Taking the Long View – part 1
Last year I embarked on a reconnaissance expedition to the summit of one of the most remote mountain peaks on the island of Borneo – Bukit Batikap. This place is seriously remote. It’s a 6 day journey (4 days on foot) to the summit from the nearest village, and the nearest village is a full day by boat from the nearest road, which is a logging/mining road, and 2 days from the nearest paved road. If you stuck a pin the middle of Borneo you’d be pretty close to this mountain.
The forest in the vicinity of the village is in spectacular condition, especially as you go inland. The forest 6 days away from the village is as close to being untouched as possible. I was interested in the logistics of taking a team of scientists into this region, given what we might find here. I was, naturally, also interested in the adventure. Might I be the first European to summit this peak?
The return trip from the summit to the village is 3 days, providing you’re happy to run the main descent back to the river in a day (the ascent takes 3). So that’s a 9 day unsupported expedition with a 20kg pack (rice, tarps, mandau, and loads of camera gear) with 3 men from the village who knew the route and are as familiar in the forest as I am at a desk with a laptop in front of me.
I may write at length about this expedition in the future (I thought there was a book in it as I was coming down the mountain, and I still do), but here, as during the expedition itself, I want to get to the summit as quickly as possible, because it was at the summit that I had a thought that struck me deeply and that has stayed with me since, and that I want to share with you. But first I need to give a little background, and something of the journey to the summit, or else my thought may not seem significant or worthy of an essay when I could just be telling a good old adventure story.
First you must understand something of Borneo. To begin with it is a huge island, the third largest in the world, around twice the size of Germany (or a little bigger than Texas for our American friends). Politically it is shared by Indonesia in the south (around two thirds), and Malaysia (a third) and Brunei (a tiny little coastal enclave) in the north.
As well as being huge it is wondrously rich in just about every natural resource imaginable. It’s forests once covered the entire island, from mangroves around the coast to magical moss forest in the cloudy summits of the mountains in the interior. A natural wilderness covered everything in between, the scale and majesty of which we can barely comprehend.
These forests were (and still are) among the most biologically rich ecosystems on the planet, and the earth beneath them contains vast coal and mineral deposits of gold, tin, copper, and just about everything else that we like to dig up. Unhappily, our species has formed a habit of seeing value only when it corresponds to a bank balance, and riches only in things we can own privately. Corporate capitalism values the trees that build the forest as worth more dead than alive. Sometimes the trees are simply in the way of the coal and not valued at all. Sometimes it is the land that they stand on that somebody wants in order to plant a monoculture desert of oil palm.
The speed at which destruction on such as vast scale can occur is terrifying. It is astonishing to contemplate that it has only taken a few decades to clear well over half of the entire island of forest, and probably more. Most of what is left is degraded, which means it has been reduced in some way from it’s natural state. A 2013 study has reported that in Malaysian Borneo – the states of Sabah and Sarawak – only 20% of the land surface remains unaffected by high impact logging and clearing.
Various indigenous peoples – known today broadly as the Iban, Penan, and Dayak tribes (the latter mostly found in Kalimantan, or Indonesian Borneo) but in truth much more varied than that suggests and with hundreds of surviving languages – lived nomadic and semi-nomadic lives across the island, probably causing the extinction of a few species of megafauna but otherwise forming a part of the ecosystem. The cliche is that they lived in harmony, or in balance with nature, but perhaps it is enough to say they were a part of nature in just the same way that clouded leopards, the other great predator of Borneo, are a part of nature and that the vast majority of people alive today are not, much to our shame.
Today there are probably no nomadic peoples left in Kalimantan. Various colonial and independent government initiatives encouraged the permanent settlement of tribes in order they be better counted, controlled, exploited, and taxed. Today many of these settled groups live in villages that are still very remote and isolated, accessible only by some days’ travel on small boats.
These people still live almost entirely off the earth, and practice hunter gatherer lifestyles with rice as their staple food supplemented by fish from the rivers and meat from the forest. They may have small gardens but they will also take all kinds of things from the forest for food, medicine, and trade. The young men, occasionally the women too, will regularly spend a month or more moving through the forest
Tumbang Tohan is one such village, with a population of around 400 living on the banks of the river Joloi, on the edge of the largest stretch of primary rainforest left standing in southeast Asia, a forest that the world should come to know and revere as the Heart of Borneo.
I have spent quite some time in this village, and was here again to manage a few projects as part of the capacity building program of the Heart of Borneo Rainforest Foundation. One of those activities was participatory land use mapping, which is essentially facilitating a community-led process of creating a map of what they consider to be theirs and anything and everything within that area that they consider important enough to map. Maps are incredibly powerful tools in today’s world and community’s who are armed with accurate, geo-referenced, scale maps of their land and how they use it are in an infinitely better position to defend it.
This project was not going particularly smoothly, not least because the area in question is vast and the only means of travel is by small wooden boat along the rives for as far as they will take you, and then by foot through primary rainforest.
Why should we do this when there are perfectly good satellite maps available, you ask?! Ground truthing, my friends, ground truthing!
First, there are no “good” satellite maps available, only large swathes of green blur.
Second, it is the rivers that form the skeleton of the mental maps of the people of Tumbang Tohan: in the same way that a town or city dweller would first draw and name the roads when sketching a map, in the forest it is the rivers and stream that form the main highways and reference points. These rivers don’t have names on Google Earth (or even Google Earth Pro!) and so we must visit the rivers and mark their locations in order to make th map.
Third, the ‘participation’ element in all this is crucial, and for a community to understand and believe in their own map they must be the architects, marking the points and drawing it themselves. They know the mouth of the Sopan River is marked in the right place on the map because a village team went to that point and used a GPS to mark it. When an outsider visits and starts talking logging concession or mining development (or even orangutan release), they can speak with confidence about the areas being discussed.
And so it was that I set out with a team to mark some of the northernmost rivers, and to take the opportunity to summit the highest point in the village’s terrain, both in order to plot the location of some important caves, and as a recce for future scientific research.
Coming up in part 2 – the expedition, the thought, and the debate!