Coronavirus Pandemic Leaves Indigenous Lands in Borneo at Risk

With in-person protests suspended amid shutdown, companies continue to destroy rainforest.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

In the Sungai Asap settlement in Sarawak, a state on Malaysian Borneo, social distancing is near impossible. This ramshackle town two hours east of Bintulu is home to thousands of Indigenous people displaced in the early 2000s to make way for two mega-dams. Living in communal longhouses, often with bathrooms and kitchens shared amongst extended family, an outbreak of coronavirus would be disastrous.

photo of borneo forest and road
Logging companies that continue to extract timber during the coronavirus-related shutdown in Malaysian Borneo risk bringing the contagion to remote communities that would ordinarily put their bodies on the line to defend their land. Photo by Charlie Jackson.

Medical facilities here are already stretched, with one small clinic serving the 10,000 strong community. “There’s only one ambulance.” explains Miku Loyang, a local carver of poison blowpipes. “If someone is sick enough to need an ambulance they wait until another sick person comes along so they’re not wasting the drive. Too bad if you’re having a heart attack.”

Further into Borneo’s interior, logging companies continue to extract timber, according to Penan headman Komeok Joe. The state of Sarawak is a world leader in tropical timber extraction, with 80 percent of its forests degraded within the last few decades. In 2010, more timber was exported from Sarawak than all Latin American and African countries combined. The forests left standing, along with the staggering array of wildlife that call them home, remain thanks to communities like Komeok’s.

Malaysia has been under a “Movement Control Order” restricting large gatherings and closing non-essential businesses since mid-March. Unsurprisingly, logging has been classified as essential by the Sarawak government during the lockdown, meaning potentially virus-carrying crews are still venturing into Indigenous lands where medical supplies are non-existent. “Ongoing logging will help spread the virus and is, therefore, an immediate health threat to communities,” says Komeok. This is especially risky in the many communities whose population is made up largely of older retirees.

Remote communities would ordinarily protect their unceded lands by putting their bodies on the line, forming a blockade between themselves and the bulldozers, or by reporting illegal loggers to authorities. Under the Movement Control Order, Indigenous villagers have also been told to stay put. Group blockades would also pose a risk of spreading the virus. As the threat of logging increases, resistance has come to a grinding halt.

Malaysia rolled out one of the swiftest coronavirus shutdowns in Southeast Asia. The Movement Control Order has left many afraid to leave their homes even for essential reasons, with those who break curfew facing heavy fines and up to six months in prison. Indigenous Kenyah leader Peter Kallang is concerned about how remote communities will cope with a complete shutdown. “Indigenous communities need to travel to town to get coffee, milk powder, sugar, flour and tea. You can’t get these essentials from the jungle supermarket,” he says, referring to the hunting and gathering that forms the majority of food for traditional Indigenous villages in Sarawak. “Rural communities still need to travel to the nearest town to buy these things, even if doing so poses a threat to their safety.”

Indigenous communities are calling on the Malaysian government to shut down the palm oil and timber industries during the pandemic. Photo by Fiona McAlpine.
Indigenous communities are calling on the Malaysian government to shut down the palm oil and timber industries during the pandemic. Photo by Fiona McAlpine.

Seemingly lost in the Malaysian discussion around coronavirus is the growing evidence that diseases such as Covid-19 emerge from the way humans interact with the natural world. It is not just a story of infected bats or pangolins — the coronavirus crisis is a story of tropical rainforest destruction, which forces humans and animals into more frequent contact.

Malaysia has already experienced one epidemic-level virus connected to environmental degradation and mismanagement. The 1998 Nipah outbreak has been linked to fruit bat displacement: slash and burn deforestation to make way for industrial planting pushed the bats into areas with pig farms, and the virus then spread from pigs to humans. This is also the plot of the movie Contagion.

If the coronavirus has shown us anything, it is that reality is stranger than fiction. Previously unthinkable social and economic upheaval has been legislated in a matter of hours all around the world. Rethinking how we treat our natural environment is not outside the realm of possibility. It might even be a moral imperative.

In the meantime, the government must protect Indigenous communities from the impacts of the government shutdown. Outposts like Sungai Asap are starting to receive rations, distributed via logging roads and helicopter by army and rescue personnel. Local politicians and NGOs are receiving complaints about the distribution methods and lack of information about who is eligible for what. “Many hopefuls are not getting it,” DAP Senadin Chairman told The Borneo Post. “This seems to be the case in both rural and town areas. We understand that the budget may not be enough for everyone to get a share.”

While limited rations are worrying, a crackdown on access to wild meat would be a much greater risk to Indigenous food security. Although a shutdown on the trade of wildlife and illegal sale of wild meat to people who have access to other protein could help prevent health crises of the future, banning the capture and consumption of wild animals by subsistence hunters could leave Indigenous communities malnourished. As in Sarawak, Indigenous people all over the world rely on the forest as their main source of protein.

Malaysian officials must heed the calls from Indigenous leaders to shut down destructive palm oil and timber industries, even while those leaders and their communities cannot gather on the ground to amplify their message. Many in Malaysia are pointing to the economic toll of doing so: the cost of leaving palm fruit to spoil would be immense, and a moratorium on logging could have a significant economic impact, particularly as the price of timber has reportedly dropped by nearly half within a matter of weeks. If these industries were to crumble, many would lose their jobs, especially the impoverished migrant workers on the bottom rung. But these workers, too, are at risk on the job, and these costs pale in comparison to the trillions that coronavirus has wiped from the global economy, not to mention the loss of human life around the world.

Coronavirus is hitting Indigenous communities in Sarawak hard even while the virus is, thankfully, yet to reach them. In order to prevent the virus from spreading to these communities — and to prevent the next devastating pandemic — policy makers need to be able to see the forest for the trees. Deforestation is a public health issue. We should be halting the destruction of tropical rainforests as a matter of urgency, not extending shutdown exemptions to the very industries that create the problem.

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