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environmental anthropologist & environmental humanities scholar

sophie chao

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welcome to morethanhumanworlds
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I am a Eurasian (French and Chinese) environmental anthropologist and environmental humanities scholar interested in the intersections of capitalism, ecology, Indigeneity, health, and justice in the Pacific. I am currently DECRA Fellow and Lecturer  the University of Sydney, working and living on unceded Gadigal land. Prior to my academic career, I worked for the Indigenous rights organization Forest Peoples Programme in the United Kingdom and Indonesia. I am keen to forge meaningful collaborations and conversations with Indigenous and decolonial academics, artists, and activists towards a better understanding of and relation to, morethanhuman worlds.


For more, check out the morethanhuman matters interview series, or subscribe to the mailing list.

why morethanhumanworlds?

We live in an epoch of species extinction, ecological destruction, and precarious futures for humans and for the myriad other-than-human lifeforms that our existence and wellbeing depend upon. Addressing the anthropogenic crisis demands that we recognize and protect the morethanhuman worlds that we inherit, inhabit, and pass on. Morethanhuman worlds encompass plants, animals, elements, climates, and humans who unequally bear the burden of ecological ruin and repair. These worlds invite us to rethink the diverse entanglements of humans with otherthanhuman life, matter, and meaning. Making and remaking such morethanhuman worlds requires care, courage, creativity, and collaboration, as we work towards more livable shared futures.


Duke University Press, 2022


Recipient of the Duke University Press Scholars of Color First Book Award


“The stories Sophie Chao tells in this amazing book are mesmerizing, and her interpretation of them is clear and powerful. She makes a major contribution to the intersection of multispecies and posthumanist scholarship and critical BIPOC studies in ways that could shape imaginations both in and beyond the academy. Brilliant, insightful, and meticulous, In the Shadow of the Palms will be an influential and important book.” — Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, coeditor of Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene

