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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Borneo Dairy

Air Date: Week of

Botanist Campbell Webb traveled deep into unexplored rain forest on the island of Borneo. His audio diary describes the great diversity of life found in this lush environment, but cautions that it's a habitat under assault.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you're searching for the world's oldest and lushest rain forest, you'd likely head to the South Pacific island of Borneo, which is governed by Indonesia and Malaysia. And you might want to hurry. Widespread fires last year and the year before devastated about 12 million acres of forest and bush on Borneo, and continued logging endangers the habitat that remains. Campbell Webb is a botanist from Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, who recently traveled deep into the Indonesian side of Borneo, through territory that is largely unexplored. He found a rainforest still teeming with biodiversity and a way of life under assault. His audio diary is read by Robin Lubbock.

(Bird and gibbon calls)

LUBBOCK: The Bornean gibbons announce another dawn in the rain forest. The smell of wood smoke and coffee curls up to the sleeping platform of our crude shelter. I'm shivering in the cool of the morning, in a remote part of the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan. I'm out here to analyze the species composition of the trees, to try to understand how the rain forest works, before it's gone.


LUBBOCK: Borneo is in the midst of immense change. Logging, slash and burn agriculture and industrial plantations are destroying the forests. With the severe monetary crisis, everyone here is scrambling for any income they can find. And often they find it in the forest.

(Voices in traffic)

LUBBOCK: My trip to Bukit Lumut had taken five days from the provincial capital. The first leg of the journey featured a 12-hour bus ride along potholed roads. We arrived late at night in the town of Nanga Pinoh to find that the river Melawi had flooded and the streets were waist-deep in water. I had to hire a dugout canoe to reach the guest house.


LUBBOCK: Next morning before dawn I washed in the river, ladling the cold water over me. The rivers here are the source of drinking water and food, the primary routes for travel, as well as being the bathroom and garbage disposal.

(Motorboat engine)

LUBBOCK: From Nanga Pinoh, I hired a speed boat, and for two days we motored upriver.


LUBBOCK: At the village of Ganjang, the boatman took me to the head man and we discussed, in a roundabout fashion, how many guides I needed and what I'd have to pay them. We sat on the floor of his house eating rice and boiled fish that his son had just caught.

(Splashing and motorboat engine)

LUBBOCK: Next morning I set off upriver with the four men who would be my guides, coworkers, and companions in the forest. Arun, Atai, Freddy, and Kuhin. We crept upriver against the swift current, alternately motoring with an old 2-horsepower outboard and pulling along when the river became too shallow or too fast. Eventually, we left the last huts and rice fields and entered undisturbed forest, which arched over the river high above us. After two days we arrived at a fork in the river. My guides told me that the boat would go no further. I checked the trees, the geology, and the topography of the land. It was perfect.

(Voices and cracking sounds)

LUBBOCK: The guides set to work immediately, building our sleeping hut, or pondok. They combed the nearby forest for stout saplings, which they lashed together with rattan vines to form a high platform. They stretched a large blue tarpaulin I'd brought over a roof frame and wove a floor out of small sapling stems, snapping the stems and binding them with rattan.

(Buzzing insects, thunder)

LUBBOCK: They finished as an evening thunderstorm drew close. We huddled up, high over the dark forest floor, and enjoyed bowls of rice and dried fish.

(Bird and gibbon calls)

LUBBOCK: Now it's morning, and the real work begins. We hike up into the hills surrounding our camp and set up a survey plot. Freddy and Kuhin lay out the plot boundaries and measure the trees inside.


LUBBOCK: Freddy calls out the diameter of each tree, then nails an aluminum tag to the trunk so that I can find the trees again and re-measure them if I ever return. They finish in a few hours and leave me alone to get on with the job of identifying the trees.

(Various animal calls)

LUBBOCK: Those are giant hornbills, and those are red-leaf monkeys. Nearly every tree I turn to is a different type. A single acre of forest here might contain over 100 different tree species, compared to 10 in New England. I strain to peer through my binoculars into the canopy 120 feet above. Here, biodiversity isn't just an abstract concept. It's all around you.

