Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: January 25th, 2021

Article Discussed: Foale, S. (2021). The Unequal Place of Anthropology in Cross‑Disciplinary Research on Environmental Management in the Pacific and What to Do About It. In Debra McDougall, Nicholas Bainton, Kalissa Alexeyeff and John Cox (Ed.), Unequal Lives: Gender, Race, and Class in the Western Pacific. Canberra ANU Press.

Lucas Watt

Foale (2021) argues that marine conservation programs in Oceania are primarily driven by western rationales, interests, and ideals. He argues that western marine conservation programs fixate on the goals of economic sustainability and the aesthetics of marine environments. These priorities fundamentally revolve around the economic value in the fishery and tourism sectors respectively. “Conservation” is intrinsically seen as positive endeavor regardless of whose interest they serve, however Foale (2021) argues that such a western focused form of conservation is more problematic than we would assume.

Fundamentally, a form of conservation that aligns with western interests does not inherently align with more local conceptions and contexts of conservation. For instance, many conservation programs funded by western institutions aim at increasing sustainability of fish stocks and biodiversity of reefs. However, many of the reefs they seek to protect have historically been marginal in their function to provide sustenance for local populations. Foale (2021) argues that this focus on reefs publicly driven by concerns of food security is a “political ploy” to protect the economically valuable marine aesthetic of reefs with which there is a western fascination.  

Foale (2021) argues that such western conservation ideals are legitimized by research dominated by scientific rationalism that measures fish stocks and biodiversity in ways that support economic goals, as well as diminish what is important locally. Development organizations that partake in such conservation research and initiatives argue that these Oceanic societies have always tried to conserve marine resources in much the same way. However, Foale (2011) has argued in previous articles that conservation in Oceanic societies historically played more social and cultural functions, as opposed to being driven by fears of marine depletion. This attempt to align the western conservation agenda with historical Oceanic conservation ideals is an additional attempt to legitimize these western-centric programs. Furthermore, a focus on managing local marine environments diverts responsibility away from how climate change predominantly caused by western powers has been the primary cause of marine degradation in Oceania.

What Foale (2021) is arguing here is that the imposition of a conservation agenda that bypasses or consciously subverts local ideals is a form of imperialism. He argues that the scientific based approach to conservation research that legitimizes western economic ideals, and downplays their own role in marine resource degradation, needs to be tempered by more anthropological research that accounts for local conservation ideals and ambitions.


  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

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