From Brisbane to Borneo

Four UQ Law students got a global perspective on environmental legal practice thanks to Future Law Sabah, New Colombo Plan funding and the UQ Pro Bono Centre.

A photograph of a monkey.

Mollie O’Connor

Over the summer, I and three other Law students had the opportunity to spend six weeks researching and studying with Future Law in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. During this transnational placement, I had the opportunity to conduct research into legal innovation and technology, a personal passion of mine. I also got the chance to see how a small not-for-profit legal startup, Future Law, operates in a south-east Asian country. In seminars with the founders of Future Law, Harry and Holly Jonas, I was exposed to political legal ecology, the myriad issues raised by palm oil, indigenous ecological frameworks and many other interesting concepts we aren't taught in law school.

In our spare time we also had the amazing opportunity to see the diverse rainforests of Borneo, and had encounters with orangutans, wild pigs, macaque monkeys and sunbears.

I couldn't imagine a better way to spend my summer holidays than exploring and studying in such a unique location, whilst also contributing towards the mission of a small legal organisation passionate about the environment. 

Lachlan Glaves

As we stepped out of the airport into the humid tropical air and drove through the small city of Kota Kinabalu – which was to be our home for the next six weeks – I was able to immediately appreciate that this course would be very different to the ones studied within the confines of the UQ Law School.

In the course of a month and a half, we interacted with indigenous communities, explored the depths of rich rainforest, met with leaders in the field of environmental activism and international human rights, and ultimately saw how law operates in practical setting and different jurisdiction. This was a fantastic opportunity to immerse ourselves in learnings away from textbooks and lectures and contribute to something real by producing research work that was to be used in creating a legal education institute in Sabah.

I have an interest both in law and environment, and with this placement have begun to understand that this concepts, and politics and society are all fundamentally intertwined and influence the other.

Loretta Benson

My time in Borneo was characterised by new people, new experiences and new ways of thinking.

I was pushed outside my comfort zone, and challenged to embrace every experience that came my way.

It is a trip I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in environmental sustainability, legal innovation and pursuing an international study experience.

Our first week in Sabah began with a jungle trek through Kinabalu national park, where we got to experience up close one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. From the leeches to the pineapples, the trees and the streams, we were never far from a captivating natural site, and the waterfall at the end of the path certainly made the seven-hour trek worthwhile.

Once exposed to the landscape in which we would spend six weeks, the real work began. Each of us focused our time on different areas of legal innovation, with my project centred on innovating how judicial capacity could be built.

This research allowed me to look beyond the borders of Sabah and Malaysia, and consider innovation happening across the world.

It was challenging and interesting work that will hopefully go on to help Future Law and Forever Sabah establish training programs that will equip the community to protect and preserve the Sabah ecosystem. 

While we worked hard during the work, the weekends were a chance to explore all Borneo had on offer. From seeing orangutans in the wild on the Kinabatangan River, to the nightlife of Kuching, Borneo always had something new and exciting to see. I definitely recommend bringing some boots and making the most of the truly amazing hiking and scenery on offer.

The six weeks I spent in Borneo was a great way to complete my final law elective, and it was made all the better by the other UQ students I got to share the journey with. I made new friends, created lasting memories and had a great time.

Bri Collins

Before undertaking the internship in Sabah, I would summarise the little I knew about Borneo’s environmental concerns to listeners with the two words ‘palm oil.’ But the problem, of course, has almost nothing to do with the commodity itself. Learning about the political landscape of Malaysia added another print to the unfolding pattern in my mind that trails of degradation can almost always be traced back to colonisation, capital gain and exploitation of traditional land owners by cultures which believe that it is not until the environment is cut down, chopped up and converted that it can constitute “wealth.” As an Australian, this is a familiar lesson. This “wealth” in Sabah looks like eight oversized and underutilised shopping malls in capital, Kota Kinabalu, a city that could not need more than one to serve its population. Compare an almost-empty Starbucks to the wonders of one of the most enchanting forests on earth, and the rich human cultures which call them home, and you have to scratch your head at our mainstream definitions of not only “wealth” but “development” and “progress” too.

The solution, just like the problem - we learned - is not simple.

We need to change the paradigm which demerits anything that cannot be quantified as serving the slave master we call “The Economy.” How? The pioneers at Future Law reminded us of ways in which we can go against the grain in our legal careers, and why we have a responsibility to do so. Our research, complemented by weekly descents into the jungle, informed that we can come up with ways to mould the law into a community tool, as opposed to a weapon for subjugation in favour of the rich. Above all, we learned that everything is political.

The law is not neutral, and by wielding it, we are by nature reconfirming the power of some and the marginalisation of others.

The result? We cannot act “neutrally” in our professional lives, and our privilege means we must not. Instead, we must learn our history, be bold, and pick our side. I am grateful to our six weeks in Borneo for contributing to my drive to explore the legal world and its potential as a force for transformative social change.