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Finding Eden: a Journey into the Heart of Borneo

  • Written by  Robin Hanbury-Tenison
  • Published in Explorers
Finding Eden: a Journey into the Heart of Borneo
04 Apr
In this exclusive extract from his newest book, founder and president of Survival International, Robin Hanbury-Tenison OBE, looks back on the legacy of his ground-breaking 1977 Royal Geographical Society expedition into the interior of Borneo

Robin Hanbury-Tenison OBE is a founder and current president of Survival International, and was one of the first people to bring the plight of the rainforests to the world’s attention. He has been a Gold Medallist of the RGS-IBG, winner of the Pio Manzu Award, an International Fellow of the Explorers Club and a Fellow of the Linnean Society. Described by the Spectator as ‘the doyen of British explorers’, he was also a regular columnist for Geographical throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

We came to Mulu [in 1977] at the end of a golden age. We were so lucky to be there just then. There were worries about how the logging industry was beginning to accelerate, but no one imagined how bad it was about to be. It was only 15 years after independence and everyone, from the chief minister to the local civil servants, the RMAF and especially the local Dayak people, was supportive of what we were doing and sterling in their help. After we left, having produced perhaps the most definitive Management Plan ever of a national park, one which demonstrated scientifically and unequivocally the dangers of uncontrolled deforestation, things began to go downhill. At the same time as our research and publications were sparking the global movement to protect rainforests everywhere, in Sarawak the granting of logging licences and the rate of destruction accelerated exponentially.

Over the next 20 years and thereafter, according to The Economist, Sarawak has lost more than 90 per cent of its lowland primary forests to logging and has had the fastest rate of deforestation in Asia. This has been accompanied by abuses against indigenous groups, including harassment and illegal evictions, while allegations of corruption and abuse of public office have dogged successive chief ministers, who have retained firm control over the granting of logging licences.

In November 2015, the twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP) took place in Paris. We now have the best chance of saving the planet from the damage we are doing to it. More than 190 countries agreed in Paris to keep global temperature rise this century well below 2ºC and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels. And the role of rainforests is not only being highlighted once again, but their significance is being quantified. Because at last the scientific community is beginning to accept and put up-to-date figures on what our Mulu scientists were saying 40 years ago. Not chopping forests down is the best way of controlling levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and limiting the impact of climate change. Trees capture carbon more efficiently than any man-made technology. It is pretty obvious really, when you think about it for a moment, but it has taken until now for t he scientific community to wake up to this fact.

Finding Eden Read our review of Finding Eden here

What we are all trying to do now, rather desperately and at the last moment – to recycle and reduce carbon dioxide – has been done throughout the ages and is being done today by the world’s plants and trees. They pump out 120 billion tonnes of carbon every year. (Man-made emissions account for about ten billion tonnes.) But even better, they then breathe it all in again plus another 1.6 billion tonnes. In other words, they scrub global carbon-dioxide emissions more effectively than any man-made procedure can. And yet every year we cut down, clear or burn 32 million acres of forest, an area about the size of the whole of Sarawak. This releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, about the same amount as all the cars, boats and planes in the world. Worse, it weakens the planet’s natural ability to cure the problem. In Paris this ridiculous state of affairs has at last been addressed seriously, but, as ever, short-term politics and greed are likely to get in the way.

It is self-evident that when practising hunting and gathering the Penan do live in harmony with nature. The very idea of doing this has become a cliché in modern times and yet, without having to emulate their lives, which Western people would find impossible, we live in an era when it is once again possible to do so. The Penan move through the forest harvesting the sago and wild boar in a cycle which, provided the forest remains intact, is eminently sustainable. Their energy requirement is minimal: just some damar gum, gathered from a dipterocarp tree to light their sulaps at night and perhaps some torch batteries acquired by trade. Twenty-first century society demands a lot of energy for almost everything we do and this has been a major contributor to the environmental destruction the world has experienced. Coal and oil have fuelled global warming, while biofuel production from palm oil in South East Asia and soya beans in Brazil has contributed to the removal of rainforests.

The replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy, a substitution which is happening faster than most of us can still barely comprehend, means that we can continue to enjoy modernity – everything from travel to iPhones to heating and air-conditioning – without ruining our environment in the process. What is more, if we could just stop fighting each other for long enough, we could design a world where there would be ample food for all, and that is the only way to start reducing our population. Because the only effective birth control is prosperity, whether for a self-sufficient nomad with no need to produce excess children, or for an affluent Scandinavian.

