Friday, February 01, 2008

Impressions Of Borneo

Photos Of Borneo ----------- The Borneo Project (Donate!)

Borneo - for most, perhaps, the name brings up nothing more than impressions of a vague, far-away and exotic place; others might associate it with headhunting tribes or wild orangutans.

For myself, I had memories of intriguing silhouettes on the horizon - massive jungle-clad spires rising from azure seas, cloaked in mist. Passing the island in transit from the Solomon Islands to Bali aboard a tall ship in my late teens, I resolved to return to Borneo.

In researching more about this fascinating place, I learned more of it's history and natural wonders. The world's oldest rain forest, rapidly being destroyed; incomparable scuba diving and snorkeling; local peoples whose traditions still could be experienced first-hand, yet are rapidly changing; and the chance to see rare wildlife such as the Orang-Utan.

Lately, too, I had read much about the impact of palm plantations on the destruction of rain forest in this part of the world. In the media, this destruction has been linked to the rapid growth of the biodiesel industry - calling into question the very notion that biofuels will help our societies transition to a more environmentally responsible future. As an advocate of a sustainable biodiesel, I wanted to see and understand the impacts first-hand.

A few weeks before the winter holidays, my wife and I discussed possible vacation destinations. At one point we asked each other where it was that we most wanted to travel to, regardless of the practicality. Borneo came to mind, and on a lark almost, we looked into airfares and cost. Surprisingly, we found that if we flew on Christmas day, we could get a really good airfare. So, with only 10 or 12 days to go, we booked our flights and feverishly prepared to fly halfway around the world.

What we found was perhaps one of the most active frontiers between wilderness and traditional cultures, and the modern industrial world. As with so much of this tension, much of this revolves around questions of energy, so I wanted to write a bit in my blog about what we observed.

First, allow me to situate Borneo in some context. Borneo is the third largest island in the world, larger than Texas, and is shared (not always peacefully) but Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. We visited the Malaysian part of Borneo, consisting of the states of Sabah and Sarawak, running across the northwestern portion of the island; with the exception of the Sultanate of Brunei, which is a small and wealthy pocket between the two states.

The interior of Borneo is the very definition of rugged. Never having been glaciated, the landforms are quite dramatic. The rain forest is home to many dangerous animals and even plants - including a tree who's sap can kill a man in minutes if it so much as touches a small open wound. Just moving through the forest is exhausting - even on a trail. The thin soil barely covers the uneven and razor-sharp limestone geology. Even on flat ground the pockmarked terrain conspires with thick tree roots that criss-cross the ground to create a forest floor seemingly designed to trip and twist the ankle of the unwary. The lowlands are largely submerged in a foot or two of tea-colored swamp, and are home to several different flavors of leech which inevitably attach themselves to inconvenient areas of the body. Massive walls of limestone rise at a punishing angles from the lowlands, creating ridgelines that are extremely difficult to traverse. A jungle trek in Borneo, even today, is an adventure.

This kept colonizers - first Indian Rajahs, then the English "white Rajas" - marginalized in their real control of the territory to the coasts. Many of the indigenous Dayak peoples that live in Borneo only had regular contact with the outside world (primarily missionaries) starting in the 50's. Headhunting was a regular activity of these peoples up until World War Two at least, with many invading Japanese soldiers losing their heads to traditional, barefooted warriors armed only with machetes and blowpipes (and it should be noted, many groups were systematically slaughtered by the Japanese in retribution). We met elders who had fought and taken heads as young men, and had the tattoos to prove it.

Because Borneo is so rugged, until recently all travel was on the river systems (river travel is still by far the easiest way to get around) and almost all of the peoples lived their lives on the rivers and forests immediately adjacent. As could be expected, the rain forest is a rather inhospitable place for outsiders wishing to exploit the resources. In contrast, for the indigenous peoples, the forest is their traditional supermarket, pharmacy, hardware store and lumber yard. Our guide, of Iban extraction, showed us dozens of unremarkable looking plants just off the trail, each of which had numerous uses. The semi-nomadic Dayak have lived in these forests for many centuries (at least) and their traditional culture is exquisitely intertwined with it. Our guide lives in an apartment, spends a lot of time of his cell phone, promptly answers his email, and flies between cities to meet his clients. Yet, as a youth, he learned to make fifty different kinds of traps and to hunt with a blowpipe. He estimates that he could survive for at least a month in jungle if he was dropped into it with nothing but the clothes on this back.

Nonetheless, exploitation of the forests has proceeded apace since the 1960's or so; beginning with logging of tropical hardwoods. The lowlands have been drained to allow access for bulldozers, lumber trucks and a massive amount of inexpensive labor (largely Indonesian workers). A lot of this logging is now on the third or fourth pass over the more accessible areas, with smaller and smaller trees being taken out. Now that the economically extractable timber is dwindling, much land is being cleared outright, primarily for palm oil plantations.

