Madi Vorva ’17 became an environmental activist in sixth grade after conducting a project on how palm oil can contribute to deforestation, destruction of orangutan habitats, global warming and human rights abuses. She and a fellow Girl Scout started a national campaign to pressure the organization to commit to using deforestation-free palm oil in their cookies — but until this year, she had never gotten to visit the areas where palm oil cultivation devastates.

She joined a trip to Malaysia and Singapore with EnviroLab Asia, a 5C initiative that integrates Asian studies and environmental analysis, helping Claremont students, faculty and staff deepen their understanding of environmental challenges in Asia and develop sustainable and socially just policy solutions.

This was Vorva’s first trip to the region that she was working to help save. Experiencing these issues from a Western-centric, consumer-focused position can lead to some disconnect, Vorva says. “This was the first time I’ve been on the ground with these issues so it was a really meaningful moment for me and experience and I really appreciated the chance to finally connect my advocacy with my school,” says Vorva, who gave a presentation on the palm oil industry on this trip.

EnviroLab Asia, begun last fall with a Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE) grant from The Henry Luce Foundation, allows participants to study big environmental issues like water quality, forest health, social justice, and deforestation of rainforests to produce palm oil. This is carried out through integrated courses, research, visiting artists and activists, the research trip to Asia, a regional conference, and two research clusters of faculty, staff and students from different disciplines and backgrounds.

“One of the reasons EnviroLab Asia is important is it has helped us understand the global nature of local environmental issues. It’s a way for us to understand our complicity in these issues and the ramifications,” says Pomona College Professor of Environmental Analysis Char Miller, who has added pieces on Southeast Asia to his environmental analysis course curriculum.

Other integrated courses at The Claremont Colleges include Professor of Japanese Kyoko Kurita’s Time and Space in Modern Japan and Scripps College Professor of Music Anne Harley’s Mobilizing Art: Creating Activist Performances.

Learning From Local People

In January, Vorva and Ki’amber Thompson ’18, with a cohort of other students and professors from The Claremont Colleges and Yale-NUS College in Singapore, traveled to Malaysia and Singapore for the EnviroLab Asia clinic trip for on-the-ground learning and training.

Pomona College Professors Marc Los Huertos (environmental analysis), Zayn Kassam (religious studies), Stephen Marks (economics), Wallace Meyer (biology) and James Taylor (theatre) went on the trip with the students.

The immersive research trip was both a listening tour and a cross-cultural encounter — they stayed with the indigenous Dayak peoples (specifically the Kayan and Penan) who, instead of being objects of study, were the teachers, according to Thompson and Vorva.

Staying with the Dayak people put faces to issues that Thompson, an environmental analysis and English double major, cares deeply about and it made her think more critically about how to solve them.

“Experiencing some of the environmental issues firsthand, staying with the Dayak peoples of Borneo in their villages and talking with them about the environmental, socio-economic, and political effects of the palm oil industry, the Baram Dam project, and deforestation, were eye-opening for me,” Thompson wrote in an EnviroLab blog post. “Listening to the voices of those most impacted by deforestation and dams complicated the potential solutions.”

Back on Campus

Other EnviroLab Asia Components

  • EnviroLab faculty and student fellows are organized into two research clusters focusing on a particular issue: the links between the production of palm oil and deforestation and aquatic life in Southeast Asia. The policy research cluster and the communications and arts research cluster, focused on investigating alternative strategies to mitigate environmental issues and developing methods to raise the public’s awareness of the issues, respectively.
  • Award-winning composer and environmental activist Yii Kah Hoe visited Claremont in November 2015, performing “Awakening to the Environment” with the Claremont Concert Choir and Claremont Chamber Choir”; leading the discussion workshop “Workshop for Change”; and speaking on “Artist as Activist” at Claremont McKenna’s Athenaeum. 
  • The Southern California LIASE conference this year was focused on Globalization and Sovereignty: Examining Environmental Issues in Asia, and it took place at Pitzer College with the keynote speech at Pomona’s Oldenborg Center.

The EnviroLab experience offers both inspiration and practical outcomes. The trip confirmed for Vorva that she wants to work in community mapping, which communities use to determine how their resources are being managed. Thompson says she has been able to use this experience in conducting research and in thinking about the cultural conservation practices and conservation tools of indigenous peoples in America.

Here on campus in the classroom, Professor Miller says students are better understanding the complicated dynamics at play in environmental issues and the complicated decisions that result. This semester, in EA190, the senior seminar in environmental analysis, students assessed the amount of palm oil in food in Pomona’s dining halls. They came away from their study with the conclusion that other oils were just as bad as palm oil in terms of environmental consequences, which was a great takeaway that forced students to think and tie the local to the global, says Miller.

Professor of Theatre James Taylor, who went on the trip in January, notes the far-reaching impact of EnviroLab Asia’s work. “For me the most tangible evidence of impact on Pomona students has been the connections made between fellows and other students,” says Taylor, noting that non-fellow Jaya Jivika Rajani ’16 issued a popular petition calling for sustainable palm oil at The Claremont Colleges.

“Students are coming to places like Claremont because, in good measure, they want to understand how to repair a broken world. They are interested in their role in this process, the tools they need to figure it out and the insights they have to live as global citizens. EnviroLab Asia gives them these things. It has been an extraordinary year of exploration and interrogation,” says Miller.