[GUEST BLOG] Profs. Anderson, Kirchner and Werner travel to Asia to study the impact of industry on the environment
Funded by a Luce Initiative for Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE) grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, Assistant Professor of Chinese Kyle D. Anderson, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Daniel Kirchner and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Brett Werner traveled to China and Southeast Asia this CentreTerm to study the effects of rapid development on the region’s environment. Their research will inform a LIASE-funded interdisciplinary lab course on Asia and the environment they are teaching this spring.
“They’re cutting down trees up the river,” the villager said, pointing to the muddy waters rushing behind him. “We think it’s the logging that’s causing the floods.”
Daniel Kirchner, Brett Werner and I met with the unexpected during our three-week research trip through China and Southeast Asia this CentreTerm. On January 12, we left Shanghai, China, and arrived in Sarawak, Malaysia, to study the impact of logging and the palm oil industry on the rainforest and its aboriginal peoples.
We worked inside the Mulu World Heritage Site, one of the world’s oldest rain forests. While arranging for tours and interviews, the park director told us that Long Iman, a village of the Penan, a nomadic aboriginal people, had been devastated by a series of tsunami-like waves that soared over the 10-foot river embankment protecting their village and crashed through their homes, washing away all their possessions and leaving them buried in two feet of mud.
There wasn’t much discussion — we quickly agreed on the spot to volunteer to help dig the village out.
Dan, Brett and I spent the next two mornings freeing the village church from a thick ring of mud and clearing the drainage ditches of locals’ homes. With makeshift, rusty tools, the work was tough. But smiles and firm hand shakes from the village chief were rich payment, as were specially prepared lunches of fresh river fish and fried jungle fern.
Performing service in the community where we were studying for the Luce grant helped remind us of the responsibilities we have as scholars and students to use our hands and hearts, as well as our minds, when researching abroad and off-campus. We understand poorly without the benefit of relationships and others’ insights. Furthermore, distinct advantages follow from working side-by-side with others on their problems, on their terms.
With next to no effort on our part, the natives of Mulu began telling us all about their people and the challenges they face as they strive to adjust to changes brought on by modernization and the unpredictable tides of the global market, information we were most likely to gain second- or third-hand otherwise.
“The floods began when the logging started. It was never like this before,” the villager continued.
Logging hundreds-year old hardwoods is a lucrative business in Malaysia that clears the way for the oil palm cash crop quickly covering the nation’s entire landscape.
“What do you hope for in the future?” I asked him.
“We want to stay.”
His hope for the Penan rests largely on others’ willingness to balance gain and growth with environmental and cultural preservation.
This spring, Centre students will join Dan, Brett and me in the Asia and the Environment lab where we will examine what such a balance entails.
by Kyle D. Anderson
Photos from the trip courtesy of Kyle D. Anderson, Brett Werner and Daniel Kirchner.