Protecting the wonders of Borneo

Picture: Harry Jonas Picture: Harry Jonas

Picture: Harry Jonas

Picture: Harry Jonas

In January 2018, four University of Queensland law students embarked on a six-week international placement to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah in Malaysian Borneo with Forever Sabah, a non-profit Malaysian organisation.

Sunrise from Prayer Mountain, Bario Sunrise from Prayer Mountain, Bario

Sunrise from Prayer Mountain, Bario

Sunrise from Prayer Mountain, Bario

The international environmental law clinic offered students a hands-on opportunity to make a real contribution to environmental justice while gaining a remarkable experience of living and working in Asia.

Three of the students, Jane Hall, Ruth Cobbold and Karen Le, share their experiences working with Forever Sabah’s Legal Innovation Team to deliver legal advice and support. 

The students were supported by funding from  The New Colombo Plan.

Jane Hall – Bachelor of Arts/Laws

If I had to encapsulate the six and a half weeks I spent in Sabah as part of the international environmental law clinic, the only fitting words would be: 'life changing'.

The clinic gave me an insight into a professional world I had never experienced, introduced me to new concepts and ideas, exposed me to completely new world views and, most importantly, connected me with like-minded people.

Our weeks consisted of researching the laws related to infrastructure development in Sabah. This involved reading a lot of legislation, regulations, government policies and other related sources followed by drafting a legal brief for peer review. I also had the opportunity to present my work to NGO representatives at the WWF-Malaysia.

In addition to research, I studied a legal and political ecology seminar course. The course covered a broad range of topics, from conservation standards to critical legal studies and some of the philosophical concepts of Michael Foucault and Edward Said.

As a dual degree student, it was refreshing to have a chance to use some of the knowledge I have developed from my history major in my BA and apply it to my legal studies.

Even better, our teachers were real-life examples of people who had taken their own multidisciplinary skills and forged a career from them.

The best part though was that my classmates were the three girls who were sharing the whole experience with me.

Learning is so much easier when it is personal.

While the week days were for working, the weekends were for adventures.

The four of us used each weekend as an opportunity to visit somewhere new. My favourite place we visited was Bario, a village nestled in the Kelabit Highlands on the Malaysian-Indonesian border. Historically, the Kelabit people had interactions with the 'White Rajahs' and some religious missionaries in the 19th Century, though it was not until World War II that the people made contact with the modern western world (when several allied soldiers quite literally fell out of the sky and parachuted into the area). Since then, many things have changed but the Kelabit people retain a strong sense of community and identity.

We stayed in a longhouse with a beautiful couple who told us countless stories about their lives, the jungle, local cultural practices, early encounters with Europeans and what it means to be part of the Kelabit people. This was a truly touching experience that none of us will forget.

Karen Le –Bachelor of Arts/Laws

I had chosen to study law because I wanted to help further social justice, and I hoped that I could harness what a legal education could offer me to work towards empowering the marginalised.

Earlier this year, I decided to embark on a six-week adventure to Malaysian Borneo to participate in the international environmental law clinic.

The research I was asked to do during the clinic had a socio-legal dimension in that it involved producing a written piece that identified advocacy strategies which had, in the past, proven successful in bringing about changes to environmentally and socially costly infrastructure development plans. This required a consideration of how laws operated in practice to either promote or curtail advocacy efforts by civil society.

Although this was not part of the clinic itself, while the other girls set off on an adventure to the Kelabit Highlands in Sarawak, I stayed behind in Kota Kinabalu and was lucky enough to have been allowed to tag along to a community legal education workshop – an initiative of PACOS Trust.

Representatives of five different groups of indigenous Sabahans were present at the workshop, and each had a chance to share their thoughts about the questions and topics that were raised. It was an eye-opening experience being there, and although most of it had to be translated for me, it was an experience that struck a chord with me and caused me to really lament the onslaught of “development” for its effect on the livelihoods of indigenous peoples.

This experience was humbling to my admittedly vain self – a reminder of how insignificant my own little concerns are and that there are greater forces at work and much more important things at stake.

I guess I always knew this, but in a culture pervaded by consumerism and individualism, it can be hard to step back and evaluate the bigger picture. I was allowed scope on this experience to empathise with the struggles of others, to see another part of the world, and to have been offered a glimpse into another life.

I changed a lot during this trip – my tastes, habits, future directions.

The momentousness of this change for me, personally, did not become apparent until I had arrived back home and was made to see my old world with fresh eyes. I miss it all – the nervous chuckle of the perplexed cab driver as he struggled to comprehend our English or broken Malay, the sweet, coastal air as we cycled down the final stretch of road before arriving home after each weekday, and the quiet excitement that would fill our hearts as we prepared every weekend to embark on a new adventure.

Ruth Cobbold – Bachelor of Arts/Laws

Forever Sabah has a strong focus on the sustainable long-term future of the country and the nature of work there transcends a mere legal context and rather explores the intersectional variables that influence the ecological realities of Sabah.

Our work focused on creating legal briefs that covered infrastructure, the palm oil industry and case studies of successful civil advocacy that stopped or altered harmful developments. Through the course of five weeks my capacity to critically engage with the Malaysian legal system rapidly expanded.

The nexus of institutions, laws and regulatory guidance took shape in my mind’s eye, where once lay a tangled mess of legal jargon.

In order for us to work within the ethos of the organisation and gain a working knowledge of the complexities that influence Sabah, we also conducted a seminar series under Harry Jonas. The topics spanned critiquing the self, political ecology, conservation, and palm oil and had a strong focus on indigenous perspectives and knowledge. Harry and Holly were excellent teachers, mentors and hosts and made us feel truly at home.

During our seminars with Harry and through the work with Forever Sabah, we realised that reality was crashing down on each of the ethereal communities that we’d visited.

No matter how tucked away they were in gentle valleys, nor nestled on whimsical most-northerly beaches; not even perched in the Kelabit highlands, some 50-minute flight away in a light plane, faces pressed against windowpanes, were the peoples or the land safe from the onslaught of ‘development’.

No longer is Borneo the same wild island of dense tropical rainforest, rare endemic species, and mysterious nomadic peoples that once struck wonder into the hearts of the most intrepid explorers.

Now, massive swathes of oil palm plantation, where once lay a tangle of abundance teeming with life. Lacerations of a mechanic straightness, stretching to meet the horizon. I felt dually motivated and disheartened.

I feel greatly enriched and rejuvenated after this experience. I even pried the last leech from my ankle tenderly, happy to be considered part of the ecosystem despite the anthropocentric views of my species.