Berkeley’s Borneo Project Aims to Restore Lands by Teaching Mapping By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday August 02, 2005

When Berkeley arborist Joe Lamb first traveled to the South East Asian island of Borneo in 1990, his worst fears of what environmental disaster could look like were realized. 

More than a decade of indiscriminate logging had clear cut a quarter of the island’s lowland ancient rain forest. The people who depended on the forests for survival were losing their land and their way of life. 

From the air, Lamb said the island looked like a dog with mange. The rivers he navigated had taken on the color of chocolate milk from top soil run-off. 

“There were big patches of trees missing everywhere,” he said. “You’d see scarred hill sides everywhere and tug boats pulling rafts filled with logs.” 

Upon his return to Berkeley, Lamb didn’t just spread the word about what was happening in Borneo, he set out to stop it. In 1991, he founded the Borneo Project to help communities on the world’s third largest island fight logging companies for their land.  

The weapon of choice? Geographic information system (GIS) mapping equipment.  

The project sends volunteer geographers and engineers, mostly from the East Bay, to teach communities of subsistence farmers and nomadic gatherers 21st century mapping techniques. 

The strategy is to map ancestral lands to convince state courts to recognize the clans’ traditional territory and spare it from logging companies. Currently there are more than 100 indigenous communities trained by Borneo Project volunteers with land rights cases pending in the state of Sarawak, located on the northern part of the island, which is part Malaysia. 


Project in jeopardy 

After a string of legal victories, last month the project suffered a setback that could undermine the mapping enterprise. The Sarawak State Court of Appeals overturned a 2001 landmark decision that gave control of nearly four square miles of land to the Rumah Nor, a community of 200 that have traditionally raised crops and hunted and gathered in the forest. Lawyers for the Rumah Nor plan to appeal to federal court in Malaysia. 

Malaysian law recognizes native land claims if the community can document that it controlled territories prior to the formation of the country in 1959. 

In court cases, the communities submitted detailed maps, which included satellite pictures of their territorial claim. They buffered their claim with oral histories documenting a knowledge of resources, sacred sites, graveyards and geographic features of the land. 

Several communities have won compensation in court for land already clear-cut by logging interests. But the biggest victory was won by the Rumah Nor when a Sarawak judge excluded its land from the license area granted to the Borneo Pulp Plantation, a logging company.  

It was the strongest precedent for protecting communal lands from logging, Lawrence said. But in July, the state court of appeals overturned the decision, as argued for by the state. The three-judge panel ruled unanimously that the oral histories were insufficient evidence. The court determined that native land claims must be backed by government documents or aerial photography showing the communities on the disputed lands prior to 1959. 


Confronting the logging menace 

Borneo is home to rain forests and bio-diversity on par with the Amazon. In Sarawak alone, there are 20,000 flowering plant species, 200 mammal species and 100 types of fruit trees. But a June report by the World Wildlife Fund warned that if logging continued at the current rate, Borneo could lose nearly all of its lowland forests by 2020, resulting in a “major loss of species ... and subsistence for local communities.” 

The northern portion of the island is part of Malaysia, except for the tiny coastal nation of Brunei. Indonesia rules the southern portion of the island.  

Both powers have promoted logging, but the Borneo Project has focused on Malaysia because authorities there have been more hostile to outside activists. 

“There were already a lot of groups working in Indonesia, so we have tried to focus where there is a greater need,” said Jessica Lawrence, the project’s executive director and only salaried employee. She is helped by a team of about 35 volunteers and funded through grants and donations from about 800 members, most of whom live in Berkeley, Lawrence said. 

The Borneo Project is currently working with seven communities battling logging interests over territory. Lawrence said the project specifically chooses to work in communities that stand a strong legal chance of keeping their land and are open to foreign assistance. 

“We don’t want to impose our views on anyone else,” she said. “Our goal is not to convert people to any one environmental vision, it is to help communities stay on their land.”  

Communities that have lost communal lands to logging are commonly transferred to relocation camps or left to work on palm oil plantations that often replace the forests, Lawrence said. 

The rush to log Borneo’s ancient forests was spurred by a breakthrough in Japanese bulldozer technology nearly 30 years ago that allowed logging companies to build roads in Borneo’s steep terrain. Today, two-thirds of Bornean timber is sold as plywood to Japan and China, Lawrence said. 

Beginning in the late 1970s the logging companies, many of which have ties to state politicians, staked claim to hundreds of miles of virgin forest. From 1975 through 1990, logging in Sarawak expanded from 3.3 million to 23.1 million cubic yards.  

By the late 1980s several communities were blockading logging roads in an effort to gain international support and stop the destruction of their homes and way of life. 

The blockades made headlines across the globe and caught the attention of Lamb, a local environmentalist. He set off Borneo in 1990 on a mission to establish a sister city relationship between Berkeley and the Uma Bawang/Keluan, a community of 100 that lived in a single wooden longhouse along the banks of the Baram River. 

“It seemed Borneo was an empty niche in the environmental movement where people could make a difference,” said Lamb, who lived for several weeks with the Uma Bawang. His hosts, he said, subsisted on growing rice, catching river crabs and gathering wild ferns, snails, and other foods from the forest. 

In 1991 the Berkeley City Council approved sister city status for the Uma Bawang Longhouse. That victory was just the start for Lamb. He was soon introduced to local geographers and engineers, several from UC, and together they devised the mapping venture to fight logging companies from confiscating communal land. 

In 1995, the Borneo Project held its first GIS mapping project where it trained locals how to use technology to win recognition of their ancestral lands. Malaysian law prohibits maps made by foreigners from being used as evidence at trials.  


Possible focus to sustainable agriculture 

The stricter standard of evidence, as imposed in the July Rumah Nor court decision, would likely nullify the claims of the 100 other communities with pending lawsuits, Lawrence said. If the ruling holds, she said, “Many communities won’t be able to prevent themselves from being evicted.” 

Lawrence said the Borneo Project could shift its focus from the courts to sustainable agriculture and resource management as a way to help keep the communities on their land. She mentioned projects like fish ponds and clean energy projects as possibilities to obtain recognition from the Sarawak government that the communities can remain for the good of the land. 

But the mapping projects will continue no matter the Malaysian high court’s ruling. 

“We will still work with communities because it is something the Malaysian constitution says they have a right to,” she said. “We think Malaysia is still a good place to do this kind of work.”