Female researchers in field of tropical peatland: Perseverance, grit, resilience

Dr Lulie together with her peat troopers carrying fieldwork in peat swap forests.

By Karen Bong

KUCHING, Oct 26: It is vital to raise the visibility of female role models for researchers in the field of tropical peatland that tend to be male-dominated to inspire and encourage women to step off the beaten path and pursue a career that is very physically and mentally challenging.

Sarawak Tropical Peat Research Institute (Tropi) director Dr Lulie Melling shared that the road to excellence and achieving success, particularly in fields that were once the exclusive domain of men, is a long one that requires more than just passion.

It takes perseverance, grit and resilience as women, even in the most gender equal countries in the world, still face great hurdles due to gender biases, institutional barriers and negative stereotypes they have long had to contend with.

“The challenges in carrying out tropical peatland research involve the anguish of walking on wet, porous, uneven surface, tree roots and buttresses, crossing rivers infested with crocodiles, wading through flooded forest to reach study sites, getting wet all day and facing heat exhaustion.

“Fieldwork in tropical peatlands is not for the faint-hearted as it is demanding and challenging, both physically and mentally. But fieldwork in harsh environments is the inescapable heart of tropical peat research,” she said.

Dr Lulie wading through a flooded forest to reach a study site.

However, she pointed out, women face additional challenges that makes their gender such as modesty, menstruation, pressure to adhere to certain gender roles like cooking and washing in the field, risk of facing harassment, dealing with the politics of peatland science as well as childcare and safety while conducting field-based research.

“The major challenges are at the decision-making tables. To be present and welcome is step one. To be heard and respected would be the second,” she added.

Dr Lulie highlighted this in her keynote address titled ‘Women in Tropical Peatland Research’ at the ‘STI x Livelihood x Women — For the Sustainable Use of Peatland and Mangrove: Female Empowerment in Research and Practice’ webinar organised in conjunction with the Asean COSTI-80 recently.

Having pursued tropical peatland research for over 20 years, she is proud that female role models for researchers in tropical peatland have been acknowledged at Tropi.

Dr Lulie pointed out that she together with other female researchers have helped to break down gender stereotypes about women participating in field research in remote environments and demonstrated that women can be valuable contributors to scientific research findings as well as voices in broader debates about sustainability and responsible environmental management.

“What appeals to me most about tropical peatland research is the complexity and interconnectedness of all belowground processes, both abiotic and biotic. There is never a dull moment when studying the soil.

“It allows me to be outdoors to be one with nature, get my hands dirty, and still study science and answer complex environmental questions.”

A collage of photos showing Dr Lulie guiding her team in field and advisory work on tropical peatland.

But life is not all smooth sailing as Dr Lulie had encountered various obstructions including sabotage to pioneer in tropical peatland research.

“When you are able to prove your survival in doing the soil survey, you get obstructions which can be in the form of gender prejudice, being last to be selected and no choice given, and sabotage in budget, logistic, equipment, manpower, harssment and even character assassination.

“Through the difficulties and being women working in one of the most challenging environments out there, the swamp has also taught us lessons about our own resilience for survival,” she highlighted.

As the world advances, Dr Lulie said society must change its mindset and value the fundamental right to personal choice because respect and empowerment of women is an economic necessity for any nation.

She thus urged young female researchers in tropical peatland research to continue to inspire and nurture one another through collaborative networks.

“As your career develops, take care not to climb the ladder alone; instead pull other women with you.

“To move forward, the possible strategies to overcome gender-bias problems faced by women include the concept of partnership and teamwork regardless of whether the leader is a woman or a man, to work together with full participation from everyone and adopt the process of consultation and collective decision-making,” she added.

The challenging environment does not dampen the spirits of these young female researchers in tropical peatland research.

Tropical peatland research, Dr Lulie emphasised, is an exciting and new field, with plenty of future opportunities and endless career paths to choose from.

“In Malaysia and Indonesia, tropical peatland is one of the most important arable land that will generate the nation’s wealth.

“Once a no man’s land and considered as a wasteland, tropical peatland has been raising different levels of interest among different groups of people,” she shared.

Known as a problematic soil with marginal agriculture capability due to its high water table, low bulk density, high acidity and low fertility, Dr Lulie said tropical peatland is not only the last exploited land resource but least researched and understood soil type among tropical soils.

“As compared to temperate and boreal peat, tropical peatland research is a new research frontier. Tropical peatland suffered from “Cinderella Syndrome”, was unknown and therefore unloved.

“However, a managed peatland with compaction and water management can be turned into agriculture land, otherwise they become shrubland and at risk of peatland fire,” she added. — DayakDaily

A presentation slide showing a collage of photos of the beauty of tropical peat swamp forests where much of the research takes place.