Science & Technology Studies Spring 2023 Colloquium
Land as Experiment, Landscapes as Laboratories: Destruction and Repair in Indonesia’s Peatlands
Over the past several decades Indonesia’s peatlands, deep deposits of decaying, carbon-dense vegetation, have been transformed from forested wetlands to flammable landscapes that emit copious amounts of carbon dioxide. The reasons for such extensive destruction are often described in terms of failure: failed state development projects and failed attempts at land repair. I argue, however, that these novel landscapes are experiments with land at a scale that states, scientists, and the planet’s inhabitants are just beginning to grapple with—yet are becoming increasingly common in a warming world—and that these landscapes are better understood as laboratories for living with earth system volatility than as failures. In this talk, I draw on conceptual frameworks from geography and STS, and a political ecology of peat soil, to unpack the story of the Mega Rice Project, a one-million hectare site of degraded peatland in Indonesian Borneo. The formerly authoritarian Indonesian state drained the wetlands for rice production in the 1990s; since then, the peat soil now burns on a near-annual basis. In the years since the project ended, the area has attracted attention from development agencies, corporations, financiers, NGOs, and activists around the world. As a result, the area has been a fulcrum for experiments on how to repair Indonesia’s degraded peatlands, a laboratory for scientific and political-economic practices shaped by climate change politics, and a place where rural communities attempt to live with ongoing ecological volatility.
Jenny Goldstein is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Global Development at Cornell University, an Atkinson center for a Sustainable Future Faculty Fellow, and a core faculty member of Cornell’s Southeast Asian Studies Program. She is the elected president of the Cultural and Political Ecology speciality group of the American Association of Geographers (2022-24). From 2016-17 she was an Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future postdoctoral associate at Cornell, based in the Science & Technology Studies department.