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Borneo’s ‘biocultural holocaust’: an interview with author Alex Shoumatoff

  • Over the past half century, we’ve laid waste to the rainforests of Borneo thanks to humanity’s demand for food, fuel, and fiber.
  • The Wasting of Borneo, a new book by Alex Shoumatoff, chronicles some of Borneo’s staggering losses
  • Shoumatoff is a former writer and editor for The New Yorker, Outside, Condé Nast Traveler, and Vanity Fair who Donald Trump once called “the greatest writer in America”.

Over the past half century, we’ve laid waste to the rainforests of Borneo. Fed by our insatiable demand for food, fuel, and fiber, vast tracts of cathedral-like landscape across the island have been torn down, burned, flooded, and dug up, replaced by industrial plantations, scorched scrublands, reservoirs, and open pit mines. Forest inhabitants ranging from endangered orangutans to nomadic tribespeople like the Penan have lost their homes and ways of life.

A new book by Alex Shoumatoff — a former writer and editor for The New Yorker, Outside, Condé Nast Traveler, and Vanity Fair who Donald Trump once called “the greatest writer in America” — chronicles some of Borneo’s staggering losses, including the rapid destruction of the island’s biological and cultural heritage, which he likens to a “biocultural holocaust”. Yet Shoumatoff also finds reasons for hope, including the inspiring efforts of activists and environmentalists like the famed orangutan primatologist Birute Galdikas and Penan tribesmen who are fighting to save Borneo’s last wild areas.

The Wasting of Borneo, which is now available in print and digital download, is the eleventh book by the widely-traveled Shoumatoff. Mongabay caught up with the author during a June 2017 interview.


Alex Shoumatoff with a local berry-picker in Verkhoyansk, Siberia, on assignment for Vanity Fair story about how global warming is making more oil available in the Russian Arctic. Photo provided by Alex Shoumatoff.
Alex Shoumatoff with a local berry-picker in Verkhoyansk, Siberia, on assignment for Vanity Fair story about how global warming is making more oil available in the Russian Arctic. Photo provided by Alex Shoumatoff.


Mongabay: You’ve traveled the world. Why did you choose Borneo as focus of your latest book?

Alex Shoumatoff: Having spent a lot of time and had life-changing experiences and encounters in the Amazon and Equatorial African rain forests, I had long wanted to get to Borneo, the third-largest and the most ancient and species-dense rain forest, or forest of any kind, on the planet, twice as old as the Amazon’s, 135 as opposed to 65 million years old, with all kinds of amazing creatures like orangutans and the Rajah Brooke birdwing, the butterfly with the greatest wingspan, many of its insect and plant species still unknown to science.

The opportunity came in 2012, after a piece I did for elephants and the ivory trade for Vanity Fair, which took me to nine countries on three continents in six weeks, went unexpectedly viral and helped ignite the ongoing global campaign to stop the slaughter of Africa’s elephants for their ivory, which is making significant progress, particularly on the Asian consumer end.

As a follow-up piece I went on another global reporting safari, this time to report on the latest discoveries in cognitive ethology, that animals — elephants being a prime example — have much more going on mentally, emotionally, and morally than they’ve been given credited for, and to experience as many different animals and people who interact with them as possible. I started in Maine with a raven called Rasputin and ended up in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, at Dr. Birute Galdikas’s orangutan care center outside the city of Pankalanbun.

(left) Borneo orangutan at a rescue facility in Central Kalimantan. (right) Birute Galdikas with a rescued Bornean orangutan. Courtesy of Alex Shoumatoff

I had long wanted to meet Dr. Galdikas, the third of Louis Leakey’s “angels”— young women with little scientific training but pronounced nurturing qualities— he sent to the study the great apes and organize their protection: Jane Goodall (with whom I have been having great conversations for years) to the chimpanzees; Dian Fossey to the mountain gorillas (whose murder in l986 I wrote about in a piece that was made into the movie “Gorillas In the Mist”); and Birute Mary Galdikas, whom I only knew from her poignant autobiography, Reflections of Eden. We became good friends and the orangutans were really approachable, incredible facial mimics. We drove out to one of her research stations, where she had released dozens of the orphaned, abandoned, rescued, or confiscated orangutans that keep being brought to her care center. Along the way there we drove past, on our left, fifty miles of nothing but row after row of oil palm trees going back to a hazy blue ridgeline maybe 30 miles in the distance. The trees were sagging with fruit from which palm oil is pressed, and shipped all over the world, where it is an ingredient in hundreds of modern products from cookies to shampoo, lipstick, and biodiesel fuel. India, where palm oil has replaced ghee as the main cooking oil, is the biggest market in this ever-growing $50 billion a year industry, which has become pan tropical. with oil-palm plantations in countries like Liberia, Colombia, Uganda, Thailand, Nigeria, Honduras, Guatemala, and Peru. Most of the oil is produced in Indonesia, then Malaysia. Huge areas of the lowland Borneo rain forest has been cut, burned, and converted to rows of oil-palm trees like the ones flickering past.

