Custodians of Their Own Coastlines
In this environmental reflection, I argue that the biggest threat to Southeast Asia’s environment is a misrepresentation of indigenous voices. This is what is “worth saving”: the voices of committed local researchers as custodians of our own coastlines.
In my view, the biggest threat to Southeast Asia’s environment is the misrepresentation of indigenous voices on public platforms — such as research, as well as mainstream and social media. To “represent”, as the word’s etymological origins suggest, means to “make present again” (Pitkin 1967). Misrepresentation takes place when stories of indigenous communities are erased, appropriated or tailored, in service of Global North- or industrialisation-driven hegemonic narratives and market-based agendas. Attempts to correct such misrepresentations have been made. However, voices that successfully speak truth to power either come from persons who are already in positions of power (primarily from the Global North) or persons who are able to address misrepresentations within apparatuses of power — whose voices are heard on international platforms and amplified by global media outlets. Misrepresentations must be addressed with urgency — with skillful research and storytelling by and with, and not simply for indigenous communities — to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of these ecosystems.
First, having one Western-centric narrative of conservation is dangerous as it excludes alternative points of view — most importantly, that of people who live on the lands of Southeast Asia. Having grown up in an urbanised, globalised and land-scarce Singapore, I saw the natural environment through that lens: something that ought to be conserved for its economic output, alongside its contribution to citizens’ well-being. Solely adhering to this view, however, does not take into account alternative narratives — such as Southeast Asians seeing natural resources as “sacred geographies” with “agency” (Allerton 2009) due to the deep historical influence of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism; or the consequent intangible value of rivers, mountains and trees, which cannot be given a dollar value per hectare, as is seen in Western valuations. A development-driven approach threatens to erase indigenous narratives and can be a hindrance to alternative methods of conservation.
Second, the valorisation of Western development efforts as a “protagonist” and appropriation of stories of indigenous people within their discourse of “saving the environment” creates a misplaced sense of accomplishment. It eventually threatens to create more damage in the long run through nurturing a sense of dependence among the indigenous people. Nowhere is this more evident than in “parachute science”, where international scientists from higher-income countries conduct research without investing in training and infrastructure and then leave — without addressing local needs, and worse, creating a culture of suspicion and mistrust that hinders future research efforts. The appropriation of indigenous voices to validate such development efforts — through cursory mentions in published papers, showcasing their smiling faces in corporate videos affirming the work of international investors, and one-off international media features, for example, reports by Human Rights Watch and Reuters highlighting the effects of deforestation in Indonesia’s oil palms — without additional empowerment on the ground or sustained commitment in reporting does not sustainably improve the local situation.
In an era of tourism and contemporary hypermobility (pre-COVID), feel-good stories by vloggers become the layman version of “parachute science”. These stories, created and narrated mostly by foreigners, win popular appeal because they present a romanticised vision of what travel ought to embody: authenticity, the ordinary person immersing himself in an indigenous community, taking a road less travelled. On new media, those who have power need not rank highly within hegemonic structures — vloggers’ effectiveness depends on their skill in using their voice, and to amplify their reach due to their existing fanbase and knowledge of how to drive traffic based on platform-specific algorithms. Coconuts TV, which highlights lesser known “weird and wonderful” stories from Asia reaches an audience of 264K views, while users “Andrew Pearson” and “Moi” received views of 105K and 9K each. While this does raise awareness of the situation, comparisons between Pearson’s video (shot in 1988) and Moi’s (uploaded in 2020) hint that little has changed. Despite awareness, there is no sustained commitment from the ground.
Attempts to halt such threats have come when persons who do not have power are able to speak back via the apparatuses of the people who have power, and in their language. Voices from the Global South (“the developing world”) are heard when they articulate their views on platforms predominantly accessed by the Global North. For example, when marine biologist Asha de Vos expressed her stance against “parachute science”, she did so at an international conference based in Canada in 2017, attended mostly by persons from the West. Ripples of interest in questioning the accepted norm of “colonial science” emerged following the publication of de Vos’ essay in Scientific American in 2020, and became a topic of interest across multiple Western-made publications in recent months, such as The Scientist, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Oceonographic magazines. Through these mediums, her voice was heard, and amplified. However, while this recognition is commendable, to what extent was this a reflection of the systemic inequalities that Global South researchers have felt all along?
The familiarity with which children in the vloggers’ videos readily participated in the storytelling by the foreigners, waving enthusiastically at the camera, makes me wonder how much they — and by extension, we in Southeast Asia and the Global South — have become accustomed to being the object of an outsider’s gaze. How can we, as a region with indigenous communities and even scholars who continually seek recognition for our voice, move beyond being the object of the gaze, to actively reclaiming our agency to tell our own story? This, I believe, is what is “worth saving” in Southeast Asian environments — reclaiming that voice that rightfully belongs to the people to be custodians of their own coastlines.
Given my training in media and research, I hope to act as a bridge between local communities and persons in power, conducting on-the-ground research in consultation with indigenous people and their stakeholders, and presenting in a discourse and on platforms familiar to those who rank highly in structures of power. I aim to do this by primarily working in partnership with local communities to understand, curate and co-create their stories, and by developing media products that speak truth to power.
Pitkin, H. F. (1967). The concept of representation. University of California Press.
Allerton, C. (2009, November). Introduction: spiritual landscapes of Southeast Asia. In Anthropological forum (Vol. 19, №3, pp. 235–251). Routledge.