January is IAP at MIT (Independent Activities Period). Most people work on research, submit papers, or take a crazy class they would not otherwise do. In IAP 2014, my advisor asked me to TA his practicum course that brought 15 masters students to Malaysia. Since MIT signed a 5 year agreement with the Malaysian government and the Malaysian University of Technology (UTM), we will bring a practicum there annually.
My specific duties drew on my prior Malaysian fieldwork in coastal planning, shoreline management, and natural resource management of fish stocks and mangroves. I was assigned one of the breakout research teams, spending the final week in Johor Bahru, looking at how mangrove management occurs at the southernmost point of mainland Asia as well as fisheries management.
Johor has three Ramsar sites. This is remarkable, as it also is undergoing major port expansion, which typically means mangrove deforestation and the dredging of seagrass beds. Johor on the other hand is balancing its rich environmental assets with the need for development, especially with its cutting edge planning agency IRDA (Iskandar Regional Development Authority).
One of the major highlights was when I got to spend a day walking along (sometimes illegally!) shoreline management projects, coastal development ventures, illegal mangrove deforestation sites, and mangrove forests with Dan Friess from NUS‘ Mangrove Lab.
The MIT masters students came up with some interesting research questions on shoreline planning, optimization for livelihood and conservation, and governance of the Ramsar sites’ mangroves and fisheries.
As a TA, challenges were obvious. Balancing the needs of my students with the needs of our gracious Malaysian hosts and colleagues was stressful, as were cultural differences in scheduling and planning. All in all, the students passed my greatest expectations and I look forward to TA’ing the practicum next year, with a new field site in Sabah, Borneo’s large marine protected area.
The highlight of the fieldwork included several visits to villages that I had done some research in over the summer. This included Kong Kong Laut Fishing Village. We spoke for hours with women crabbers and shrimpers, the people working on floating fish farms, and the head of the village’s wife. We discussed fisheries management, water quality downgrades following nearby chemical plant expansion, and the stake that villagers hold in large scale coastal developments in industry.