Evolving the Local-Global Narrative: The Story of Borneo
To be present for today’s ecological challenges requires a certain grit, gut and will. Ceaseless statistics of destruction and despair, from drowning polar bears, vistas of bleached coral reef, to acres upon acres of clear-cut rainforests, each ‘end-of-the-biosphere’ scenario carries a similar tone— For the sake of economic growth and development, the environment must play a sacrificial and subsidiary role.
Understanding the Challenge
For awhile it seemed that Earth’s ability to provide resources would never run dry.
“Until around 1990 Earth’s resilience was high. Instead of incurring costs to the economy, ecosystems provided massive subsidies to the world economy. In fact, in a recent study by Robert Costanza of Australia National University and several co-authors, these subsidies were valued at about 125 trillion USD annually, or 1.5 times world GDP.” - Big World Small Planet, Johan Rockstrom and Mattias Klum
Looking around, nearly every item we use on a day-to-day basis is comprised of materials from the natural world. Around the globe, scientific measurements are pouring in and statistics show that industry’s free-ride on the natural ecosystems is over. The rates of development and consumption across the spectrum of industry has reached a level in which the stability of the entire Earth system is at risk. What this really means is that business as usual is no longer an option. In today’s interconnected world, those environmental ‘externalities’ in (seemingly) far off corners of the earth impact us all.
In light of the threat to the stability our global biome it may seem paradoxical to focus resources on preserving the beauty and diversity of local systems. Yet, with earth’s climate, hydrological, and ozone cycles (to name just a few) so delicately woven together, local actions universally influence our collective prosperity and wellbeing.
Let us travel deep into the forests of Borneo to explore the local-global story of industry, resilience and the potential for a win-win regenerative future...
The Borneo Project
Enter Borneo— A lush and vibrant landscape, home to the oldest rainforest and one of the most species diverse places on the planet. Residence to over 15,000 plant species and thousands of endemic mammal, reptile, and insect species (including orangutans, rhinos, hornbills, macaques, gibbons, tarsiers, and slow loris) there’s a lot on the line.
Traveling into the Malaysian State of Sarawak we come face-to-face with a development proposal that represents the epoch of our worldwide environmental challenge. The government has proposed a series of 12 mega-dams in this region to supposedly jumpstart industrial growth.
Learning from the past helps us make informed decisions today. In 1998 around 10,000 indigenous people were relocated to resettlement villages in this region to make way for the Bakun Hydroelectric Dam. The wildly devastating effects of this dam have been noted and measured, both ecologically and socially.
On the local level we see indigenous displacement atrocities with ancestral land and burial grounds underwater. Vast destruction of hydrological systems has occurred to such a degree that the water has become un-swimmable, un-drinkable and un-fishable. Excess sulfur from flooding reservoirs has acidified the water causing trees located near the reservoir to burn away. Recent studies from UC Berkeley‘s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) found staggering effects on biodiversity. The impact of just three of these dams alone is estimated to cause the loss of 3.4 million individual birds and 110 million individual mammals. With this loss of forest cover, species diversity, and healthy hydrological systems, simultaneously erased is the forest's ability to sequester global carbon.
Community Resilience in Borneo
In a recent interview with the Executive Director of San Francisco-based NGO, The Borneo Project, we learn a bit more about cultivating local resilience.
Namaste Foundation: What are some of the modern techniques The Borneo Project utilizes to empower local, resilient communities in these threatened regions of Borneo?
Borneo Project: “There are two main ways that we work to empower communities in Sarawak. First, we find them resources that they might not have access to, which could mean channelling grants towards community projects and actions, or facilitating leadership training or community mapping workshops. Secondly, we make connections between folks in Sarawak and people all over the world, including universities, foundations, advocates, NGOs, international activists, experts, and journalist. This type of work includes media, communications, awareness building, and networking. Our short film series is a part of this work, as is a new online portal that we’re developing to connect all of the actors and stakeholders in the dams issue.”
