Trouble in paradise

Posted on June, 11 2006

We are halfway up a steep slope in Betung Kerihun, scrambling through the leafmould and brushing off big red biting ants, when Jimmy pauses, wipes the sweat from his eyes, and points to a slash cut in the bark of a young tree.

By Nick Meo*

"Last year, we were climbing up here," he gasps. "I put out my hand to grab this and, just in time, noticed a little green snake coiled up at its base. Small but deadly. Death would have come after a few minutes of twitching."

The forests in the heart of Borneo are beautiful, bewitching even. But dangers lurk in the trees.

Trunks wider across than a dining table

Early in the morning, before the heat, it is surprisingly similar to a wood in Britain, except for the big ferns and gigantic trees with trunks wider across than a dining table. The occasional awesome stump testifies to the depredations of the few illegal loggers who make it this deep into the forest, several hours by canoe from the nearest land-hungry settlers and then a long trudge up a thickly wooded hillside.

Betung Kerihun is one of the planet's last surviving Edens. It is tucked up against the Malaysian border in the vastness of the Indonesian part of Borneo, the world's third largest island. Much of Borneo's jungle was hacked down and reduced to ashes long ago. We have driven for miles across a barren landscape of stumps and bushes to reach the river that will take us into the surviving pristine jungle.

Nibbling at the edges of the national park

Betung Kerihun is a national park, in theory protected by law, in practice protected mainly by its remoteness. Even here, however, the illegal loggers have begun to nibble at the edges, setting up a network of roads and sawmills and bringing in prostitutes from the city for the workers' bordellos.

The remoteness has saved Betung Kerihun so far. Borneo's tropical forests are ranked in importance alongside the Congo or the Amazon by scientists chronicling their extraordinary profusion of rare species. They are also full of valuable hardwoods and, in much of the island, the harsh buzz of chainsaws. Not Betung Kerihun. It is almost untouched by man and feels much as it must have done a million years ago. After a few hours in the forest, you half expect a dinosaur to step out from behind a vast tree.

Reptilian monsters - no tall stories

There are real reptilian monsters. Jimmy Syah, a guide from WWF and expert on the jungle's wildlife, has warned in advance of giant pythons. Their 8m bodies are thicker than a man's thigh, he says, and they lie coiled in wait alongside animal trails before knocking their prey out with a headbutt. I believe it to be another of Borneo's unlikely tall stories until I realise he is looking at me nervously, as if wondering how he could pull an outsize foreigner from the jaws of a mighty python.

Days later, I meet proof in the form of a Dayak man who once won a tussle with one of these jungle monsters. The man, whose ancestors were headhunters, grins as he shows off a staggering scar pattern of teeth marks where the serpent's jaws had clamped on to his leg. Somehow, despite his pain, he managed to hack the snake's head off.

The forest is home to less lethal wildlife. In the tree tops, we can see big orangutan nests made of twigs. But there is no sighting of them, or of the gibbons that are hooting away in the distance. The only wildlife visible is the occasional pair of rhinoceros hornbills, giant cumbersome birds from the toucan family which flap off through the forest, honking furiously when startled by a rare party of humans.

Deep in the trees, giant butterflies sail over streams of crystal-clear water. Clouded leopards and pythons stalk the forest floor hunting wild boar and deer and are, in turn, hunted by one of the last truly nomadic forest peoples, the Penan.

Last witnesses?

It feels utterly timeless, but Jimmy and I may be among the last witnesses to one of the world's most beautiful places before its destruction. Compared to the spiritual experience of being in the forest, the reason is banal.

What palm oil could do to the Heart of Borneo

By the end of the decade, this wilderness may be replaced by the world's biggest palm oil plantation - a crop from which comes an unhealthy but profitable vegetable oil which is a main ingredient in margarine, biscuits and ice-cream. It also produces bio-diesel, posing a green threat to the environment.

If some Jakarta politicians have their way, a £4 billion plan proposed by a Chinese bank would destroy an 1.8 million-hectare belt of forest across Indonesian Borneo for an industrial scale plantation — an area half the size of the Netherlands.

The outcry against the plan has been enough to quieten its supporters, for now at least. After initially showing enthusiasm for the 500,000 jobs its backers claimed it would generate, the Jakarta government has now indicated it won't go ahead in the short term.

