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Story Publication logo February 8, 2011

Sarawak and Brunei: Contrasts in Conservation

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If the Malay Peninsula is wet, then Sarawak, which makes up roughly half of Malaysian Borneo, positively drips, squishes and coats the skin with moisture. Its long serpentine rivers flow from the island's interior and carry down copious amounts of silt, much more so these days after decades of out-of-control logging that has now reached the Indonesian border.

Malaysia is a federation of states, and the states of Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo have greater autonomy than the states sitting on the Malay Peninsula. Visitors on domestic flights from the peninsula must clear a separate immigration checkpoint in order to enter Sarawak. As a result of this autonomy, Sarawak faces little meddling from the central government regarding its pro-logging, pro-petroleum business model.

Oil palm production, a lucrative but environmentally destructive bio-fuel crop, is not nearly as far along in its development here as in peninsular Malaysia, but Sarawak is making up for lost time. In seemingly inevitable progression, oil palm plantations are creeping inward from the coast as quickly as the loggers decimate the rainforest.

My ultimate destination in the interior, Long Lellang, has just two flights per week in a twin propeller airplane about the size of a Toyota van. The other two options are a weeklong journey by longboat, which is no longer done except in grave emergency, or by logging roads in four-wheel drive vehicles--with a price tag similar to a Tokyo to New York round trip airfare.

So, while cooling my heels in the gritty timber and oil town of Bintulu on the coast, and researching my options, one line jumped off the page: "you can cut cross country via a concrete logging road, which links up (Belaga) with the main north-south coastal highway." Belaga is a river town a long day's ride by express longboat up Sarawak's Rejang River. What better way to measure the changes to the interior than a new sealed road cutting straight into the heart of Borneo? Emphasis here is on the word "new" because change advances most quickly up newly built roads in tropical rainforests worldwide.

The road, however, is not really intended to serve Belaga. The town is simply not important enough to merit such a major road-building undertaking. In fact, the road exists to service the Bakun hydroelectric dam, the world's second tallest concrete-faced, rock-filled dam, and highly controversial from the beginning.

I have followed the on-again-off-again project since the mid-1990s. Critics claim the dam is an unnecessary trophy project that offered loggers the opportunity to clear cut the massive, Singapore-sized area to be inundated, while about 11,000 Dayak people had to be forcibly relocated.

It was evident from the start of the drive that the road sliced like a fresh incision into a place that was largely cut off from the outside world. Soon, though, the pavement decayed into a series of axle-snapping potholes—the result of heavy usage by rampaging logging trucks.

Entering the mountains, remnants of a massive forest struggled to hold on to the eroding ridges as ever-expanding orange mud landslips scarred the steep green slopes.

Most telling, oil palm plantations were beginning to colonize this newly opened wild place. The Dayak communities seemed to have abandoned most of their wet paddy and hill rice cultivation in favor of this new cash crop. They could buy their rice and fruit with hard cash now. I found myself wondering what would happen if the global price for palm oil fell, especially for the oil palms planted where there used to be rotating, sustainable, swidden (traditional slash and burn) agriculture. Oil palm occupied the former swidden fields. There was no longer any rotation for fallow years to restore fertility, no topsoil left, and no way of going back to this type of farming because the marginal soil had already washed away.

After 150 kilometers of dodging potholes, miraculously (or maybe not), a pristine forest reappeared just in time to create a theatrical approach to the Bakun Dam. Three hours of slow driving through deforestation suddenly gave way to 20 minutes of intact forest right in front of the dam. (The road surface suddenly became flawless too.) There was an almost Soviet flavor to the choreographed "green" entrance to this environment-shattering project.

Unsmiling guards turned me away from the front gate. They informed me that the concrete road did not, in fact, extend to Belaga, only a 30-kilometer muddy track did. I would have to retrace my tracks back down to the coast because there was not a single town along the entire route.

A few days later, my flight into Long Lellang takes off from the city of Miri, which sits very close to the border with Brunei, an independent, oil-rich sultanate. Brunei has a literacy rate of 94 percent and an average life expectancy of 77 years. Citizens are given a pension, free education and subsidies to purchase many goods, including automobiles, but what interested me most was that there is almost no logging in Brunei. In fact, the Sarawak-Brunei border is visible from space, drawn by a green line of old growth forest that still carpets Brunei versus Sarawak's shaved appearance.

Sarawak's famous Gunung Mulu National Park, which sits right on the border, is dwarfed by a pristine forest on the Brunei side of the border almost four times as large.

I write this several hundred kilometers inland in Sarawak, and only here is there forest (already surveyed for logging) comparable to the pristine forest in Brunei. Gone were the café latte-colored, silt-choked rivers of the heavily logged areas. Instead, a wide river ran tea-black and clear.

Not that long ago, all of Borneo was enveloped in this kind of intact forest, from the coast to the mountains. Sarawak, like Brunei, has petroleum, but Brunei has chosen to preserve its forest or, at least, leave it alone. If the petroleum runs out, will Brunei's forest suffer the same fate as Sarawak's? Will they shift from petroleum to oil palm?

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