Grace Stewart (CMC ’17), an Environmental Analysis major, discusses the complexities of environmental issues she was exposed to during the Clinic Trip to Malaysian Borneo and Singapore in January 2016. 


Q: How did the trip contribute to your understanding of development, sustainability, food systems, the environment, human rights, and/or sovereignty?

The main question that arose for me throughout the trip was that of sustainable development. Does the model of development automatically mean urbanization and subsequent environmental destruction? Or is there an alternative model of development that allows quality of life to increase while protecting the environment? I was also intrigued by the mindset that urban is implicitly good and rural is implicitly bad. I witnessed the pressures of globalization felt by Malaysia as it tried to meet development goals via construction of hydroelectric power (in our case, the Baram Dam). We realized that this dam project seemed to function more as a symbol of Malaysia’s modernization, rather than an actual service to the people.

Walking through an oil palm plantation. Photo by Grace Stewart.

Walking through an oil palm plantation. Photo by Grace Stewart.

Q: Was there any one meeting, activity, or person who made a strong impression? Please describe the setting of this activity and its impact on you.

Along with a majority of the faculty and students on the clinic trip, I found our meeting back in Singapore with Wilmar’s senior manager for sustainability especially interesting. Wilmar, Asia’s leading palm oil company, has also been the leader in trying to promote sustainable agribusiness practices. This fact was pleasantly surprising to me. However, I was a bit concerned by their definition of sustainability and their goal to continue increasing production to reach 1 million tons of certified palm oil in 2016. It is an example of a concept I have explored further in my course this semester with Professor Zayn Kassam (who also attended the clinic trip) titled Divine Body: Religion and the Environment–conceding that the Earth is in desperate need of more sustainable business practices, but at the same time holding to a model of economic development that has led to the trend of “green growth.” This phenomenon involves stamping a “green” seal of approval on products (such as RSPO–Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil–certified products), with an overall goal of continuing to increase production and consumption so that profits continue to increase, and as a result the GDP will increase. While these goals are not inherently bad, I had to wonder how increasing production and consumption (which would no doubt increase the amount of oil palm plantations) could be considered “sustainable.” That being said, I am hopeful that Wilmar’s supply chain mapping and “no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation” policy will benefit the environment and that their push for sustainability will rub off on other companies and industries. It is definitely a step in the right direction. As a side note, to add to the complexity of this meeting, we were informed that palm oil is one of the most efficient oils to process (compared to other vegetable oils), and its popularity has increased largely as a result of the relatively recent ban on trans fats. I am interested in further exploring how palm oil can either be justified or refuted as a replacement for trans fats and other oils based on health, economics, and environmental impacts of production.

Q: Identify and describe a particular moment in which you felt surprised/ concerned/ troubled/ or hopeful?

I was surprised and slightly troubled when I realized that there is conflict even among the Dayak people regarding development. Some people want a lifestyle similar to that in America, whereas others want to maintain traditions and continue to live off the land. I heard a similar narrative throughout the trip that the Baram Dam was more an issue of indigenous land rights than environmental protection. This made me wonder if the indigenous people still would have wanted to protect the environment even if their interests weren’t directly involved. Regardless, I saw how they were facing an injustice by a government that failed to acknowledge their rights, and their struggle to be recognized and heard is valid and honorable.

Q: One of the goals of EnviroLab Asia is to be multidisciplinary. In what ways were you exposed to multiple or different disciplines during the clinic trip? What are your reflections upon this approach?

This experience was enjoyable for me because I am majoring in Environmental Analysis, but have also taken extensive coursework in music, and both of these backgrounds proved useful and applicable throughout the clinic trip. I remember saying to some other fellows near the end of the trip that our participation in Dayak song and dance one evening at a longhouse felt like I was embodying an experience straight out of my ethnomusicology class, Music Cultures of the World. This is just a single example of experiential learning, a welcome departure from the usual classroom learning. Additionally, to see issues from a scientific perspective, Professor Marc Los Huertos brought along water quality equipment and explained the issues facing the Baram River, including stratification and lack of dissolved oxygen.


Evidence of deforestation. Photo by Grace Stewart.

Evidence of deforestation. Photo by Grace Stewart.

Q: What did you encounter in the trip teach you about yourself, about environmental issues in Asia, about advocacy & social justice, and/or knowledge & practice?

Through my experiences in Borneo and Singapore, I realized that sometimes just knowing the right thing to do will not naturally lead to the right thing getting done. More precisely, it is not enough to have scientific evidence for environmental management best practices. Good policy is also required to work in tandem with science. And in the event that good policies don’t exist or are not being executed correctly by the government, advocacy by environmental and social justice organizations like Save Rivers is necessary and worthwhile. I discovered that civil protest is an effective means to fight harmful government actions (or inaction), an inspiring act of hope and perseverance.

Q: How would you like to share with your community and with the Singaporean/Malaysian/Indonesian community what you learned and thought about?

I knew coming into the trip that environmental issues are some of the most complicated problems the world must face today. So it should come as no surprise that I encountered a vast array of considerations while observing the environment in Southeast Asia. Before joining EnviroLab Asia, my knowledge of environmental issues in Southeast Asia went as far as knowing the orangutan is from this region (Borneo and Sumatra) and is a threatened species. Yes, I indeed observed firsthand the destruction wrought by deforestation in Borneo leading to unabated habitat destruction and rapid biodiversity loss. But I also experienced the trials of the indigenous people, the political battle and power struggle occurring between the people and their government, and the tangible repercussions of the landscape’s degradation manifesting as Singapore’s air quality/haze issue. I am increasingly grateful for my interdisciplinary education, and I have begun thinking about all the actors that need to come together to address the injustice faced by particular groups of people and by the planet.


Please note that in March 2016, news was shared that the Mega Dam was stopped by the activism of the indigenous communities.