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Aletta Biersack – Research Interests

Apart from a field trip to Tonga and several publications on that Polynesian nation-state, my research has centered largely on the Ipili speakers of the Porgera and Paiela valleys, Enga Province, Papua New Guinea. Ipili speakers have been good enough to tolerate my presence and to entertain my unending questions with patience and bonhomie. In getting to know Ipili speakers, I have come to respect them for their depth and subtlety of thought, for their stoicism and humor, and for the intelligence and courage with which they meet the challenges of the day. As a long-term researcher, I am able to gauge the arc of Ipili history over the now almost eighty years of contact with the western world. What has changed, what has remained the same, and how have the old and new now blended, now clashed?

My long-term research has included forays into the study of mythology and ritual, warfare, leadership, gender and sexuality, marriage as a social organizational tool, and, most recently, mining politics. For some time now, I have focused on two aspects of Ipili culture and history: what I call a “reproductive regime” and gold mining at Porgera and also Mt. Kare, which lies just beyond the southern end of the Paiela valley. In my December 2010 field trip, I explored sexual violence in the Porgera valley and produced a substantial report on that topic for Porgera Joint Venture, the consortium that is the principal owner of the mine.

The distinctions of gender and age are key to indigenous stratification. This is no surprise to anyone who has studied the New Guinea highlands. Since the 1950s and 1960s, anthropologists of the New Guinea highlands have reported (in sometimes sensationalizing ways) on gender inequalities and the beliefs (about menstrual pollution, for example) that construct women as contaminators and men as their defiled victims. Ipili speakers did not really conform to the highlands stereotype, however. Women were not only thought to be at risk from the very processes that endangered men but they were expected to protect their husbands by observing taboos and performing prophylactic magic. In a nutshell, husband and wife worked together to protect each other from the ravages of reproduction-related events. It is therefore inadequate, even misleading, to understand the beliefs and practices surrounding menstruation, coitus, and childbearing in terms of “sexual antagonism” and male fears of women and the various psychoanalytical arguments that have been advanced to account for such fears. To make a very long story short, I’ve concluded that these beliefs and practices, among others, must be understood in terms of a gendered division of peape or work (a term that cannot be reduced to “labor”) in which males and females have their respective spheres of agency. The ultimate goals of this complex, gender-divided system of work are reproduction and its organization. By “reproductive regime” I mean the panoply of beliefs, practices, politics, and meanings that undergird this gender-divided system of work.

My interest in gold mining is more recent. Gold was discovered in the Porgera valley in the late 1930s; it was mined from the 1940s by expatriate entrepreneurs and from the 1950s by indigenous entrepreneurs. After a protracted period of alluvial mining, a significant deposit of ore was discovered, and the Porgera gold mine, devoted to hard rock mining, opened in 1990. As one might expect, much has happened in the last 20 years. There has been serious environmental damage and a court suit to exact compensation for this damage from the mine. Those Porgerans who are recognized by the state and by the mine as owning the gold-bearing land largely live within the mining area itself, and as mining has proceeded, living conditions within the mining area have deteriorated, making relocation for these landowners a priority. Tensions between the landowners and the mine have mounted over the last decade, and Porgerans are today divided between pro- and anti-mine factions. From 2008 forward, the anti-mine faction has participated in an international campaign against Barrick Gold Corporation, the present owner of the Porgera gold mine, staging public protests in Toronto, at Barrick’s annual general meeting, making speeches against the mine at the U.N., and using the anti-mine ”Porgera Alliance” website to pitch its case against the mine. Amnesty International prepared a report on “forced evictions and police brutality around the Porgera mine” at the end of 2009, and in 2010 Harvard Law School and NYU’s School of Law collaborated to present a brief to the Canadian House of Commons in the context of a proposed bill to regulate Canadian mining companies.

Also, in 2010 the NGO Human Rights Watch wrote and widely circulated an investigation into whether Barrick’s security guards raped local women (“Gold’s Costly Dividend”). In response to the investigation of these allegations of rape by the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary, the mine fired those who had been found guilty and sanctioned their collaborators. Barrick Gold Corporation, the owner of the Porgera mine, has meanwhile prepared extensive responses to all accusations and posted these on its website.

Just south of the Paiela valley lies the Mt. Kare mine. Its history is quite different from that of the Porgera mine. Alluvial gold was discovered at Mt. Kare at the end of 1987, sparking a spectacular gold rush that netted miners anywhere from K100 to K150 million (at the time K1 was roughly equivalent to US1). Paielas learned that gold mining did not require sophisticated, expensive technology and arcane expert knowledge. Alluvial mining, at least, could be done effectively with the technology and knowledge Paielas had to hand. In 1990, the state awarded a mining lease to Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia, a mining company whose reputation was already tarnished by its involvement in Bougainville copper mining. Pro- and anti-CRA factions formed among landowners and others. In January 1992, the anti-CRA faction pulled off a stunning raid on the mine. CRA was shaken, but it would be another 14 months before it would pull out of Mt. Kare entirely. In the vacuum this retreat created, different landowner factions have vied to determine which multinational would get and retain the exploration license at Mt. Kare. As of 2009, after more than 20 years of exploration for hard rock, a significant vein of gold had yet to be discovered, and the company holding the exploration license declared bankruptcy. Just recently Indochine Mining Ltd., a western Australian mining company, has taken over Mt. Kare exploration and eventual mining. The next few years should be exciting ones, as the relationship between the company and indigenous landowners is worked out. I am interested in the dynamics of the field of power that mining operations establish, a field that includes landowners, mining companies, the State of Papua New Guinea, the home states of mining companies operating in Papua New Guinea, the U.N., and NGOs, especially ones that are focused on monitoring environmental impacts and human rights violations at mining sites.

Future research will focus on the radical transformation of the “reproductive regime” that my research in the last decade–funded by Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Program, the Center for the Study of Women and Society UO, and Barrick Gold/PJV for a 23-day trip to Porgera in 12/10 to study sexual violence–has convinced me is occurring.
© 2009 University of Oregon