What the locals think

I visited Matalunai village, an idyllic settlement on the banks of the river Kapuas, one of Borneo's biggest rivers. It is home to Bukit tribesmen who are fiercely proud of their forest home. They have protected it against illegal loggers and gold miners who encroach on their territory.

Tribal leaders Sagen and Dolek (both have only one name) are fiercely opposed to the oil palm scheme.

"Those settlers don't understand our ways," he said. "This is virgin territory for them and they are only interested in gold and timber. They use electric shocks and poison to kill fish and cut down our trees. More and more have come to try their luck, and now we fear the coming of palm oil companies. This would destroy our way of life forever, and our ancestors have been here for generations in this forest. Other tribes take the money and cut down the forest, but we will never do that."

"But there are some formidable backers for this scheme in Jakarta. We could have a big battle against it."

What is at stake?

What is under threat is a biological treasure-house, colourfully described by Charles Darwin as "one great untidy luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself". Thousands of tree frogs, bats and orchids have been recorded.

More than 1,000 species of insects have been identified in a single tree. In one 10-year period, 361 plant, animal and insect species were discovered in Borneo. Last month, a report found plants that could help to treat cancer, Aids, and malaria.

But the forest is disappearing at a staggering rate, 366 acres an hour by one estimate. Only half of the island is now covered with forest compared to three-quarters in the 1980s, and the palm oil scheme could wipe out much of what is left.

Palm oil plan? It's all about the timber

Conservationists say the scheme is deeply flawed and believe greed for the valuable timber in the forests is the real reason for the plan. Stuart Chapman, of conservation group WWF, says: "It's a scam. Palm oil is a lowland equatorial crop and not suited to steep upland soils. There are two million hectares of idle land already cleared of forest in lowland Borneo which is suitable for planting.

"Putting this plantation in the island's centre would give logging interests the excuse they need to cut down trees."

The plantation would strip trees from Borneo's great watershed, where 14 of the island's 20 rivers rise. It threatens ecological disaster and continual flooding in settled areas and would increase forest loss tenfold. 'Haze', choking smoke from forest fires, would be generated on an epic scale, drifting across Singapore and Malaysia's cities as it has done regularly since the late 1990s. None of the species that live in the forest would survive in such an alien monoculture. It would be the environmental equivalent of putting down a giant concrete car park.

The forest may not be here in 10 years

Jimmy Syah believes there is a 50% chance of the plantation going ahead. "Enjoy the experience," he says one night as we lie sleepless in the inky-black jungle listening to the noisy jungle insects and the flap of outsize bats. "The forest may not be here in 10 years."

What it takes to save Betung Kerihun and the Heart of Borneo

WWF has worked with the 3 governments that share Borneo - Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei - to pledge to protect the Heart of Borneo, a scheme which it is hoped will protect the surviving forest. If they fail, they fear there is a precedent in another part of Indonesia for what will almost surely happen.

Conservationists warned in the 1980s that Sumatra would lose all its rainforest unless steps were taken to protect it. Now it has nearly all gone. Syah is one of WWF's main officials in Borneo. He has constantly taken risks to expose the illegal logging business, filming in secret and showing Indonesian journalists what illegal loggers are doing, destroying one of the most extraordinary natural wildernesses on Earth and stealing millions of dollars worth of timber.

He believes exposés in the Indonesian press and voluble action from the country's nascent environmental movement, encouraged the government to take action against the illegal loggers last year, shutting down many of the sawmills. "Government action was effective against the illegal loggers," he says. "Now oil palm is the greatest danger. In Malaysia and elsewhere in Indonesia, the plantations have destroyed so much forest. We must protect what we have here, it would be a tragedy to lose it."

The Dayak people in the face of palm oil plantations

If the plantation comes, it will change life in the longhouses of Borneo. In the lands around Betung Kerihun, the jungle was cut down years ago, but the Dayak people who live there remain close to nature. The longhouses are stupendous jungle communal homes, made from fire-resistant ironwood, with floors high enough above the ground to be out of spear range. These days, head-hunting enemies are not likely to launch midnight raids, but the people are traditional and they still prefer living together in the longhouses.

