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Survey captures Bornean ecosystems and Indigenous lives around them

  • Members of Indigenous Penan and Kenyah communities in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak spent two years surveying the forests of the Baram River Basin.
  • The resulting documents, known as the Baram Heritage Survey, chronicle the sights and sounds of some of Sarawak’s last intact forest, as well as the daily life and aspirations of the Indigenous communities living there.
  • The documentation process was supported by NGOs SAVE Rivers, Borneo Project and Keruan, and also involved collaboration with academic researchers who will soon prepare formal papers connected to the survey.

After two years tracking the sights, sounds and cultural significance of the forests that form their ancestral homeland, Indigenous communities in Malaysian Borneo have published a 90-page atlas of the Baram River Basin.

The documents, known as the Baram Heritage Survey, explore the last intact forest area in Malaysia’s Sarawak state as well as the daily life and aspirations of the Penan and Kenyah Indigenous communities who live there. They are intended to serve as a foundation for future biodiversity research and as evidence in their fight to protect the area from logging and other potential development projects in the future.

Peter Kallang, chair of the Indigenous rights and empowerment group SAVE Rivers, said the survey’s purpose was to prove both the extent of biodiversity in the Baram River region and also how Penan and Kenyah communities living in it still depend on the area for both their physical and cultural survival. SAVE Rivers produced the atlas along with two other NGOs that work to preserve ecosystems and Indigenous cultures — the Borneo Project and Keruan — and in collaboration with researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and University of Malaysia, Sarawak.

“The data is documented information showing the wealth of biodiversity in the area which is a precious treasure for the planet and must be protected for the very survival of the long-term ecology,” Kallang said. “So extensive logging [poses] a threat globally and not just to the local communities.”

The Baram Heritage Survey research and project team. The survey was co-designed by Indigenous communities, non-profit organizations, and researchers from Malaysian and American universities. Image courtesy of The Borneo Project.

Jettie Word, director at the Borneo Project, said NGOs began training community members in November 2019, hiring 12 community researchers to started collecting data by February 2020. The project, like most everything else, was stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the team finally presented the data — all collected between 2020 and 2021 — to participating Penan and Kenyah communities this past September.

Much of the training revolved around using a smartphone application to enter the data. To fit the Sarawak context, Word said her colleague was able to customize an app called CyberTracker, which was built to enable Indigenous communities to collect data about their homelands.

The data itself were already well known to the communities, Word added.

“They actually had a lot of the experience already because the hardest part of the job was identifying animal signs and marks, so they’re already experts in identification,” she said.

The signs of animals known to the six participating Kenyah and Penan villages were comprehensive, Word said: the technicians could identify different species not only by tracks but also by sounds, scratch marks, mud bath pits created by the animals, and even their smells.

“They informed how we developed the app, they had so much information about what animals are in the area,” she said. “This is indeed general knowledge that they already had, but it can be used in many ways as an empowerment tool now they have it written down.”

Data collectors also interviewed fellow community members about their views of the forest, Word said, asking for opinions on timber plantations and development, as well as what they want for the future.

Academics who teamed up with the Indigenous researchers will publish two papers connected to the heritage survey soon, Word said, and their findings will likely lead to further ecological research.

A Penan village in the Upper Baram. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.
A Penan village in the Upper Baram. The project surveyed the biodiversity of the Upper Baram area, as well as the ecosystem’s significance for the Indigenous communities that live there. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Though she declined to give many details about the animals spotted before the academic paper is released, Word said they found signs of a number of species endemic to the region, such as the Hose’s langur (Presbytis hosei) and the Hose’s palm civet (Diplogale hosei). She added that the community spotted at least 13 threatened or endangered bird species.

Both Word and Kallang noted that the survey resoundingly confirmed the need to protect the forests, as both Indigenous communities and a wide variety of threatened or endemic species rely on the preservation of the forests.

“The survival of animals depends a lot on the availability of conducive habitat, availability of sustenance, and the chance to multiply or regenerate,” Kallang said.

Since the 1980s, Indigenous activists in Sarawak have resisted logging and hydropower developments in their territory, mounting protests and blockades as well as outreach campaigns and community mapping efforts. Efforts to protect intact forest and Indigenous customary rights have been complicated by attempts to designate land ownership over a forested area occupied collectively and sporadically, and Sarawak state has historically been known to favor developers over Indigenous groups.

More recently, Word said, the communities had not seen much action since timber firm Samling moved its equipment out of the forest ahead of one community’s planned demonstration earlier this year. She and the Indigenous activists considered this a victory, but warned that Samling’s loggers or other developers could return.

Word added that the Sarawak government is in the process of approving the Upper Baram Forest Area, also known as the Baram Peace Park, into a conservation area, after it was already granted some preservation funds requested from the International Tropical Timber Organization and foreign country sponsors. These surveys are not connected to this endeavor, but Word said the compiled information makes it easier for the community to present to government officials and development organizations.

“This was also a way of documenting what’s there, documenting what’s in the forest, documenting how the communities are managing and relying on the forest,” she said.

Forest in the Baram Peace Park area in November 2019. The Baram Peace Park – or Taman Damai Baram – is an Indigenous community-led initiative that aims to protect old-growth forest and traditional Indigenous lands in the upper Baram river basin near the border with Indonesia. Photo credit: The Borneo Project.
Forest in the Baram Peace Park area in November 2019. The Baram Peace Park – or Taman Damai Baram – is an Indigenous community-led initiative that aims to protect old-growth forest and traditional Indigenous lands in the upper Baram river basin near the border with Indonesia. Image courtesy of The Borneo Project.

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