Harnessing the Timber Companies: Vignettes from a Year in Borneo

BOGOR, Indonesia (20 March, 2012)_Much forest research has focused on logging. Here I briefly discuss a planned, never implemented, but potentially valuable approach to involving local communities in monitoring (and controlling) timber companies in West Kalimantan in the early 1990s. The plan wasn’t implemented because the project did not have a sufficiently long time horizon.
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Photo courtesy of David Gilbert/Rainforest Action Network

BOGOR, Indonesia (20 March, 2012)_Much forest research has focused on logging. This excerpt from Vignettes from a Year in Borneo briefly discusses a planned, never implemented, but potentially valuable approach to involving local communities in monitoring (and controlling) timber companies in West Kalimantan in the early 1990s.  The plan wasn’t implemented because the project did not have a sufficiently long time horizon.

We had a good handle on fisheries management issues. We had a plan, and it looked like it was going to work. But I also thought we needed a plan for working with the folks surrounding the reserve. These Iban practiced shifting cultivation, which was considered a definite no-no by the Indonesian government. I knew that the government’s extremely negative view was a bit misguided. The Iban system was actually much more complex—and less damaging—than was widely understood. But one part particularly concerned us; we were gradually realizing just how important hunting was as a part of their subsistence base.

Iban agroforestry wasn’t our only concern though. The area around the reserve—traditionally Iban lands—had also been doled out by the central government to timber companies. Although these companies were supposed to follow fairly reasonable forest management guidelines, there was no monitoring of their activities. They could and did take what they liked without paying any attention to issues of sustainability or conservation. Their relations with the Iban were, to my mind, marked by a peculiar mixture of accommodation and oppression.

An idea gradually grew in my mind. Why couldn’t the Iban communities help enforce the government’s policies? The people would need to know the government’s forest management guidelines and the details of forest company contracts. And our project and officials in the Conservation Agency would have to back them up when controversies arose. But the Iban lived there all year long. They knew and loved their homeland, and cared what was happening to it. Who better to monitor the timber companies? The more I thought about this idea, the better I liked it. It was empowering.

Again I called together all available staff members to discuss the idea; I discussed it with local community leaders, with concerned, educated Dayaks in Pontianak and with my anthropological colleague and Iban expert, Reed Wadley. All seemed to agree that it would be controversial, but the pro’s outweighed the con’s.

Gradually we began integrating our concern with Iban wildlife management into this plan. I suspected that the Iban had indigenous knowledge and management practices related to hunting, just as the fisherfolk had traditional fisheries regulations. My need to study this question was hampered by transportation problems. Iban communities were scattered far up many tiny rivers, in a fanlike dispersal around the reserve. They were much harder to reach than the Melayu fishing communities.

So I made a different kind of plan. We would tap into a local resource. Iban communities were producing scores of under-employed young people with a high school education. We would identify a small number willing to form a volunteer Conservation Cadre. We would bring them to the Field Center periodically for training in data gathering, interview techniques, group dynamics, data analysis and report writing.

Between training sessions with us, they would return to their villages, with specific tasks: To teach village members about the regulations that applied to the timber companies; to map their communities’ traditional land use and boundaries; to learn about their village’s indigenous knowledge and management of wildlife; to help organize a system for monitoring the timber companies; to develop a series of wildlife management scenarios acceptable to their communities; etc.

We decided it was doable, and should be done.

I worked with P. T. Bakermas, a Dayak NGO out of Pontianak, to develop a proposal for a sub-contract to do much of this work, and sent it up up up….into the bottomless bureaucratic pit. Still no money, no approval, and very few staff members. Doing it would probably have to wait a little longer.

Vignettes of a year in Borneo is a personal account of my life in the middle of Borneo, as a family, working on the first year and a half of a Conservation Project. The book publisher has set aside some of the sales proceeds to support Riak Bumi, a West Kalimantan-based NGO that focuses on conservation and community welfare and works within the communities living in and around Danau Sentarum.

To purchase your copy and contribute to Riak Bumi’s action, click here.

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  • Ha! So am not the only one. I had a great idea to work with a reforestation project in north Borneo and everything looked great, the group there was thrilled about my setting up international outreach to fundraise for the wildlife corridor and sent it up to the higher ups for approval.

    “They thank you for your interest, they will approve soon, meantime, pls wait.” Sound familiar?

    Anyway, will connect with Riak Bumi and see what I can help them with.