Landed, II: Brunei

Not many Americans know where Brunei is. Or that it exists. At all. I didn’t either, and frankly I’m still surprised it’s real.

small, no?
small, no?
ah, that's better. I live at that northernmost point
ah, that’s better. I live at that northernmost point

It’s a tiny country with a population of around 400,000, and was the only Malay state in 1963 to choose to remain a British dependency rather than join the Malaysian Federation. The country is officially muslim, and activities like drug trafficking, illegally importing controlled substances (no booze for me), and, well hello Sharia law, homosexuality, carry a mandatory death penalty. Brunei became independent in 1984 and, thanks to its large reserves of oil and gas, now has one of the highest standards of living in the world.I’m one of two white women in a 10 km radius as far as I know. I’m here to figure out how a country whose entire economy and identity relies on the extraction of oil addresses issues of coral conservation – especially as the dive community grows on this small Malaysian peninsula.

it's cheaper to drink gas than water here, excluding subsequent medical costs. that joke doesn't even apply to Bruneians, who pay B$1 (US$.70) for any medical service. INCLUDING HEART SURGERY.
it’s cheaper to drink gas than water here, excluding subsequent medical costs.
that joke doesn’t even apply to Bruneians, who pay B$1 (US$.70) for any medical service. INCLUDING HEART SURGERY.

Brunei has one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world, thanks to revenue from natural resource extraction. Crude oil and natural gas production account for 70% of GDP and more than 90% of exports, with Japan and Korea as the primary export markets. This pool of funds transforms government regulation, welfare measures, and village tradition into a truly surreal landscape with rigs on the horizon. The government provides for all medical services and free education through the university level; the sultan subsidizes rice, houses, and cars. It has not, despite pumping oil from the ground like it’s 1967, developed its national infrastructure or diversified its markets.

But, whether or not Brunei’s public is informed about its own economy, their reserves (estimated at 1.1 billion bbl in 2014 and ranked 42nd globally) are running low and the government is beginning to look to other industries. Brunei is a founding member of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement negotiations as well as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and, with the nine other ASEAN members, formed the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015. I’ll be talking about these trade agreements as part of a multi-nation rebranding effort that, perhaps, focusses on regional trade priorities and changes the way SE Asian counries make decisions about conservation. Can all ASEAN countries promote themselves as an eco-tourist heaven?

the sultan's roof is LITERALLY made of 24k gold
the sultan’s roof is LITERALLY made of 24k gold

I’m going to try to piece together the relationship between Brunei’s oil revenue (and in many ways its national identity) and the recognition of anthropogenic climate change. What people are saying and what they’re doing, or, how those benefiting from resource extraction fix what they contribute to breaking. I’m investigating the techniques and politics of nationally-endorsed, large scale artificial reefs: wrecks. The Rigs-to-Reef program, specifically, converts expired oil rigs supports into artificial reefs. Pretty much everyone here works for Shell so I’m hoping it won’t be too hard to get some interviews.

killer sunsets by the office

The month and a half I’m here with serve three purposes: First, I’m working with Poni Divers as an Instructor to gain better mastery of the craft and see how a dive shop operates in this climate; instructors are, if very strongly believe, the stewards of the marine world. Second, I’m researching my questions about conservation and industry. Finally, I’m taking some time to look ahead and figure out where I need to be, to write (seriously, I’m sorry about the lax blogging), and to be somewhere truly new.

the view from Poni Divers
the view from Poni Divers

On a personal note:

It’s strange to feel like such a minority. Felt funny to get defensive about the United States earlier today. But it’s growing on me, the alienation – the isolation, too, of being stuck without transport. I was only going to stay for two weeks, but I think there’s more to say here.

a horizon of oil rigs

I’m going to write a screenplay for The Taking of the Pelham Number Two about how hard it is to poop on high speed trains.

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