Meet … Jocelyne Sze

One of my earliest memories of being “in nature” was squelching about the mudflats of Chek Jawa with my cousins. Carol, the oldest of our generation on my maternal side, decided to bring her younger siblings and cousins to the Eastern corner of Pulau Ubin, a small island off the North East coast of Singapore, an island city state within the Malay Archipelago. She had heard about the “discovery” of Chek Jawa from her biology lecturers at the National University of Singapore, just as the area was slated for land reclamation.

We joined over a thousand other Singaporeans taking bumboats from the mainland to Ubin to see this last bit of nature before it was claimed for development. Being only 9 years old then, my memory of the event is scant, but I distinctly remember feeling something pinch my toes and screaming in fear and shock, while Carol anxiously hoped that it was not a venomous creature lest she had to answer to my parents. Happily enough, it was probably just a pinch by an annoyed and disturbed crab, though it might have contributed to me being a rather squeamish child growing up. The surprise outpouring of visitors to Chek Jawa before “it was gone” and hard work by dedicated people cataloguing its denizens resulted in an unprecedented reversal of government policy.

Thus was the view of nature and conservation that I experienced growing up in a rapidly urbanising Singapore, as an ethnic Chinese majority whose grandparents settled here. Nature was something out there, not where we lived, a relationship that might be starkly different to those of earlier generations who came as rubber tappers or tin miners, different as well to those with longer histories of making Singapore their home, where the mudflats were nurseries of nourishment and not merely a smelly, backward swamp. And nature was something that had to be sacrificed for economic growth and for development, out of the practical reality of surviving as a small island country.

Photo of the author on a mudflat in Singapore.
Jocelyne on a mudflat survey in 2013. Photo by C. Daumich.

For the rest of my next decade in Singapore, I heard and experienced the same discourse over and over; another shore where I had spent some of my late teenage years exploring and finding seahorses and sea stars during low tides was claimed for Resorts World Singapore in Sentosa. Even as recently as a few years ago, forests were being cleared for housing estates, actions rationalised as necessary sacrifices.

Photo of trees in the foreground and buildings in the background in Singapore.
Trees and buildings in Singapore.

Conservation to me, as I embarked on my undergraduate studies in Zoology, was an undeniable good. It sought to protect wildlife and natural places, animals and plants from encroaching urban development, shiny skyscrapers, and concrete cleanliness. It was not until 2018, during the Summer School on Degrowth and Environmental Justice at ICTA-UAB, that this simplistic view was problematised and I realised that conservation is not universally experienced as a good thing. In particular, the experiences of conservation by Indigenous peoples, a concept that is arguably alien in Singapore, struck me as unjust, and I began seeing conservation as linked with capitalism and colonialism through the lenses of political ecology.

My subsequent PhD at the School of Biosciences in the University of Sheffield thus sought to advocate for more just forms of conservation by using geospatial data and statistical matching methods to quantify conservation outcomes on Indigenous peoples’ lands (IPLs) across the tropics, relative to protected areas (PAs) and non-protected areas. I quantified deforestation and degradation rates within IPLs, PAs, the overlap of IPLs and PAs, and non-protected areas, finding that deforestation was reduced by 16.8-25.9% and degradation reduced by 9.1-18.4% on IPLs compared to non-protected areas across tropical regions.

My second chapter focused on forest landscape integrity index and anthromes as an indicator of long term human land-use intensity in these spaces, highlighting the overlap of IPLs and PAs as having the highest forest integrity and lowest land-use intensity. The last empirical chapter of my thesis identified Areas of Habitat for tropical forest-dependent amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles, quantifying the overlap of these species’ ranges with IPLs and comparing species richness, extinction vulnerability, and range-size rarity inside and outside IPLs. More than 75% of these vertebrates have ranges overlapping with IPLs, and slightly over half of tropical countries with IPLs have more species within IPLs than outside.

While these findings are broadly positive for conservation outcomes and support the case for greater Indigenous peoples’ autonomy and active/equal participation in conservation, they are also unsurprisingly variable between tropical regions and countries. They also come with several caveats such as having to take the available data as they were despite being their shortcomings, making it clear that even when intentions are “good”, data come with their own sets of assumptions and potential issues. Who constructed these data? How they are assembled? What issues are highlighted or invisibilised through the process of construction? These are questions that matter even when, or especially when, they are used downstream by academics and researchers with the potential to influence policy-making.

As “data-driven” processes—through privileged uses of extensive/expensive computational power, echoing colonial regimes—come to dominate international conservation policy-making, my research now within CONDJUST intends to focus on the use of geospatial data in conservation through data justice lenses. While the first piece of work I hope to come out of this project will be a thorough examination of commonly used geospatial data products in conservation and their strengths and shortcomings, I eventually hope to collaborate with others of a similar position to produce data layers that might help mitigate some of these concerns.

Photo of forest in Singapore
Macritchie Nature Reserve, one of four nature reserves in Singapore.

I have come quite a long way, both physically and intellectually, from being that girl wandering around the muddy/rocky shores of Singapore seeking to document life forms before they disappear under concrete towers and subsumed within A City In A Garden. But I still identify as a conservationist and recognise that by and large, most conservationists want to do good. While conservation courses may still lack adequate attention to justice and ethical concerns for the people who inhabit the spaces that conservationists want to save, often times inadvertently propagating neo-colonial mindsets, there is, I would like to think, a desire within the conservation movement towards just conservation. Amidst the current drive to make use of the increasing availability of geospatial data for conservation (planning and evaluation), it is critically important to remember that data are not objective but still part of human social systems. Indeed, there is so much to learn from the field of data justice and I am very excited to join the CONDJUST team and explore how we can make use of geospatial data in conservation in just and effective ways.