Hornbill Unleashed

October 7, 2013

“Same same”, yet Sarawak and Kalimantan are miles apart

Sun setting over Kapuas RiverApang

It was some two decades ago when I first visited Pontianak in Kalimantan Barat, or Kalbar as Indonesians call it. Kalimantan is administratively, and perhaps politically, carved into five regions: Kalimantan Barat, Tengah Utara, Selatan and Timor.

Sarawak and Kalimantan share the island of Borneo, partitioned by the British and Dutch colonial occupiers. The division is not only physical in nature, but has socio-cultural and political consequences, felt until today.

One must refer to these historical facts and the subsequent divergent ideological and political leanings of both countries over our shared history, to attempt to answer the question “I wonder why the Indonesian and Malaysian states continue to have flare-ups now and then over supposed border disputes, and over the mistreatment of migrant workers in Malaysia.”

Basically, the historical differences have been allowed by political elements within both countries to blind us to our shared common experience.

There are families, especially among those communities living along the virtually imaginary border, divided for half a century by their separate nationalities of Malaysia and Indonesia. With those divisions come myriad restrictions placed on movement, settlements and relationships.

But beyond these divisions, some of the indigenous communities in the colonial construct of Sarawak can trace their ancestral roots to Kalimantan. The ability of Sarawak Ibans to partly trace their origin to Kapuas in Kalimantan is but one example.

Indigneous peoples throughout Borneo share many similarities – social, cultural, environmental, spiritual (before the missionaries, too, divided and carved up communities, into different religions) – as well as a life of self-sufficiency (albeit in ever fewer communities).

While there are also differences, the one common motif among all indigenous communities is that their lives revolve around their land. They have a deep attachment to the land, not as a commodity (though some members of indigenous communities have increasingly come to accept this view).

The soil, together with water and forests, define the very identity of the indigenous communities of Borneo.

“Same Same”

Herein lies the “same same”. Both Sarawak and Kalimantan have been plagued by the dispossession of these ancestral lands through the globalised greed and wasteful consumption of the extractive industries.

Destructive logging began the assault, followed by mono-crop plantations in oil palm, fast-growing trees and other “cash crops”.

In Sarawak, there are now also the damn dams – hydroelectric generators and water reservoirs – that combine to uproot indigenous communities in the tens of thousands. In Kalimantan, more so than in Sarawak, the mining of iron ores, coal and bauxite wreaks further destruction.

To these extractive industries, natural resources of any mineral composition, species, shape or size, spell profit. And they mean nothing but profit.

Kalimantan forestWith the backing of repressive governments, the local and foreign multinational corporations all work to dispossess whoever stands in their way, no matter how unjust, illegal, brutal and oppressive they must be.

To them, human suffering and death are merely “necessary evils” in the name of “development”, just as long as this human suffering does not befall the corporate robbers, their families and their allies in the governments.

The dispossession and suffering, direct results of the destructive practices of the extractive industries, take their toll on the indigenous communities.

An indigenous worldview

In contrast, the indigenous peoples see themselves more as caretakers of lands, practitioners of “Adat” and the heritage of customs, than as owners of property.

The environment is inseparable from the indigenous peoples’ existence, beliefs, cultures, traditions and spirituality. The indigenous communities suffer tremendously when bulldozers rape Mother Earth and kill living beings standing in their way – big or small, visible or invisible to the naked eye.

The corporations’ bulldozers pollute waterways that hold far more value than the need for water of humans, plants and animals. The rivers also bear precious aquatic life, and socio-cultural and spiritual significance for the indigenous peoples. Water pollution also cripples the peoples’ traditional self-sufficient economy, depriving them of food, livelihood and the ability to move around by boat.

Sarawak and Kalimantan share more similarities than the rich indigenous symbioses between people and the environment on this great island. They share a heritage, and a memory of natural beauty and diversity, once managed so well by local people.

They also share the same threats, devastation, dispossession and oppression when forced to defend their rights. Governments and corporations, backed up by police and military personnel, do not hesitate to unleash their brutality on the indigenous communities, when the communities stand firm to defend their rights to self-determination.

The Malaysian and Sarawak state power structure, and that of the ruling politicians’ corporate cronies, are no different from their Indonesian counterparts in this respect.

In fact, we see many companies in Indonesia, owned by Malaysian conglomerates and other multinationals, visiting havoc on Kalimantan soil, and elsewhere in Indonesia.

While Sarawakians’ struggles in the face of brutality are well known to readers of HU, a case in Kalimantan deserves mention, because it typifies the consequences that communities and their supporters face.

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1 Comment »

  1. The above analysis is so succinct and real – an insight of a master observer. Politicians, policy makers and business owners dislike such frank, honest and valid observation. I really love such honest insight.

    Comment by i knowit all — October 7, 2013 @ 9:30 AM | Reply


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