Our History

In the late 1980s, indigenous communities in Malaysian Borneo made world headlines when they staged a series of blockades in resistance to logging companies who were illegally encroaching on their lands. International observers– including The Borneo Project’s founder Joe Lamb– came to bear witness to the gassing and mass arrest of protestors. Upon his return to America in 1991, Joe founded The Borneo Project with the immediate goal of providing support to those fighting for their rights and for the forest in Borneo. Since its founding, the project has trained dozens of indigenous activists in community mapping, enabling over 100 communities to map areas of ancestral land claims and win legal cases and negotiations. We have supported paralegal education and mobile legal aid clinics that have helped over 200 longhouse communities hold off destructive logging and industrial plantations. We have coordinated over $500,000 in grants from international sources for community reforestation, organic gardening, territory demarcation, and other village projects. We have supported indigenous language community-led preschools for Penan children that have supported over 100 children in learning literacy in a culturally appropriate manner. We are now focused on expanding our network to Indonesian Borneo, and to working internationally to help promote the voices of indigenous people in the international negotiations on forest and carbon conservation. Click here to learn more about the Borneo Project’s campaigns.

Timeline: The Borneo Project throughout the years 

1987

Blockades against rapacious logging are erected throughout the upper Baram by Penan, Kayan, and other communities.  

Jok Jau’s Evong’s ancestral fruit trees are bulldozed by a logging company. This instigates massive civil disobedience by the Kayan community of Uma Bawang, with 42 people arrested. Jok attends an international indigenous peoples forum in Japan and meets US rainforest activists who pass on the story of Uma Bawang to Joe Lamb.

Judith Mayer travels to Baram, Rajang / Balui, and other areas in Sarawak in solidarity with communities resisting logging, Bakun dam, and forced plantation conversion; meets with Baram and Rajang community leaders and organizers through the Asia Pacific Peoples Environmental Network, Sahabat Alam Malaysia, and local NGOs.

1989

Penan and other Baram communities temporarily halt logging activities in concessions owned by Sarawak Minister for the Environment, James Wong.  More arrests occur.  

1990

Harrison Ngau wins Goldman Award for his work on land rights defense, following 2 years of house arrest and election to Malaysian Parliament.

1991

Joe Lamb travels to Sarawak to meet Jok Jau and the people of Uma Bawang.  Later that year Uma Bawang wins precarious protection for their community forest based on a hand-drawn map and on-the-ground demarcation with marked trees. Uma Bawang sues the Sarawak government for wrongful arrest.

Joe Lamb returns to Berkeley and pulls together a group of local citizens, environmental activists, and colleagues from the Nuclear Freeze campaign to discuss what can be done to help Uma Bawang.  They encourage him to propose that Berkeley become a sister-city with the village of Uma Bawang.  Later in the year, the Berkeley City Council approves the diplomatic tie, with one lone council-member in opposition, questioning how Berkeley could be a sister-city with a village that is not shown on the National Geographic map.  
The Berkeley-Borneo Big Home Project is established and becomes a project of Earth Island Institute.

1993

Activists visit Sarawak, especially Uma Bawang, representing the Project at key regional organizing events & celebrations.  Judith Mayer discusses possibility of community mapping with Uma’ Bawang residents. Dan Scollon worked on community mapping in Borneo with kindred groups.

1992-1995

Joe begins amassing a group of volunteers to raise awareness about the plight of Uma Bawang and other rainforest communities in Sarawak, Malaysia.  At monthly potluck meetings, this group formulates a plan to send a delegation to Uma Bawang for a formal Sister-City signing ceremony and to conduct a mapping workshop for the residents of Uma Bawang and neighboring communities.  

Joe passes the Project Director role on to Martha Belcher as planning for the delegation gets serious.

1995

The Sister-City Delegation including Judith Mayer, Dan Scollon, Martha Belcher, Anushka Drescher, Joe Lamb and John Paisley travels to Uma Bawang. Together with Uma Bawang residents they conduct the first Mapping workshop attended by over 100 local community representatives from 10 communities including Kayan, Kenyah, Iban, and Penan.

1996

Wick Pancoast joins the project and is asked to take over as project director.  Wick is sent to Borneo to participate in the first mapping workshop for Penan villages in Sibu.  He travels to Uma Bawang and extensively across Sarawak.

1997

The Berkeley-Borneo Big Home Project is shortened to The Borneo Project.

Six more mapping workshops are held in Iban, Penan, Kayan and Kenyah villages and a local Institute for village mapping is established with Borneo Project assistance.  The Borneo Project completes a village mapping manual that is translated into Malaysian.

The Borneo Project facilitates community mapping capacity in Sarawak through the Conservation Mapping Network, which provides major GIS equipment, software, and training for Sarawak organizations.