June 2022 | ISBN: 978-1-4780-1824-7

Use coupon code E22CHAO to save 30% when ordering from 

review excerpts

"We all know about the encroachments of oil palm plantations on the biodiversity of the landscapes they displace. Yet Chao’s account of what this has been like for the Marind people of West Papua does not simply add local detail or the poignancy of personal experience. It adds an unlooked-for contrast, turning oil palm into one of a duo, which becomes the heart of this compelling narrative."—Marilyn Strathern, Society "Based on empirical facts and utilizing rich details, Chao’s ethnography does not stop at rational arguments but incisively moves further to stir our emotions. In an era in which almost every sphere of human life has been capitalized and laws, regulations, plans, and rationality are operated as tools of appropriation by the ruling class to achieve their political-economic goals, satisfaction, happiness, and joy, this ethnography is a refreshing read."—Pujo Semedi, American Anthropologist “Raising fundamental questions about ethnographic practice, theory, and activism, Sophie Chao offers a truly new examination of human-plant relations that pushes us forward in how we imagine, understand, and narrate these forms of relation. This excellent and beautifully written book, which is at points both heart-wrenching and joy producing, makes a field-changing contribution to anthropology, human-animal studies, political ecology, environmental humanities, and postcolonial studies.”—Paige West, author of Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea "The architecture of ‘empire’ and ‘colony’ were planted in self, soil, and the ecology of plantation, by foreign interests in foreign soil. We – I speak as a Pacific islander - are in those days and the maps of those defining years are written all over us, still making us – unless we take note of the kinds of issues Chao raises and become cartographers of truly new ways of doing and being."—Robert Wolfgramm, The Pacific Circle Newsletter "In the Shadow of the Palms is a brave, compelling piece of ethnographic work, cleverly structured and delightful in its elegant yet accessible prose, offering a new, powerful take on the longstanding issue of agribusiness expansion in Indonesia."—Silvia Pergetti, ANUAC - Rivista della Società Italiana di Antropologia Culturale ​"Chao's deeply thought-provoking and riveting tome is both theoretical and real, development economics and the anthropology of slow violence. It is a homage to an Indigenous community with their own means of resistance. This is the work of a true ethnographer, deftly decolonizing anthropology by ensuring that she writes the tales her people want her to share. This is a story that needed to be told. "—Serina Rahman, Journal of Southeast Asian Economies "This is a brilliant book – beautifully written – based on rigorous and sensitive ethnography and sharp theoretical analysis that seamlessly blends ethnography with theory. Chao’s respect and admiration for her interlocutors shines through the text and brings to life Marind skinship with sago and more-than-human becomings -and how this is under threat by the oil palm as an actor of multispecies violence."—Camelia Dewan, Anthropology Book Forum "The evidence Chao provides in the form of thick ethnographic description and songs, stories, and dream accounts convincingly complicates the tendency to generalize plant-beings as either benevolent helpers, enigmatic tricksters, or passive, neutral fixtures. In the Shadow of the Palms is sure to bend one’s gaze upon a situated vision of robust humanness persisting amid profound changes, and of particular relational, ontological, and material entanglements that seem to tug on the broader planetary fabric in these calamitous times."—Carter Beale, Forest & Society "In the Shadow of the Palms affords us a searing and lucid account of agro-politics, asymmetrical development, racism, violent dispossession, and environmental destruction across Southeast Asia. This book is beautifully written, deeply researched, and deserves to be read widely. Not only by students and scholars of Indonesia, but for all those interested in Southeast Asia and environmental politics. In the Shadow of the Palms may well become a classic in both anthropological studies and studies of Southeast Asia."—Tomas Cole, Asian Studies Review "Chao's commitment to doing ‘political engaged anthropology’  is present throughout the book and is a welcome position on a complex topic. It is not only the stories that she tells of Marind negotiation of capitalist-driven palm oil expansion, but the theoretical debates she furthers, such as multi-species entanglements, that are critically rich and politically radical."—Sebastien Antoine, Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford  "[Chao] explores how oil palm plantations interfere with the Marind people’s forms of relating, living, and dreaming, and how they raise difficult conceptual questions about how we more generally think through our relationships with non-human others. If the ‘anthropos’ – the rational, white, and property-owning subject unleashed upon the earth during the last five centuries (Wynter 2003) – has not yet figured out how to coexist with vegetal beings, let alone with greedy ones, then in the puzzled stance of the Marind we might find the seeds of question, a call, and a dream we have yet to dream."—Irene van Oorschot, Etnofoor "Aligning with racial, queer and indigenous critiques, Chao argues that Marinds are being dehumanised and eclipsed – ‘in the shadow of’ a plant. With laudable density and nuance, she asserts that Marinds do not need to be reminded of the damage caused by the combined effects of both human and other-than-human actors and argues that agency must be widened if a multispecies standpoint is to be adopted."—Nicholas Mahillon, Ethnos "Counterposing her analysis of translations of Marind perspectives with oil palm company narratives featuring promises of economic growth, job opportunities, and progress, Chao highlights the incongruity between government and corporate views and Marind values relating to the forest and aspirations for a nourishing future. This difference is an argument for the prominence of peripheries, how ‘out-of-the-way places’ and peoples, subject to the resource frontiers of development, produce necessary commentaries on the gaps in and alternatives to globalising political economies."—Sally Babidge, Nathália Dothling, Sarah Thomson, Tyler Riordan, Kirsty Wissing, Ainá Sant’Anna Fernandes, and Sara Mejía Muñoz, The Australian Journal of Anthropology “In the Shadow of the Palms represents, above all, a deeply ethical project. Ethical in the sense of giving voice to otherwise marginalised and silenced people; and ethical in its broader existential ambitions. This is a book we all need to read: it speaks to the current predicaments facing all of us.”—Warwick Anderson, The Australian Journal of Anthropology "Chao documents terrifying dreams of becoming disoriented and lost in an oil palm plantation; dreams featuring screaming; dreams in which the life-sustaining waters of a river turned black and oily and are choked with dead bodies. This close attention to the elusive, psychic, unbidden, uncontrollable phenomena of dreams throughout In the Shadow of the Palms underlies the hauntings of which Chao writes. There is no leaving behind this research."—Eve Vincent, The Australian Journal of Anthropology "In the Shadow of the Palms is ethnography at its best, a deep journey into a world rich with meanings explained in accessible language that will engage and yarn with any reader whether they are an anthropologist or someone who just wants to meet the Marind and their disturbed palm oil damaged community. This is the deep anthropology aspired to by many but not often achieved. This is what the Global North needs to learn from the Global South."—Jakelyn Troy, The Australian Journal of Anthropology


