Tag Archives: Conservation

Consuming Conservation in the Age of Instagram

by Meghan Downes

Media and popular culture both shape and reflect our everyday ‘commonsense’ ideas about the natural environment. Stories that circulate about the value and vulnerability of the environment offer a window into popular perceptions, as well as a potential medium for transforming such perceptions. Social media is no exception, and in this post, I reflect on changing relationships between young people and the natural environment in Indonesia, as mediated through the popular photo-sharing app, Instagram.

My current research focuses primarily on the mega-city of Jakarta and how urban environmental problems and solutions are represented in popular film and fiction. For this blog post, however, I explore a slightly different but closely related topic: the growing popularity of dedicated ‘nature tourism’ spaces outside the city, spaces where urban youth congregate to appreciate (and often more importantly, to photograph) the natural environment.
I visited several such places during a recent trip to Indonesia. The pictures I include here are from around the area of Batu in East Java, where over the past few years the local government has begun to capitalize on growing environmental awareness, and also growing demand for exciting Instagram opportunities, by building various new photo-friendly mountain parks.

 

At ‘Taman Langit’ (Sky Garden), visitors can pose with animal statues, recline on grass-covered beds or in giant birds’ nests, and are reminded to put their rubbish in the novelty ‘Tempat Sampah Tampan’ (Beautiful Bins).

The nearby ‘Omah Kayu’ (Tree Houses) area features tire swings, hammocks and a range of wooden platforms and tree houses. Most of these have a ‘maximum 5 minutes’ rule: just enough time to get some killer photos and then move along. The path between the trees is peppered with environmental messages and Indonesian translations of quotes such as ‘Only when the last tree has been felled and the last spring ceased to flow, only then will humans realize that we cannot eat or drink money’ and ‘We do not inherit this earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our grandchildren.’

Another popular spot, ‘Goa Pinus’ (Pine Cave), has viewing platforms in various fun designs jutting out over the valley below. This area also features a collection of so-called ‘Papuan houses’: small, thatched huts that – given the (problematic) popular public discourses surrounding Indonesia’s Eastern-most province – are perhaps intended to represent a kind of ‘primitive’ affinity with nature.

There are often performative nationalist elements to the kind of ‘environmental tourism’ being enjoyed in these parks, with the Indonesian flag making a frequent appearance.

Yet what is most striking is the way that, across all of these sites, the natural environment is packaged first and foremost as an Instagram opportunity. The platforms and paths and statues and props have all been designed with the primary purpose of facilitating great selfies. Scattered around the parks are signs that suggest the appropriate hash-tags to use when posting online: #tamanlangit, #omahkayu, #goapinus, #gunungbanyak, #paralayangbatu, and so on. If you browse these tags on Instagram, you will find thousands of images.

So, what are the implications of nature being framed (often literally!) as an object for fleeting consumption, by a mainly urban middle-class audience? Is the kind of environmental engagement facilitated by applications such as Instagram destined to be superficial and narcissistic? Or, is there potential for deeper engagement with conservation ideas and practices? These questions lead to other related points, including the issue of class. Local farmers in the areas surrounding these parks are facing imminent damaging effects of global climate change on crop cycles, and meanwhile, for visitors, the leisure-activity of ‘nature appreciation’ becomes merely a symbol of urban middle-class identity.

However, while it is easy enough to write off Instagram engagement as superficial, the reality is more complex. As part of my broader research, I discussed environmental issues with a broad selection of young Indonesians, who are often quite critical of what is going in and around their Instagram feeds. During these conversations, several people raised the issue of economic inequality and expressed concern over what will happen to the profits from entry fees for these new parks: Will the profits go to the local people? Will they fund conservation projects? Or will they simply line the pockets of government officials? Others expressed frustration over the lack of waste disposal infrastructure in their daily lives: Why should rubbish bins simply be a novelty item in a tourist park, while littering remains the norm upon returning home?

As is the case with any form of communication, the kinds of stories that circulate in and around social media applications like Instagram are many and varied, and ultimately depend on the concerns of users. This is one of the reasons why social media, and popular culture in general, can be such a rich entry point into understanding how people interact with natural and built environments. Far more so than education curriculum or scientific research, popular culture strongly shapes and informs our everyday understandings about environmental problems and solutions. Not just in Indonesia, but globally, governments are often just as likely to respond to populist perceptions as they are to in-depth policy research. Therefore, although this blog post may seem a relatively fun and colorful topic, I also suggest that it is in fact very important to examine how these everyday ideas about the environment are produced, consumed, and mediated through various platforms in order to better understand the complex and evolving relationship between nature and society.


Meghan is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow affiliated with the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at ARI. She was awarded her PhD from the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. Her current research looks at youth engagement with the natural environment and environmental problems in Indonesia.

Mediating Heritage Conservation and Urban Development in Contemporary Malaysia

What are the issues surrounding the conservation of urban heritage in Malaysia’s rapidly urbanising cities? This is the seemingly simple question that I set out to explore in my current postdoctoral work at ARI, focusing primarily on the UNESCO World Heritage City of Penang. However, the more that I thought about this question, and began some preliminary research, it quickly became evident that there is more to the question than I initially thought.
I first set out to focus on cultural heritage, as this seemed to be at the core of disputes surrounding redevelopment and urban regeneration in the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site of Penang.  However, I soon realised that the ongoing conservation efforts in Penang, and concerns about urban (re)development are about more than just the island’s cultural heritage. Rather, the concepts of cultural and natural heritage, which have been largely kept apart both in academic studies on heritage conservation, and UNESCO’s distinction between Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites, are both deeply intertwined. This is particularly true in South/East Asian cities like Singapore, Penang, and Hong Kong, which have an abundance of both cultural and natural attributes that create attachment to place amongst locals and visitors alike. As Jenkins and King (2010: 48) have noted: “recently there has been an emergence of conservation awareness and the realisation among some local groups of the importance of their urban heritage for the general well-being of their environment”.