(More and different calls)

LUBBOCK: It's almost twilight when I get back to our camp. I take a swim in the cold, clear water and climb up to the sleeping platform. Freddy offers me a bowl of rice and fish stew seasoned with leaves he collected from a manggis bush on the riverbank.

(Rain pattering)

LUBBOCK: It starts raining again. After dinner, the guides tell stories late into the evening by the sooty light of a kerosene flame. Sometimes they go hunting at night with their homemade muskets loaded with hand-mixed gunpowder.

(A shot)

LUBBOCK: They come back at three or four in the morning with a deer, or a porcupine. But they say hunting these days is much harder.


TRANSLATOR: If this was the old days, we'd be coming back with many more animals. They used to get deer just with a spear. But we have to use guns, now. The animals were tame, then. They'd never met people before.

Now we have to go far up into the hills to get them. There aren't any close to the village. You could say they have almost disappeared.

LUBBOCK: The traditional knowledge fundamental to living well in the forest is also slipping away. I couldn't find anyone who still knew how to hunt with a blowgun, and even the vital skills of choosing the right location for a rice field are being lost. Atai says chainsaws have made people more wasteful.

ATAI: [Speaks in Indonesian] TRANSLATOR: Long ago, before there were chainsaws, our grandparents would make plans by hand, chopping down a tree and then splitting the logs with a baji. Like this, they didn't need to cut too many trees. They didn't waste wood, like a chainsaw.

LUBBOCK: After three weeks I finally completed my survey of two hectares of forest and collected many specimens. It's time to leave. Unfortunately, the boat that was meant to come to collect us has not arrived. Not to worry, says Arun; we'll build a raft.


LUBBOCK: I watch as they fell 10 large trees, strip them of their bark, and drag the trunks to the river. Using thick rattan vines, they lash them together into two rafts and construct raised platforms to keep our baggage dry. Finally, they cut long steering poles. Arun says he can make almost anything out of the forest.

ARUN: [Speaks in Indonesian] TRANSLATOR: For example, we make small boats out of ponga wood. Lots of things in the forest are useful. We make roof tiles out of ironwood, or bulu, or resak. We can even make them out of tengkawang. Rattan is also important.

LUBBOCK: We pack up and set off downriver.


LUBBOCK: At first the rafts float gently down, banging softly on shallow boulders. But the rapids aren't far ahead. I hear the roar in the distance. Coming around a bend in the river we see the granite boulders at the head of the rapids. My guides are silent, except for the sharp shouts as they line up the long rafts with the flow.


LUBBOCK: In a second we're surrounded by frothing watery noise. Our raft is fully submerged and I'm up to my chest, holding on for dear life as the gray rocks rush by on either side.

(Rapids continue)

LUBBOCK: And then we're out, and calm returns. We go through four more sets of rapids, and each time I'm astounded at my guides' skill, and our luck. Eventually, the river widens to a slow meander, and we leave the primary forest, entering a hot landscape of scrubby, tangled trees and abandoned rice fields. We move slowly, poling along the sandy river bottom. Sadly, it's soon time for our farewells. Arun and Atai offer me pantuns, short proverbs.

ARUN: [Speaks in Indonesian] TRANSLATOR: Today we'll eat illipe nut. Tomorrow we’ll just eat grass. Today we're all still together. Tomorrow we'll be gone our own ways.

ATAI: [Speaks in Indonesian] TRANSLATOR: If there is a spring in a rice field, may I use it to take a wash. If I live to be an old man, I hope we all meet again.

LUBBOCK: The trip has been a great success. I found an unexpectedly large area of pristine forest, a boon for conservation and perfect to help answer scientific questions. But I wonder: how much will that help Arun, Atai, Freddy, and Kuhin? I fear for their future. Their forest is disappearing all around them.

(Animal calls)

CURWOOD: Our Borneo audio diary was written and produced by Campbell Webb and read by Robin Lubbock.



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