January 2015 teaching in the field: MIT Malaysia field practicum on sustainable development

This is the second year that I’ve been invited on as a teaching assistant for the MIT Sustainable Development Practicum course. We bring 15 masters students who then group themselves according to interest and study some of the many topics within sustainable development. The great thing for me is that in the final week, I was able to take a small group of students and focus on an issue having to do with my own research on coastal resource management. Thanks to Professor Dan Friess’ help from the National University of Singapore, we were able to plan several days of learning excursions for our students organized around the theme of reclamation on urbanized coasts. All of the participants this year, plus short bios can be viewed here.

We wanted to explore coastal reclamation in the Singapore and Malaysian contexts, since so much of it is occurring on the waterway that separates Malaysia from Singapore (by a thin tidal strait). With reclamation also comes issues of stressors to the coastal environment including those to nearshore fisheries, mangroves, sea grass beds, mudflats and migratory bird habitat; relocations of coastal villages; and trans boundary issues with impacts on one coast spreading to the other side of the geo-political border. There were a shocking amount of geopolitical considerations, including border disputes between Singapore and Malaysia, as well as social issues such as the relocation of entire villages.

We began in Singapore examining a previous site of reclamation that ended up being disputed by Malaysia under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention Law of the Seas) arbitration in the 1990s. This set the scene for our second visit, this time on the Malaysia side, where they are doing massive reclamation projects from the causeway linking Singapore to the Danga Bay. The irony is palpable since Malaysa took Singapore to an UNCLOS arbitration tribunal to prevent this same expansion. The final day’s visits took us to the mangrove villages adjacent to the world’s fastest growing port, Tanjung Pelepas also known as the PTP complex in Johor, Malaysia. There one can find another planned reclamation project which gained a lot of attention in recent months since it bypassed the environmental impact assessment project and dumped millions of cubic meters of sand on peninsular Malaysia’s largest sea grass bed, home to its dugongs and bordering not only a Ramsar site but also a national park. We visited a relocated fishermen’s village that the PTP and government officials forcefully relocated for reclamation purposes.

In sum, reclamation and shoreline planning are not isolated technical, engineering, or biological issues they are also political and social issues as well, as is evidenced in the relocations of entire villages and the contested nature of the reclamations bypassing the environmental impact assessments thanks to well-connected elite firms pushing the projects through. Below are the sites we visited as part of this module along with the learning objectives and images:

Day 1. Pulau Ubin, Cek Jawa, and Sungai Buloh: Reclamation on the Singaporean coast

Learning objectives:

  • trans-boundary reclamation issues between Singapore and Malaysia, the focus here is on governance, looking at UNCLOS as a forum for conflict resolution in the past
  • How reclamation impacts water quality, coastal environmental health, and may be responsible for system shifts (eutrophic water, anoxic water)

Major points of interest:

  • From the 1970s to the 1980s, Singapore tried and expand its military base on Tekong Island and on Tekong Kecil. It reclaimed the space between these 2 islands and turned them into one, and enlarged them. In the 1990s, they wanted to expand Tekong Kecil to the coasts of Palau Ubin, but Malaysia took the case to UNLOS and disputed it.
    • Johor politicians alike complained that Singapore did not consult them in this planned reclamation, that it affected local Malaysian livelihoods in the fishing villages in Johor, and that it restricted their access to the port of Pasir Gudang.
  • Now with all of the contemporary reclamation on Danga Bay in Johor, Malaysia, this early case of the international dispute resolution by UNCLOS stopping Singapore from doing the same thing. is made even more interesting



Caption: Palau Tekok on the upper right, seagrass just visible as the tide goes out 


Caption: Mudflats and coastal wetland ecosystems of of Cek Jawa


Caption: Dan Friess of the NUS Mangrove Lab briefs the MIT, UTM, and NUS students 

Day 2: Johor Shoreline, half a day walk from the causeway to Danga Bay, and then to Tanjung Piai National Park, looking across to the PTP Port Complex (future site of Forest City and further PTP reclamation on top of peninsular Malaysia’s largest sea grass bed) 

Learning Objectives

  • trans-boundary reclamation issues between Singapore and Malaysia, the focus here is on governance, looking at UNCLOS as a forum for conflict resolution in the past
  • How reclamation impacts water quality, coastal environmental health, and may be responsible for system shifts (eutrophic water, anoxic water)

Major points of interest

  • During this trip is became clear that the same Developer (County Gardens of China) that is responsible for the massive Forest City Proposal (in conjunction with the Sultan of Johor’s own company) is also the same one doing all of the reclamation along JB’s coast. Given its ties to the Sultan this project will be pushed through.