There is almost no available rain forest left in central Kalimantan where Dr. Galdikas can release her rescued orangutans. Few Americans are aware of their complicity in this far-away biocultural holocaust. Half the household products in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia contain palm oil. Not even I was, and I had written a piece called “A Day in the Life of a Modern Consumer,” which traced the far-off impacts of the things we consume, like coltan, the rare metal with a high melting point used in the capacitors of cellphones and laptops, which is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo by guys digging up stream beds in the Ituri Forest who are living off the wild game, including okapis and lowland gorillas. But this tragedy, that palm oil is killing the orangutans, was not on my radar. I knew I had to write about it.

The following year, 2013, I had a book contract with Beacon Press and an assignment from Smithsonian Press, and I went to Sarawak, the Malaysian state in northwestern Borneo, and camped in the rain forest in the heart of the island with a band of Penan hunter-gatherers who were still semi-nomadic and hunted with blowguns and lived in raised huts they made of poles and rattan vines, making a new camp every few months. A Chinese logging company was trying to cut the big trees, the emergent dipterocarps, in their 3000-hectare forest territory. Their backs were to the wall. The Penan’s culture and animistic world-view were dying. Only a few elders of the 10,000-or-so eastern Penan still knew the names of the 1500 most common trees species and their associated spirits, or knew about the eight other worlds besides this one in their traditional cosmology, or the old suket, the myths that explained how animals and humans came to be the way they are. The young Penan weren’t learning the secret signs, made from leaves and split branches, which the members of their band used to communicate with each other when moving around in the forest. Most of the 80 Penan communities are now living in settled longhouses and watching t.v. and facebooking on cellphones. They are more transitional than traditional, in Jared Diamond’s distinction, like most indigenous people in the world.

Alex Shoumatoff and orangutan conservationist Birute Galdikas at the Humane Society of America’s 2011 awards gala at the Beverly Hilton where Shoumatoff received the best print media award for his Vanity Fair story “Agony and Ivory”.

Mongabay: What was your most memorable experience during the writing of The Wasting of Borneo?

Alex Shoumatoff: Dr. Galdikas and I arrived at the research station with a pick-up full of durian fruit. There was a welcoming committee of a dozen or so of the orangutans who had had heard us coming— they knew the sound of her truck and had come down from the trees and were waiting for us in the clearing. She passed out the durians, the orangutans pigged out on them and they then returned to the forest to make hammocks of branches and leaves to sleep in for the night, and we went into the research station for a bowl of soup with the station manager and two researchers. All of a sudden, as we were sitting on the floor, an orange furry hand reaches around the door and unlatches it, and in comes Kristen, an extremely intelligent orangutan, who sits with us, ties her napkin around her neck and spoons up her soup without a slurp and gives each person as they were speaking her undivided attention, like the Queen; then, when she has finished, she folds her napkin, puts her spoon beside her bowl, and gets up and lets herself out. Nobody taught her that, Birute tells me. She learned by watching.

Alex Shoumatoff in Borneo in 2013 and with the Mekranoti Cayapo in the Brazilian Amazon in l975.

Mongabay: What was the most surprising thing you encountered or learned during your time with the Penan?

Alex Shoumatoff: The complexity of their cosmology, the nine worlds, nine different realms and realities, they were juggling, the complex web of correspondences and reciprocities they had with the animals and plants they were living with, which the ethnolinguist and ethnohistorian of the Penan Ian Mackenzie did his best to help me understand. He explained that humans have sahe or spirit doubles, which remain separate from us while we are alive, but act as our spiritual representatives in whichever of the three afterworlds we go to when we die. Animals, trees, streams, mountains, waterfalls have spirits, or balei, which take care of them and wander freely among the nine worlds. There are as many races of bale as there are genera of animals and plants.

There were some amazing convergences with the Awá hunter-gatherers in easternmost Brazilian Amazonia— the other side of the world— I had visited six months before: the men bring in not only the adult monkeys or wild pigs they have killed, but their orphaned children, who are raised by the women and children of the band as members of the family until they are old enough to go back to the forest on their own, and the men recognize them when they are hunting and leave them alone.

The Penan were further down the road to acculturation, to becoming members of the global consumer society, than the Awá, 55 of whom are still uncontacted. They were all devout evangelical Protestants. They needed money now. Some were even working for the logging companies and oil-palm growers who were destroying their forest world and way of life. But it was a real privilege to camp with their band, who were still living more or less the way humans have lived throughout our history on the planet for all but the last ten thousand years, to get a sense of the connections with other living things we modern people have lost and that the last people, like the Penan and the Awá, living in equilibrium with, part of their ecosystems, still have. The “Bushmen” and “Pygmies” are other examples. But only a few hundred San (Bushmen) are living like this.

An indigenous Penan man roasting a wild pig in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by Varial Cedric Houin (
An indigenous blockade of Baram Dam in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by Varial Cedric Houin (

Mongabay: Did you get a sense that the Penan you stayed with are aware of the broader trends that are affecting their forest home and culture?

