[Featured] People of ASEAN series is a segment where we introduce members of our diverse ASEAN community with their unique stories, perspectives, and most importantly their aspirations.

Q1) Please share an introduction of yourself. Share your career and background.

Dr Lee Jo Kien is the Lead Analyst of Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC) for the People for Peat (PFP) project. TRCRC is a Malaysian NGO focused on the conservation of endangered plant species with an emphasis on the dipterocarp family (tropical hardwoods that dominate Southeast Asian forests). PFP is a coalition comprising the World Resources Institute Indonesia, The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) and TRCRC – PFP are the implementers of the EU-funded Sustainable Management of Peatland and Haze Mitigation in ASEAN (SUPA) project spanning across 8 ASEAN countries.

He was formerly Project Manager (Restoration Planning) at TRCRC and was responsible for identifying, surveying, assessing, and planning forest restoration opportunities for degraded lands within the Central Forest Spine (CFS) landscape of Peninsular Malaysia.

Jo graduated from Monash University Malaysia with a Doctor of Philosophy in Science, BSc. Biotechnology (Hons), and BSc. Biotechnology. His doctoral thesis focused on the Sources of Carbon Dioxide on the Forest Floor of Mt. Kinabalu.

Q2) What do you do at work and what are the challenges you face?

TRCRC offers a flexible work arrangement – where we work from does not really matter as long as work gets done. Prior to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team flew regularly to different ASEAN countries to engage stakeholders. With border closures, the mode of engagement had gone digital with our Indonesian partners and other stakeholders.

I am an ardent supporter of sustainable land use which my work revolves around – that is, I do not see myself as an activist as much as an expert in a very narrow field of knowledge.

– Lee Jo Kien

As Lead Analyst, I review peatland literature to develop the team’s knowledge base. I actively keep abreast of sustainable peatland initiatives within the region that have a focus on alternative livelihoods and draw success stories from them. I also contribute scientific opinions, write content, engage stakeholders, author and edit technical documentations.

Like many other multi-stakeholder initiatives focusing on environmental conservation within ASEAN, there are challenges in securing buy-in from stakeholders with varying interests. In addition, mainstreaming “sustainability” has often been reduced to one-time, feel-good events focusing on visibility. Coupled with the long-time mistrust among state actors and environmental conservation NGOs in the region, the latter is also not regarded as (in some cases, rightfully) authoritative knowledge-based organizations that can partner with state actors to implement projects to deliver meaningful impact. Collaborations and trust-building activities would be vital in bridging this age-old chasm. There is much to be done – and done the right way – but very little who have the patience to go through the process, shoulder the risk of pioneering, or compromise on maximizing short-term profits.   

Q3) As an environmentalist, what are your perspectives of ASEAN’s effort in combating the problem?

I personally detest the term “environmentalist” because of the seeming connotation that being responsible for our environment is the work and interest of a specific subset of society – the “environmentalists”. We all live in the environment and use its services; environmental responsibility is a collective one – no exemptions. Passion, however, is optional.

I am an ardent supporter of sustainable land use which my work revolves around – that is, I do not see myself as an activist as much as an expert in a very narrow field of knowledge.

The “problem” faced by the environment is ridiculously multifaceted, occurs on multiple scales (local, national, regional, global) and hence, is complex to solve. In addition, other systemic issues include the unhelpful status quo, divergent priorities of key stakeholders, a lack of political will. There is a need for leaders (and citizens) that can think beyond the short term, who are willing to work on core issues like strengthening governance, improving transparency, and keeping education curricula relevant. We must think along generations, not election cycles.

Jo at the Paka helipad ~3000 m asl. This is a typical data-collection day trip for Jo, done once in every 2 months: Kinabalu Park HQ in the morning, data collection, lunch at Laban Rata, data collection, return via Mesilau route – the route usually takes about 12-16h. Between 2011-2012, he set up 4 stations along the mountain with the help of local guides, Courtesy of Lee

Before speaking on ASEAN, I believe each individual ASEAN country must work on getting its own house in order by pursuing institutional independence, establishing the rule of law, building a culture of meritocracy, and ending the region’s overall dismissive attitude toward young people. The establishment must stop perpetuating this status quo if ASEAN countries are to be allowed a chance to tap into the full potential of its youth to drive these nations forward.

Despite that, I believe that collectively, ASEAN has the capacity to cooperate and overcome specific issues that we are faced with – relentless economic pursuits at the expense of dwindling intact ecosystems that often benefit only a handful, weak environmental governance, a lack of environmental/ecological awareness and appreciation, a lack of integrated land-use planning between key agencies and organizations, and a dearth of consistent, meaningful, and practical transboundary cooperation between countries. ASEAN would benefit from external help, which it is getting in the form of grants, but the drive to truly improve environmental sustainability and land use management must still be championed from within the region. The youth must not just rely on state-led initiatives, but drive change via non-state actor movements from the grassroots.

Jo measuring soil respiration at Mesilau, an upper montane cloud forest on Mt. Kinabalu (c. 2011 @ 2000+ m asl), Courtesy of Lee

Q4) Why the keen focus on peat? How is peat of concern in Southeast Asia?

Forests cover 30% of the world’s land area; peatlands cover only 3%, but stores twice as much carbon as the world’s forests. Despite our small size, Southeast Asia is home to 56% of the world’s tropical peatlands. The annual haze experienced by Southeast Asia is largely caused by prolonged peat fires that originate from poor peatland management practices. Considering these factors along the looming backdrop of the climate crisis, improving peatland management in the region – despite lack-of-love and their little-known reputation – is a very strategic move that addresses multiple issues simultaneously.

Q5) Any ongoing or past collaboration projects in the region you would like to share? Were the end results desirable? If not, how did you overcome it?

People for Peat is TRCRC’s first venture out of Malaysia into the Southeast Asian region, so stay tuned to watch it unfold. Personally, I am confident of the team within TRCRC and our Indonesian partners in WRI and IDH. We hope to make the best of SUPA despite the ongoing pandemic.

Shortly after his first time summiting Low’s Peak in 2010; he later visited the peak another 5 times to take a break from field work, Courtesy of Lee

Q6) What does the future of ASEAN meant to you? 

ASEAN is young – with a population of over 600m and over a third of them (213m) between 15-34 years old – and does not show signs of slowing down. With such a large proportion of digital natives navigating the information age, it is my hope that this unparalleled access to information would enable ASEAN to become the new cradle of world-changing movements and enterprises for good – environmental and economic sustainability, social equity and justice – if the youth would endure hardship and push to overcome existing barriers with dogged persistence, ASEAN can be leaders in these regards. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.

Q7) What keeps you going?

I am still alive; I should act like it.

Leave a Reply