Pomona College student Ki’Amber Thompson (’18), an English and Environmental Analysis major, talks about the impact of the Clinic Trip on her ideas about conservation, future interests, and the importance of listening while conducting research. The Clinic Trip is designed to be an immersive learning experience for students and faculty. In January 2016, folks from the Claremont Colleges and Yale-NUS embarked on a 10-day trip to Malaysia and Singapore to learn about environmental issues in the region. Ki’Amber stands in the far right in the photo above.
During the 4-day portion of the Clinic Trip to Malaysian Borneo, I experienced on-the-ground learning about dam-building, oil palm production, and deforestation, especially how indigenous peoples interact with these projects. I lived with and learned from the Dayak peoples, specifically the Kayan and Penan, about these environmental justice issues. This was 100% a new experience for me because I had never been out of the U.S. and I had never been to a jungle. I approached the trip with cultural humility since a large portion of our research was talking with and listening to the indigenous residents. The physical journey of travelling by truck and by boat to the various remote villages was incredible. On this journey, I experienced the community of the people that were guiding us. On day 2 of the Borneo trip, I remember feeling at ease in the longhouse we were staying in because of the warm smiles and amazing hospitality.
Experiencing some of the environmental issues first-hand, staying with the Dayak peoples of Borneo in their villages and talking with them about the environmental, socio-economic, and political effects of the palm oil industry, the Baram Dam project, and deforestation, were eye-opening for me. Listening to the voices of those most impacted by deforestation and dams complicated the potential solutions.
Moreover, this experience changed the way I think about conservation. Oil palm deforestation and large damming projects like the Baram Dam is a conservation matter. However, I learned that conserving the forests, the land, and water also means conserving culture and heritage. By clearing the forests, the customs and culture of the indigenous peoples that live in the forests are also being destroyed since they depend on the materials from the land to make crafts and instruments that are important to sustaining their culture. If we are serious about environmental conservation and want to do it in a way that is just, then we have to include the voices of indigenous peoples. The Dayak peoples understand place, the value of the land, and their relationship to the land in a way that the Malaysian governments do not. Therefore, their knowledge and interests must be included in decisions on the development, use, and conservation of the land. This experience has opened my mind to new ideas of what conservation is and what it can be, making me think seriously about what my role in the conservation field could be and what I want it to be. I have also been able to utilize this experience in doing research and thinking about the cultural conservation practices and conservation tools indigenous peoples in America have used and how they use them. My short time doing research in Malaysia has informed so much of my interests, the kind of research I want to continue doing (community-based research), and what justice means and could look like in the context of environmental conservation.
After the trip I thought more critically about our research because I learned that research can be a dirty, even violent, word in some cultures. Indigenous populations have often been treated as objects of study for the purpose of confirming what researchers think they know, and the research fails to give anything back to community they took from. Thinking critically about what research means and what it means to be a researcher has made me re-evaluate how I think my team and I should proceed with the knowledge that we gained in Malaysia. I want to make sure that stories of the Kayan and Penan are handled with care and that what we decide to do with our research benefits those communities that graciously embraced us into their homes, their culture, and their struggles. Phillip, indigenous activist of the grassroots NGO, SAVE Rivers, explained how by destroying and cutting down the forests, their culture is also being destroyed since they depend on the materials from the land to survive and to practice their cultural traditions.
On this trip, most I what I did was listened. I learned that when doing research with indigenous peoples, listening is essential. A significant portion of the research was oral stories. Stories are central to the kind of work and research that I am interested in and want to continue to do. Stories humanize. And stories allow for imagination, which is critical to constructing solutions to these environmental, social, and economic issues.
So thank you to the Kayan and Penan who shared their stories with us, and for all the work that they are doing to make their voices heard.