There is a place in the hills where domestic meets wild, where humans meet jungle. Where the fertile valleys between forested mountains shelter villagers who plant fruit trees and rice and kitchen gardens across the acres they tame. But the wild – the jungle – also harbors a biodiversity that has long supplied the people’s needs: meat and fish, insects and vegetables, rattan for baskets, leaves for plates, sturdy wood for the community longhouse. Daily life is a balance between home and forest, here and there – so much so, the lines are blurred.
Scientists are just beginning to understand more of this interdependence between people and land, which has sustainably existed for thousands of years. Here in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, villagers are not just farmers, not just hunter-gatherers. It’s not an either/or. The people do it all. They hunt, fish and forage for their food. They grow rice by hand, in verdant plots fed by mountain waters. They transplant wild spices and herbs from the jungle to the village. They toss pineapples onto the ground, and the fruits grow abundantly – without any additional help, so rich is the soil.
The daily search for food entails a trek from home to paddy with pack on back and parang on hip.
The trail inevitably passes through a variety of forests and fields – some young, some old. Some dense with edible gingers and wild greens; others open to the sun, where brilliant berries grow near at hand.
In this way, the Kelabit people have lived and eaten from the land for ages.
But life changes; it always does. Borneo’s forests – particularly those across the border in neighboring Kalimantan, Indonesia – are losing out to loggers. In lower elevations, miles upon miles of palm-oil plantations replace that old-growth forest. (See here for the Schuster Institute’s recent investigation of human-rights abuses and environmental destruction related to palm oil.) In the Highlands, where oil palms won’t produce so well, lands are often logged and left; gouges dug into the heart of intact terrain.
We first visited the Highlands in 2006. If you’ve been reading here long enough, you might recall our Archaeology story of burial urns scattered throughout the jungle. Or our encounter with a wild boar on a trek that quickly turned into a hunt. Or my descriptions of edible ferns and water-filled bamboo.
That summer seven years ago, villagers told us they worried about the encroaching loggers. They wondered how long their forests and food supplies would last. Ever since that trip, I wondered what became of the people we met. This summer, thanks to the International Center for Journalists and the Ford Foundation, I received a generous International Reporting Fellowship to strap on my pack, lace my boots and head back to the Highlands to find out. (Fellows traveled far and wide this summer to cover all manner of issues all over the globe – check out the group Tumblr.)
We found families we met seven years ago…
such as Moriaty Udan (here, preparing pounded rice in a forest leaf) and
her husband, Walter Paran, with daughter Mujan (who was just about three years old when we last met). They served us feasts of wild boar, pounded greens, sweet young bamboo and rice. And they told us how their village, Pa’ Lungan, is continuing to change as the younger generations leave for school and jobs far away. Mujan, home for holiday break, spends most her days and nights with other kids in boarding school, a five-hour hike from home.
In the past four weeks, we found many complex stories in this region in flux – stories of food and environment, aging and cultural change. Those reports will emerge in the coming months – we will let you know when and where and how to find them.
For now, I’m beginning the long-haul work of weeding through piles of notebooks, too-big files of recordings and video. My desk is cluttered with old-fashioned books and maps in print and PDFs on the iPad. But a part of my head remains in the jungle. It was hard to leave – harder than I’d expected. Despite leech bites, bee stings and bucket showers (cold water, of course), there was comfort in that land. Maybe it was the pitch-black nights of deep, restful sleep. Or the vast distance from cell phones and Internet, and all the frustrations big and small that go with those technologies. Maybe it was the sound of a thousand forest creatures singing through the day. Maybe it was all that fresh food (yes – it was local and organic and wholesome and sustainable, the epitome of modern-day food-movement buzzwords, but way out there in the Borneo boonies, far from the hubbubs that divide other food-minded folk.). But when we reached city again (after a terrifying all-day drive down a mud-slick mountain logging road) I literally stumbled on the sidewalk. Pavement, lights, honking horns – so quickly, it felt so foreign.
So quickly, it reminded us how lives and cultures can change.
Stay tuned. More to come.
Ginger: both flower and food.