The third largest island on this planet has now had its global identity refashioned, and is now known as The Lungs of the World.
The first foreigners named it Borneo, because the name ‘rang with adventure’. Some first accounts suggest even orangutans were hostile man-eaters back then. Heavy-handed marketing painted a picture to support the ego-driven conquests of early colonial parties. It was the wild jungles of the savages, a primitive place of treachery, headhunting, cannibalism, paganism. Enterprises brought home fists full of clichés and spices.
This image soon changed thanks to reasonable people, like The White Rajah of Sarawak, who wrote of things this way:
“It is true that they are very unlike…the older philosophers, whose every action proceeded from a nice and logical calculation of the algebraic sum of pleasures and pains to be derived from alternative lines of conduct; but we ourselves are equally unlike that purely mythical personage. The Kayan or the Iban often acts impulsively in way which by no means conduce to further his best interests or deeper purposes; but so do we also. He often reaches conclusions by processes that cannot be logically justified; but so do we also. He often holds, and upon successive occasions acts upon, beliefs that are logically inconsistent with one another; but so do we also.”
The rule of this British Rajah was viewed positively, ending tribal warfare and headhunting in Sarawak and beyond. He may be part of the reason why the Malay word for foreigner (Mat Salleh) is more complimentary than the Indonesian word for foreigner (bule), as Indonesia’s colonizers seem to have been a little less considerate.
One-by-one the resident Rajah canned the colonial clichés, writing that,
“The rapid growth of the practice [of headhunting] among Ibans was no doubt largely due to the influence of the Malays, who had been taught by Arabs and others the arts of piracy, and with whom the Ibans were associated in the piratical enterprises that gave the waters around Borneo a sinister notoriety during the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the settlements of Ibans were practically confined to the rivers of the southern part of Sarawak; and there the Malays of Bruni (Brunei) and of other coast settlements enlisted them as crews for their pirate ships. In these piratical enterprises the Malays assigned the heads of their victims as the booty of their Iban allies, while they kept for themselves the forms of property of greater cash value. The Malays were thus interested in encouraging in the Ibans the passion for head-hunting […].
[…] The Kenyahs themselves preserve the tradition of the origin of the talking of heads; […] the legend of TOKONG, which is widely known, but is probably of Kenyah origin […], according to which a [talking] frog admonished a great Kenyah chief that he should cease to take only the hair of the fallen foe, but should take their heads also.”
In 2018, those same boatloads of Arabs have made Indonesia host of the largest population of Muslims of any country in the world. And as Islamification creeps into every pristine forest and down every river, the old headhunting narrative has grown back as means of supporting this new religious conquest. Dayaks around Borneo are shamed into converting. The bitter irony is of course that the practice of headhunting came to this country via the Middle East, likely from Muslims themselves.
Anyway, Islam and capitalism now combine to form the confusing face of neocolonialism here. Aboriginals are also suspicious of any other foreign narratives, however — such as environmentalism itself.
As a Canadian English teacher living on the southeastern tip of Borneo, after ten years in Indonesia, the locals’ skepticism of all foreign narratives has influenced me to think that the term ‘the lungs of the world,’ and even global warming (of human causality), may only be a surreptitious brand of neocolonialism. This suspicion is fostered in that only multinational corporations are stripping the mountains bare of trees and mining coal, while media, which is also multinational, never shuts up about how we are individually to blame for all of this. Again it is a heavy-handed narrative, tough to buy into this story from ground zero.
Many of the mining and logging contracts here in Indonesian Borneo were signed by the Dutch colonialists themselves, and there is always consequences when the extension of these contracts is threatened by the locals’ own love for their lands and realization of their pricelessness (#SaveMeratus). Oh, and in the new picture painted by conservationists, the orangutans of Borneo no longer want to eat you; these potentially dangerous animals are now an embodiment of innocence, a reason not to torch your own forests. No, the government will do that for you as they did in 2015, even throughout designated national parks.
One is reminded of the theory suggesting that the Brahmana caste forbade the eating of beef in India, by the lower Sudras and Satriyas, to keep it all for themselves.
One of the most revealing studies on climate change that I have read appeared in A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, stating that nature itself produces around 400 times more carbon dioxide than humans do. According to Bill, however, the minuscule amount of carbon dioxide that we are contributing is the straw that is breaking the camel’s back.
Others wonder, should we not try to seed the oceans with algae to produce more oxygen? The greatest polluters on the planet are the same volcanic vents that have been spewing since the first forms of life, in great crags beneath the ocean’s surface, after all.
I am only struggling to be as reflective and transformative as the White Rajah was when he wrote:
“let us remember that, after our own race had professed Christianity for many generations, the authority of Church and State publicly decreed and systematically inflicted in cold blood tortures far more hideous and atrocious than any the Kayan imagination has ever conceived.”
Now it is 2018, and the Church is now Media, telling us what we should believe.
Now it is 2018 and most people know this island as either Malaysian Borneo or Indonesian Borneo. And this must change, my friends!
The right word is Kalimantan (‘rivers of diamonds’ (Kali-Mainten)).