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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 2 : Issues of endangerment and criticality
close this folderThe forest people: Endangerment or criticality?
View the documentThe issues
View the documentDeconstructing shifting cultivation
View the documentDifferent ways of farming the forests
View the documentForest dwellers under forces of change
View the documentLand and forest at risk?
View the documentThe future
View the documentCriticality, or crisis of adaptation?

The future

Government policy and the forest people

Whatever the defence of the system in its classic form, there is a real problem when numbers increase and when commercial field crops, as opposed to tree crops, are grown on a large scale in swiddens. Unfortunately, most present solutions involve resettlement and a complete change, rather than adaptation, of farming methods. In Sarawak, two government authorities, first the Sarawak Land Development Board (SLDB) created to manage earlier initiatives in 1972, then the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (SALCRA) set up in 1976, have both had the object of establishing cash-crop blocks for tribal people. By 1985 some 12,000 ha had been developed by SALCRA, principally in demonstrably impoverished areas of western Sarawak (Hong, 1987). However, whereas SALCRA has mainly established cash-crop blocks on indigenous land, SLDB has created new settlement on the FELDA model, but without anything approaching the large investment and skilled supervisory staff of this Peninsular model. Cramb (1992) has assessed the results and finds them generally poor. He criticizes the whole model of topdown directed agricultural transformation and the official preference for "a more organized and estate-type approach" (Government of Malaysia, 1991b: 136). Hatch (1982) and King (1988) both earlier concluded that few schemes had been truly successful. None the less, a major expansion is now proposed, especially in the eastern regions made sensitive by conflicts with the logging industry (Government of Malaysia, 1991a).

The Indonesian authorities have been more determined than the Malaysians in moving indigenous people to what are seen as betterlocated sites, usually in forest designated for conversion to agriculture, where they can, supposedly, learn more intensive agriculture. East Kalimantan was formerly most active in promoting such resettlement schemes, mainly food-crop schemes resembling transmigration projects. These were criticized as culturally insensitive and often economically unviable (Appell and Appell-Warren, 1985; Avé and King, 1986). Indeed, many proved to be unviable, and the programme, in this form, has virtually ended. Dayaks have sometimes been absorbed into the newer tree-crop schemes, sometimes simply because their land has been taken over, but sometimes on a voluntary basis.12

Resettlement of the smaller number of forest-dwelling people in the Peninsula was first tried during the "emergency" of the communist rebellion, and it was a failure (Stubbs, However, although a specialized government department has been responsible for the Orang Asli since that time, it has had limited positive impact (Lien, 1993). For some, this has not caused harm. Most of the 40 per cent of Orang Asli who live close to the densely settled west coast region are integrated economically with the Malays and Chinese. They trade fruit and forest products and work outside, and their range of incomes is comparable with that of the rural Malays; in 1982 in one northwestern Peninsular community, 88 per cent of food consumed was purchased (Gomes, 1989).13 Many of the larger number in the centre and east have been affected by land development; a significant number have themselves been resettled, but with very mixed success (Hasan Mat Nor, 1989). Others have had to move from areas with good land resources to more marginal sites, and many depend heavily on welfare support (Nicholas, 1989; Sham Kasim, Zulkifli Ismail, and Lailanor Ibrahim, 1989). Already there is a high degree of integration with national society, but across a wide range of economic and welfare conditions. Neither official nor academic research has really captured the full complexities of the situation, which is regrettable because of its potential implications for other tribal people in the region (Hood Salleh and Seguin, 1983; Benjamin, 1989).

Constraints on the future

The central problem is simply stated. The forest people of Borneo and the Peninsula are a small minority whose demand for land extends over a disproportionately large area. In the conditions of the 1960s, it was a not unreasonable decision on the part of the two national governments to take forest areas to resettle considerable numbers of poorer villagers from the national heartlands in the eastern Peninsula and Kalimantan. In principle, though not in practice, it was also by no means unreasonable to encourage large-scale timber extraction from the forests and, later, to develop a vertically integrated industrial system based on forest wood. These two decisions inevitably affected the forest people and, as we have seen above, only some of the consequences have been wholly adverse. The manner in which the conflict over resources has been managed, or not managed, is another question.

By the early 1990s, almost none of the forest people remain even partly out of contact with the new economy. Since the majority have traded forest products with the outside world for at least 1,000 years, many have been able to adapt quite successfully to the new conditions, taking advantage of opportunities. Only in the deep interior were there still, in the early 1980s, small groups who practiced a wellintegrated subsistence economy with minimal dependence on trade and employment. It now seems that, in the 1990s, the pressure to obtain more land for resettlement by outsiders may, at least for a time, become relaxed while, on the other hand, even a bettermanaged timber extraction will extend to reach its economic limits. These pressures will penetrate still further into the interior as roads continue to be built. A significant part of the Kalimantan interior may remain beyond these limits by the year 2000, but very little that is not preserved by enforced regulation will lie beyond them in any part of Malaysia.

Wider appreciation of the ecological merits of shifting cultivation as a system is not, therefore, likely to preserve it from change. Nor is a slowly growing recognition of minority rights likely to conserve subsistence ways of life. Two reserves and part of a national park have been made available to the Penan of Sarawak, in response to the huge international pressure. However, how far these will be used to preserve a nomadic hunter-gatherer economy remains to be seen.

The demographic and economic conditions of sustainable shifting cultivation are rigid (Lien, 1993). They include low population density and only very limited arable cash-cropping; they will increasingly be breached. Moreover, when timber income declines, continued satisfaction of needs and aspirations is unlikely to be met by a return to principal dependence on shifting cultivation of food crops. Demand for continued participation in the cash economy is therefore likely to intersect with outside pressures for change, both leading toward a restructured rural production system.