The demographic density of a society like the Penan living well off a rich habitat can be greater than the same land will produce when cleared. We established a nomadic Penan population of almost 500 in and around Mulu when it still had an extensive buffer zone. Although they were largely invisible, they were just as numerous as the various Berawan, Kenyah and Kayan people living away from the rivers. Research in the Amazon basin is increasingly revealing just how large the Indian population was before the conquistadores brought the European diseases which wiped most of them out. Today the substitution of the forest Indians with a handful of cattle ranchers when the rainforest is cleared and replaced with poor grazing on barren laterite can be compared with the supplanting of not just the Penan but also the self-sufficient longhouse communities on the rivers with indentured labourers toiling in the palm-oil plantations.

The Penan have been aware of the surrounding societies for thousands of years and have evolved their own extraordinarily highly developed cosmos both of beliefs and of knowledgeable relationships with all life. Is anything more important than this? All we, as human beings, can really do is to attempt to understand our environment and then manage it in the most appropriate way. This is what makes us different from animals: consciousness.

Nyapun, when I met him, epitomised this. He was the most complete man I have ever known. He understood and managed everything about him: his family, his daily life. He was acutely aware of each plant, animal and insect. He was intensely at home in his world. Beyond that, he had a spiritual aura about him, the sort of subtle radiation described in much religious art – in Christianity as a halo. In group photographs he glows. He was also very mindful of the changes looming on his horizon. That was why he regarded the arrival of our expedition in general and me, as his special friend, in particular with such intense interest and affection.

In a way, my special feelings for Nyapun have informed my general desire, through Survival International, to try to endorse the right of all tribal people to be recognised as at least as advanced as any of the myriad human societies that have evolved over time. The comparisons in terms of quality of life with our own Western materialism are ones we should all consider with due humility.

Penan huts in BorneoPenan huts in Borneo

Of course, there have been many places where efficient agriculture has replaced forest clearance, although usually without the consent of any tribal people living there, and not all deforestation results in desertification. However, today most of the richer lowland has been taken over by modern agriculture, for better or worse, and only the more inaccessible and higher land is left and still clothed with rich and diverse vegetation. This should not just be preserved for conservation reasons. It should be recognised as belonging to the people who have always lived there to cherish and manage, which they will do far better than any modern scientists or development engineers ever could.

When we lived in Mulu in 1977-1978, Sarawak was still a Garden of Eden, occupied for millennia by man but largely undisturbed by him. Borneo was the richest, greenest island in the world. In 1959, in an article titled ‘An inward journey’ for the Sarawak Gazette, Tom Harrisson described the view from 3,000 metres: not a trace of human life anywhere below, just endless jungle, mountain, and torrent, ineffably dark green. For thirty or forty miles, run range after range after range of sandstone ridges, cut with waterways, aged and feeling infinitely ancient. This way, quite lost in the air-world, one realises the tremendous scale of Borneo’s interior and the almost insignificant effect man has had upon it.

This was how it still looked to us 20 years later. Alas! No more. Today, flying over the country is a depressing business. Large swathes are covered in the regular patchwork quilts of palm-oil plantations and most of the remaining forested areas have ominous red scars winding through them, as the loggers prepare to invade the last and most inaccessible regions. There are still pristine places to be found, like the remoter highlands and Mulu, although few are privileged, as I was in 2014, to travel through the rarely visited interior of the park. An impression of what most of Borneo used to look like can be gained from the raised walkways and the well-marked paths, and the ‘Interpretation Centre’ is a model of its kind; but the immense lungs of the country are gone, most of the rivers no longer run clear and blue, and far too much of the diversity upon which all life, not least man, depends is no more.

The reasons I have written this book are to record what life was like at that time in a still-pristine rainforest in Borneo, with people who were still leading their traditional lives; a time when the scientific research we were doing was changing the way rainforests were viewed; when Survival International was young and still seeking its role in defending the rights of tribal people, so that my time spent among some of the last truly nomadic people in the world, who were also highly articulate and aware of their problems, was intensely rewarding and stimulating. That environment and those people have changed so rapidly since I was there that a glimpse into that past, partly seen through the eyes of my dear old friend, Nyapun, who showed me so much, may be of interest. It is never too late to begin to put things right. Nature is wonderfully resilient, and so are the people of the forest. Even today, when everything looks so bleak, the forests that are left would expand if they were allowed to do so, and those who have lived there for millennia would cherish and manage them better than we ever could, if they were put in charge. That is all we ask.

Finding Eden – A Journey Into the Heart of Borneo by Robin Hanbury-Tenison is available now from IB Tauris, RRP £17.99 (hardback). Click here to purchase via Amazon.

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