There’s a book I’ve been recommended more times than I can remember. It’s called Stranger In the Forest, and is (apparently) an absorbing and accurate account of a truly remarkable feat: crossing the breadth of Borneo on foot.
Forget Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo, which camps up a journey that is, by all accounts, quite run-of-the-mill (if you have a few thousand dollars for equipment and guide/porter hire). Rather than finding this book “hilarious” at every turn (as promised on the front cover), it was actively cringe-worthy, in its descriptions of both dayak life and forest life.
By contrast, Eric Hansen’s 1976 journey is the real deal: he’s still the only Westerner to have ever completed the feat of crossing Borneo on foot (through Sarawak and Kalimantan, in his case). What makes this even more poignant is the fact that it was achieved with the help of Penan guides. The Penan are the last of the true hunter-gatherers on Borneo, and are today all but extinct (culturally); perhaps just a few hundred have resisted settlement to the present. It’s a story which has repeated itself across the tropical forests of the world. Sadly, it is our generation – yes, you and I – which will forever be known to have witnessed (and hastened) the demise of our species’ last forest peoples, as well as their intimate connection with the natural world. The 10,000 year transformation of Homo sapiens to Homo urbanitus is nearing completion. But I digress…
I recently took a journey across Borneo of my own, though in an Airbus which had seen better days. Of course, I had read how vast the oil palm plantations are over here. But reading about “X sq km’s” here, or “Y thousand hectares” there, does not prepare you. As we neared Tawau, we flew for 10 minutes or more over continuous oil palm, as far as the eye could see (as the oil palm cliché goes). From 10,000 feet, it looked like a fuzzy velcro mat of green, made up of little spiky starbursts. All of the trees were the same height, perfectly spaced in neat rows; a monotonous, orderly and sterile landscape. A network of scorched roads was also visible, down which the oil palm fruits flow toward a central processing mill. Here’s a satellite view of a vast oil palm plantation just north of Tanjung Puting National Park in southern Borneo. The roads are rarely grid-like in eastern Sabah (where I am based) purely because of the difficult topography, but you get the picture.
…and zoomed in:
To many, the vastness of the oil palm plantations is no longer interesting. Descriptions borne of plane rides like my own would seem as mundane as they come. Indeed, I can already feel my naivety to the situation wearing off. Being in Malaysia, you are constantly saturated with the oil palm tree. Take a bus, take a train, take a plane, take a 4WD: you will see oil palm lining the streets and the roads and the valleys. Everywhere you look. Taxi drivers will even point it out to you, with a thumbs up and a “Malaysia-is-great!” look on their faces. Because of this saturating effect, I’m going to try and hold onto my naive first impressions of the Borneo landscape. In general, first impressions of a place and its way of doing things should be valued, if for nothing else but their clarity.
For now, I am struck by the vastness of the oil palm crop in Malaysia. It utterly dominates whole landscapes in an uncompromising way. On the flip-side, it seems that the plantations inspire some kind of optimism and pride in Malaysians, and the vaster the better for this. It’s the same story of humans everywhere taking solace and confidence from taming what is, to Homo urbanitus, wild and wholly alien land. Of course, the plantations provide more concrete benefits too. Fundamentally, they create jobs and generate revenue on international markets, filling the gap that the decline in the logging industry has made.
Attempting to stack up the benefits derived from natural forests against this is tricky. Before we know it, we’ve usually slipped into a vain attempt at trying to balance conservation and development. However, the premise that they’re diametrically opposed is often a red herring, and a simplistic herring at that. I’ll have to get to this in a later post!
OK, now I’m off to try and get hold of a copy of that book! Oh, and ponder that old conservation vs development chestnut.