Borneo, by Joe Lamb, Founder of the Borneo Project
We live in interesting times. Some consider living in interesting times to be a curse, perhaps a euphemistic translation of the Chinese, 住在不好的時候 , “to be born in bad times.” Others think the saying originates in ancient Ireland. Perhaps the curse simply recognizes that conflict is the essence of drama. Unlike times of strife, deprivation, and turmoil—times of peace, plenty, and stability don’t provide catchy story lines for blockbuster movies. Hopefully, the totemic film describing our age won’t be titled “Collapse.”
Whether being born in our, undeniably interesting, times turns out to be a curse depends less on the fates, be they Chinese or Irish, than on the actions of human beings. Much of the earth’s future will be determined by actions of humans in the next 25 years. 25 years is, in itself, an interesting span of time. When compared to age of the earth— 25 years/4,540,000,000 years—25 years may be vanishing small, but from the perspective of human time, 25 years has significance, something very important happens roughly every 25 years. It takes roughly 20 to 25 years, on average, for a baby to grow up and produce a baby of its own, the so-called generation-time. One generation-time ago the Borneo Project came to life. Over those two plus decades the Project grew and changed, but our mission remained unchanged: to help indigenous peoples secure their human rights and thereby protect their forest, for themselves, and in trust for future generations.
We’ve scored some astounding successes over those years, astounding because of the incredible size of our opponents (some of the world’s largest companies in consort with some of the world’s most corrupt politicians), astounding because of the courage and creativity our indigenous allies. But, like the character played by Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s hard not to despair when you look at what’s been lost: 25% of Borneo’s of rainforest disappeared or was degraded in the last 25 years— felled to industrial logging, burned to make way for monoculture plantations, or flooded for the Bakun Dam. Some predict that the over 80% of the world’s oldest rainforest will be gone in the next 25.
Despair may be an appropriate emotion for those who see an inevitable, and horrific, end to the forest. But the end is not inevitable. The battle is far from over. We can win. In the next 25 years, we can protect what is left of the world’s forests, protect what is left of vanishing species, secure human rights for indigenous peoples, restore degraded land, and leave a world for our children that is, to paraphrase James Hansen, capable of supporting civilization.
To win that battle in Borneo we have a clear task: reframe the concept of development. Sarawak faces a choice between SCORE—the development proposal that includes 12 mega-dams, massive expansion of oil palm plantations, and coal mining for electrical generation—and alternate development, a program that builds on indigenous practices while incorporating appropriate technological advances, a development that recognizes the indigenous inhabitants of the forest as deserving of human rights and as the forests rightful owners. As the Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom showed, the best protectors of the forest are it’s native inhabitants. Any rational development plan would, at a bare minimum, come from full informed and prior consent. Ostrom’s, and a host of other research shows, that danger to the forest “commons” comes not from its indigenous land-owners, but from the “roving bandits” that plunder the forest for short term gain.
I am excited and honored to be traveling to Borneo at the end of this month to shoot a series of videos exploring the problems with SCORE and, even more importantly, to interview representative of SAVE-Rivers, the powerful native resistance to the dams, and explore the rational alternatives development that would leave the forest intact, its traditional peoples more prosperous, and the world’s climate safer. Remember in It’s a Wonderful Life, though Jimmy Stewart may have despaired momentarily, it wasn’t the big banks that won in the end.