Why I’m bothered about Borneo

Infatuated by a place I don’t yet understand but already love a lot.

IMG_1570Ghost net on the reef at Talang Talang, Talang Satang National Park, Sarawak.

Borneo is subdivided between 3 countries. Kalimantan to the east and south, is Indonesian. Sarawak and Sabah form part of Malaysia. Brunei Darussalam, a tiny country in its own right, is a remnant of a regional superpower in centuries past.

563413_10151080063815853_946488230_nFishing platforms in the open sea off Berau, East Kalimantan.

This is an island of superlatives. It’s forests, oceans and geology are spectacularly diverse. It’s once mighty forests, among the last homes for Sumatran rhinos, orangutans, pygmy elephants, sun bears, clouded leopards and rhinoceros hornbills. While some of these movie-star species teeter on the brink of extinction, less glamorous but new-to-science species are still being discovered here, at a rate of 3 per month.

14394284539_fb7cb88a99_bPulau Layang Layang, Spratly Islands, Sabah, formerly known as Swallow Reef. This ‘island’ is basically a runway, Malaysian naval base and a dive resort with epic wall diving.

The planet’s third largest island, Borneo has the hotly-contested South China Sea to one side. Peppered with atolls, islands and fortunately or unfortunately, oil. On the other side the Macassar Strait between Borneo and neighbouring Sulawesi sees the biggest tidal ranges on the planet. Some of the best diving in the world is here. Current-swept islands jut into the tropical sunlight, through water enriched by the outpouring of many and massive rivers. A perfect situation for coral reefs, glorious beaches, and all associated marine life.

IMG_20170325_064942083This green turtle was late getting to the beach to nest at Talang Talang turtle reserve, Sarawak. She abandoned the half-dug nest and went back to the sea, better luck next time.

The geology is rich with mineral ores and different rock types. Indeed, Sarawak appears to have been coerced into existence due to an unpaid debt of antimony ore in the 1800s.

IMG_20170329_102839905Not that you’d know it from the only reference to antimony in the old Sarawak Museum. I’m being unfair, this is an old label from a very old didactic display. Safe to say whoever worked on this case is long gone, nevertheless I think we can do better in the new museum…

IMG_1729The vast Green Cave at Niah. The rods hanging down are for bird nest collectors. They climb these to collect swiftlet nests from the cave ceiling for birds’ nest soup. People also collect bat guano here which is a great fertiliser.

So, the landscape is dramatic. Forested mountains have bare peaks, where they reach too high or are too sheer to support growth. Most famous are: Kinabalu, Mulu and Batu Lawi. The altitude and scale of the interior, and the length of the coastline results in numerous different habitats. From mangroves, nipa swamps, through to lowland and montane rainforest. Huge rivers are spawned from watersheds in the interior. Sometimes disappearing into vast cave chambers and passages on their route to the sea, as at Mulu National Park. There are also sites of ancient habitation, rock art and ritual within Borneo’s caves, like spectacular Niah in Sarawak.

IMG_1715‘Boat coffins’ for secondary internment of bones or ashes at the Niah Cave complex. The documentation team tell me these are around 1200 years old! Still lying there, respectfully untouched.

People have lived here, in relative harmony with nature if not with each other, for at least 37,000 years. Borneo boasts the oldest human remains in SE Asia, the skull of a middle-aged female, known as the Deep Skull. She was found at Niah and dates from this period. For millennia, people have managed land more or less sustainably, and they developed complex animistic religions. Numerous and diverse in their beliefs and practices, even over a relatively small area. Then a brief bout with a somewhat unusual version of British Colonialism. Saw nomadic hunters and farmers become mostly settled or semi-settled farmers and now, predominantly city dwellers.

IMG_1658Peat run-off on the beach near the mouth of the Sungai Baram, Miri. Sand-bubbler crab balls for light relief. Without tree roots holding it in place, peat exposed by forestry or worse, slash and burn, releases CO2 in quantity. In Borneo this largely happens for palm oil cultivation. Look at Indonesia and Malaysia’s CO2 release from peatlands (pdf).

Having natural resources on a Bornean scale, it’s easy to understand why the government want to develop rapidly and reap the financial dividends from nature’s blessings. Here’s the thing though. The combined forces of mining, oil-drilling, logging, palm oil plantations, over-fishing and hunting, are seeing this precious piece of the planet eroded. Both literally and metaphorically, at a rate that is truly alarming. Are we making a museum or a memorial?

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