Plans for a community based-resource management program are inspired by reforestation efforts at Uma Bawang.

1998

Sungai Keluan, Uma Bawang begins construction of a new longhouse.

With local partners, the Borneo Project develops a resource planning component to the mapping project. Reforestation projects are started in 20 villages.

The process of digitizing community maps with GIS begins. Wick Pancoast and John Paisley travel extensively to survey potential sights for micro hydro electrical systems.

Uma Bawang Residents Association wins the Right Livelihood Award, the Conde Naste Traveller Award, and the Slow Food Award

Residents in the Iban village of Rumah Bangah blockade an oil palm plantation on their land.Heavily armed field force police clash with protesters, kill one and wound two others.

1999

Saging Anyi, Louis Ngau and Puyang travel to Berkeley and Los Angeles to accept the Conde Naste Traveler Award on behalf of Uma Bawang. Sarawak authorities refuse to re-issue Jok Jau Evong’s passport that was confiscated when he returned from Japan in 1987. The delegation is honored by Berkeley’s Mayor during the Indigenous Peoples Day celebration.

Saging realizes how expensive it is to be in the USA and wonders why we have so many homeless people. Gets sick of eating bread and wearing sweaters. Goes boar hunting in the East Bay.

The Borneo Project helps map the lands of 19 remote Penan villages and sets up vegetable gardening exchange programs for Penan women.

2000

Ground is broken for the first community-based micro hydro project in Long Lawen.  

13,000 people are evicted from their traditional homelands to make way for the Bakun Dam.

The largest gathering ever of the Penan people takes place at Warrior’s Day in Long Sayan.

2001

Rumah Nor victory in High Court is the first to recognize the rights of Sarawak’s indigenous peoples over traditional forest reserves. Hundreds of communities across Sarawak begin mapping and file similar land rights claims in court.

2002

First Microhydro Project is completed in Long Lawen, Belaga, Sarawak. Though the community was evicted for the Bakun dam, they fled the resettlement camp to reoccupy their ancestral lands, built this microhydro project. They won government approval to stay, and ended all logging in their watershed.

Indigenous lands defender Harrison Ngau receives grant to argue 30 land rights cases in High Court.

Uma Bawang wins the prestigious Equator Prize from the United Nations; award presented at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Borneo Project brings indigenous activist Merin Rayong to California for advanced mapping skills trainings.

Noriko Toyoda becomes Project Coordinator, and fosters links with West Kalimtan NGOs.

2004

Jessica Lawrence takes over as Project Director.

Second Microhydro Project starts in Terian, Sabah.  The community of Terian creates a conservation agreement to protect their watershed from logging.

Youngest ambassador Carson Lamb goes to Borneo. Joe and Anna married in 2 pig event.

Nomadic Penan bands map their lands and negotiate boundary claims with the help of Borneo Project partner organization, BRIMAS.

Borneo Project brings indigenous activists Adrian Lasimbang and Mark Bujang to California for advanced mapping skills trainings.

Professor Dan Scollon conducts mapping trainings in Miri and Kota Kinabalu for 50 indigenous activists.

Indigenous lands defender Harrison Ngau receives grants to create a law library.

Borneo Project conducts community mapping workshops in Ethiopia using examples of community-made maps from Sarawak.

2005

Borneo Project facilitates 17 indigenous communities winning UN grants for reforestation, ecotourism and agroforestry.

Borneo Project works with Bruno Manser Funds to provide shortwave radios to Penan communities.

GIS expert Alexander Evans conducts mapping trainings in Miri and Kota Kinabalu for 100 indigenous activists.

Community of Terian completes their microhydro system.

Community of Long Lunyim creates a women’s organization to handle small grants for reforestation and gardening. They establish a community garden, and re-plant it after a devastating flood. The plant 300 native trees around the perimeter of their ancestral lands, and fruit trees on the farming plots of each family.

Liz Varnhagen and Steve Greenberg of Berkeley volunteer in construction of Terian microhydro project and make citizen diplomacy visits to Uma Bawang, Long Lunyim, Long Sayan, Long Belok and Sungai Bong.

Sungai Bong defends lands from oil palm expansion by expanding pepper orchards.

Saging Anyi and Louis Ngau pass on (heart attack and cancer). Poet and Anthropologist Nathaniel Tarn publishes an epic poem remembering Saging’s last days.  

Appelate court partially overturns Rumah Nor court victory of 2001; Borneo Project begins fundraising for legal aid and communications for Federal appeal.

Borneo Project connects Bay Area philanthropist Katherine Randolph with early childhood education teacher training programs in Sabah.

Community of Terian stops illegal logging in their territory; loggers jailed.

Borneo Project begins participatory film project with the community of Rumah Nor.

