Trying to Find a Common Ground

Cultural Anthropologist Helps Bridge Gaps

What does energy exploration have to do with anthropology?

As explained by Julie Campbell, an anthropologist who has been a consultant to companies such as Mobil Oil and Arco Indonesia, companies who blunder their public relations with cultures very different from their own in their initial forays into a region are likely to be prevented from returning.

The reasons these people gave in the past, Campbell said, is "We don't like them. They walked through our land, cut our trees down, disrespected our gods and acted as if we did not exist."

She's in a position to know about changes — and the importance of change. Campbell has worked for the past 10 years with various oil companies in Indonesia in the role of a cultural anthropologist.

She's also resided in Indonesia for more than 20 years, recently moving to a residence in Summerland, Calif. Campbell recently spoke to the Coast Geological Society on "Anthropology of Petroleum Exploration in Southeast Asia," describing how the indigenous people live and how the exploration for new sources of natural gas has affected their lives and culture.

It's a relatively new concern, of course; in past centuries, all a Western power had to do was to subdue a native people and then exploit their natural resources.

Today, Third World countries are enacting increasingly stringent regulations to protect their environments and their populations. Moreover, the global public has become increasingly aware of the importance of both protecting the environment and the relationship of indigenous people to their land.

A Whole New World

Campbell, who has done her consulting in the most remote — and most energy-rich — areas of Indonesia, says the most obvious issue is the environment. Energy companies must work with local people to consider what they consider important to their environment, minimize the damage and then, upon leaving, return it to its former state so there are, as she says, "no footprints."

But can't some of the industry infrastructure be left in place that can be of use to the people once energy companies have gone?

Image Caption

Clearing nipah palm for seismic work in the aluvial swamps of S.W. Irian.
Photos courtesy of Julie Campbell

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What does energy exploration have to do with anthropology?

As explained by Julie Campbell, an anthropologist who has been a consultant to companies such as Mobil Oil and Arco Indonesia, companies who blunder their public relations with cultures very different from their own in their initial forays into a region are likely to be prevented from returning.

The reasons these people gave in the past, Campbell said, is "We don't like them. They walked through our land, cut our trees down, disrespected our gods and acted as if we did not exist."

She's in a position to know about changes — and the importance of change. Campbell has worked for the past 10 years with various oil companies in Indonesia in the role of a cultural anthropologist.

She's also resided in Indonesia for more than 20 years, recently moving to a residence in Summerland, Calif. Campbell recently spoke to the Coast Geological Society on "Anthropology of Petroleum Exploration in Southeast Asia," describing how the indigenous people live and how the exploration for new sources of natural gas has affected their lives and culture.

It's a relatively new concern, of course; in past centuries, all a Western power had to do was to subdue a native people and then exploit their natural resources.

Today, Third World countries are enacting increasingly stringent regulations to protect their environments and their populations. Moreover, the global public has become increasingly aware of the importance of both protecting the environment and the relationship of indigenous people to their land.

A Whole New World

Campbell, who has done her consulting in the most remote — and most energy-rich — areas of Indonesia, says the most obvious issue is the environment. Energy companies must work with local people to consider what they consider important to their environment, minimize the damage and then, upon leaving, return it to its former state so there are, as she says, "no footprints."

But can't some of the industry infrastructure be left in place that can be of use to the people once energy companies have gone?

Maybe, and maybe not.

"Some non-Indonesian companies have come in and offered to build a road," Campbell said, "but for these tribal people a road means a path wide enough for two people and a pig to walk side by side. But then a bulldozer comes in and makes a 60-foot wide throughway, which ruins the people's gardens.

"Outsiders sometimes fail to understand the basic principals these people have maintained for centuries," she said. "We need to see things through their eyes."

A dock to carry natural gas, a rig, the noise all represent enormous and often unwelcome intrusions into a much quieter way of life that may have sustained the culture for centuries.

As to just how remote these regions are, Campbell gives some indication that a flight taking off from Jakarta at about 7 p.m., might arrive at a small airport about 5:30 a.m., followed by a two hour helicopter ride. From there, the rest of the trip is made by small boats up a river and walking. The tribes people are likely to have had little or no contact with the outside world and no more than the equivalent of a third grade education.

The distance is more than miles.

"There is a vast distance in time, culture, world views, expectations and fears," Campbell said. "If the people are afraid, they will not be quite so open, and that can adversely affect the outcome."

Oil companies also must recognize that there are myriad taboos, customs and habits that have to be understood, respected and successfully negotiated.

Some might strike Westerners as frivolous. For instance, she said, you don't just walk into a village. You must have obtained prior approval from the village elders.

And you don't approach a woman directly — even if there are two to three in a group.

And in this region, Westerners had to realize that all Indonesians are not the same. The predominant religion in the east is Christian and the west Islamic — and the tribal differences go even deeper.

What happens when an oil company is trying to deal with people who believe there are gods beneath the ground, and sometimes dragons you don't want to offend by digging without the proper appeasement?

Campbell cites one example of Indonesians coming in with an exploration crew to the tiny village of Lobo in Langura, in southwest Indonesia. To appease the powers that be, they wanted to sacrifice a buffalo with its head placed on a small platform — but the people of Lobo couldn't abide blood being spilled on their ground.

The potential conflict was avoided when the visitors sacrificed their buffalo in another area and the people of Lobo did their own ritual on site.

Learning the Ins and Outs

How is it possible to know all of the ins and outs of such totally different peoples?

This is where a cultural anthropologist such as Campbell comes in, who started doing her own research into various tribes in the early 1980s. She became a consultant for National Geographic, then did horticultural work for Kew Gardens in London, learning about various Indonesian plants and their medicinal purposes.

She led tours of school children and museum groups into the villages, living there for a time.

She also wrote a book, Irian Jaya, The Timeless Domain, about the 26th and most remote province of Indonesia. This came to the attention of an energy company that was having trouble relating to the tribes in the area. The company hired Campbell in 1991, which started her on her current career path.

Typically Campbell has worked with the missionaries in the area whom she views as a valuable liaison. Learning the language and living in the village is all a part of the process of building trust and how to communicate.

And though there are some things giant corporations think might be helpful, such as building big roads (which are not helpful), there are many things that can be done to help these people.

For instance:

  • A doctor always accompanies crews into these remote areas, so clinics are formed to help those with medical problems.
  • Partnerships are formed with non-government organizations that help with issues like malaria — a serious problem in the area — health education for women, and nutrition for children.
  • Non-skilled workers are trained to become a part of crews.

So thanks in part to people like Campbell, damage can be avoided, good can be done, and energy companies and indigenous people can work hand-in-hand for their mutual advantage.

But what about the argument that even if the impact from the outside is benign, a way of life, touched by civilization, is irrevocably changed?

Campbell acknowledges that this is true, but added that those who do not want change tend to flee back into the forest, and those who are open to change remain.

"Change is coming," she said, "so it is better that it come in as positive a way as possible."