Selling captive nature: Lively commodification, elephant encounters, and the production of value in Sumatran ecotourism, Indonesia

Ni'am, Lubabun; Koot, S.P.; Jongerden, J.P.


Ecotourism has become an increasingly important market-based practice in nature conservation. Several scholars and non-governmental organizations have discussed this as a commodification of nature in the context of capitalist expansion, but only a few have examined how value is produced in this process. Focusing on ecotourism in Tangkahan, in the Sumatra Island of Indonesia, this paper looks at how value is produced in human-elephant encounters. It builds on the concepts of lively commodities and encounter value to show how the incorporation of captive elephants in ecotourism generates value from two layers of interactions between humans and nonhumans. First, captive elephants are trained by mahouts for the encounters with tourists; then, the production of value takes place through tourists’ encounters with the elephants in ecotourism activities (elephant bathing, elephant grazing, and trekking alongside the elephants). We argue that the expansion of the commodification of nature in some cases requires an understanding of the way this encounter value produces a ‘captive nature’: lively beings that are enclosed, managed, and employed to sell experiences.