Namaste Foundation: In the film titled “Broken Promises” there is mention of the unmet needs of indigenous populations living in this region. Can you tell us a bit more about the story of lifestyle, education, and energy needs in these remote, ecological epicenters?
Borneo Project: “Right now many rural Sarawakian villages are not connected to a grid and instead rely on expensive and dirty diesel generators. There is a direct relationship between the absence of adequate energy services and many poverty indicators such as infant mortality, illiteracy, and life expectancy. Increasing energy access directly correlates to economic growth and improvement in human welfare.
“Diesel generators are costly, inefficient, unreliable, and produce air and noise pollution. Village households often pay twice as much as urban households on monthly electricity, even with diesel subsidies. Recent studies by the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) of the University of California have found that a large number of rural Sarawakian families that own generators cannot afford a consistent monthly fuel supply. Diesel, even at the subsidized government retail rate, is the most expensive form of electric production for Baram villages given the recurrent fuel costs. Mega-dams do nothing to address this energy poverty. In villages that have been displaced by dams, the transmission lines from the dam pass directly overhead, bypassing the community, which still relies on diesel generators.
“The RAEL study finds that the least cost options for energy services can come from a mixture of locally managed small-scale renewable energy systems and accompanying batteries where necessary. Renewable energy technologies such as solar and micro-hydro offer clean and sustainable options for generating long term electricity without degrading or depleting natural resources. There is a practical, clean, and affordable solution for ending energy poverty in Sarawak that does not harm the incredibly diverse ecosystems. This is what communities on the ground are fighting for.”
To further inform the global and local communities, The Borneo Project has produced a series of films that takes us through the evolution of this ‘local-global’ story.
The latest in the series of four films premiering in October will feature socially, environmentally and economically viable alternatives to mega dams: those developments that offer solutions to energy poverty on the island, enhance rights and preserve the forest lungs for future generations.
Scaling Solutions: Stories of Local Resilience
Major investment must not look to energy development models that consume the last remaining frontiers of ecological abundance, but rather lean in on new technologies and regenerative models for a rich and abundant future. Ecologically and economically solutions for a bright future are one in the same.
Long gone are the days of isolated incidence of environmental atrocities; any part of the system changes our shared environment. To meet growing energy demands in the developing regions of the world, while respecting the boundaries of the environment, requires a level of brilliance and agility that merges both indigenous knowledge of land stewardship with the latest technological and social developments of our time.
True modern day solutions for economic growth should not be based upon archaic dam technology. The energy solutions of tomorrow are here today: micro hydro, geothermal, wind and solar.
It’s a matter of empowerment; foresight and understanding are needed from government officials, local communities and industry leaders alike.
One thing is certain, when there is nothing left—there is nothing left in which to invest. Some actions are irreversibly damaging to both natural and economic systems. It’s as simple as that.
Furthermore, the actions in Borneo can't be viewed through the lens of “us vs. them”. The story unfolding in Borneo’s Sarawak region offers us a beautiful window into a shifting narrative; moving away from an out-of-sight-out-of-mind grab for the last remaining resources, to one in which prosperity, human rights and wellbeing are all considered in the development-investment process.
“In today’s interconnected and environmentally saturated world, there are no externalities. Everything, from finite resources to clean air, forms an integral part of our efforts to generate human well being.” – Big World Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries
When we re-imagine a relationship to the natural world and the economics of tomorrow, we must take into consideration the universal human rights inextricably tied to the environments in which we live and breathe. This requires the continued action of local to communities as well as global support to advocate for new models of development that move towards a stable climate for us all.
May the story and narrative of Borneo serve as a model for which we may begin to shift our collective cultural identity and influence change, placing human health and prosperity within instead of outside the ecological systems that support life.
We thank The Borneo Project for their continued work in supporting community-led efforts on the ground in Sarawak and for telling this local-global story so eloquently. Namaste Foundation is honored to add its support as well.
To learn more about The Borneo Project and make a donation, please visit www.borneoproject.org.
Top photo by Sophia Yu.