On Earth Day this year, the UN issued this statement:
Ecosystems support all life on Earth. The healthier our ecosystems are, the healthier the planet—and its people. Restoring our damaged ecosystems will help to end poverty, combat climate change and prevent mass extinction. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which will officially launch with World Environment Day on 5 June this year, will help us stop, halt, and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and every ocean. But we will only succeed if everyone plays a part.
A total of 77% of Malaysia’s population now live in towns and cities, up from approximately 30% in the 1960s. Meanwhile, biodiversity—the diversity of all living things and their ecosystems—is an important indicator of environmental health, provider of local ecological services (e.g., flood mitigation), and a means to reconnect with nature. As Malaysia rapidly urbanizes, we will explore urban biodiversity as a nature-based solution for cities to be sustainable and resilient, in line with UNDP’s Signature Solutions and the 2020 Human Development Report (HDR). However, there remain gaps in our understanding of urban biodiversity and ecosystems: formal studies of nature in the city have been sporadic, and urban biodiversity remains largely data deficient. Furthermore, we do not know how evolving social norms and values—another priority of the 2020 HDR—have reframed the human-nature relationship in cities (or not).
Citizen science: An invitation to all
Through the Urban Biodiversity Challenge, which UNDP Malaysia is running in partnership with Sekitar Kita—kicking off in conjunction with the global City Nature Challenge this weekend—we aim to identify and map the plant and animal biodiversity in our cities, as well as deepen our understanding of community norms and values (attitudes, perceptions and actions) towards urban biodiversity. We are doing this through citizen science, inviting residents of Malaysian cities to be our eyes and ears, documenting plant and animal life in their homes, neighbourhoods and cities over the next couple of weeks.
1. If we crowdsource biodiversity data—that is, if the general public participates in reporting observations of plants and animals—to complement and interface with inputs from scientific expertise, we will be able to fill knowledge gaps in the presence and distribution of urban biodiversity, while developing interest in the subject matter through public participation.
2. If we explore urban landscapes through ethnography, we will be able to elucidate nuances of human-nature relationship, including emotions and sentiments towards biodiversity that are otherwise not consciously reported.
To commemorate this upcoming campaign, our intern Jia Chern has contributed an original reflection—a personal ethnography, if you will—on a rapidly changing corner of his neighbourhood. He explores emotions across time and space, pointing us towards very urgent realities and providing a vivid taste of what is to come in the Accelerator Lab’s Urban Biodiversity Challenge.
Don’t Deny the Dodo
By Teoh Jia Chern
In 2002, my brother and I crept over the wall, and peered into the forest behind our backyard. We saw a Dodo. We never told anyone, and today continue to hide it as our secret; if we never articulated it to the “big people” (adults), then no one could deny the Dodo, and perhaps we could somehow hold on to magical ways of being.
There is something profound for a small person to realise that nature changes: animals go extinct, rivers bend into concrete straights, and in 2017 the forest behind our backyard was razed/raised into a park. But this isn’t a story mourning loss, for we have never lost. It is about magical ways of being sprouting—unexpected—once again.
Waste: Nature as potential surplus
I’m trampling over tall nettles in rural Washington, struggling to keep up with Jack. Brushing off sticky thorns, I ask, “Ya’ll have lived here for decades, why hasn’t anyone just built a path?”.
Jack turns around, looks at me confused, then half-scoffs half-laughs, “This is the path.”
The park came with the “big people”—the land developer wanted to build “a quiet, elegant structure of two towers… that challenge the conventional expression of luxury.” Their logic was straightforward. This forest has been wasted land for decades, why hasn’t anyone just built an apartment?
For many years, the “big people” project was interrupted by local protests, but it finally went through after appeasing neighbourhood residents by funding a public park to “conserve” the forest. The public park would go on a city council-owned parcel of the forest behind my backyard.
What were the understandings of land, culture, and ownership being contested? “Waste” and “Surplus” appear in economics as opposites, but in practice, they have always been intertwined. There can be no surplus without first declaring an aesthetic, a lifestyle, a land, a skill, a forest, a peoples’ opinions, as waste.
Protesting humans were managed apart as the forest behind my backyard was managed into a park.
Parkland paths: Human and Nature as managing Human Nature
I’m chasing my dogs downhill through the forest behind my backyard, hopping over logs, stooping under broadleaf ferns, beating away vines. My dogs wriggle, skip, and move like magic—their wagging tails slip through my fingers in rebellious ecstasy.
To navigate the park, you follow a concrete path. The path is smooth to walk on; there are no logs to hop over, no ferns to climb under, no vines to beat away. Order is generated not solely by fences and concrete, but by plants.
Grass expresses, “You may sit here.”
Tightly packed hedges express, “Do not cross this point.”
Delicate flowers grown around a large tree express, “This tree is for viewing, not for climbing.”
Dirty humans climb fences and trees; they climb between the ambiguities of human-nature and human nature. Dogs here no longer wriggle, skip, nor move like magic—they are bound to leashes and their waste must not to be seen.
Nature changes (or A Change of Nature)
As construction began in 2014, a snake crept over the wall, peered into the house behind its backyard, and poisoned my dog in a fight.
I walk to the far edge of the park, and manicured plants break down into chaotic detritus. But what is left of the forest retorts in sudden choral hum [sound clip], “I am not chaotic waste; you have just not yet learnt to listen.”
I step off the concrete path to listen, and I spook a monitor lizard. It creeps under the wall of my backyard behind the forest. Its tail flicks and slithers, beckoning a small person to find the Dodo that has always been there.