Landscape, cultural, and my personal transformation in Southeast Asia

Landscape, cultural, and my personal transformation in Southeast Asia

Pomona College Director of the Bernard Field Station and Assistant Profess of Biology Wallace “Marty” Meyer (standing in the back row with a hat and sunglasses) writes about bearing witness to environmental changes in Southeast Asia, meeting indigenous communities protesting the building of a dam that threatens their land, and observing the forests of Sarawak, Malaysia in January 2016.


Prior to leaving for Claremont College’s EnviroLab Asia trip to Malaysia and Singapore, I was conflicted by the question: Do we have the moral authority to interfere with resource extraction and oil-palm development in Southeast Asia? At that time, the trip seemed extremely imperialistic. Why should people from Malaysia, Indonesia, or any developing Southeast Asian country listen to a group of liberal arts college faculty from a city where widespread habitat modifications have led to significant loss of native habitats, declines in biodiversity, and changes in how these ecosystems function? Many observations transformed my opinion and have inspired me to advocate for transformative environmental and social change both in Southeast Asia and at home.

First, witnessing how extensive habitat modification and resource extraction is in developing Southeast Asian countries is critical.  It is easy to read about rates of oil-palm expansion and deforestation without truly comprehending its magnitude. For example, net deforestation rates are estimated at 1.44 million hectares per year. Our minds, even scientific minds, are ill-prepared to comprehend such numbers, but the trip to Borneo Malaysia provided the context. After arriving in Miri, we drove for two and a half hours and saw nothing but oil-palm plantations. On the second day, we drove for another 3 to 4 hours into higher elevations and saw heavy logging activity and only secondary forest. In more than 5 hours of traveling, we had not witnessed one piece of land that had not been modified by a human in at least 20 years.

A logging truck passes 'Kilometre 15' - a protest site and blockade against the proposed Baram Dam in Borneo, Malaysia.Photo by Tom White.
A logging truck passes ‘Kilometre 15’ – a protest site and blockade against the proposed Baram Dam in Borneo, Malaysia.Photo by Tom White.

The environmental outcomes of these transformations were visible. The most obvious one was the significant amount of sedimentation in the river. According to conversations with local people, sedimentation has deleteriously influenced fish stocks and river transportation. Less obvious was the low vertebrate diversity. In the three days I was in rural and secondary forests of Borneo Malaysia, I saw only three birds and no mammals other than dogs and humans. After my first day, I thought the lack of birds and mammals were just an anomaly associated with me not being focused on this component of the biota (I am an invertebrate biologist) and hanging around a large group of extremely talkative humans. So for the next few days, I made extra efforts to look for birds and mammals. I got up early and went for walks. When we took breaks, I escaped and systematically scanned the sky. I also asked our guides to alert me if they saw anything. Three birds are what I recorded despite my efforts. I will admit I heard more, but still the forest was largely lacking bird and mammal life and quiet relative to other tropical areas I have visited (northeastern Australia, Belize and Guatemala, and Palau to name a few).

What is the cause of the lack of birds and mammals in these forests? It seems that the native people get most of the blame. While native people do forage for bush meat, they have done this for centuries and the younger generation is mostly in cities working potentially reducing impacts. On peninsular Malaysia, poaching of some animals like pangolins for export to China for food and medicine is also blamed on native people. The numbers of collected individuals is sickening and a poaching is a serious significant threat to many animal populations/species. While I don’t doubt that some native people are associated with the trade, I can’t imagine others that would not self-identify themselves as native people are also not involved considering the economic gains from such practices. While bush meat harvesting and poaching receive significant attention, I can’t help but think that wide-scale landscape disturbances and modifications are playing a more significant role but receiving less of the blame. This becomes especially apparent when you scan the ecological literature. For example, a meta-analysis, which synthesizes multiple studies, examined the effects of oil-palm plantations on many taxonomic groups, including lizards, birds, bats, primates, ants, bees, mosquitos, beetles, moths, forest butterflies and isopods showed that only 15% of the species recorded in forests were also found in oil palm plantations. Oil-palm plantation assemblages were also found to be dominated by generalists, nonnatives and pest species.