The importance of both natural and cultural heritage to Penang’s inhabitants have become particularly discernible with the announcement of the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). Penang’s civil society organisations, most notably the Penang Forum, which subsequently released its detailed critique of the Plan, encapsulated by the slogan Better, Cheaper, Faster. This document critically evaluates the perceived social, economic and environmental unsustainability of the PTMP, while offering a revised plan that would be better, cheaper and faster. Amongst the numerous areas of concern, particular issues are related to the proposed LRT system, which would pose both aesthetic and physical threats to the heritage landscape of George Town. In addition, the proposed undersea tunnel linking Penang Island with Peninsular Malaysia, and the substantial land reclamation required to finance the project, have posed additional environmental concerns.

Various components of the Proposed Penang Transport Master Plan Development, including reclaimed islands in yellow at the south of Penang Island.
Various components of the Proposed Penang Transport Master Plan Development, including reclaimed islands in yellow at the south of Penang Island.

Perhaps surprisingly, land reclamation is a recurrent theme in heritage controversies in South/East Asian Cities. Singapore, Melaka, Penang and Hong Kong have all experienced substantial land reclamation, which has been hotly contested by local civil society organisations. In Hong Kong, land reclamation emerged for two reasons: first, given the island’s limited amount of developable land and the high population; and second, the State’s dependence on it as a revenue stream, particularly in the 1980s (see Lu, 2009). This situation is similar to Penang, which receives a limited budget from the Malaysian federal government and thus relies on the unsustainable income stream of land sale to corporate land developers. Since the State Government has now sold most of its remaining land, it now must reclaim additional land, which will mostly be used for the development of high rise luxury condos, hotels and cruise ship terminals. Penang has now also been digging into its forested hillsides for condo development, which has caused landslides, and sinkholes under the nearby roads and properties due to the changing water table. The reclamation of land in these cities is also dialectically related to heritage conservation, because the local governments have sought to overcome heritage-related constraints on development (i.e. UNESCO zones in George Town and Melaka) by reclaiming land to ‘take the pressure off the historical parts of the city’ (King, 2016: 153).

For instance, in Melaka, the State Government’s focus on megadevelopment and tourism revenue has resulted in the destruction of the city’s harbour and waterfront area – which is arguably its historic raison d’être – only to be replaced by a large swathe of reclaimed land (see King, 2016: 151; Cartier, 1998). This reclaimed land has been used primarily for high-rise buildings, hotels, shopping malls, and some semi-detached housing. Despite the failure of the Pulau Melaka development (Melaka Island – constructed of reclaimed land), work is currently underway to reclaim even more land along the Melaka coast, known as Melaka Gateway. This development would envelop the Pulau Melaka development, in order to rid the State Government of the white elephant that it has created since its completion, over ten years ago. Such developments pose not only environmental consequences for the region, but also social issues, particularly for the Kristang (hybrid Malaccan/Portuguese) community and their sea-based livelihood, as their “coastal location has been transformed into an inland one” (King, 2016: 153).

Pulau Melaka (vision)
Developer’s vision of Pulau Melaka…
Reality of Pulau Melaka
Reality of Pulau Melaka – a ‘ghost island’. Will the same happen with the Melaka Gateway Project?

Of course, the dynamics between government, civil society and other stakeholders is also a central component of this research. Penang has been credited with having a more vibrant and successful civil society community than other Malaysian – and, indeed, Asian – cities. The success of heritage preservation there has been credited to the “interplay of fight and talk” between the government and civil society (ibid). Yet, the relationship is far from perfect. For instance, a Penang Forum Member recently wrote a letter to UNESCO, highlighting the considerable impact that the proposed PTMP plan would have on the heritage value of the city. In response, the Chief Minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng said the letter was “like a stab in the back”, given that the author of the letter is an elected MP in Penang. Lim explained that the PTMP is “crucial, a life changer that can affect every citizen in the state, and will provide for the economic prosperity of Penang until 2050” (ibid). These comments are evocative of the attitude of the Malaysian government’s narrow focus on (capital D) development as the way forward for Malaysia. It also highlights the extent to which constructive criticism on behalf of civil society, and other stakeholders is (not) valued by the government. As Jenkins and King (2010: 46) have lamented: “there appears to be confusion in the Municipal Council (Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang [MPPP]) as to what is meant by conservation as an integral part of development…just as there is a preoccupation with ‘the tallest, the biggest, the longest and the widest”.

If you are interested in discussing these issues further, I would encourage you to attend ARI’s upcoming seminar ‘The Natural Heritage and Environmental Costs of Penang’s Development’ by Dr Kam Suan Pheng, an activist/scholar, and a Penangite, who has been actively campaigning for the conservation of Penang’s urban heritage for a truly ‘Cleaner, Greener Penang’ (31 October, 2016). I will also be presenting a longer version of this post at the later ARI Workshop ‘Resilient Cities for Human Flourishing: Governing the Asia-Pacific Urban Transition in the Anthropocene’(March 2-3, 2017).

References and Further Reading
Cartier, C., 1998. Megadevelopment in Malaysia: From Heritage Landscapes to “Leisurescapes” in Melaka’s Tourism Sector. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 19, 151–76.

Jenkins, G., King, V.T., 2003. Heritage and development in a Malaysian city: George Town under threat? Indonesia and the Malay World 31, 44–57. doi:10.1080/13639810304441

Lu, T.L. 2009. Heritage Conservation in Post‐colonial Hong Kong. International Journal of Heritage Studies 15, 258–272. doi:10.1080/13527250902890969