Duke University Press, 2022


Contributor(s): Margaret Leanne (M. L.) Clark, Radhika Govindrajan, Zsuzsanna Ihar, Noriko Ishiyama, Elizabeth Lara, Jia Hui Lee, Kristina M. Lyons, Michael Marder, Alyssa Paredes, Craig Santos Perez, Kim Tallbear

“Questions of the ecological and biopolitical raise questions of justice—environmental, racial, restorative, reparative, transformative, recognition-based, transitional, generative, abolitionist, participatory. The essays and interventions in this decisively frame-shifting collection engage with the entangled bank of justice relations with commitment and care, asking who benefits, who is harmed, and who counts in projects in which matters of multifariously embodied life are at stake.” — Stefan Helmreich, author of Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond

October 2022 | ISBN: 978-1-4780-1889-6

Use coupon code E22PRMSE to save 30% at 

visit the website                  read the introduction

review excerpts

“I love each of this volume’s essays and the geographic and disciplinary diversity they represent. The creative work, poetry, topics, and approaches to justice included are exceptionally thought-provoking. This outstanding and delightful book is an incredibly welcome contribution to the interdisciplinary study of multispecies relations.”—Eleana J. Kim, author of Making Peace with Nature: Ecological Encounters Along the Korean DMZ


"The Promise of Multispecies Justice highlights various forms of justice waiting to be addressed among humans and nonhumans, raising alternative aesthetic sensibilities to balance the inequality in the multiple worlds through a shift in ideological, judicial, and spiritual unpacking. It challenges the vocabulary of existing literature to establish generative justice—to transform oppressive system(s). It also challenges the institutions where the politics of knowledge is produced—to balance the equilibrium of justice."—Akshadeep Roy, H-Environment


Forest Peoples Programme, Sawit Watch, and TUK Indonesia, 2013


Growing demand for palm oil is fueling the large-scale expansion of oil palm plantations across Southeast Asia and Africa. Concerns about the environmental and social impacts of monocrops led in 2004 to the establishment of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which encourages oil palm expansion in ways that do not destroy high conservation values or cause social conflict. In line with international law, member companies must respect the collective right of Indigenous peoples and other local communities to give or withhold their consent prior to the development of oil palm on the lands they own, inhabit and use. This edited volume draws on sixteen independent case studies from seven countries in Asia and Africa to assess whether companies are keeping their promises.

November 2013 | ISBN: 978-0-9544252-7-2 | read online


Forest Peoples Programme and SawitWatch, 2011


Palm oil is a basic ingredient of much of the processed food we eat and the most widely used oil in cosmetics and household cleaners. At the same time, the careless development of oil palm is destroying forests, wiping out endangered species, polluting air and waterways, driving climate change, dispossessing Indigenous peoples, and immiserating the rural poor. This edited volume documents in detail, and for the first time, how oil palm plantations are expanding in different ways across South East Asia. It complements experiences in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea with new investigative case studies of the processes of oil palm expansion in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This volume is the sixth in a series of reports published by the Forest Peoples Programme and SawitWatch, and other partners, about the social implications of oil palm expansion.

November 2011 | 978-979-15188-6-4 | read online


Forest Peoples Programme and Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), 2011


The forests of Southeast Asia are home to  tens of millions of people whose rights to lands  are only weakly secured in national constitutions and laws. International human rights treaties now affirm the rights of Indigenous peoples and clearly recognize their rights to own and control the lands, territories, and natural resources that they have traditionally owned, occupied, or otherwise used. This volume reveals how the majority of Southeast Asian countries already have plural legal systems in place and that the basis for securing Indigenous peoples' rights through a revalidation of customary law exists. Through detailed case studies, the volume foregrounds legal pluralism as a central element within Indigenous peoples' struggle for the recognition of their rights.

November 2011 | ISBN:  978-616-90611-7-5 | read online







how to mourn a forest

an essay on mourning practices on the Papuan plantation frontier, published in Aeon. 23 May 2023.

kangaroo-human relations and animal resistance

a podcast on kangaroo-human entanglements and non-human resistance, published by Sydney Health Ethics. With Diego Silva. 16 May 2023.

the promise of multispecies justice


a podcast on the edited volume The Promise of Multispecies Justice, published by the New Book Network's Nordic Asia Podcast. With Terese Gagnon. 21 April 2023.

in the media
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