A tropical fieldwork adventure: data collection in and around Sarawak, Malaysia

This blog article is written by Sarah Cook, a third year PhD student based in the Geography Department at the University of Leicester. Her research looks at carbon losses in oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia. Here she tells us a bit about her fieldwork in Malaysia.

Tropical peat swamp forests (TPSF’s) are a valuable store of carbon and habitat for many rare and endangered species, including orangutans. Yet, conversion of it to other land-uses is common across Southeast Asia. More than 25% of TPSF’s are under oil palm, with expansion primarily driven by consumer needs for vegetable oil based products. Conversion requires drainage and deforestation, contributing heavily to both local and global greenhouse gas emissions. However, dependable carbon loss estimates from oil palm plantations on tropical peat are few, particularly with regards to carbon losses occurring in drainage waters. At present, this aquatic component remains largely overlooked but could represent a potentially hidden and important contributor to peatland plantation greenhouse gas emissions. My PhD research is focused at addressing this knowledge gap by investigating the losses of carbon in waters draining oil palm plantations established on tropical peat.

My research is based in the Malaysian province of Sarawak, in northern Borneo, where I spent the last year (on and off) living on an oil palm plantation, collecting field data. These are huge industrial plantations and cover an area of just under ten thousand hectares… and are pretty easy to get lost in!

oil palm estate
Part of the oil palm estate- with palm trees as far as the eye can see

My every day week involved driving around in my trusty 4 x 4, collecting water samples from drainage channels across the plantation landscape. I would then head back to the plantation base where I would filter my water samples (by hand) to remove any particulate carbon, leaving the dissolved fraction in the water which filtered through.

I also sampled from nearby stands of tropical peat swamp forest, which involved trekking into the forest on a weekly basis- trying to avoid spider webs, giant ants, mosquitos and tripping over giant tree roots. Other creatures to look out for included monitor lizards, who liked to swim in the drainage channels, crocodiles and pythons or ‘ular’ as the locals called them. Ular also liked to visit our plantation house where they would slide in through the drains in the shower area. Luckily I never encountered any whilst in there! We also got frequent visits from giant atlas beetles which would crawl into any shoes left unattended outside.  My fieldwork often attracted a lot of attention from the local plantation workers who were always intrigued to see what I was doing.

Water sampling and Atlas beetle
Collecting water samples and taking measurements (left) alongside a photo of an atlas beetle
Forest crossing and Danger sign
Crossing the plantation drain to get to the forest, but making sure to look out for crocodiles… AWAS (beware)!
group photo
Hanging out with the local plantation workers

Whilst out there I also witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of plantation conversion on the landscape, sampling from a newly converted plantation. However, I also managed to explore the local area, where I was lucky enough to visit several nearby longhouses and be welcomed in by the local community. I also got to try the local cuisine which included; nasi goreng (fried rice), nasi lemak (rice in coconut milk), ikan (fish), satay and my favourite-  roti canai (a kind of flat bread with curry sauce).

Overall, I hope this data will help to influence plantation management strategies on tropical peat, shifting the focus towards carbon conservation and the promotion of responsible peatland management. In the future I hope to continue working in peatland ecosystems and return again to Southeast Asia!

Terima Kasih Malaysia

Newly converted plantation
Newly converted plantation
Community and feast
Local longhouse community and a Malaysian feast



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