These plantations form the backbone of a tropical oleo-economy that may be as economically and ecologically significant as the corn and soy agricultural economy of North America.

Those of you that follow the debates over biofuels are no doubt familiar with palm oil. This crop produces very high yields of oil from its fruits. It is farmed as a monoculture, with oil extracted using industrial-scale processes to yield a wide variety of products ranging from edible oils to chemical feedstocks.

What most people seem unaware of, with all the hand-wringing about biofuels is that even without the influence of biodiesel, the spread of oil palm plantations seems inevitable.

Palm oil is a crucial source of cheap calories throughout the tropical developing world. Almost all fried food in Southeast Asia and India is cooked in palm oil, and proprietors of roadside stands and small restaurants thrive or fail by the market price of this commodity. The Malaysian Palm Oil Council indicates that 90% of palm oil is consumed as food, with the remaining portion used in non-food applications (including biodiesel). This is worth repeating - at present, less than 10% of the palm oil produced globally is used to make biodiesel. The vast majority is consumed.

While we were in Borneo, Malaysia was in a several day uproar over a rumor of palm oil rationing; of course, Malaysia is one of the largest producers of palm oil, but the export market had apparently squeezed domestic supply. Palm oil derived chemicals are found in many every day products like shampoo, cosmetics, and processed foods. Palm oil has even been proposed as (irony alert) an "environmentally sensitive" drilling fluid for deep-sea petroleum exploration .

However, that said, the demand for high-yield oil crops to serve biodiesel demand - predominately from Europe - has lead to something of a gold rush mentality among palm oil plantation owners, who are enthusiastically clearing land in preparation for exponentially increasing demand; it takes nearly 3 years from the time a plantation is put in until the point the palms bear the oil-rich fruit. The increasing demand for palm oil and lag time until the plantations bear inevitably leads to boom and bust cycles. The current high price of palm oil fuels two contentious debates with regards to bio-based energy - global warming impact (from forest clearing) and the food vs. fuel controversy.

Recently, the European Union proposed a sustainability certification scheme that would preclude the use of most palm-oil based biodiesel. This seems prudent and wise, but to date, is only a proposal.

So now to the situation on the ground, by air. As I noted, until recently, the only practical way to get around Borneo was by river. However, this is no longer the case. Malaysian Borneo is now served by an excellent and affordable network of airlines, mostly flying Airbus A300's on longer routes to the bigger airports, and twin-engine turboprops (Twin Otters and Fokker 50's) to the smaller destinations. Our experience with air travel in Malaysia is that it matches or exceeds one's experience in the US, both in terms of cost and comfort.

It is also an excellent opportunity to see the lay of the land. In many places, what you observe is oil palm plantations as far as the eye can see. The vastness of this is hard to overstate. One can see huge areas cleared to bare soil, with neat grids of access roads, ready to to be planted; and similarly, undulating rows of palms in various states of maturity, often surrounding isolated islands of jungle atop inaccessible spires.

On the ground, the experience is repeated. Driving from the airport in Tawau to the dive spot gateway of Semporna, about an hour away, one sees virtually nothing but these plantations. It is a sobering experience to think of the biodiversity that has been annihilated by these massive developments.

It is also difficult to overstate the impact on the Dayak both by the plantations and the logging. Many Dayak have moved to the cities and live very modern lives, and especially some Iban groups do enjoy political power and influence. Thus, there are certainly some cases where the indigenous groups have benefited economically - at least in the short term - by these activities. By and large, however, the lions share of the economic benefit has gone directly to the largely Chinese companies which run the logging operations and plantations, and indirectly to the mainland Malay who enable this exploitation from a political perspective. Most of the labor, as mentioned, is imported from Indonesia.

We visited a longhouse as part of a backpacking trip in Mulu park. This longhouse is a traditional structure where an entire village lives under one roof. In practice, this is essentially an enormous low-rise apartment building with a large common veranda in front.

The people of this longhouse still make much of their livelihood from the forest. The tourists that visit come to see the protected areas of the national park that abut these communities, even while some of the same people involved in the tourism trade illegally hunt wild boar inside the park boundaries (as they have for hundreds of years). One of the main cash trade activities is gathering wild fruit, particularly durian, from the jungle; as wild-harvested durian is considered to be the best of this sought-after delicacy and commands a high price in urban markets. The people who live in the longhouses still look to the forest, in short, for food, medicine, and building materials.

Thus, many logging concessions have met with significant protest by the indigeous people, including road blockades met with government violence. We spoke to one park guide who had been active in such a movement in his home village, who had been imprisoned and beaten. In turn, he and his compatriots fashioned handcuffs from sharp-edged jungle leaves and built a jail with walls of poisonous thorns, and informed the police that unauthorized incursions on their territory from them or any loggers would be similarly met with imprisonment.