Uma Bawang and neighboring villages plant 35,000 seedlings on ancestral lands degraded by commercial logging; six tree seedling nurseries built.

New longhouse completed at Uma Bawang/ Sungai Keluan using traditional ironwood shingles for the roof, making it the coolest longhouse in Sarawak.

Borneo Project documents and submits information to Malaysian authorities on 300 Penans who have yet to receive identity cards years after applying and paying bribes disguised as fees.

Borneo Project supports production and distribution of Penan language childrens’ books and educational supplies to dozens of communities.

Borneo Project plants six ironwood seedlings in memory of Saging Anyi and Louis Ngau at Sungai Keluan, Uma Bawang.

Borneo Project and Sarawak Iban Dayak Association (SADIA) spearhead an international petition to prevent eviction of the Iban community of Rumah Nyawin. The eviction was delayed, but eventually took place.

Third Microhydro Project completed in Kampung Bantul, Pensiangan, Sabah

Penan Community of Long Lunyim plants hundreds of fruit trees on degraded lands to mark their claim to their territory.

Founding of Penan Preschools Project starts: Training for teachers began in 2006, two schools running in 2008 with another under construction; three school operating 2009 to present.

Borneo Project assists with “Eye glasses for Elders” in six Penan communities.

Borneo Project partners BRIMAS, PACOS, SAM, SADIA and others conduct mapping workshops across Malaysia, training dozens of communities in GPS and GIS mapping. Dozens of maps submitted in court cases. Over 200 land rights cases pending.

2007

Fourth Microhydro Project completed in Bario Asal and Arur Layun, Sarawak. The community protects the rainforest headwaters from logging.

Borneo Project documents palm oil and logging conflicts with communities in dozens of communities across Sarawak and Sabah.

Borneo Project assists ten communities in UN grant monitoring and evaluation.

Borneo Project assists mapping workshops in Sabah communities.

Borneo Project holds video documentation and editing workshops for indigenous activists.

“Doctor’s Walk”, with Borneo Project volunteer Dr. Jerry Robbins of Newport, Oregon, hikes through the roadless Crocker Range, Sabah bringing medical care and supplies to remote villages

Rumah Nor film completed and distributed to hundreds of longhouses across Sarawak.

2008

Communities in Sabah receive a grant to build a 3-D map of watershed around Kota Kinabalu and hold workshops to convince authorities to ban logging and plantations.

Legal Aid fund supports 14 cases affecting 50 Sarawak villages defending land and forests in state & federal courts, argued mainly by lawyers Baru Bian and See Chee How.   

Federal appeal of Rumah Nor case allows key customary land rights provisions to stand, becoming precedents for future legal action.

Borneo Project collaborates with Partners of Community Organisation (PACOS) to support Penan Community Preschools in three Baram villages (Long Latei, Ba Abang, and Long Belok).

Judith Mayer & Mike Philley visit Borneo on a legal aid assistance trip.

2009

Supported establishment of the Sarawak Indigenous Lawyers Association, whose members offer assistance to Sarawak communities, and which provides public representation for Dayak communities’ legal rights.

Borneo Project helps link Malaysian anti-dam organizers with international movement for alternative power sources.

Borneo Project supports construction and operation of Penan preschool in Long Belok.

2010

Borneo Project aids with publication of research on international real estate investments by Sarawak Chief Minister’s family and by major logging dynasties, including evidence of possible corruption and kickbacks, a collaboration with Sarawak Report (sarawakreport.org)

Decisive legal victories in several Sarawak Court cases including Rumah Madel and its neighbors, recognizing legal rights of customary land owners over provisional state land leases to oil palm companies, and awarding damages to customary owners whose forest gardens were destroyed.

Borneo Project provides solidarity support for Rumah Nor in the face of state evictions for real estate development by Tatau Land, a subsidiary of a state development corporation

Borneo Project provides solidarity support for Sebangan River communities protesting illegal logging on their customary land

2011

Brihannala Morgan starts as project director, and travels to Borneo to meet partners across Sarawak and Sabah. She also travels to Switzerland to meet partners at the Bruno Manser Fund.

Three Penan community peschools have taught over 100 children how to read and write in their native language before going on to boarding schools. All children receive free food, art materials, educational supplies, toothbrushes and mosquito bednets for their families. Twelve women trained as teachers; classes for adult literacy also taught.

Work on Baram Dam, and other dam expansion begun, including grant for Borneo Project partner CICOM to teach about the effects of dam expansion in affected communities.

Protests against Cheif Minister of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud held at Taib owned properties in Seattle and San Francisco, in partnership with the Bruno Manser Fund.

Indigenous Language children’s book project initiated.

The Last Nomads movie shown to over 300 people in showings in Portland, Berkeley, and Atlanta.