About Borneo

Introduction to Borneo

Highlighted: Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

Borneo is a large island in Southeast Asia that is divided among three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. Indonesian Borneo, or Kalimantan, accounts for two-thirds of the island’s territory in the central and southern part of the island. The tiny sultanate of Brunei is wedged between the two Malaysian states, Sarawak and Sabah, in the north of the island.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, after Greenland and New Guinea. Its population is roughly 16 million, of whom 12 million reside in Indonesia (Kalimantan) and 4 million reside in Sarawak and Sabah. Brunei’s population is around 300,000. The island’s hilly terrain, unnavigable rivers, and thick forests deterred industrial development until recently, and as a result Borneo’s population is comparatively low. By comparison, the neighboring island of Java – with an area 1/5th that of Borneo’s – is home to over 16 times as many people (130 million).

Borneo is home to the world’s oldest tropical rainforests which, until a few decades ago, completely covered the island. Among the planet’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, these forests are home to thousands of endemic animal, reptile, insect and plant species including orangutans, rhinos, hornbills, macaques, gibbons, tarsiers, and slow loris.

For countless generations, Borneo’s Indigenous subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers depended upon and managed these forests as their primary source of livelihood. Under their stewarship, the forests were able to maintain the highest species diversity of any terrestrial ecosystem, supplying food, medicines, cash crops, and building materials.

This management system has changed dramatically with the advent of industrial logging and monoculture oil palm plantations. 

Current Threats

In the 1980s the introduction of commercial logging spurred encroachment onto the lands of Borneo’s Indigenous peoples. The majority of all forests of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo have been licensed to logging and plantation concessions, and most of these overlap with ancestral Indigenous land claims. In violation of international and national law, logging and oil palm companies are clearing and burning vast tracts of ancient forest on a scale often exceeding deforestation rates in the Amazon.

Industrial logging and plantation development in Borneo’s forests have polluted rivers, degraded fragile forest ecosystems and made it difficult for communities to find the forest products they need to survive. Forest destruction has led to a decline in the bird, fish and mammal populations as well as to a loss of medicinal plants, rattan, and palm species. The incursion of roads has enabled poachers to access formerly remote areas, and hillside erosion has led to extreme siltation of watersheds and coral reefs, which are affecting regional and global climate patterns.

Forest destruction has threatened traditional systems of land management and inflicted poverty, pollution, and social disintegration on once thriving communities. Efforts to protect remaining forests through blockades, demonstrations, and court cases have been met with repression and brutality on the part of government agencies and corporations. As forest resources have been depleted, economic pressures have driven young people to leave their communities in search of employment. Industrial appropriation of Indigenous land has compelled traditionally nomadic tribes to settle and start farming, as their basic needs can no longer be fulfilled by forest resources.  Communities in transition to a settled lifestyle have little access to education and health facilities.

The state of Sarawak simultaneously acknowledges Indigenous land rights while seeking to limit Indigenous land rights in a variety of ways. Indigenous communities have long traditions and customs, or adat, regarding land rights, and each community is considered to own a territory, legally referred to as Native Customary Rights (NCR). While the state has acknowledged that there are between 1.5 and 2.8 million hectares of NCR in Sarawak, they have not revealed where exactly the NCR land is, leaving communities unsure of whether or not their land is officially recognized as NCR.

Many communities have tried to gain legal recognition of NCR land through expensive court cases that may last many years. In a large number of these cases the court has limited the amount of land that communities can claim, significantly reducing their traditional territory. Furthermore, communities must prove they have lived in an area since 1958, which is challenging for longhouse communities and functionally impossible for traditionally nomadic communities like the Penan. These are just some of the many elements discouraging communities from attempting to gain legal recognition for their land. This situation in turn makes it easier for companies to gain access to land that should be recognized as NCR, resulting in repeated encroachment and violations of NCR, and creating an inherently high-risk environment for companies claiming or attempting to respect Indigenous rights. 

Read more about land rights in Borneo

Read more about conservation in Borneo