Is Climate Change the New Headhunting? Local Skepticism of Foreign ‘Stories’, in ‘Borneo’

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)).


Borneo’s Prometheus: Mythical Origins of Burning Rainforests

Mythical Origins of Burning Rainforests: The Prometheus of Borneo

Indonesian Myths

“In Laki Oi, we recognize the Kayan ‘Prometheus,’ whose memory is revered by sanctifying the fire procured after his manner of teaching […]”

-Charles Hose & William McDougall, The Pagan Tribes of Borneo

According to some Dayak beliefs, soot and ash symbolize fertility, virility, and progress.

The Dayak tribes of Indonesia have always used fire to clear land. While this may have been sustainable — on a small scale — for tens of thousands of years, incentivized by reckless investments, the oldest rainforests on this planet are now under threat. Local landowners are left to do the job as cheaply and efficiently as possible, and fire is still their go-to, as it has been for millennia.

1-CmwWr86g9ZLxJ7MUByeXkASatellite image from: []

A Kayan Creation Myth

In the beginning there was only rock, which worms then digested and turned into soil. A great tree took root, and from…

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The New Diwali Love Story: Rahwana & Sita

Diwali comes next week! So, here is The New Diwali Love Story: Rahwana & Sita.

Indonesian Myths

rahwana The traditional, non-Indonesian image of Rahwana & Sita.

Diwali Festival: Victory of Light over Darkness

In the West, when a man is romantic we call him Romeo. In the East, men are told to be as Rama, and women are told to be as Sita. Asia’s most popular love story, Rama & Sita is often compared to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Don’t expect to be swept away, however: remember that Romeo & Juliet is a brutal tragedy. The eastern legend serves as a description of a certain flavor of fatalism, concepts of love, reincarnation, spirituality, and philosophy – however modestly the story starts:

In the beginning, wherein many suitors had already tried and failed, Rama launches an arrow from Sita’s especially stiff bow thereby winning the competition to have her as his bride.

Be As Rama

Rama is set to be the next king of Adohya. There is a problem…

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Miners die in illegal Tunnels daily: Jakartans invest — just for Sport!

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A miner in the village of Sungai Luar’s pertambangan liar.

You Have Received an Invitation to Play Miner-Ville©


In the capital city of Jakarta, the super rich can afford to take their hobbies seriously. While the rest of us play Candy Crush and Farmville, these folks enjoy investing in illegal mining operations around the nation. Like horse races, this is sport, and it fits their routine of data analysis, assembling teams, judging key characters involved, and pitting them against one another.

I know this because the owner of a warung I frequent happens to be their third party. A former business person from a country in Central Asia, K quit his job and somehow found himself going down narrow, unsafe tunnels to mine for precious minerals on the island of Lombok. As soon as he had assembled a solid team, though a few also died down the tunnels in the process (and the smell was pretty awful, he says), he took the figures to Jakarta to show potential investors. The hobbyists took the bait, and the illegal mining sector of Indonesia’s wild, resource frontier digs on.

Fights to the death are a daily occurrence in the mining town of Tanah Bumbu in South Kalimantan. The feverish desperation of miners has created an economy of gambling, narcotics, and prostitution. Deaths of up to fifteen miners in one day go unreported. Children are taken out of primary schools to help their fathers in the tunnels, because eleven-year-olds can squeeze into tight spaces tens of meters down, in unsupported canals. I know this because I once strapped a camera to the head of one of these mining tweens.

Demam batu, or rock fever, struck Southeast Asia immediately after the economic collapse of 1998. Only now are miners finally returning to the earth to plant crops, often enjoying government subsidies to make the transition. Though it requires more of an investment, fish farming is also a trend. Sleeping in floating huts on lakes and rivers around the country, the fish-feeders wake every few hours to distribute pellets. They are the sons and daughters of the miners, still trying to escape.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Natural Resources and Capitalist Frontiers:


“‘Indonesian Miners Revive Gold Rush Spirit of 49ers’ proclaimed a headline in the Los Angeles Times.” On a continent famous for producing knock offs, even this resource frontier seems unoriginal, “shaped by other wild times and places.”

“The activity of the frontier is to make human subjects as well as natural objects. The frontier, indeed, had come to Kalimantan.”

“Frontier landscapes are particularly active: hills are flooding away, ants and humans are on the move. On the frontier, nature goes wild.”

“…to them, the world is a frontier. There is no point in asking how frontiers come to be; they are nature itself.”

The Story of Semar: Divine Hermaphrodite

The story of Semar is dense and outlandish.

Indonesian Myths

Darkness & Light in Creation Myths

In Zoroastrianism, the spiritual Universe was created 3,000 years before the physical one. This belief that the spirit came first is the basis of Indonesian mysticism too, as is the Zoroastrian idea that all of creation took place ‘to ensnare evil’. And once these two universes were combined, Angra Mainyu emerged as the darkness below, while Ahura Mazda was the goodness and light above. All of the rest is interplay of light and shadow. A shadow play.

In the Philippines, the Tagalog origin story of day and night, Apolaki vs. Mayari, plays on the same duality, but with the sun and moon. What is important to note is that the creator in this story is called Bethala – of relation to Indonesia’s beloved, rouge God, Betara Guru.

semar (1) DeviantArt Painting of the one-and-only Semar: The Uncle Sam of Indonesia.

Wayang Purwa: A Creation…

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Kuntilanak: if Miscarriage had a Face.

Have you ever heard of Kuntilanak? Personally I find its backstory the most terrifying of all Indonesian mythological entities. Enjoy! #hanyamitos

Indonesian Myths

Way, way Back Story:

Good old Joseph Campbell suggests that our first myths are 130,000 year old grave goods buried with a group of Neanderthals. Finds like these speak of developed emotional attachments, and more importantly the concept of another dimension where these stone hand tools could be used again. In Mysticism in Java, Niels Mulder writes that the only important truth, at least in Javanese kejawen mysticism, is our emotional one. All else – and I mean everything entirely — comes a distant second, if that. On these grounds we will continue to explore this other dimension, alam gaib, the phenomenal nature; also known as niskala, or the immaterial flip side of audible, visible, touchable, tastable, smellable reality.

And expect to find more than a tall pile of stone hand tools and arrowheads.

The earliest stone hand tools ever found were 3.3 million years ago. They were not grave goods, however. The earliest stone hand tools ever found were 3.3 million years old, but they weren’t grave…

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Tiptoeing around the Tsunami Queen: Nyai Roro Kidul

Expanding on my previous entry about one of the most important mythological figures in a country of 261 million people. #hanyamitos

Indonesian Myths

Nyai Roro Kidul: Made in India?

In Hindu India, devotes are more likely to reach Moksa, the paradise beyond the cycle of reincarnation, if bodies are cremated and ashes scattered in the Ganges rivers. From the Milky Way and through a lock of Shiva’s hair, pouring down from the Himalayan Mountains, the mystical Queen of the Ganges governs these brown tributaries.

As early as the 1st century BC, Hinduism spread 8,000 kilometers southeast, forming the Majapahit Kingdom of Southeast Asia, centralized in what is now Indonesia. During this era, the coasts would have been busy with cremations, ashes, and remains washing out to sea.

Is it possible that Java’s Queen of the Southern Seas is a younger sister of the Queen of the Ganges herself?

jokowi-dan-nyi-roro-kidul Evidence: The President has been meeting in secret with The Queen of the Southern Seas. Read on to understand.

Colonialism and the Ocean Queen…

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