Finding Uncommon Ground

Surely, at heart, we all share a core of common values. Our cultural differences are vast, our belief systems and modes of expression varied, but underneath all this contrast lie the universal principles that drive each of us — no matter our nationality, our religion, our language or our histories. If nothing else, humans can fall back on this common ground.

But what if that common ground is imagined? Sitting amongst the mangroves one night with conservationist friends, I was struck by the possibility that our values are truly and utterly different. Surrounded by giant, 50-year-old mangrove trees, we stared up at the full moon and listened to the clicks and pops of countless crabs scurrying through the dense mud. A cool breeze blew through the forest, fruit bats flitted among the waxy leaves, and we were struck by the serene and vibrant beauty of a place worth protecting.

Just then, a high-pitched call sliced through the forest’s elegant poise. In the distance, five harsh, white flashlight beams ambled erratically through the trees, each held by a man calling out to the others in a jumbled cacophony of Bisayan exclamations. The men were on the hunt, looking for the large, meaty alimango mangrove crabs (S. seratta) that are so tasty stewed with coconut and chilies. Like us, these men valued the mangrove forest. Their work in the mangroves hinged on clicking crustaceans just as our ecosystem conservation did; the cool breeze eased their spirits as it did ours. But our idyllic evening was their grueling search for dinner. It would be crass to reduce that difference to common values or shared interests. The Filipinos I worked with described mangroves and oceans as reliable sources of abundance to which they could always turn when times are hard — a narrative that does not match well with the conservationist frame of a fragile and depleted ecosystem worth protecting from humans. Nor do the values that mudcrabbers ascribe to mangroves fit those of government officials who see these forests alternately as a mandate of national interest and a site of professional accomplishment. Even within communities, these values vary widely: Some love mangroves for the economic potential of fish ponds and timber harvest; others see an opportunity to end land disputes by planting mangroves and claiming property; still others value mangroves for the fish, shells and shrimp they produce; and many simply find them beautiful. We need not imagine a stream of sameness underlying this diversity.

Extension officer Bong (left) and mudcrabber Mario (right) work together to plan mangrove restoration in Bayawan. No one could explain why planting in a straight line, East-to-West, was so important. And none of us agreed on where to plant. The meeting was nonetheless considered a resounding success.

In Nicholas School classes, when I suggest that our universals are misguided, I’m often met with perplexed despair. Where, then, can we go from here? What hope do we have? the forlorn faces of classmates and professors seem to ask. But if values are neither translatable nor common, this does not prevent productive collaboration across difference. In her book Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Anna Tsing examines how cultural difference powers human collaboration ranging from logging to environmental activism. In Tsing’s analogy, friction represents the forceful clashing of disparate meanings and values. Just as a tire requires friction to move along the road, or two sticks require friction to ignite a spark, the friction of transcultural collaboration provides the impetus to create new opportunities for environmental action.

One of my great lessons this summer was seeing the surprising, creative, sometimes baffling collaborations that cultural friction produced amongst mudcrabbers, government officials, and conservationists. It is with this “friction” in mind that I say our values are neither universal nor shared. With friction in mind, I can see how the loud cries of mudcrab hunters might bolster, and not destroy, the peace I find sitting under the mangroves at night. Through friction, Filipinos who see the ocean as boundless abundance can find shared purpose with scarcity-driven conservationists and bureaucratically motivated officials. But when we insist on shared values and universal human experiences, we erase these productive differences and cripple the potential for equitable collaboration. We make it easy to project our own experiences onto others, and silence difference. In doing so, we smooth the surface and render friction impotent. Identifying these deep differences, understanding them and honoring them is a necessary strategy for the inclusive, ethical and lasting environmental work.

I am grateful to the Duke University Wetland Center and the KLN Internship Fund for generous support of my work and travel this summer. I am also grateful to Marine Conservation Philippines and their community partners, for providing such a rich educational experience and allowing me to contribute to the important work they do.

Four generations of mangrove planters from Palimpinon had a discussion one afternoon to teach me, and each other, why they plant mangroves.
Depending on who you ask, this section of Tambobo Bay may be: a perfect mangrove planting site; an area for harvesting clams; an example of environmental destruction; a future ecotourism hotspot; or private property. Difference abounds.