The Grumpy Naturalist

Think BIGGER: 3 minute read by Farriz Mashudi 03/07/2020

Photo by Saeid Anvar

Half, nay. . . I’ve been to most all the places in Sarawakian Borneo cited by the New Internationalist in its recent piece on Bakun and the previously proposed Baram Dams. Including, to Bakun itself. Well, to the workers’ lodgings near where it stands. That’s where I found myself hiding out one night in 1999 or thereabouts. There weren’t many outside the construction project who could say that. (More on this another time.) Reading the 14th April 2020 report from the start, something wasn’t right.

The facts appeared accurate enough, and the conclusions sound. My difficulty was with language used gratuitously so as to be imprecise. The extract below contains a highlighted example:

“An epic struggle has been playing out between islanders defending their land, rivers and livelihood – against the Malaysian government’s vision of ‘development’…”

Waterfall signage photos: Artem Beliaikin

Is Borneo an island, with Sarawak alone being roughly the size of England? Although similarly surrounded by water, with nearby Malaysian state, Sabah, and neighbouring country Brunei and sprawling Kalimantan, on Indonesia’s side of Borneo to the south — even if Borneo isn’t nearly as large as the Australian continent — neither can it be compared to an atoll or speck of Pacific island fighting to keep its head above water (literally, in the case of some). Sarawakians aren’t islanders in the same context. Back in the day and for cultural events it’s beading and feathers, not grass skirts that the majority Ibans, and the other Kenyah, Kelabit and Bidayuh tribes don.

Was I being hyper-sensitive, being born an evil ‘West Malaysian’? Is petty a better word for it? The report’s findings deal with BIG issues, but pot shots like this (to me at least) are an unnecessary cheap trick that detracts, denigrates even, from writing I would otherwise admire more.

The campaigners quoted are perhaps guilty too, in misrepresenting the views of indigenous peoples. Another emotively-charged word.

I recall driving overnight from Miri (then a town, now a ‘city’, built on oil and gas spoils) in a convoy of two SUVs that laughed inanely over walkie-talkies in the dead of night. This was whenever the lead car hit another large hole in the road, and when the one trailing inevitably failed to heed its garbled warnings. — Both frequently and expected.

We were making our way to a Kenyah colleague’s wedding in Asap, the same locale where Bakun residents were relocated to in 1998.

Perhaps because I was ‘foreign’, labelled ‘Malayas’ — unapologetically, if only behind my back and without any veiled compliments — by Sarawak’s Malay locals;

Or was it because I couldn’t stop marvelling over rival East Malaysian state, Sabah’s fine four-lane wonders which in comparison miraculously wound their way smoothly toward Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain?  

Whatever it was, it prompted this response at the time:

“These holes, these problems are of our own making. They are ours, and no one else’s,” the bride confided, defensive.

It was true, Sabah’s roads were paid for and built as part of Japanese war reparations.

Never mind that global bell-weather, Transparency International billed Bakun ‘a monument to corruption’; in Sarawak, local pride, it seemed, was everything.

Blown up as a case of displaced ‘indigenous’ peoples, the New Internationalist’s reporting omits to consider this, and other local perspectives. Educated professionals, revered leaders – past and present, and their defenders and detractors alike, are ignored. (Serves them right, for not doing more?)

Pixabay photo

Still — whilst not discounting the proclivity perhaps of former union rebel rousers, for those Sarawakians simply embarrassed, sick even from the continued negative attention who wish only to be left alone to get on with things in their own way — the New Internationalist’s sensationalist style of eco-warrior reporting isn’t making life any easier; which in the BIGGER picture, isn’t such a bad thing.

For the full article in the New Internationalist: SAVING RIVERS, SAVING LIVES 14 April 2020

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