On March 21, 2016, it was announced that the proposed Mega Dam, which would have flooded indigenous villages and altered the ecosystem of the Baram River, had been halted due to the activism of indigenous communities. Elizabeth Weinlein, an Environmental Policy and Asian Studies major at Pitzer College (’17) discusses how meeting indigenous community leaders from the EnviroLab Asia Clinic Trip to Sarawak, Malaysia impacted her.

My first year at Pitzer, I took a class titled “Progress and Oppression,” focusing on how economic progress, development and globalization have historically and currently increased the oppression of indigenous people. We read about unrecognized land rights of indigenous tribes in South America and of Native Americans being forced into allowing nuclear waste to be dumped on their lands. The reading victimized the indigenous people, leaving me feeling hopeless about the inevitability of globalization and the consequences that follow: displacement, exploitation, destruction of culture and traditional ways of life. This class was solely text-based, leaving me without any first hand experiences from indigenous people directly affected by the rapid development of the world. Every day I left class feeling disheartened, not just because of the narratives I was reading, but also because of my own positionality and inability to make meaningful change.

College has awakened me to my privilege and the power that comes from being at an American university, studying distant issues by simply reading scholarly articles. How can I work to fix the injustices of the world when I have no first hand experience? Can I even understand and seek to remediate environmental concerns when I have never been to a country, don’t understand a group’s culture or have only lived an American-style consumption-based life? Even if I have the opportunity to research abroad, what is my place in conducting said research? Wouldn’t people who understood the cultural context and language of a certain area be more apt researchers then me?

Then last September the opportunity to join EnviroLab Asia presented itself, promising intersectional discussion between disciplines and a chance to conduct field research. In the months leading up to our flight to Singapore, and then eventually Malaysia, we studied environmental issues taking place in Southeast Asia. Within my policy research cluster, I focused on palm oil. However, the findings I found about Malaysia and Indonesia went well beyond the environmental issues associated with palm oil and into the realms of social structures, politics, transportation and the indigenous people of the region. While I felt a base of information forming within our group, I wondered if it would be enough to get the most out of our upcoming Clinic Trip experience.

Before arriving in Sarawak, Malaysia, I grew increasingly wary of the next couple of days, wondering how a group of American college students and professors would be able to gain insight in such a short period of time while simultaneously being respectful to the land and the people hosting us. I was open to whatever experience lay before me, yet, in the back of my mind I was nervous that we were going to be staying with indigenous groups who are being taken advantage of, victims of government bodies and international business. And what could we do, coming and leaving within a three-day period? Even if we were able to share our knowledge, would it be imperialistic, us imposing our Western ideas and biases on an area we have little knowledge about?

After stewing over these concerns, we arrived in Sarawak and were immediately introduced to Phillip and Charles, two activists who had organized a glimpse into the lives of indigenous communities fighting for their land and survival. We were assigned a driver, and hopped into four wheeled drives, heading towards the center of Sarawak into palm oil plantations and timber forests. I immediately realized that this community we were interacting with were not victims. Yes, international businesses were threatening their way of life. Yes, government powers were trying to give them the short end of the stick. Yet, here they were, conducting research tours with big “Stop Baram Dam” stickers on their cars, wearing “Protect Indigenous Rights” shirts and being outspoken activists for their land rights and lives.

Signs of deforestation along Baram River

Signs of deforestation along the Baram River

We drove through miles and miles of palm oil plantations, seeing the mono cropping occasionally disrupted by a patch of exposed soil or degraded land. Eventually we pulled into a palm oil plantation, only to be greeted by a group of indigenous activists whose land had been stolen from them by a palm oil company. They returned the favor and reclaimed their land, blockading the entrance, barring for the company from entering or exiting. We continued on, this time on dirt roads, passing second growth forests shrouded in mist, eerily similar to those found in Jurassic Park. We came to another blockade site, this one for obstructing the creation of the Baram Mega Dam. The longhouse the indigenous people had built solely for the purpose of blockade was plastered with articles and signs, promoting locally supported leaders or highlighting the activist accomplished in this region of Sarawk. From the road, neon banners hung, forcing every timber driver, indigenous person or possible dam constructor that drives by to see the demands of this community: “Stop Baram Dam.” After the EnvrioLab Asia group headed to bed, wrapped tightly in sleeping bags with mosquito nets haphazardly draped over our bodies, the indigenous people held a meeting. While I cannot speak Malay or the local language, the size of the community meeting was unreal. And as they chatted about us or their activist movements or whatever they were discussing, all my prior concerns melted away. The people we met are not victims, but people who adapted to their situation and are actively fighting for their land and their rights. They are facing environmental injustices, but they are fighting and winning. Not only were they organizing and opposing powerful groups, they were also maintaining traditions that they feel are important. This was not a situation of us being white saviors, but of us, EnviroLab Asia students and professors, learning from the Dayaks of Sarawak in order to share their experiences and to better understand the complex environmental issues of Southeast Asia.

Read more about the recent victory to stop the Baram Mega Dam at https://www.facebook.com/notes/center-for-orang-asli-concerns-coac/the-orang-asal-of-baram-succeed-in-stopping-a-mega-dam/1079239915453267 and http://borneoproject.org/updates/surprise-change-of-events-for-baram-dam-land-rights-returned-to-native-residents