Dr. Kasturi Devi Kanniah is used to looking at things from afar.
The first time she heard about remote sensing – using technology to observe the Earth’s surface – was during her undergraduate days in the 90s. Initially interested in reading law, Dr. Kasturi got a spot in geography instead and decided to pursue it.
“In my third year as a geography major, I heard about a new subject called remote sensing,” she said. "I was interested in its technology and how it was used for environmental studies.”
Dr. Kasturi hasn’t looked back since. Her research on remote sensing has taken her to Australia, Japan, the UK and USA. She is particularly interested in vegetation and atmospheric aerosols, which was the subject of her PhD research – how savannah vegetation in Australia can absorb carbon.
More recently, she has been looking at how changing forest canopies have impacted communities living close to the forest. It was through this work that Dr. Kasturi heard about Earthworm’s Kumacaya initiative – an independent monitoring system that helps businesses meet their commitments against deforestation and exploitation.
“I’d heard about Kumacaya through a colleague,” she said. “Initially, I was not keen because I thought they’d be biased towards certain industries. But I later realised that their intention was to monitor how deforestation in northern Johor was impacting native people.”
After an independent review, Dr. Kasturi and her university were contracted and preparations to monitor the area began. She began working with JAKOA (Department of Orang Asli Development) to understand which villages she should focus her efforts on. Orang asli – or ‘native people’ in Bahasa Malaysia – are the oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia. However, they are a group who struggle with poverty, political representation and access to social services like healthcare and education.
Focussing on eight orang asli villages in northern Johor, Dr. Kasturi and her team spent the next six months meeting with the villagers to understand how deforestation had affected their lives. The team also worked with the Department of Agriculture, Department of Forestry and forest rangers to get their perspectives.
“I remember we initially struggled with getting access to the villages, as is true for many of our projects around the world,” said Charlotte Goubin, Kumacaya programme manager. “It takes time and drinking a lot of coffee, as I like to say. It’s how you build trust with people.”
In the end, Dr. Kasturi and her team travelled to the eight villages, interviewing about 200 people. They also noticed that most orang asli from those villages lived in brick houses, as opposed to traditional wooden houses.
“Most of them said that large-scale deforestation had occurred 20 years ago,” she said. “But some told us that it was still happening as recently as three years ago. However, they didn’t know anything about who was responsible.”
The villagers’ main source of income is from oil palm or fruit trees, Dr. Kasturi said. As these communities aren’t as isolated as other orang asli villages, most go to the forest not for resources but because they are used to it.
“They told us that authorities had replanted trees in low-lying areas, instead of hilly areas,” she said. “This means that whenever there’s heavy rain, soil erodes and washes down into the river – reducing its depth. Shallower rivers mean less fish, which the orang asli depend on for food.”
Deforestation had also led to elephants and other animals entering their villages, Dr. Kasturi said. Water quality was another issue brought up, as people had been dumping waste into the river. However, villagers were unsure who was doing this.
“Hearing their problems first hand was special for me, as I often analyse data from far,” she said.
For a period of three months after the monitoring project, data collected is confidential for companies to take action on, Charlotte said.
“After this period, we encourage civil society to talk about the issues they found and look for solutions,” she said.