For what dost thou lament?

Traditional livelihoods decline in Borneo forests as communities rely on mining, logging jobs, so say CIFOR:

A new study by the Center for International Forestry Research has found that villages along the Malinau River, an area rich in valuable timber and mineral resources, are relying less on traditional livelihoods — typically a mixture of hunting, fishing, cultivating fruit gardens, collecting eaglewood and bird’s nests.

The study found jobs in mining, agriculture, construction and services accelerated economic growth in the Malinau district from 1.24% in 2004 to 8.96% in 2009. Most of those interviewed said they supported development as beneficial to their quality of life.  Indeed, development projects in the last decade have brought jobs, health and education services and infrastructure improvements. But villagers said they were concerned such growth is threatening traditional livelihoods and comes at the expense of reduced access to their forests and forest resources.

So it sounds like things are actually getting better for the communities! Smile  This is what we call Development. Often it comes with an environmental cost. This is unfortunate, and it is good for environmentalists to point this out, and to devise means to ameliorate that. If “Giving villagers a say in forest management would provide greater protections for forest resources” then great, although I can bet there will be management challenges for the big investors.

However, I do think we need to watch ourselves so that we do not unconsciously project our own views on to those resource-dependent communities we study and/or work with. I do not know Borneo, so I cannot say for sure that CIFOR have not accurately reflected the Malinau communities’ priorities. I also generally have a very high opinion of CIFOR, as a rational, objective research institute who do not get too dewy eyed about the fate of doomed ecosystems, but instead consider practical issues and what might be feasible solutions. That said, I cannot help but suspect that the author of this piece laments the passing of a simpler age when she could expect to have a fulfilling job, and her research subjects could not.

Update 27/02/2012: See response from study author and my reply in the comments.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by imam on February 27, 2012 at 2:58 am

    Dear MJ

    I am the first author on the study in question (n.b. a he not a “she”). Thanks so much for giving our study this attention and for your kind words about CIFOR.

    You have most of this right but I’d like to clarify a few points. We certainly agree that there have been both development benefits and costs. No surprise. It was the purpose of our study to document these “trade-offs”, the positives and the negatives (rather than as so often one or the other), and see how they are perceived by the local people themselves. Our point would be that we may be able to (sometimes or often?) increase the benefits and reduce the costs if we better understand them (are they really inevitable trade-offs?).

    Forest loss is a very real local concern – that is a fact (we have heard it often) and one that needs to be recognised (along with all the other factors) by all the actors impacting on these landscapes. There is no reason in this relatively sparsely populated region why development and forest conservation should not progress hand-in-hand (look at neighbouring Brunei for example). In much of the rich world there is both conservation and wealth – we hope that the people of Malinau can enjoy the same benefits. To assume otherwise is to short change the local people.

    We encourage anyone interested to read the article and judge for themselves … indeed we have a whole set of articles on local perspectives at this region which we are very willing to share with anyone who is interested (see MLA website These three highlight the value of forests from the local perspective (AMBIO summary and Padmanaba and Sheil and Liswanti et al.).

    If you are interested I can also offer research to substantiate the view that giving villagers a say in forest management is good for the forests. Please let me know.

    Imam Basuki on behalf of the authors


  2. Dear Imam,

    Thank you for your comment. It is always pleasing to get a response from those I write about.

    I agree with every single point you make. Indeed I work on very similar issues myself professionally: community conservation is my call. I constantly come up against trade-offs in my work and, like you, believe that if leaders and investors can have the courage to work patiently with local people in truly cooperative manner then they can be very pleasantly surprised. Local stakeholders are and always will be essential to sustainable development. None of that, however, was the point of my post.

    Before going further I should confess that I did not read the full paper – I am too busy doing actual community conservation work! – and so based my critique on the CIFOR blog posting written by Rachel Rivera (I presume a ‘she’). Indeed more than anything it was based primarily on the headline: “Traditional livelihoods decline in Borneo forests as communities rely on mining, logging jobs” (my emphasis added). The wording is negative, and yet, when read carefully, the detail of the story tells a much more positive story, albeit with some important caveats. Certainly I expect the earning potential of those jobs is warmly welcomed by those who are lucky enough to get one!

    Thus really what I coming down to, is that this is a language problem and a potential editing error. While you talk about trade-offs, the publicity material makes it very clear which side of the divide they are on. I think conservationationists do this far too often. Indeed we do it so often that I suspect rarely do we notice ourselves doing it. The CIFOR blog editor may simply have thought that this was the best headline most likely to get attention. But headlines all over the world confirm stereotypes, and this one is no different. (For a similar comparison in mainstream development refer to the debate around ‘poverty porn’.)

    That all said, I do wish you and your colleagues all the best in getting the best possible outcome for the Malinau communities. At the end of the day, that is what matters most.


  3. Posted by imam on February 27, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Hi MJ,

    Thank you for the reply.
    We also like to wish you all the best with your work with and for the communities.

    Btw, here are the link of the three articles mentioned above (somehow the links did not work).


    Padmanaba and Sheil (2006):

    Liswanti et al. (2011):


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