Professor James Taylor (bottom right), Professor of Theatre at Pomona College, writes about his experience in EnviroLab Asia’s Clinic Trip. From January 3 to January 13, 2016, ten students and eight faculty from the Claremont Colleges embarked on a 10-day immersive learning experience in Singapore and Sarawak, Malaysia. This is the first blog post in a series that will feature written reflections from faculty and students about the Clinic Trip.
The most important thing that I learned during the EnviroLab Asia Clinic Trip was the fact that the issues that we explored were so complex and interrelated. Although I had an idea in advance that environmental and social issues were not simple in the areas that we visited, I wasn’t prepared for the many ways these issues overlapped one another in such complicated ways. I came to learn that each of these issues has its own important history, major and minor players, and key concepts and principles; and being on the ground in the geographical areas where these issues are playing out helped me to develop a much keener and much more nuanced understanding of what is actually going on in social, political, scientific, economic, and human terms.
Specifically, the trip made it very clear to me how connected development, sustainability, food systems, the environment, human rights and sovereignty are to one another. Before the trip, I knew generally that there are conflicting models for development in the region, but I did not know how deeply conflicted these models are, particularly for the indigenous peoples of the region. The same holds true for sustainability, in which there seem to be many different ideas of successful sustainability, region-wide. This was most true in the Baram River area, where the vision of sustainability of the indigenous people was not anywhere near the vision of sustainability shared by the central government of Sarawak, and/or by logging or palm oil companies on the ground.
In particular, the Borneo leg of the trip helped to foster in me a much keener understanding of the actual environment of the area, and the particular environmental issues involved. As such it was a critically important “frame” for nearly all of the subsequent activities of the trip. Contact with the Kayan people in Sarawak, and NGOs in a variety of settings both in Borneo and Singapore, helped me to understand that issues of human rights are very important and very pressing in the region, and that development, sustainability, and human rights are often at great odds. This is most particularly true in relation to the land rights of indigenous people, both in Sarawak, and region-wide.
All of the various components of the trip were quite beneficial in enabling me to gain in-depth knowledge about the issues that we set out to study while on our trip. The fact the we combined fieldwork with informal and formal lectures provided for a range of learning modalities that were both interesting and useful. For me, three activities stood out as the most compelling. The three days in the field with the Kayan people along the Baram River in Sarawak was very clearly the educational (and personal) highlight of the trip. Being there with the Kayan people and hearing their stories was fascinating, thought-provoking, and intensely moving.
Exposure to the Kayan people and their lives and struggles has made me want to know more about the Kayan and other indigenous peoples of the Sarawak region. I am particularly interested in their dance, music, and/or story-telling traditions, and how these might be used in their ongoing struggles for sustainable development and sovereignty over their customary lands.
In retrospect, I am greatly troubled by what I saw and have read about the ongoing effects of deforestation caused by logging and/or palm oil cultivation in the Baram River region. While we were on the river much of what we saw was very green and lush: seemingly intact rainforest. Only through accounts of the Kayan people and presentations by NGOs did we learn that the green and lush forest we were seeing was in fact second growth forest slated for logging, and that much if not all of the primary rainforest in the area was permanently gone. I also remain troubled by the issues of land rights that were shared with us by the Baram River people. As an American, it is easy to take for granted the status quo of over a hundred years in which our indigenous peoples were forcibly removed from their land. To see a modern country such as Malaysia conducting similar practices was both surprising and alarming.
Although the individual stories about the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Central Sarawak were at times heart breaking, I was moved by the power of their collective resistance. I am hopeful that the Stop Baram Dam Movement, and other forms of social advocacy in the region will ultimately be successful. It is encouraging that protests and blockades have forced the regional government to establish a moratorium on the building of the dam, and it is also encouraging that progress is being made in garnering regional and international support for the dam blockade and other issues, and in gaining important ground through legal and political processes, both locally and nationally.
For me, the interdisciplinary nature of the EnviroLab Asia Clinic was one of the most interesting and beneficial aspects of the trip. Extended exposure to students and faculty members from such a wide range of disciplines was fabulous. As a faculty member in the arts, I greatly appreciated the opportunity to share the trip with colleagues and students from other arts disciplines, as well as the physical and social sciences. Formal lectures such as Marc Los Huertos’ engaging lecture about the Baram River in the Long Tiam Longhouse, and the many informal conversations on buses, planes, and/or during meals throughout the trip, each provided wonderful opportunities for us to share our disciplinary perspectives about the trip and issues/people we were studying. The added ongoing layer of the Yale-NUS participants only made this sharing more profound and enlightening.
The physical rigors of a long flight to and from Singapore, and the experience of ‘roughing it” in Borneo served to remind me of the extraordinary flexibility and strength required of extended travel away from home. As a result of clinic activities in Borneo and in Singapore, I came to understand much more fully that most environmental issues have at their core very human concerns. The trip also made me think much more deeply about the interconnection between environmental issues and social justice, both in Southeast Asia, and here at home. In addition, I left the clinic much more aware of the need for environmental advocacy of all types regardless of the geographical location. In addition to these many positives, I was also reminded of the great value that experiential learning can have, no matter what the subject and the setting.
In conclusion, I am happy to report that my experience as a faculty fellow on the EnviroLab Asia Clinic Trip was clearly one of the most rewarding (and challenging) activities that I have been a part of since joining the faculty of Pomona College in the fall of 1991. I am most grateful for the opportunities to travel and to learn that the Clinic Trip provided me, and I look forward to the collective work emanating from our research clusters in the months ahead. Thank you very much.