Despite all the environmental damage, the most striking observation was coming to the realization that understanding land rights is a critical component of any conservation program. Land rights of native people were largely disregarded in Sarawak Borneo which has multiple consequences. First, it means that large portions of the landscape are controlled by the government. As such, development and resource extraction can occur quickly. It also means that it can be slowed and become sustainable (more on this term later) if there is political will. Because much of the land associated with various tribes are near rivers, expansion threatens the health of river ecosystems and marine systems, downstream. Second, it means that habitat modifications not only influence biodiversity but threaten native human cultural diversity. This is most relevant to construction of mega-dams where whole villages will be lost due to flooding. In Borneo, mega-dam construction is slated for 10 rivers. On this trip, our guides were native people who will lose their village if the Baram Dam is built.  I understand that people will be critical that our opinions were shaped by the opinions of our guides. While I admit that a broader survey of people of Sararwak is needed to determine a complete picture of perceptions associated with dam building in the region, it was deeply moving to witness the passion, community strength, and organizational effort of the native people as they tried to preserve their native homelands. The risk and rewards of fighting against dam construction are significant. If they oppose dam construction, it may be built and they may receive no reparations. However, losing their culture, which is so concretely tied to place, was clearly such a bad option for those involved that no reparation is being considered.

Local residents conduct a meeting at 'Kilometre 15' - a protest site and blockade against the proposed Baram Dam in Borneo, Malaysia. Photo by Tom White.
Local residents conduct a meeting at ‘Kilometre 15’ – a protest site and blockade against the proposed Baram Dam in Borneo, Malaysia. Photo by Tom White.


Following the trip I have dedicated significant time to reflecting on how I might advocate for and influence transformative environmental change not only Southeast Asia, at home in Los Angeles. In this process I have also reflected on what it means to be sustainable and what it means to be a developed nation. Several things have occurred to me:

First, the term sustainable has no meaning. Sustainability is usually defined as actions that satisfy the needs and aspirations of the current generation without diminishing the needs and aspirations of future generations. While such a statement sends a powerful ethical message, it is extremely human centric and does not provide an operational definition that allows one to measure and objectively determine if an action is “sustainable”. For example, this definition does not quantify how many species/populations can go extinct or how much carbon can be released into the atmosphere despite the fact that both may influence the well-being and aspirations of current and future generations. Without strict definitions, an industry or country is allowed to use the term however they please.

If you had asked me before this trip if I would prefer sustainable oil palm or un-labeled oil palm, I would have championed the sustainable oil-palm. But, what is sustainable oil-palm? It seems that the only criterion for oil-palm to be sustainable is that the plantation is on land that was not immediately previous to plantation implementation, forest. The term “forest” does not include secondary forest. Once logged, land is considered degraded and sustainable oil-palm can be grown on degraded land. While this may seem logical, the proportion of land dedicated to logging concessions is so extensive that expansion oil-palm and permanent transformation of the majority of the landscape seems eminent. It also undermines conservation efforts because secondary forest, despite my inability to find birds, is important habitat. After 30 years, secondary forests can recover ~ 80 % of its diversity. Logging in the area of Sarawak we visited was on 20 year logging rotations. In addition, sustainable oil palm does not imply anything regarding pesticide and herbicide use, if it negatively influences native people or if the plantation treats workers fairly, or anything with regard to its impacts on biodiversity and adjacent habitats.

Second, being developed means you consider social and ecological issues. If you agree with this statement, then wouldn’t the logical next assertion be: if you want to be a developed country you should be considering social and ecological impacts. I am not going to argue that consideration of these issues isn’t tied to the privilege of wealth. But if developing countries are suggesting that they or the industries they are directly supporting are sustainable, i.e., considering the need and aspirations of the present and future generations, more attention should be given to these issues as their country develops.

My most disturbing realization was that while transformative these multifaceted environmental and social issues seem daunting, answers to many of these ecological and social issues are known and only require implementation. As such, liberal arts college professors from developed nations with a wide breadth of knowledge and experiences are exactly what the region needs. Implementing the collective knowledge of such a group can both support future development and economic growth while mitigating environmental and social degradation. The task is to persuade governments and industries to develop a new model for the developing world. This model should incorporate environmental and social concerns, adopt quantifiable long-term sustainability practices, and preserve diverse biological and human communities while expanding economic interests.

Please note that in March 2016, news was shared that the building of the Mega Dam has been halted.