Indigenous-Led Conservation Could Be Climate Change Silver Bullet

New study in Borneo combines book knowledge with bush knowledge to empower local communities and protect rainforests

Sandwiched between the Indonesian border to the east, Mount Murud to the north and the Pulong Tau National Park to the west, the Kelabit Highland town of Bario is the kind of Shangri La that Borneo dreams are made of.

photo of dewdropphoto courtesy of PexelsThe Borneo Project is putting together a study in the Kelabit Highlands to codify Indigenous knowledge about the land and gather new data.

This remote region of Sarawak is what anthropologist Tom Harrison called “the last frontier of the tropical world.” Only accessible by 10-seater propeller plane, the Highlands are home to the descendants of headhunters and nomads who believed that all human beings originally descended from the surrounding mountains.

The Highlands are now famous for their deliciously chewy short grain rice, spectacular daily sunsets, and the sweetest pineapples you will ever taste. We’re in Bario to learn from Indigenous leaders about how they saved their ancestral land, and about the monumental challenges still faced in protecting it.

As early as the 70s, local communities in Bario campaigned against extractive development. A rudimentary wildlife survey in 1998 found a small population of Sumatran rhinos that were thought the be extinct in Sarawak, and a population of orangutans that used this area as a corridor with the Indonesian side of the border. It took until 2005 for the park to be gazetted, and by then the boundaries had been redrawn to an area around a third of the size of the original plans.

Dr. Dom Mattu, a Kelabit from Bario, put it this way: “The mountains contain wonders we haven’t even discovered yet, but as the plans progressed, the area just got smaller and smaller. There were men standing in the way, looking to stuff their pockets.”

Nonetheless, in this part of the world where the rainforest has been largely decimated, the fact that Pulong Tau was saved at all is a massive and important achievement for Indigenous environmental defenders. This is especially true considering that they saved it during the height of Sarawak’s logging years: a time when this single Malaysian state was exporting more timber than all African and Latin American countries combined.

Lian is one of only four forest rangers in charge of monitoring Pulong Tau National Park, patrolling an area the size of Chicago. They walk through the forest on foot for 15 days of the month, using the ancient paths trodden by the once nomadic Penan. Sleeping in hammocks and living off the land, they’re on the lookout for threats to this giant, misty carbon sink.

And the threats are many. Illegal logging encroachment is constant. Logging companies have built roads which make the forest much easier for hunters to access. What is just as challenging as the sheer physical effort of patrolling the forest, is the lack of resources and lack of authority the park rangers hold. They have no fancy equipment, no drones, no camera traps, no cars. When they catch hunters red handed, they have no power to detain or charge them on the spot, and can do nothing other other than report the incident up the chain of the Forest Department.

photo of ranger in borneophoto by Fiona McAlpineLian is one of four forest rangers in charge of monitoring Pulong Tau National Park, patrolling an area the size of Chicago on foot.

One area of the park contains an important salt lick loved by local game such as mouse deer and wild pigs. But on his patrols, Lian has also spotted plenty of animals that are not far off being hunted into extinction, such as hornbill, pangolin, slow loris, and even an elusive sunda clouded leopard.

The rainforests of Sarawak are one of the world’s last great biodiversity hotspots. A wildlife survey has never been conducted during Lian’s tenure, so I would tend to agree with Dr. Dom’s assertion that we really have no idea of the depth and breadth of the spectacular species contained within Pulong Tau, and all around Sarawak for that matter. Four men on foot can neither scratch the surface of the scientific potential of this land, nor adequately fend off its demise.

But there are people who can. All over Sarawak, Indigenous communities have lived alongside and inside the forest, traveling on foot as Lian does, tracking animal paths for subsistence hunting and passing on practical and spiritual lore that amounts to an encyclopedic understanding of the land.

For hunter gatherers in particular, the natural world, spirituality, and survival are all interconnected. Despite largely converting to Christianity, some Orang Ulu religions hold onto their traditional understanding of the universe as divided into the land of shade, the land of abundance, and the land that has been destroyed. Understanding the forest was once a matter of life and death and chopping it down would be a betrayal of epic proportions.

The alternative to conserving the forest and maintaining traditional ways of life is to sell off the trees for timber and replace them with oil palm plantations. These ‘impoverished’ communities will then be empowered to buy Doritos and bottled water like the rest of us city dwellers, but like the rest of us, they will forever live in the land of the destroyed. Unfortunately for the timber and oil palm companies, the villages we work with are not buying it.

For the past 15 years, Penan communities in northern Sarawak have mapped an area of their ancestral land the size of Lebanon with the intention of better understanding it and protecting it. At The Borneo Project, we are putting together a study across the Baram River Basin to codify inherited knowledge and gather new data that will build on this mapping success. The project will mirror a study conducted on the border of Brazil and Guyana under the guidance of Dr. Jose Fragoso. This method trains local people to become the scientists in the survey, gathering data over a period of several years.

Fragoso argues that the effects of training Indigenous scientists are threefold. Firstly, it has proved to be an effective and accurate method for scientific use, with this combination of ‘book knowledge and bush knowledge’ garnering considerably richer data than grad-students alone could ever hope for. Secondly, the process of placing older and younger Indigenous scientists together builds a new generation of individuals with biocultural knowledge, in a place where most young people ordinarily move to the city and remote longhouses are left as dwindling retirement villages.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this method enables communities to make appropriate planning decisions for their communities and forests, and provides the data needed for Indigenous populations to substantiate and assert their customary rights. Knowledge is power.

Indigenous territories account for up to 22 percent of the world’s land surface, and these areas hold as much as 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. The battle against climate destruction is largely in the hands of these drastically underutilized communities.

And while we all benefit from the maintenance and conservation of tropical rainforests, Indigenous peoples have the most to lose from their destruction. The status quo of conservation isn’t working in Sarawak, where the narrative of destruction for development’s sake too often wins out. This courageous alternative is rewriting that narrative, and might just be the conservation silver bullet that our planet needs.

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