Alex Shoumatoff: They were certainly aware of the immediate threat of the Chinese logging company that was offering thirty bucks to each of them to take out their big trees, whose lumber was worth millions. A well-dressed management-type guy in a fancy new pick-up kept driving below our camp on the ridge, to see if Cedric, Davie, and I had left. Our translator, who came from another band, was the son of a chief who organized blockades against the loggers in the l970s and was eventually murdered by the company that wanted to cut the trees in his forest home.

The young chief had been to Miri, the coastal city we set out from and to Kuala Lumpur, and had seen the tossing oceans of oil-palm trees in the lowlands of Malaysia. He knew the score, and in the end his band’s 3,000-acre forest territory was saved. Last year the people of Sarawak elected a new chief minister, who replaced the nonagenarian Mahmud Taib, who had brought Sarawak into the modern world and made billions in the process from timber and oil-palm concessions and hydroelectric dam-building for himself and his family and cronies, and laid waste to most of the state’s rain forest. The new chief minister is more sensitive to the situation of the Orang Ulu, or People of the Headwaters, as the Penan and other indigenous peoples in the heart of the island are called. He put a stop to the Baram dam, a megaproject that would have displaced 25,000 Orang Ulu and flooded their forest, and then to the entire needless and ecologically calamitous hydro-dam building program.

Penan man in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by Varial Cedric Houin (
Logged rainforest timber in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by Varial Cedric Houin (

Mongabay: Is there anything the Penan can teach us in the West about how to live in better balance with the planet?

Alex Shoumatoff: Like many nomadic hunter-gatherers, they have a concept they call molong, which means you don’t take any more than you need, you tread lightly on the land and have a small ecological footprint, in our lingo. This has all kinds of modern applications, starting with reducing and changing what we are consuming. We can do without Doritos, for instance, which are saturated with palm oil. We can pressure PepsiCo, which makes Doritos and other greasy snacks, not to source from oil-palm growers who are still clearing and burning rainforest or are indenturing poor families and children as virtual slave labor on their plantations. How, of course, you are going to reinforce and verify compliance with such measures is another matter. Pepsico is one of the major bad actors. Google sustainable palm oil, say no to palm oil, and conflict palm oil to find out who the activist groups and who the bad actors are. As a Penan elder told me sadly, money is killing the world. I couldn’t agree more. Not just in Borneo, everywhere. Half the individual animals that were alive in l970 have been killed, according to a five-decade metastudy by the World Wildlife Fund. And this “sixth extinction” is not just about species of fauna and flora. Traditional indigenous cultures and their languages and ecological knowledge are dying out daily. Money— the desire for personal wealth— is driving the destruction of the planet’s biocultural diversity as much as population growth and the need for more habitat. I don’t think it can be stopped— nature, history, will take its course— but the damage can be mitigated.

Penan hunter in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by Varial Cedric Houin (

Mongabay: The outlook for progress in addressing climate change has dimmed markedly in recent months with the U.S. abandoning leadership on environmental issues and political developments in Brazil. Given the sensitivity of Borneo’s forests to drought and global demand for raw materials, do you see any reasons for optimism?

Alex Shoumatoff: While Borneo’s deforestation rates are lower than they were in the 1980s and 90s— when they were the highest ever anywhere in the history of the planet— the remaining rain forest, including peat forest, continues to be cleared. Some years, when peat forest is cut and burned, at the onset of the monsoon, the expected rains do not come, and the mat of combustible vegetable matter the trees were growing on burns for months, enveloping southeast Asia in a pall of black smoke. In l997 the smoke drifted all the way to Japan. I was at the international climate change conference in Kyoto and we could all smell it. That year the peat fires released 2.57 billion tons of carbon, equivalent to 40% of the average annual global carbon emissions from fossil fuels. It happened again in 2003-4 and in 2015-6, when thousands of orangutans died of starvation and thousands of people in Kalimantan were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. All the oil-palm growers, if they want to be truly sustainable, should not cut any more native forest in their concessions. All the countries that have peat forest should ban its incineration, starting with Indonesia, which has the most. Huge penalties should be imposed on peat-forest conversions. The only sustainable palm oil is zero further deforestation.

Alex Shoumatoff in the Grand Canyon in the 1970s.

Mongabay: What is the top message you hope people take away from The Wasting of Borneo?

Alex Shoumatoff: I hope it awakens readers to the endless fascination and the fragility of what is out there and inspires them to get involved in stemming far-away biocultural holocausts like this, to go to places like Borneo and see what is happening with their own eyes, what is being lost and can still be saved with a collective effort from concerned global citizens.

Alex Shoumatoff with Donald Trump at Trump’s golf course in Palm Beach, Floria while reporting a Vanity Fair story about golf resort he was trying to build — and eventually succeeded in building — in Aberdeen, Scotland.


By Alex Shoumatoff:
Dispatches From the Vanishing World
The Wasting of Borneo

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