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Lights of Diversity September 5, 2012

Posted by Nazneen Uddin in Luce, Malaysia.
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As I sit on the monorail train heading to work, I gaze at the landscape around me: a multitude of glistening skyscrapers embedded against lush greenery and village homes.  In a span of two minutes, I spot a set of minarets hiding behind a turquoise dome, a red rooftop with gold ornamentation from a Buddhist temple, a pyramid-shaped tower of gods arising from a Hindu temple, and a white cross hanging atop a Gothic style church.

Eid prayer at National Mosque

I am distracted by the young woman in front of me wearing a beautiful red sari, speaking to her friend in Tamil.  I turn to my left, and see a mother speaking to her son in Mandarin, while on my right, I hear a woman in a pink headscarf speaking Malay on the phone.  When I reach my stop, I pass by a hawker stand and smell the aroma of fresh Naan, fried Chinese noodles, and an array of colorful Malay sweets.

As I try to grasp the richness of the diverse cultures of Malaysia, I head to a women’s crisis shelter to give a talk on prenatal care. I am humbled by the stories the victims of domestic violence share. One woman narrated that she was alone at home with her five-year-old son when she started having  contractions. She delivered the baby with the help of her son.  The umbilical cord was not cut until three hours later when the ambulance finally arrived. Luckily, she and her baby survived with no impact to their health.

As I walk home, I pass by an endless line of green lights in honor of the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset refraining from any food or drink. Stalls stud the streets, selling everything from fresh coconut water to chicken soup for the daily Pasar Raya, or Ramadan market.  People are flocking towards the market carrying bags of food home for their families as sunset nears.

Food market during Ramadan

Chinese New Year lights

Six months prior, I remember the same street had red lanterns in honor of Chinese New Year.  In Malaysia, every religion has its holiday honored, and open house invitations are sent; regardless of your faith, you are invited to homes to eat, exchange gifts, and celebrate  together.  Various shaped lights in an array of colors illuminate the streets for each festival – be it Diwali, Christmas, or Eid.  I reflect on the enormous diversity in America, and how much more enriching it would be if we adopted a similar culture of honoring each other. There is always another celebration and set of lights to look forward to, and has made living in Kuala Lumpur an exciting experience of exponential growth.

Mall decor at Christmas

Mall decor at Diwali

Interning with the Oceanic Society in Falalop, Ulithi Atoll, Micronesia August 14, 2012

Posted by katecrosman in Individual Fellowship, Micronesia.
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Kate Crosman

The off-island sites we visited by speedboat that afternoon were spectacular. Crystal clear water and sun-dappled corals created good habitat for reef dwellers. Stretches of healthy substrate invited baby corals to settle and thrive. And a diversity of fish, including mature grazers like parrotfish and surgeonfish, kept the algae, coral’s number one competitor for space on the reef, under control. There were still a few causes for concern, including a notable lack of large predators, but these reefs were a pleasure to sample. In contrast to the reef we had sampled that morning.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s always wonderful to get in the water. But our surveys from the beach on the leeward side of Falalop told a different story. We had awoken at 6:30 that morning and were in the water by 7; we knew we could record enough observations before breakfast at 8. Initial visual surveys had indicated that coral species diversity was low here, with a high proportion of low-profile juvenile (or “turf”) algae, and our official samples agreed. It makes surveys easier, but this is a sign of a reef in trouble. The fish guys attributed it to a dearth of grazing species, while the coral ecologists were concerned about nutrient loading from an up-current sewage outlet and dump site.

The islanders were just worried about the erosion of their home, the flattening of their reef, and the decline of their fish catch. As a remote coral atoll, Ulithi relies on its reef for its very existence. A healthy reef provides local communities with fish and invertebrates while protecting the coastline from storm surges that, unchecked, can prove devastating. Micronesia is at the front lines of climate change, and the impacts are impossible to ignore. Locals cite rising sea levels, rapid shoreline erosion, an increasingly saline water table, and less predictable seasonal weather patterns. But they are unable to address many of the root causes directly. The good news for Falalop was that the reef damage our team saw was not solely due to climate change. The local population seemed also to be having a major effect on reef health; there might be strategies they could use to reduce the total stress on the reef.

Kate at Galeb Cut (Photo: Michelle Paddack)

Interviews fleshed out the story, revealing a shift away from traditional reef management in the 1970s and 80s, when new technologies like fiberglass speedboats and small-mesh nets arrived on the islands. Fisheries that had been limited by season, distance or technology suddenly became accessible. Further stress came from the opening of an atoll-wide high school on Falalop, essentially doubling the island’s population for nine months of the year. Visiting students and their sponsors sometimes lacked close local ties or familiarity with local rules. Fisheries pressure ramped up, and over time catches consisted of fewer, smaller fish. Increased waste was another consequence of a larger population and a more Westernized lifestyle. The community members with whom we spoke uniformly recognized that problems existed and were eager to address them. They just lacked the knowledge of how to do so.

Inspired by the motivation and engagement of this community, the team compiled some recommendations. By redirecting fisheries pressure off the reef, judiciously limiting the use of certain fishing techniques, and/or instituting area closures and size restrictions, fisheries-related stress might be reduced, allowing the reef to begin to recover. Among ourselves we talked about seeking funds to pursue innovative waste disposal options and redirect the sewage line, in the hopes of addressing other causes of the damage we had observed. Ultimately, of course, it is up to the community of Falalop to decide what measures to take to manage their resources. But in our final community meeting, our explanations and ideas were met with penetrating questions, nods of understanding, and, above all, expressions of hope. I too am hopeful.

Falalop Community Meeting. (Photo: Michelle Paddack)

It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of this process, and I am deeply grateful to the International Institute for their support, without which this experience would not have been possible.