published on May 15, 2018
“There Was So Much”
Violence, Sovereignty, and States of Extraction in Cambodia
Anthropologists debate the usefulness of an “Ontological Turn” in theory and practice as a way to confront the social and ecological disjuncture at the heart of the Anthropocene. Is it possible, scholars wonder, to validate rather than rationalize the idea that mountains, rivers, and trees are social interlocutors as well as arbiters of justice, resource access, and societal well-being? In a twist of monumental irony, previously market-independent Cambodians are facing, in an odious confluence of fear, need, and desire, an ontological turn toward the rationalized notion that trees, mountains, rivers and all their inhabitants are important primarily as commodities that can be converted to money. This paper explores part of that nexus of fear, need, and desire through accounts of social relationships with the “owner of the water and the land,” whose permission is sought for territorial access and resource use. Successful navigation of relationships with the original owner of the territory require respect, solidarity, conservation, and offerings of gratitude. In return people enjoy resource abundance, ritual/technical knowledge, and good health. Improper comportment results in illness, loss of access to forest and water resources, and knowledge loss. In yet another ironic twist, the Development State (defined within) promises poverty alleviation, education, and health care for all those who master the extractive market economy. The paper explores how different ontologies give rise to particular social, political, and economic possibilities, and demonstrates that the punishments of the Original owner of the water and the land are visited upon those who either will not or cannot successfully navigate the extractive market system.