In the end, such confrontation is only a delaying tactic, and this guide recognized that the only way to preserve the forest, is for the forest to produce economic activity for his village. Otherwise, there is temptation to fall prey to divide-and-conquer tactics on the part of the logging companies like substantial payoffs to prominent individuals to allow logging and plantations.

While one solution is official government protection of the lands, Malaysia has at times resorted to fairly heavy-handed tactics in the establishment of these national parks. For instance, on the outskirts of Mulu park there is a Penan "settlement" where the primary activity is sales of handicrafts (trinkets really) to tourists. The Penan are not there by choice. As a semi-nomadic people with a hunter-gatherer culture that has changed little since the Stone Age, they were judged by the government to not be compatible with the establishment of a national park and were enticed (or forced) from their traditional lands about 15 years ago. They were told to choose between being Muslim or Christian, the government built homes, a church (they chose Christian mostly because being Muslim would preclude them from hunting forest game), and a school and have tried to teach them to practice agriculture. They were the most economically and culturally depressed people that we met in Borneo.

Without a doubt, this sort of thing has lead to undeniable ethnic tensions in Borneo. Malaysia advertises and prides itself on being a multi-ethnic and harmonious state, but in practice relations seem strained at best. We met a ethnic Chinese taxi driver who told us not to trust any ethic Malays (as we would be ripped off); Malays who were horrified that we would hire an ethnic Chinese taxi driver (as we would be ripped off); and indigenous people who had no love lost for either group, or migrant Indonesian workers, and were deeply concerned about ethnic tensions and resource exploitation exploding into outright sectarian violence (as has occurred periodically in Indonesia). The ironic thing of course is that we were treated fantastically by everyone we met of every ethnicity; although of course, as Americans traveling in a majority-Muslim country, we were often offered direct opinions and confrontational questions about our government's foreign policies.

Even as the indigenous people fight to preserve and to have access to their traditional lands, it should be recognized that the tide of modernization is not, on the whole, leaving them behind. It was no coincidence that at the longhouse, we saw few men of working age; mostly old people, children, and some young women with families. One of the activities we participated in the longhouse was a presentation and participation in traditional music and dancing. During this, one of the few young indigenous men around was taking pictures of the dancing with his digital camera - he was clearly home on a break. We met a large number of youngsters that spoke flawless English and were getting ready for their big exams to get into secondary school and then, they hoped, into university. The interior of the apartments we saw were heavy with photos of graduates in caps and gowns; the resident's children and grandchildren. The longhouse itself - though poor by first world standards - had electricity, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and satellite TV in many apartments. The level of material wealth present - compared, for instance, to rural Africa - was very high.

That Malaysia - even in these outlying areas - is not a poor country comes back to the theme of this blog once again. The petroleum industry in Malaysia is the engine. The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpar are one of the most impressive man-made sights I have ever seen in my life. These edifices were not built on palm oil profits, obviously.

Malaysia's "asian tiger" status is largely a function of oil wealth. Their policies are leading to significant investment in education for its citizens, and economic diversification (towards the semiconductor industry for instance) which is wise. However, there is a clear sense of striving towards ever increasing material wealth that is already dramatically impacting the preservation of cultural diversity, as Malaysians of all ethnicities embrace a homogenized cultural mieleu, seemingly centered on American pop music, Japanese fashion, and the most impressive shopping malls one could imagine. It seemed to me that perhaps the most popular recreational activity for young Malaysians of any ethnicity is to spend the day packed like sardines into a "cybercafe" where they play games (Counterstrike, Grand Theft Auto, and World of Warcraft seemed popular), IM, and watch YouTube. At about $1 per hour to enjoy air-con, entertainment, and socializing it is indeed a good value.

It is, frankly, an open question whether the rain forest of Borneo can be meaningfully preserved in the face of this dynamic. Hand in hand with this, preservation of traditional cultural knowledge is in question; of course, the Dayak of Borneo have and will continue to adapt their cultural response to circumstances. It is likely, as in other circumstances, that the young Dayak will realize that their cultural heritage is fading and will work to reconstitute their traditions and identities. Still, inevitably much will be lost - especially if the forest is destroyed.

Again, from the perspective of this blog, the question is whether renewable energy is working as a constructive and destructive force. For the Dayak that have installed micro-hydro run of river systems and now enjoy electrification, this serves to strengthen their local economy and this in turn helps them preserve the forest. Conversely, if the West sources it's biofuel feedstock from palm oil, Borneo's transformation may be irreversible and complete. In this case, the fate of the Dayak may follow that of other indigenous groups who's values, lifestyle, and location are not compatible with massive resource exploitation.

Let us hope that this does not come to pass.

As a closing note, I can recommend The Borneo Project as a group that is doing great to help the various groups in Borneo achieve sustainable economic activity and thereby preserve the rain forest. Please donate (link at top).