Photo for UCLA alumna pushes back on...

Jenny Goldstein (Ph.D. 2016) studies the ways in which local people continue to live on and have a relationship with their land and environment in Indonesia.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Going to Central Kalimantan

"Most funding and attention go toward protecting the increasingly small sliver of what's left of our environment," said Jenny Goldstein, assistant professor in the Department of Global Development at Cornell University. "For many decades, communities in Indonesia have been mostly influenced by western scientists and have ignored environmental issues because they see empty land as lost space."

When Goldstein was completing her Ph.D. degree, she started learning Indonesian and conducting preliminary research on topics such as large-scale forestry and climate change.

"I grew interested in this idea of 'degraded land' that people were talking about, especially in Jakarta, as opposed to pristine landscapes worth conserving," Goldstein shared. "There was this leftover category that increasingly drew the attention of locals who felt that the land could be appropriated for other purposes despite its reputation for being unused or underused. I wanted to examine this category of degraded land as a discourse but also understand its practical functions."

The politics and conversations around degraded land led Goldstein to Central Kalimantan on Borneo, home to many oil palm plantations. Immediately, the landscape struck her as much more complicated and heterogenous than she had imagined.

Not Your Degraded Land

"It's clear this is not just some abandoned land," she said. Goldstein met people in the villages who consistently used the land such as building canals to drain certain areas to plant rice and actually living on the land. Through her research, she learned of the invisible, unacknowledged or undervalued ways in which people still have a close relationship with the land. For example, she encountered women planting an Indigenous strain of rice on top of the burned, pleated land where other types of rice would not grow as well.

Over time, she forged a network among the communities there and recognized that her research topic extended beyond the land itself, but weaved in concepts around food and agriculture, local subsistence and national politics.

She hopes to continue unpacking the idea of "degraded land" as "most of the Earth's surface has now been used and is affected by some sort of environmental dynamic."

She referenced the Mega Rice Project, which was a failed effort to turned degraded land into rice paddies launched by the Indonesian government in 1996. "These ideas have not died," she stated, noting that the government recently has announced two other similar projects even though the Mega Rice Project "was a huge disaster." She said many interventions to "repair the land" based on misconceived policies have ended up squeezing the land or compromising the livelihoods of local peoples. 

As an upcoming faculty fellow with the Cornell Center for Social Sciences, Goldstein is working on an upcoming book, tentatively titled Land of No Return: Indonesia's Development Out of Ruins, which will be a culmination of her research on the politics of peatland rehabilitation in Indonesia.

Fieldwork in the Future

Goldstein said she would love to see more students conduct research in Southeast Asia, which she found pivotal to her own learning experience at UCLA. As a masters and postdoctoral student in the geography department, many of her advisors were political ecologists who introduced her to research in the global tropics. Only after she learned the language and conducted fieldwork in Indonesia did she feel a sense of home there and grow personally and intellectually. 
"I'm also really interested in the intersection of human health and environment," Goldstein added. "I'm currently working on some research related to digital and data infrastructure and the impact of the digital world on material environments. It's a matter of figuring out how to ground that research."

"At the end of the day, I just want to go back to doing fieldwork!"

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Published: Friday, March 12, 2021