Borneo, Boundaries, and borders: Merasa Village by Sherri Harvey

In honor of International Endangered Species Day, May 21st, 2021, Sher Harvey will be bringing you a series of posts about her journey to Borneo, spotlighting the ecological challenges and resilience of this region. This post is Part III of a IV-Part series describing the destruction of the jungle in Borneo and the many issues surrounding this worldwide controversy. Our goal is to encourage readers to think about actions to take to become involved. Become an Accidental Advocate today!

The Lesan River relaxes beneath an industrial-size golden-arches bridge wide enough for cars and complete with sidewalks. On both sides of the river, the thick jungle boasts varieties of green as wild tangles of vegetation and dense forest hum with buzzing and chirping. Crossing the Lesan, the tiny village sits on both sides of an old concrete air strip that runs parallel to the river. For the people living alongside the river, the water has many purposes: it’s a source of travel, a source of water and a source of protection. Often, backpackers come to spend a few nights with the Bornean Dayak tribe that calls this place home.

As you enter into Merasa Village, a sign greets visitors with “Welcome! The first step to success is believing that our story is successful.” Walking down main street, the matchstick houses are long, skinny, brightly colored and festive, built up high to avoid drowning in the long and arduous wet season. Boats are tethered to the house legs and docked on land in preparation for torrential rains. The wooden structures exhibit Dayak Benua Baru art and Dayak Culture signs...a woman with the long ears and tattoos, faces with flowing geometrical curly white and orange spires, scenes of jungle life, and faces adorned with war paint, all decorate the houses.

Dayak Art

The land surrounding the mine is barren of the flora and fauna that once helped with the delicate balance between the natural world and the Dayak culture’s daily necessities. Borneo's native cultures are usually referred to collectively as "Dayak," a term that covers a multitude of ethnic groups. The Dayak, once headhunters before the colonization of the Dutch in 1891, used to rule the remote parts of the island. Now in 2020, one of the tribes lives at the bald head of the mountain top carved with lines that lead into a cavernous open mouth in the land. The mine has created new broders, new lines, new rules--for people and animals. And not just mining alone, and not just this mine. The once-borderless jungle is now faced with the interruption of clear-cut swathes to make way for a multitude of extraction industries. Mining, land conversion, illegal logging, poor forest management, and forest fires have threatened the existence of the jungle.

On three sides of this village, the borders are natural and intentional. The river, the jungle, and one main road encase the village. These boundaries separate the jungle from the village in delicate balance with the lives that have been dependent on it for thousands of years. But on the fourth side, what used to be jungle is now a mine.

In this part of Kalimantan, home of the Merasa Village, land has been charred by peat fires set for clearing purposes to create industrial palm oil plantations and harvest timber, oil, rubber and minerals. Since the 1980s, millions of hectares of rainforest have gone up in flames to create land for crops. The natural habitat of millions of species has been leveled at a rate unparalleled in human history.

While the benefits of this land redevelopment boost economic growth, increased financial and educational opportunity for the Dayak, the downside of these businesses that increase boundaries is the lost balance of the natural habitat so crucial to the health of the region as well as the well-being of the entire world. These extractive industries have and continue to create boundaries for all living things trapped somewhere within the lines.

Paths of the wild orangutan, rhinos, elephants, and sun bears and other additional species have been interrupted from poaching, starvation from lack of wild food resources, and being stolen and trafficked into the illegal pet trade. This is not solely an orangutan issue, according to Orangutan.org. Because the animals end up on dead-end, clear cut land, or in the few remaining areas where there is water and shade akin to their original habitat, their living space is shrinking, making capturing and selling them as pets or bushmeat easier. In the case of sun bears, they are sold to bear bile farms that harvest bile for chinese medicine. Blocked borders are only one of the issues that contribute to the loss of wildlife.

With the ever-constant threat of poaching, wildlife trafficking, bushmeat sales, habitat loss and climate change, Borneo may soon face the very real possibility of losing some of its most iconic wildlife. Furthermore, according to HowtoConserve.org, the industries that promise to eradicate poverty, educate inhabitants and increase income only exacerbate the human-wildlife conflict.

However, there are forces at work to combat this extractive destruction and offer possible solutions. Conservation groups such as The Orangutan Project, and Orangutan Foundation International work to save wildlife of all kinds and increase awareness about the necessity of all wildlife for the Dayak tribes. These groups also work to reduce conflicts with wild animals by guiding their movements in developed areas through creating wildlife corridors which can be defined as areas of preserved native habitat in human-dominated regions that provide wildlife with a safe pathway as they travel between larger areas of intact habitat.The conservation organizations also build community around the work of saving and caring for these animals by educating and employing the people who live there to help them understand the value of the wildlife for an intact jungle, and a symbiotic ecosystem.

Ecotourism is another possible solution. Companies like Orangutan Odysseys help by funding projects that aim to combat the forces that create these borders and destroy the habitat. They foster and encourage a respect for the wildlife by offering educational jungle-trekking, foster relationships with the Dayak village life through home-stays and traditional cultural celebrations, facilitate relationships between the tribes and the businesses, and offer educational and employment opportunities for the people in the region. Ecotourism outfits owned and operated by local communities, rather than corporations, can uplift entire impoverished regions by providing additional job opportunities to boost the local economy.

The truth still remains that Borneo's rainforests face extinction. Today the forests of Borneo are but a shadow of the original landscape once home to the Dayak and villages like Merasa Village. While education, wildlife corridors, awareness and opportunity will help, more needs to be done. If Borneo's jungle is to be saved, it will require universal recognition of the value of forests as healthy and productive ecosystems. We need to find a way to stop the divisive nature big companies use to thrive. We need to find unifying solutions for businesses, native landowners, animals, and outsiders who want to make a difference.

We could all agree that the interests that work to destroy forests need to be held accountable for the true costs of environmental degradation. Financial incentives for local people to shift behavior also need to be enhanced. Support for wildlife conservation, exposure for the animals caught in the crossfire, alternatives like corridors and malleable fences could all help in the progress of this region. Mongabay talks about the ideas that a knowledge-based service economy over an extractive one could be the key for the survival of the complex intricacy of the rainforest jungle.

Additionally, we need to work together to improve the various and multi-faceted border relationships, both literally and figuratively, that are destroying the most biologically-diverse forests in the world. Other things you could do to help? BE AN ETHICAL CONSUMER. Avoid purchasing products containing palm oil and derivatives, and contact companies to request they cease using this ecologically harmful product.

Today, more than ever, nature shows us how vulnerable nature actually is. Rather than feeling guilty for the things we were taught before we knew better, we need to start voting with our dollars and trying to make a difference in any little way we can for the future of the rainforest, its inhabitants and the entire world. Additionally, we can also ask ourselves, no matter where we are in the world, who do borders and boundaries actually serve? In the words of poet Robert Frost, do good fences really make good neighbors ?

Sher Harvey in Kutai Village
Created By
Sherri Harvey