In Baukung longhouse, where the decorated skull of a headhunted Second World War Japanese soldier hangs, 50 families live in one huge building. The community gave up headhunting when Indonesia was founded and the outside world arrived in the 1950s. Roman Catholic missionaries converted them and now pictures of the Pope are stuck up near the head. But every year the village still parades off into the fields with the skull - called a rumpang-ulu - for springtime fertility rites.

"In our longhouse, we will say no to oil palm, even if the government forces us" 

Pak Bacupak, the head of Ulu Palin longhouse, explains their predicament: "When the community logs the forest, they do it selectively. But when companies move in, they level all the trees, and they are gone forever. We are worried about oil palm because, based on experience in Malaysia and elsewhere, communities lose their land. But not everybody will get jobs. More settlers could come in from outside and take what we have. In our longhouse, we will say no to oil palm, even if the government forces us."

Few had heard of the proposed oil palm scheme. The local people still hunt in nearby forest, but now they live off fields of rice paddies, hairy pigs and scrawny chickens, and an extraordinary range of tropical fruits. The weirdest is the durian, a spiky, football-sized fruit like a giant conker containing a white flesh with the smell and texture of overripe camembert. It tastes sweeter than it looks, and half the longhouse turn out for a feast of durian and rice wine to debate the possible coming of the oil palm.

Guardians of the forest?

The vividly tattooed young men and old women with elongated ear lobes may live a simple life close to nature, but they have been no great guardians of the forest. Dayaks have always lived by slash and burn * cutting a swathe in the trees and fertilising their fields with ashes, then moving on after a couple of years. With current population levels, slash and burn is hugely destructive and many of Borneo's Dayaks have earned a good cash income working for the illegal logging companies who plunder the forests.

One young man in his 30s, Josef Marung, doesn't like the idea of palm oil companies coming in. He fears the village will lose control of its lands and outsiders will force them into jobs that will change their way of life.

A wild wild west in the Heart of Borneo

Others in Baugkung longhouse want the TVs and karaoke machines that they can buy with palm oil jobs. Rice paddies and growing durian don't pay much. Illegal logging jobs are earning them good money. On the edge of the national park, near the floating brothels and grog houses that make this frontier feel like the Wild West, we came across Iban tribesmen guarding a checkpoint on an illegal logging road. Their forebears were some of the most feared headhunters in Borneo, and they embrace illegal logging with enthusiasm, although most of their earnings are blown on booze and prostitutes and they save little for their families.

Palm oil may have similar disastrous effects. In this area, the oil palm is new and thus a bit of an unknown quantity, but elsewhere in Indonesia communities have been torn apart by the coming of the wonder crop. Opponents claim the low-wage jobs and the corporate control to which villagers must submit are little compensation for the ancestral lands they must trade away.

Pius Ongyang, a 67-year-old leader of the Tumugung tribe, once bitter enemies of Baukung longhouse, is a fierce opponent of the palm oil scheme. He has seen many changes in a long life, including the coming of Christianity and, in the Fifties, the end of slavery, head-hunting and human sacrifice. He does not want to see the coming of oil palm.

"It has happened in other parts of Borneo," he says. "The profit only goes to the government and to big companies. There will be floods if the trees go, and where will we hunt and get our building materials?

TV and karaoke or forests?

"I am very worried about the future of the forest. In Aceh and Java, they have terrible floods after cutting down all the trees. Perhaps that will happen here. And many in our community have argued with me because I am against cutting down the forest. They want TVs and the things they can buy with money from the timber barons.

"I believe the investors get bigger profits, not the people. Before, we all used to live in harmony, but now there are many arguments, even fights between tribes over who owns the trees. I have seen other places with oil palm and it only benefits the government and big companies. We don't want that happening here.

"The people are divided over this, perhaps 50-50. If oil palm comes, we will see real conflict. We will see the end of the life we know."

* This article was first published in the Glasgow Sunday Herald on 4 June 2006 with permission of journalist Nick Meo.
A man looks up at a dipterocarp tree in Betung Kerihun National Park, Kalimantan
A man looks up at a dipterocarp tree in Betung Kerihun National Park, Kalimantan
Portrait of a young Orang-utan (<i>Pongo pygmaeus</i>).
Portrait of a young Orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus).