Conservation news

Recovering conservationist: Q&A with orangutan ecologist June Mary Rubis

KUCHING, Malaysia — For more than a decade, June Mary Rubis has worked on orangutan conservation in Borneo. The critically endangered apes face a bleak future there, hammered by habitat loss to plantations and mines, poached for the illegal pet trade, and exterminated by farmers.

While working for an international NGO in Borneo, Rubis was involved in orangutan education programs for indigenous peoples. She interacted with the communities and studied their dynamic relationship with the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). And as her understanding of the connection between indigenous peoples and orangutans deepened, she came to realize that most of the orangutan conservation work being done failed to accommodate the complexity of this relationship.

Rubis also concluded that most conservationists unfairly blamed indigenous peoples for orangutan deaths. The communities thus felt discouraged from getting involved in efforts to protect the animal, she said.

“That’s when I felt we’re not really addressing the issue, and there’s so many intersecting factors at play,” said Rubis, a doctoral candidate with the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford in the U.K. and a member of the Bidayuh-Dayak ethnic group from the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo.

The Batang Ai landscape where the Iban indigenous group has lived and shaped these forests for more than 300 years. The region is also home to orangutans. Image by June Mary Rubis.

Rubis gave a plenary talk at the 2018 conference of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation in Kuching, Malaysia, on July 1, titled “Seeing the Utan from the Orang: Field-notes from a Recovering Conservationist.” In Malay, utan means forest and orang means people; “orangutan” literally means “people of the forest.”

In her speech, Rubis drew on her ethnographic research in 2015 and 2016 in Batang Ai, Sarawak, and her 12-year stint in conservation field work and management in Malaysia’s Sarawak and Sabah states, as well as Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province. She reflected on mainstream conservation narratives, politics, and power relations around orangutan conservation in Sarawak and elsewhere in Borneo. She also described the reasons why the Ibans, the largest indigenous Dayak ethnic group in Sarawak, resisted these conservation narratives, and the strategies Dayak communities employ to uphold their rights to contested landscapes.

Mongabay’s Basten Gokkon spoke to Rubis after her talk.

June Mary Rubis. Image by Basten Gokkon.

Mongabay: What do you mean by “Seeing the Utan from the Orang?”

June Mary Rubis: What I wanted to emphasize with the title is that we tend to focus more on orangutans as charismatic species looking at the animal, as opposed to the habitat or the forest or the landscape that it lives in, not just by itself but with people and other wildlife and other plants and flora. So it was sort of just a play with words to remind ourselves of where the orangutan lives and to see the landscape as a whole, with people and other beings and its history.

Why do you call yourself a “recovering conservationist”?

I’ve worked in conservation pretty much in Borneo, in Sarawak, Sabah and Central Kalimantan, for about 12 years. Really passionate about it, I’ve always wanted to be in conservation as long as I can remember. But I think, especially working for international NGOs, I started to feel very disillusioned with how conservation as we know it is being done. So it’s not so much the theme itself that disappoints me, that I’ve sort of moved myself away from, but sort of like saying, stepping away from conservation as we know it, the work. “Recovering” as in: “I’ve been there, I’ve gone through it.” I’m talking from my own personal history and experience, but I’m feeling like there’s another way of doing the work that we care about.

What exactly is “conservation as we know it” and what kind of difference would you like to see?

In a lot of the international NGOs working in tropical countries, what they usually do is come from a conservation perspective. So it’s about assuming that local people or indigenous people living in the areas that you want to protect are an issue: how do you manage them? Not necessarily seeing them as equal partners in what you do, but sort of like: how do we remove them from the situation?

They would have programs and such, but they always come — from my personal feeling — from a paternalistic point of view. It’s like assuming that I know better — whether you’re Western and white, or you’re from Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur or even Kuching — that I know better, I’m educated and you’re doing things that are wrong. So for me, that’s problematic.

And also this Euro-Western historical concept about protected areas — this is what we call “fortress conservation” — means that protected areas need to be fenced off. We need to take local or indigenous people away, and that’s how we’re going to save a forest. That’s how we’re going to make it pristine. But there’s no such thing as pristine forest, as I’ve talked about in my speech. Because people have been living in these forests and landscapes for thousands and thousands of years.

Why is that point of view not necessarily a good thing?

Because it’s an inaccurate way of looking at things. It’s not the whole picture. It’s a picture that “others” people, a picture that puts them in the bad position, and it sort of puts us conservationists in the I-haven’t-done-anything-wrong position. And that in itself makes it really tricky. Because then you’d be imposing programs that may not make sense to indigenous people, and also that may not reflect the reality on the ground.

When I talk about Orientalism, I’m saying that we don’t admit our own sort of responsibilities in where we find ourselves right now and we “other” our own rural relatives as a problem. For example, I’m — as are many in my generation — probably a product of the logging industry that has gone on in Sarawak. We were the first few middle-class Bidayuh-Dayak — those who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s. My dad was one of the first Dayak professionals. He was a medical doctor trained in Canada and who returned to Sarawak in the ’70s. The economy grew very much at the expense of our own native lands. So what happens is that we are taught to feel embarrassed of our rural past. We are taught to be ashamed of our own heritage, to be ashamed of our own local and traditional knowledge as old-fashioned, not relevant, not scientific. I think, in turn, this just perpetuates this ongoing psyche that we’re not good enough.

And what does it mean to be Dayak in the 21st century? And not to appropriate rural identity either, but rather questioning: this is where we are, so what are my responsibilities that go along with my privileges? With this responsibility that I have now as a middle-class, urban Dayak, how do we then speak up and challenge the way development is currently going and where the state is going at the expense of people still living in rural areas and our native customary lands?

Was there any experience that really brought you to this understanding?

When I was working for an international conservation NGO as an orangutan ecologist, my work was going to the ground and counting orangutan nests to estimate the population of orangutans in Sarawak. So we were working really closely with the Iban communities in Batang Ai and hiring them as field workers, and they would take us around the protected areas. At least three or four times we came across orangutan corpses that were shot to death, and that was really shocking to me. And of course I reported it to the local authorities and to my NGO. And I was telling my boss at the time, I said, “It’s really funny because they tell me stories about how they, for example the Ibans, respect the orangutans because the orangutans taught them how to give birth safely.” So there are these wonderful stories that they like to pass on to tourists as well, that they have this sort of affirming relationship with an orangutan. Therefore, they would not kill an orangutan. But how would you then explain the orangutan deaths?

So the conclusion that was made at that time, and which I started to feel really uncomfortable with, was that the local people, the local communities have lost their cultural values. They’ve lost their adat [a Malay term describing a variety of local customary practices and traditions]. So how do we bring back that adat? One way of intervening was through conservation education programs, which meant a team going to the longhouse, and then teaching them about, “Oh, remember your stories about the orangutan and the Ibans?” And sort of reminding them of those stories.

And I felt really uncomfortable at that time and I couldn’t explain it. There were some people in the community that were involved, but it was because a hunter came from the local city and wanted to shoot, for whatever reason. So then I thought, I don’t think we’re targeting the right people if you wanted to do re-education programs. But the assumption then that was made was also — if I’m going to be completely cynical — funders really like pretty photographs. Funders like the idea of working with indigenous communities. It’s less sexy and exciting when you talk about workshops in the towns, and you talk about talking to people located in the cities about hunting. It’s not as exciting as going to a longhouse and doing education programs. So that’s my cynical part. But that’s when I felt we’re not really addressing the issue, and there are so many intersecting factors at play. We don’t know whether the local person who brought that hunter knew that they were going to shoot the orangutan; I think that was just purely by chance. So these were all the questions that I had, and I felt so uncomfortable that we rushed into a program that I felt that we weren’t ready for. And that, in turn, perpetuated a narrative that local communities have lost their cultural values. And they needed to be taught their conservation instincts.

Researchers estimate that the number of orangutans left on Borneo now stands at between 70,000 and 100,000, meaning the population more than halved over the study period which ran from 1999 to 2015. The numbers could fall at least another 45,000 in the next 35 years, the conservationists predict. The real decline could be worse, they warn, because the prediction is based only on habitat loss, and does not include killings. So there is a real urgency in the scientific and conservation community about the projected orangutan population decline, and the news cycle on orangutans are often fatalistic, depressing and very emotional.

However, I think what education programs have actually done, and that’s what I’ve observed for 10 years until now, is that it’s just created more fear with local communities. They completely understand the law because it’s been drummed into their heads. Like, if you find an orangutan that’s shot, you may get into trouble. So that creates a lot of fear and worry, not necessarily creating more love or interest for the orangutans.

I think what has worked, and I have mixed feelings about it, but in some ways ecotourism does sort of work. But I don’t say it’s the answer. Because it provides some income into the communities, but not all actually benefit from ecotourism. But it’s helped them to see that, yeah, it’s good to have the orangutans in the area, it’s good not to scare them off because people come to our lands to see them and they’ve given some income.

In my talk, I suggested that we bring in an important component into conservation research and work, which is indigenous social science, emphasizing indigenous ways of understanding and knowing. I am inspired by indigenous academics such as Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Zoe Todd, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Eve Tuck and others. Moreton-Robinson particularly talks about how indigenous knowledge and research are often seen as “unspeakable things” that challenge taken-for-granted assumptions that provide the firm basis for the dominance of colonial practices of social science, and, I feel, conservation as well. I am interested in indigenous research in terms that make sense to us, both reflecting and responding to concerns in our communities. How will indigenous research that emerges from and for indigenous peoples transform “ordinary” social science and conservation? I feel that the ongoing failure to appreciate the human element, whether indigenous or local, in forests also leads to misdirected research emphases, misguided approaches to conservation planning and management, and wrong ecological interpretations.

Map shows the Batang Ai landscape in Sarawak state in Malaysian Borneo. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

How has the feedback been to your work in highlighting orangutan conservation from the indigenous peoples’ perspective?

I love that question. Because I feel like I have been asking these questions for myself and through everybody else ever since I started working in conservation over 10 years ago. I mean, this is a really slow process, maybe I’m a slow learner. I’ve been really frustrated. But I think it’s coming out. I’ve come to conclusions early on, but I didn’t know how to exactly process it or explain it. Or how to gain that courage to say, “this opinion matters.”

Why did you need to find courage to speak up about this?

That’s another problem with conservation: it’s a very top-down process. That’s why during my speech I also talked about how early natural scientists and early modern-day conservationists also killed and captured orangutans for their knowledge and for display in the West, to show that conservation has a long, dark, murky history with the wildlife that it claims it wants to protect. It’s a very top-down perspective. Knowledge comes from the West to the East, that we have to be taught how to do conservation. So we’re taught these tools from a very Western perspective, which comes from the idea that we just don’t know how to conserve or we don’t have the knowledge.

And I find in my experience, even though I was doing all that conservation field work, it was never my intention to publish in academia, because I wasn’t so interested in the academic perspective at a younger age, so I did not publish. But I did all that field work, counted the data, but in the end, I mean, from a Western orangutan-conservation perspective, I am just a field worker, I am a local counterpart. And it’s always been frustrating. I’ve always also sort of internalized it, and I think that’s also a process of self-decolonization to say, “No, our opinion and work matter, too, and perhaps even more so.”

And if we don’t keep saying it, these assumptions, these kinds of programs, would continue. The way that we condescend, and how it cascades from our own people toward people who continue to live in rural areas. So I talk about, “Let’s not condescend to rural communities.” I would say even local counterparts, local workers like me are also condescended upon from our Western counterparts. There’s an assumption that, for example, you’re only as good as where you work and where you come from, but you’d never hear, like, an Indonesian or Malaysian biologist going to the U.S. and becoming a bear expert. But it’s so easy for foreign researchers to come in, do the work with the great assistance from local counterparts and suddenly become an expert after one or two years of field work. While we, as local researchers or workers, still struggle to be seen or heard.

Here’s an example: I met an ex-colleague who works for an NGO and I asked whether she had presented in the conference, and she said, “No, June, I don’t have the confidence. I’m not sure whether I can.” But then she also goes, “June, after hearing your speech, I realized that we do have a lot of useful information that we could share with everybody.” And I said, “Yes. You actually have more knowledge and information that many of these people don’t have who are working in the same areas as you.”

But that’s how we are taught. If you’re based and working in Kuching, your work doesn’t matter as much. You’re just a field worker, you’re just someone who gives them information, and they build careers [from it], for conservation is also a career-making business.

Is that how you found the courage to start highlighting this issue?

That and also living in Oxford, being in the belly of the beast, so to speak, and daring to talk about colonization in the context of my work and lived experiences, and being so frustrated when I saw the same thing happening again in Oxford. The first year, I was overwhelmed and excited, and I thought I could learn from them. But hearing the same things over and over again, one realizes the same narrative, the same frameworks, being told and retold and being perpetuated without being challenged.

And my awakening also includes when I realized that when I speak about Sarawak and my knowledge and the work that I’ve done, it’s taken less seriously compared to if a white Ph.D. student or even a white activist says it. Then I realized, their knowledge is also quite superficial, there’s no nuances, there’s no local context. And we actually have it. There’s so many local conservationists, people who have been working in the field for years, whether working in the forest or whatever occupation, we have so much knowledge. But on an international level, we’re just seen as informants, at best. And that’s what I want to change.

It also doesn’t escape my notice that I was given this great platform — to provide an opening keynote speech at the ATBC conference — by an international committee. Sadly, I feel that if the conference was organized locally, I may not even have been considered. A white man would likely have been given this platform, as I have often observed in similar conferences, because we are so ingrained to think of them as experts on us and our land. It is especially so hard to find recognition as a Dayak woman or even a Malaysian woman, who doesn’t have very outstanding social capital to begin with, never mind her own expertise, to speak in locally organized conferences that want an “international” feel.

Do you have other examples of feedback?

I’ve been trying to work with other researchers working on similar issues such as social science and conservation. And I’ve written to them and I’m starting to feel like I’m sort of an informant to the people in the West, rather than a serious collaborator. And only after my keynote speech I started to receive invitations to collaborate and speak elsewhere in the world. While it is gratifying, I feel rather sad to not be taken seriously until I was given a visible, international platform.

So imagine not just me but others who probably are just as or even more knowledgeable than me, who have not been given this platform, who have not been given this opportunity to actually contribute to the work that’s being done because it’s still being monopolized, or just being heavily represented, by people who just publish a lot and cite the same research all over again. But also when you publish a lot, you may not be actively on the ground, in my opinion. We need people who have been on the ground, who are from the area, to contribute and to speak out on this issue. Because then you’ll have a richer program in conservation or in development.

If anyone had negative feedback, I don’t think it’s come to me in person. I haven’t heard yet. But I’ve noticed that maybe some of the traditional biologists, the old hats, were a bit uncomfortable around me. I don’t need compliments, but it would be interesting to get some feedback on the ideas that I tried to put across. Because I’m basically shaking the tree like an orangutan, by saying that indigenous people, local people, are not the problem. There are systematic factors that we have to take into account, and let’s look at the bigger history and picture as well. So that made them uncomfortable. And I accept that, and actually I’m glad. That meant that I’ve provoked them, that maybe it meant that I’ve hit something, hit a raw nerve. And I’m glad.

Rubis monitoring orangutan nests in the Bornean rainforest. Image courtesy of June Mary Rubis.

What is the relationship between orangutans and indigenous peoples like?

There’s reciprocity. It’s like, “I do you no harm, you do me no harm,” sort of thing. That’s one way to look at it. I talked about the Ibans who have been farming these landscapes for hundreds of years, specifically in Batang Ai for at least 300 years. The issue that they would have with the orangutans is when they raid the crops. But they don’t shoot them to kill, so they would like shoot to warn them off, for example. From my experience, they don’t actively go out and hunt orangutans, because there’s no benefits to that. There are other, nicer things to hunt, like bearded pigs. So the orangutans are definitely not part of their diet.

The Ibans have what they call the pantang, which relates to cultural taboos on what to eat or not eat, what to kill or not kill. For example, the Iban family that I lived with have the pantang not just for the orangutan but also for pythons and civets. This means that they will not harm the animal, and not necessarily from a romanticized point of view. I think the problem is that we try to bring a Western conservation framework into mind when we work in communities, when it should be coming from the bottom up. How do they see conservation, and the different ways they look at it?

I think a lot conservationists are really romantic. They would claim that they are so scientific and logical, but in the end, they are coming from a romantic point of view, which is to bring back the pristine forest, pristine landscapes. And you always have to ask, what is pristine? Because pristine to you may not be what you imagined in reality.

And then also coming to understand that many conservationists are people living in town, so we already have different relationships with forests and land than people living in or near protected areas do. For example Malaysia and Indonesia are thriving economies, the urban middle class live really well, if you live in the cities and towns. We have malls and such. Where do we think that came from, in some sense? That came from extracting natural resources from elsewhere. So in my opinion, it is rather awkward to tell local people living near protected forests, “Why are you not conserving our forest?” Which is why we have to ask ourselves, conservation for whom? Development for whom?

What are the challenges faced by indigenous people in orangutan conservation?

There’s always a worry about land tenure because, for example, the state government has never recognized native land that hasn’t been continuously cultivated after 1958. However, just recently, in early July 2018, the Sarawak state government passed the Sarawak Land Code Bill. While the Sarawak state government claims that this move will ensure native rights to land, many indigenous native rights groups have protested on grounds that the bill does not agree with our traditional definition on the extent of pemakai menoa [an Iban term referring to the territorial domain of a longhouse community, where customary rights to land resources was created by pioneering ancestors] and pulau galau [customary communal jungles for gathering forest products], and how we define our own land boundaries.

It’s still like telling the communities, “this is how we divide and name your land.” And I think there’s always sort of conditions set of what land actually means to communities and they’re always being told whether to conserve it from an NGO’s perspective, or whether to develop it from the government’s perspective, which often comes with industrial intervention. So they encourage for example, to plant oil palm on native lands. But in some cases you have to acknowledge that many indigenous people do want to plant oil palm. They do want to be smallholders because they’ve always been farmers — for some indigenous groups, but not all — and this is what they do. And palm oil is one of the best economic uses that we know of now of what you can get from the land.

In Batang Ai they also have rubber trees, but they can’t sell the rubber because the prices are too low right now. They currently don’t plant oil palm, which falls in line with the state conservation interests that do want an orangutan conservation landscape. But I have to say that the interest is there, because for the younger generation, it’s what they see around the state. And I think that’s the problem, because we’re not showing any alternative models of development or economic activities other than oil palm and mega dams. Particularly in the latter, we are caught in a ’90s time-warp idea of development. It’s always what’s been published in the media, it’s always what’s talked about on TV, and it is what the government encourages. Perhaps they are not convinced yet that we can do better sustainable development — if that is our idea of a good outcome. We don’t see anything else. So I just feel like where do we then enter as a conservationist and a becoming-conservationist, what are the alternatives of economic systems that we can consider?

How does your work try to tackle that?

I like to point at the strategies and interventions that indigenous peoples take. There’s often a black-or-white response to what communities do in response to conservation or development, that includes oil palm plantations. Either you’re the bad actor or the good actor. And I’m trying to bring in more nuances. I’m saying, for example, the communities are not averse to re-education programs. They actually enjoyed it because it’s a nice visit from nice people. You get entertained; it’s kind of like a traveling show. Urban people come in and they do a song and dance for you. They’re not actually offended. They’re not exactly unaware of what’s going on either. And what they currently need is more supportive allies. So they’re not averse to conservationists or researchers like myself coming in. They know you’re coming in with your own agenda, and I think that’s one of the things that we tend to forget. We tend to think that they’re naive, that they don’t know what’s going on. But they do know you’re coming in with your own agenda and they will try to help you. But at the same time they want to build up these connections because we represent a different set of resources to them.

With my work, I want to talk more about the strategies that the rural communities do in response to the interventions, and I also look at the prevailing conservation narratives that we take for granted and I try to dismantle them and say, “You know what guys, this is something that we’ve always taken for granted, it exists in different ways, how do we then do conservation differently?”

In terms of orangutan conservation work, what kind of results do you hope to see?

I talk about Forever Sabah, which is a local initiative by local NGOs, local civil societies, and I’m sure it has teething problems, as all programs should have. But what I find interesting is that it’s locally owned. And they then seek out international partners but they try to drive their own agenda of what they actually want. I think we need to see more of that in Sarawak. Because a lot of it is still top-down, because we still hold the West in highest regard.There’s a lot more prestige to working for international NGOs and organizations than for local organizations. Because if you work for an international organization, it means that you’re better. You’re better than the rest. You speak good English, you’re educated.

How can we divert from this idea and take back ownership? Because at the end of the day, we’re citizens of the country, and we’re bound by these laws and consequences. Often expats tend to worry about, “Oh, if I say something, I’ll get kicked out.” And if you think about it, a local says something, we go to jail, and our relatives and families will suffer the impacts. So it’s completely different when we speak up.

So more local ownership. Whatever we decide, it has be a process that we take together, whether you’re from industry or government or NGOs or communities. We take the challenges on, and we decide what we want the outcome to be. And I believe it would be a completely different result than what we are currently seeing. When we say better conservation, for example, better than what? Sort of reminding ourselves what baselines are we using. Because we can’t go back to the past, either. We are firmly in the present, we’re facing all these realities including haze, environmental change and so on. There’s heavy industrialization, our forests faced so much development in terms of logging and plantations over the last several decades. And now we want to build mega dams and polluting factories that would use this excessive electricity, which means much of our forests and other lands will be completely gone. How do you then turn the tide?

