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close this bookIn Place of the Forest: Environmental and Socio-economic Transformation in Borneo and the Eastern Malay Peninsula (UNU, 1990, 310 pages)
close this folderPart 1 : Background and the course of events
close this folderTransformation of the land before the recent period
View the documentA not remote past
View the documentThe impact of early mining
View the documentThe first major phase of transformation
View the documentEnvironmental consequences of the first development wave
View the documentConclusion

Environmental consequences of the first development wave

The western Peninsula

Some of the environmental consequences of the first development wave, especially of what took place between the 1890s and about 1923, were very serious. For the western Peninsula, where they were greatest, they are discussed in some detail by Aiken et al. (1982: 109125). The effect of tin mining was devastating, especially of sluicing (lampanning) by water races and, after the entry of European capital, by hydraulic mining using powerful hoses. Large masses of tailings were created, and great quantities of silt and sand were fed into the rivers. Upland erosion was increased by the clearing undertaken for associated works and to obtain wood for construction and fuel, including charcoal used for smelting in the early days, and by small miners even in this century. Many villages, and one whole town, below the tin fields were forced to move by flooding rivers, raised by the quantity of bed-load being moved downstream and widened by the increased erosive power of the laden waters. Irrigated rice below the tin workings, where it had not been destroyed by mining, was ruined by flooding and silting, or by complete disruption of its water supply. The deterioration of agricultural land generated a great deal of concern and during this period one of its consequences was a substantial new increase in the practice of shifting cultivation on upland soils by farmers deprived of their wet-rice lands (Lim Teck Ghee, 1977: 48-49).

When floating dredges were introduced after 1912, to increase ultimately to more than 100 units, areas that had hitherto been almost unworkable, because of the impossibility of keeping holes sufficiently dry, became accessible to mining. They included considerable new areas of wet-rice land as well as swamp. The dredges made large ponds and, in the Kinta valley of PĂȘrak where the most intensive dredging was undertaken, a moon-like but wet desert was created, described in graphic terms a generation ago by Ooi Jin Bee (1955), and still remarkably little softened in the early 1990s. In the Klang valley and its tributaries, around Kuala Lumpur, the destruction of a former agricultural landscape was almost as complete. The capital city, established initially from a set of mining camps amid this desert and the forested hills around it, attained a metropolitan population of almost 2 million people before its expansion began to encroach onto the lands of still-active Malay rural villages (Brookfield, Samad Hadi, and Zaharah Mahmud, 1991).

Enactments intended to enforce control measures were introduced as early as 1895, but they proved singularly ineffective. In a survey undertaken toward the end of the 1930s, Fermor (1939) estimated that over 16 million tonnes of sediment annually had been fed into Peninsular rivers between 1909 and 1939. It was not until the late 1920s that even partially effective control measures were introduced, but the industry continued to receive "gentle" treatment from the authorities. Fermor's report advocated that land rich in tin be excised from Malay reservations, and thus become available for sale; in fact a number of such excisions had already been made (Lim Teck Ghee, 1977: 215).

Clearance of forest for rubber also had the inevitable consequence of a rapid increase in runoff and erosion, although, where rubber was established on land already degraded to grassland by earlier cultivation, the benefit even of the light cover provided by the rubber trees was significant; it was sufficient to shade out Imperata cylindrica and permit a more complete ground cover to become established. Unfortunately, clean weeding, adopted from tree-crop methods in Europe, was generally practiced on most of the early estates and on some smallholder land as well. It was quickly found that humus and topsoil were lost from plantations made on sloping land. In areas reclaimed from exhausted pepper, gambler, and tapioca land, there was even quite widespread tree death from this cause (Aiken et al., 1982: 122). In 1926, during a La Nina event, massive floods devastated valleys throughout the Peninsula, carrying so much suspended sediment that they are remembered as the great "red floods" (banjir merah) of that year (Winstedt, 1927). This event, in particular, led to some changes in practice in both rubber planting and tin mining, but they were slow to be adopted. The need for terracing and other forms of soil conservation was certainly perceived, and on some estates applied (Dakeyne, 1929), but in the depressed economic conditions of the time there was no general change beyond a laboursaving end to clean weeding.

Seeking to put the damage done by tin mining into perspective, Fermor (1939: 149-159) suggested that an average of 3 in. (7.6 cm) of soil had been lost from under Peninsular rubber since 1905, yielding an annual loss into the rivers about twice that which he attributed to tin mining. This piece of guesswork is often cited in the literature, but it should not be taken at face value. Soong et al. (1980: 2) found very much higher suspended sediment loads in rivers below tin-mining areas than below tree-crop agricultural land, even in the 1970s. However, despite subsequent revegetation of the ground, losses from land under rubber may still be up to 16 times higher than from slopes under undisturbed forest (Aiken et al., 1982: 173-175). One qualitative account by a returning absentee revisiting his village in 1951 may stand for what has certainly been a widespread experience (Yusoff Hj. Ahmad, 1983: 375):

The once lush and luxuriant kampung was beginning to show signs of ageing. The destruction of the natural vegetation [for rubber] around the kampung had caused much silting in the valleys and the yield per crop of padi was becoming less and less. People continued to plant except in areas where the level of the land had become too high to be irrigated and the water wheels which were once useful had disappeared nearly forty years earlier.

Environmental consequences in Borneo

There is also material on the environmental losses from new development in Sumatra in this period and subsequently (Pelzer, 1978, 1982), but much less has yet been assembled from Borneo. We can suppose that the planting of rubber on land that would again have been cleared and burnt in Kalimantan and Sarawak probably had beneficial net effects, but wherever land was taken from both grassland and forest for rubber there would have been increased soil losses. However, most smallholders in Kalimantan did not practice clean weeding and planted their trees close together. This was noted with disapproval by officials during the 1920s, who expected the plantings to fail. Creation of a smallholder "rubber forest' grassland in fact proved environmentally sound, once earl with fire were overcome, and much less likely to cause e' estate techniques (Bauer, 1948).