Caption: an army of dredges to fill in land from the causeway all the way over to Danga bay for the Country Gardens massive development project


Caption: A reclaimed bit of land, you need to sneak around and look through holes in big fences to see this stuff.


Caption: Passed through police barrier to see this view.


Caption: Chinese migrant laborer dorms


Caption: The scale of just ONE of the many developments as part of the bigger project. See model below for breathtaking and massive scale


Caption: Water front view: this is only 1/3 of the full mock up, and only on the waterfront side. There is a whole back side. This is the area where we drive by on the costal highway with all the fences and construction

Day 3: Kampung Pok and Kampung Pendas near the future Forest City reclamation project

Learning objectives:

  • The impact of the reclamations on the communities who depend on the small scale fisheries and forestry (mangroves)

Major points of interest:

  • The Forest City Reclamation is controversial and it is in the news. What many people do not know is that the Port of PTP is also undergoing reclamation that is doing a lot of the same environmental damage that Forest City is doing.
    • There were several sites where they cleared land and rented it to Forest City (for migrant dorms and so on) and are letting Forest City get the criticism when as soon as Forest City finishes, PTP will undergo expansion.
  • Resettlement and evidence of entire villages being moved in preparation for Forest City is everywhere.
  • There are organizers working in the main village to advocate for the people who live there and depend on the ecosystem services provided by sea grass. We made contact with one and we learned her story of teaching the children citizen science.



Caption: Kampung Pendas, where all the fishermen were evicted to build show homes and resorts. On the far right in the background is the Singapore live firing zone for its military that shakes the walls of village homes and the soon to be luxury settlements


Caption: This is the relocation site. This is a village of fishermen across the water from the Jedi Pendas, this village is called Kampung Pendas Baru (Baru means new in Malay) because the original Kampung Pendas was evicted to build a resort. These homes have no water access for the boats, and now the builders have informed the relocated people who live here that they will be kicked out in 2 years.


Caption: Kampung Pok where there is real resistance to the Forest City Project that is better organized and more coherent than any neighboring village. Neighboring villages have many factions while the head man here has assured a unified front.


Caption: this sis high tide so the sand cannot be seen. This is the future Forest City site. PTP port complex is on the right, a tanker is in the center. The interesting thing here is that they’re going for this luxurious high rise on islands thing, when really all they have is a view of tankers, oil and gas, a power plant, and silt plumes.


Caption: The forest site where the children in Kampung Ladang were trained to do citizen science.


Coral reef communities: the Malaysian experience

I just recently wrapped up several weeks of fieldwork in Malaysia’s Tioman Island. Tioman is a major dive tourism destination located in a government designated Marine Park some 20 years old. With dozens of reefs to dive, I had two major components to my field work: take representative ecological surveys of some of the most popular dive sites and then administer surveys and socio-economic based interviews to stakeholders in the hand full of villages that fringe the island.

Given the wave of new and cheap photography options for underwater imagining, I adapted my ecological survey methods from English et. al 1997’s timed swim technique involving a fish census and hard cover examination at predetermined time intervals. I did this with a GoPro, and instead of a fish survey, as my research team was limited to one, I looked at an indicator far easier for a single diver with camera in hand to assess: percent living cover of hard corals in 1x1m quadrats.

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 4.53.38 PM.png

An image from my survey of Labas Dive site reef

A major criticism of interdisciplinary research that looks at human-environment interactions is that either the human (socio-economic) or environment (ecological) indicators are ignored in the process of inquiry. My first round of studies conducted in Bali last summer relied on coarse grained UNEP assessments of reef health in two Balinese communities. This time around, I am using my own assessments based on percentage hard cover. Living hard coral cover is a valuable indicator as it 1) provides a visual motive for divers to come and contribute to the local economy and 2) a critical function in the ecosystem.

My surveys of stakeholders ranged from local dive masters, boat operators, tank boys, dive shop owners, marine parks officers, ferry boatsmen, and so on. I asked people questions about how their community looks after their reefs all the while knowing the reefs are a critical piece of the local economy. Ultimately, I will have looked at 8 cases across SE Asia by the conclusion of my fieldwork, and will be able to make claims about specific community attributes that tend to also accompany healthy reefs.

Team Poster at Stanford’s annual NatCap Conference

This poster features values for carbon sequestration ecosystem services in the Hudson and the Delaware estuary systems. They are calculated under different intensities of dredging. The research is an ongoing part the NSF-Funded Coastal SEES work on dredging in the Hudson and Delaware, and its impacts on ecosystem services.




Coastal & Marine Resource Management and teaching international courses abroad for MIT

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.


Shoreline planning document

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.


Kukup mangrove island

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.


Tanjung Piai National Park mangroves

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.


Showing off her fishing skills