Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Rightful Place for the Indigenous People in the Heart of Borneo

IT could well have been a plot from Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. Except that, instead of the African Congo, the clashes between the aboriginal inhabitants and timber tycoons were taking place in the Borneo jungles of South-east Asia.

And what an unequal clash of cultures that was breaking out in the 80s and 90s: the loggers, wielding chain-saws, unleashed bulldozers to to obliterate the heaths of the Penans and Dayaks while the natives had only bamboo poles and blow-pipes to square off with the invaders.

The protesters set up road blockades but they were charged by police called in by the government and the timber operators.

This saga of aborigines taking on capitalists in eastern Malaysia — and against migrant plantation operators as well in Indonesian Kalimantan province — was played out on the international stage when Swiss activist Bruno Manser took up the Penans’ cause.

The decades-long saga continues today with the Penans challenged to fit in within the new nations pressing ahead with a redrafted agenda described as sustainable development and conservation.

This comes in the wake of the Heart of Borneo (HOB) Initiative launched in 2007 by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, a new brand name for green economics that the world is taking notice.

Brand HOB covers 22 million hectares or 30 per cent of the Borneo forest territories traversing the three states which, it is said, will be managed on sound sustainable principles – a signal turnaround from decades of plunder and exploitation that threatened the survival and well-being of the indigenous peoples and the iconic orang utan, the last of Asian great apes.

For example, in Sabah, once dubbed the “wild east of Malaysia” for its free-wheeling timber logging operations and oil palm plantations, one million ha of its choicest forested lowlands — the natural habitat of the orang utan — had been transferred to plantations.

Its sister state, Sarawak, fared worst, having lost 90 per cent of its primary forests through extensive logging to meet world demand for hard-wood timber.

In Kalimantan, millions of acres of forest have been cleared by contract workers from other regions of Indonesia for commercial rubber and palm oil plantations.

The rapid loss of Borneo’s forest cover from run-away commercial exploitation has rung alarm bells even as the international community grapple with the threats of global warming.

For the Borneo forests host six per cent of the globe’s biodiversity, including the orang utan and the world’s largest flower, the Raffliesia.

It has been estimated that destruction of forests worldwide has contributed 15 to 25 per cent of man-made generation of greenhouse gases.

The HOB partner-countries have come round to seeing themselves as co-stewards of the forests reserves and acting to protect and preserve for future generations and the global community.

One key component of their new strategy is to recognise and resolve the demands and problems of their indigenous peoples, including customary land rights and culture.