Saturday, May 07, 2016

The Myth of the Virgin Rain Forest

The little village of Pa Lungan sits in a grassy clearing, high in the hills of Malaysian Borneo, in a region called the Kelabit Highlands. The people here—a few dozen—belong to the Kelabit tribe, one of more than 50 Indigenous groups living on Asia’s largest island. They have sturdy wooden homes with slat glass windows, metal roofs, kitchen sinks, and TVs. Generators and solar panels power a few lightbulbs, laptops, and mobile phones (typically used to play music and games). Most households have a kitchen garden, an outdoor toilet, a cold-water shower, and a laundry line. A patchwork of coops and fences keeps chickens and buffalo in check. Just beyond these homes and yards lie rice fields fed by mountain waters and hemmed in by trees. It’s a tidy, orderly life in Pa Lungan—and it’s an easy walk to some of the most biologically diverse rainforests on Earth.

The Kelabit, like their ancestors, move fluidly between the village and the forest in a culture where notions of domestic and wild intrinsically overlap. Villagers plant fruit trees in the forest; they move wild herbs from the jungle to their kitchen gardens. “Daily living” and “the bounty of the forest” are deeply intertwined, as the Kelabit anthropologist Poline Bala, based at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, explained to me. In the past few years, new research has begun to shift scientific perspectives—and my own—of the Borneo landscape. It is not the wild, untamed place many people have long assumed it is. Rather, the rainforest we see today bears the marks of long-term human intervention.

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