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SEI News: Q+A With Postdoc Research Associate Sophie Chao

Introducing ecological anthropologist Sophie Chao, who has recently joined the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre. Sophie will be collaborating with SEI on both the Multispecies Justice initiative and Foodlab Sydney.

Image by Asep Supriadi, via Unsplash.
Image by Asep Supriadi, via Unsplash.

Could you tell us about your background and previous research?

As an ecological anthropologist, I am interested in how human societies conceptualise and interact with their environments across space and time. Over the last four years, I have been investigating the social and ecological impacts of large-scale deforestation and monocrop oil palm development on indigenous Marind communities in rural parts of Indonesian West Papua. In particular, I explored how these radical landscape conversions reconfigure the relations of Marind to forest plants and animals, and also to oil palm, an introduced species in West Papua. In my prior career in the international human rights organisation Forest Peoples Programme, I undertook investigative fieldwork across Indonesia, documenting human rights abuses in the oil palm sector, and helping local communities activate international redress mechanisms to secure their rights to lands and livelihoods. I have also undertaken research on human rights and agribusiness more broadly as a consultant for United Nations bodies including the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the United Nations Working Group on the Issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises.

What are the environmental issues or topics that most interest you currently?

I am about to embark on a new research project that will explore how deforestation and agro-industrial food systems in Indonesia affect the nutritional health of indigenous communities, as well as their food-based sense of identity and belonging. This interest stems from my prior ethnographic fieldwork in West Papua, where I found that deforestation was provoking widespread malnutrition and protein deficiency among Marind and other rural communities.

I’m particularly interested in how changing foodways are interpreted by indigenous communities in light of the fact that so many of their forest foods derive from plants and animals that they consider to be sentient kin. What happens when these morally valued foods disappear and are replaced by imported, commodified foodstuffs? How does that reshape the multispecies relations embedded in, and sustained through, forest food procuration, consumption, and exchange? Exploring these questions, I think, is really important in addressing the troubled food systems of our time. There’s a lot that can be learned from indigenous foodways to inform national and international policy-making in relation to food governance and food security. On the longer term, I’m hoping the project will help inform nutritional science by revealing the culturally shaped ways in which human societies conceptualise a ‘good diet’ and a healthy food environment.

What are you working on in collaboration with the Sydney Environment Institute?

At the moment, I’m beginning some exciting collaborations with SEI on the theme of Multispecies Justice. I’ll be presenting a paper at the upcoming Multispecies Justice Symposium in June, that will analyse the importance of thinking with and within the category of the ‘species’ in working towards creative, sustainable, and equitable forms of justice in human and more-than-human terms. I’m also working to forge further collaborations with SEI on the theme of sustainable food systems in Sydney. For instance, I’ll be presenting some of my research findings at the upcoming SEI and FoodLab event, “Culture in Conversation: creating inclusive food communities”. This will be a great opportunity to contribute to discussions about healthy food systems here in Australia and will complement the research I’ll be undertaking in Indonesia. I’m sure there will be some interesting comparative work to be done across these two geographies, including in terms of the food supply chains that connect them to each other.

What inspired your interest in working with SEI?

SEI’s work has been a rich source of inspiration and reflection for me throughout the last four years of my doctoral research. I’m been a particularly candid follower of Thom van Dooren’s work on extinction and care, and Astrida Neimanis’ work on watery bodies. SEI also has a fantastic array of scholars researching food from a range of different theoretical, methodological, and inter-disciplinary angles. It’s not always easy to work across disciplines, but SEI fosters a deeply respectful and open environment to have these critical conversations about the future of the planet and its diverse lifeforms, human and other. I’m really looking forward to harnessing my anthropological training and experiences to contribute to this work. What I find particularly inspiring about SEI’s research is that it’s about finding solutions to real-world problems and the big questions of our time – troubled food systems, multispecies justice, species extinction, and more. There’s some fascinating conceptual work being done, of course, but it never loses touch with realities on the ground – in Australia and beyond. That applied and engaged dimension of SEI’s research is what I consider to be one of its core strengths, and one I look forward to contributing to over the next three years of my postdoc.


Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Oriental Studies (First Class) and a Master of Science in Social Anthropology from The University of Oxford. Sophie’s PhD at Macquarie University was funded by an International Endeavour Scholarship and received a Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation in 2019. Sophie’s research explores the intersections of capitalism, ecology, and indigeneity in Indonesia, with a specific focus on changing interspecies relations in the context of deforestation and agribusiness development. Her current research deploys inter-disciplinary methods to explore the nutritional and cultural impacts of agribusiness on indigenous food-based socialities, identities, and ecologies.