attended to questions of imperialism and the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and radicalized capitalism conceptually and theoretically, this paper raises the difficult question of action. When should and must a decolonial anthropology take a stand either through transforming our epistemic practices or though writing in a way that allows non-scholars access to both our empirical findings and our conceptual boundary pushing? 


About the speaker

Paige West, Claire Tow Professor of Anthropology, Barnard College and Columbia University, New York.

Professor Paige West has been at Barnard College and Columbia University since 2001. She is the founder and editor of the academic journal Environment and Society, co-founder of an NGO ‘PNG Institute of Biological research’ that provides academic opportunities for PNG researchers, the co-founder of the Roviana Solwara Skul, a school in Papua New Guinea dedicated to teaching at the nexus of indigenous knowledge and western scientific knowledge, and a volunteer in conservation organisations in PNG. Her most recent book is Dispossession and The Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea (2016, Columbia University Press), which won the 2017 Columbia University Press Distinguished Book Award. Other books include: From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea (2012, Duke University Press) and Conservation is our Government now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea (2006, Duke University Press). Professor West’s various scholarly and engaged research projects have as their ethnographic focus environment-society dynamics in PNG. The project ‘Pacific Circulations’ turns a critical global lens on Manus Island detention centre, examining the so-called ‘PNG solution’, as a ‘predictive baseline for understanding how governments respond to volatility in refugee and migrant flows in climate insecure areas.



Sir Llew Edwards Building (14), St Lucia campus
Terrace Room, Reception to follow