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.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Donate
Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

Pando to Pangea

A single aspen, thought to be the largest living organism on Earth, offers a message of diversity, resilience, and sustainability. It’s up to us to heed its message and avert its decline.

Paul C. Rogers

Vast Coalition Calls on Biden to Impose National Moratorium on Water Shutoffs

More than 600 environmental, rights and religious groups to present draft order amid widespread shutoffs despite pandemic.

Nina Lakhani The Guardian

Big Cat Public Safety Act Reintroduced in House

Animal welfare advocates hope that recent enforcement actions against Tiger King personalities will help push through the bill, which seeks to ban cub petting operations and trade in big cats.

Brianna Grant

Tragedy of the Commodified

Conversation: Jennifer Telesca, author of Red Gold: The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna

Austin Price

The Road to the Capitol Went Through Malheur

There’s a clear connection between this week’s attempted coup and a decades-old conflict over federal control of public land in the American West.

Maureen Nandini Mitra

Trump EPA’s Controversial “Secret Science” Policy Faces Pushback from Scientists

Wheeler’s bid for “transparency” is another pro-industry lie aimed to delegitimize peer-reviewed science.

Austin Price