I talk about hunting because I want to point out, is it international poaching? Are [orangutans] being hunted for pets, for example? Are they being killed because we need their habitats for oil palm, or is it just sport hunting in many ways? There are different ways of intervention to try and solve that, especially when we acknowledge wider, systematic factors. We also have to acknowledge that hunting pressure will always increase when the areas shrink. You can’t just look at a protected area and go, “the people in this area are hunting, we have to stop them.” What else is happening to the rest of the island?

Why are we not speaking up on these issues? Is it because it’s too controversial, that our NGO will be kicked out? Then maybe we voice out more, because they can’t kick out local NGOs in some respects, and it means that maybe we need a different kind of framework to work on conservation, and the international NGO framework may not be as effective as we imagined. We have to be bold in that sense. I’ve been asked before by my ex-boss, who said, “If you speak up on these things, we’d get kicked out and we’d lose our jobs.” Then I went, “Well, maybe we should lose our jobs if we can’t speak up.” What are we doing this for?

A Dayak Iban man fishing. Image courtesy of June Mary Rubis.
A Dayak Iban woman farming. Image courtesy of June Mary Rubis.

So land tenure, industrial development and limited roles in conservation are some of the challenges you say indigenous communities in Malaysian Borneo face. Do you see similar challenges elsewhere in the world?

I’ve only lived and worked in Borneo, so can I only speak from my perspective. But I’m very certain that it happens in the rest of the world, especially when I speak to my colleagues that come from other global south countries. And my message, my work resonates with them. And also there’s a whole literature on it. So it’s not like I’m coming up with anything new.

In Papua New Guinea, where there are similar threats of land dispossession because of conservation, I am reminded of the work by Paige West that also very much informs my own work. In Sulawesi in Indonesia, for different reasons, that has also been well documented by Tania Li, a political ecologist. This and other stories that I’ve heard and read about, it’s happening around the world, and it’s been widely talked about and documented by political ecologists or anthropologists or social scientists and activists, but we’re not necessarily talking to each other. There’s not much intersection between conservationists and biologists as well, we’re sort of talking through each other, we’re not really coming together and discussing these issues.

Do you believe indigenous peoples can spearhead orangutan conservation?

Absolutely. They’re the ones living on the lands. I think everyone has said that throughout the conference.

Is there an orangutan conservation project in which the indigenous community is heavily involved that you like?

To be honest, I can’t say right now because I am not too familiar with other orangutan conservation projects elsewhere. But I think there’s a lot of interesting projects that are going around in Southeast Asia that do deserve a lot of attention. I like what Sabah as a civil society is doing. They are constantly challenging the status quo, but at the same time working closely with government agencies. I think where there’s a strong civil society, there are people speaking up and they’re also challenging expats and Western norms. That’s when I feel like there’s hope.

Where do you see orangutan conservation led by indigenous peoples in the future?

That’s a very difficult question. I believe in coalitions and partnerships. I think we can’t get anywhere by ourselves. As much as I say “Ah, Western norms and prejudice,” I think in a lot of ways we still need regional and international collaboration and support. It’s just changing the dynamics of it. I talk about recentering indigenous knowledge and science, and when we recenter it, I feel that everything then will shift. But I’m not saying that we should stop collaborations and cooperation, we still need that.

But imagine what it would be like when we hold indigenous knowledge at the same level as Western science knowledge, what would that mean when we start looking at the lands differently? Because there’s always assumptions made based on what’s written up in the literature and we don’t take seriously what the local people are saying, like, “Actually, you know what? This is how we see the land. Actually, you know what? This is not what we call the orangutan.”

As I mentioned in my talk, “orangutan” is not an indigenous name. Ibans have different names for the orangutan, and they say that the way they name the orangutans means this is how they can tell where and who they are. And I think that’s just as important as Western science knowledge.

I see a lot of projects in Borneo that sort of want to leave the communities alone in the parks, living the traditional life, because this is what Western funders would want. I think that’s also problematic in a lot of ways. So when I talk about recentering indigenous knowledge I am not also advocating for going back to a romanticized past, because sadly we live in 21st-century realities and aspirations. And I think that’s so important, that Western activists have to remember. Because they might hear my talk and say, “Yeah, I do that, I do that.” But I don’t know, you’re still not collaborating with everybody else who may not fit into your idea of an indigenous person.

A pair of orangutans in Malaysian Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.