Students & Campus
15 May 2023

Taking Lessons Learned in Geneva to Research in Borneo

As a master candidate in the International Affairs programme, Jessica Katharine Merriman had the opportunity to partake in a life-changing experience in Borneo through her Applied Research Project (ARP).

Before coming to the Institute, I found that most master programmes I had considered were offering either a thesis requirement or a capstone project, but I wanted the opportunity to expand both my academic writing and project management skills. 

The Geneva Graduate Institute’s Master in International Affairs (now the Master in International and Development Studies) was one of the few programmes that offered both, providing me the flexibility to explore my academic and career interests simultaneously. It was the perfect fit! 

Coming from a global security and law background, I expected to continue on the same path when I arrived at the Institute. But, by chance, I took a course on “Conservation and Sustainable Development”, which fascinated me and ultimately changed the course of my life. 

I became increasingly interested in the connections and conflicts between nature conservation and Indigenous livelihoods. 

When I learned that one of the ARPs concerned an up-and-coming community-based conservation zone in Malaysian Borneo, I jumped at the chance to get involved and learn more. 

Our partner organisation, Bruno Manser Fonds (BMF), had spent over three decades working with Indigenous communities in Borneo, fighting against logging, environmental degradation, and discrimination; it was now lending its support to a community effort to establish a protected area. 

With financial help from BMF, in addition to some self-funding, my research partner and I traveled to the remote Borneo rainforest to conduct interviews with local Indigenous communities, to determine how the governance of the conservation area could best represent their interests and needs. Our fieldwork was challenging and rewarding, and it helped shape the next steps in establishing a representative, inclusive project management structure. 

During my research, I learned invaluable skills – from interviewing to project management to effective research methods – and expanded my worldview in ways I had never dreamt possible. 

This incredibly meaningful experience solidified my career interests and shaped my master’s thesis topic, which focuses on conflicts in agriculture and conservation goals. 

Now, over a year since my ARP began, I’m thrilled to be part of the BMF team as an intern, and I have had the chance to conduct my thesis fieldwork back in Borneo with their generous support. 

I’m on such a different path from the one I imagined when I began my time at the Institute and I couldn’t be more grateful for it!