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The Australian National University

Mr Jeff Kinch

Position: PhD candidate in Anthropology

School or Centre:

School of Archaeology & Anthropology


Thesis title: Changing Lives and Livelihoods: The Political Ecology of Brooker Island , Milne Bay Province , Papua New Guinea
Brooker Island is a small island of less than 2 km² and is home to approximately 400 people in the West Calvados Chain of the Louisiade Archipelago in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. They are part of the Misima language group, which is part of the wider Massim culture area.

The cultural seascape of the Brooker Islanders includes a large resource rich reef area, abundant in marine resources. However, the Brooker Islanders have always been ecologically marginal in terms of local agricultural subsistence, and have long inhabited an area between other agriculturally well-endowed islands. Pre-colonial Brooker Islanders subsistence was based on marine wealth, production of specialised commodities, being middlemen traders and on occasion, raiders.

The entry of Australian-based capitalism in the second half of the 19th Century brought new harvesting of natural products and harnessing of human labour. The major export industry that flourished at this time was the harvesting and curing of sea cucumbers for the production of beche-de-mer. For the people of Brooker Island , this saw their growing articulation with the capitalist mode of production, resulting in changed social patterns of consumption and trade practices. These changes were also in part brought about by pacification during the expanding colonial era, as the government paved the way for capitalist and mission expansion. In spite of this contact, basic social formations on Brooker Island remained relatively intact and were able to subsume these new economic and social relations.

The postcolonial beche-de-mer fishery, since the 1980s, has once again played a leading role in Brooker Island economic activity, producing new challenges, the most notable being disputes over and access to marine resource areas. Previously, the sea was divided into ‘social space' whereby boundaries organised individual community's rights to harvesting areas, usually associated with nearby islands. These boundaries appear to have been informal subtle divisions, fluid and ephemeral. Under the increasing commoditisation of beche-de-mer, tenureship has begun to become more defined and consciously manipulated in interactions between communities. In 2003, Brooker and Ware Islanders proceeded through several mediations over ownership and access to the Long-Kossmann Reef, a large elongated reef system and one of the last areas to have stocks of sea cucumbers.

A political ecology approach is used to inform the changes that have and are occurring on Brooker Island through the transition to a capitalist mode of production. There has been increasing market integration, commercialisation and the dislocation of customary forms of resource use and management. The focus is on the relationships and tensions embedded in the articulation of different social systems and modes of production in specific periods which has influenced resource exploitation and management, and conflicts over access to and control of resources. Finally, the reasons why Brooker Islanders still find themselves economically peripheral are explored.

Updated: 10 July 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Head of School / Page Contact:  Web Publisher