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Different Routes

10.12.2021

Different Routes: In Kalimantan and Meso-America, nature needs protection without leaving people behind

Illustration: Pauliina Mäkelä

Somewhere far away, biodiversity is dwindling and rainforests are being cut down. Nature conservation is a hot topic of conversation, but people who live in the midst of environmental disputes are often overlooked in such debates. Science journalist Mikko Pelttari asked researchers of sparsely populated border regions how we could better understand areas with the most to protect and the most to lose.

A familiar landscape, but this time it is smouldering. The smoke makes it difficult to breathe and your eyes sting.

Anthropologist Anu Lounela has visited this part of Borneo several times before, but it wasn’t until 2019 that she saw the fires with her own eyes for the first time. It is a familiar phenomenon. Recurrent fires have ravaged the forests and devastated the inhabitants of Central Kalimantan since the late 1990s. Still, knowing this is not the same as seeing it.

“The atmosphere was lethargically dramatic. People were frustrated and filled with grief at the burnt trees and lost livelihoods,” Lounela recalls.

The fires do not recur by chance. Intense efforts to drain the swampy land were begun in the 1960s, starting with the famous major projects of former Indonesian President Suharto. Since then, industry, logging and all sorts of other activities have only accelerated, and at the same time, climate change is scorching and drying up the land in the equator area. Natural disasters here have a human imprint.

The slash-and-burn farmers of Kalimantan are looking for new livelihoods

Borneo is an island in Southeast Asia more than twice the size of Finland. To the north is the small Sultanate of Brunei and a wide strip of Malaysia; the lion’s share of the island belongs to Indonesia. These five provinces of Borneo in Indonesia are called Kalimantan. 

Kalimantan is one of those places often talked about in concerned tones in climate news. Borneo is famous for its rainforests, rich wildlife and for how much of its peat swamp forests have been drained and cut down. Borneo’s logging contributes to local loss of biodiversity, but also to the global climate risk. Borneo is at the equator, and peat accumulates more rapidly in the tropics than in the northern taiga of Finland. Borneo’s thick layer of peat stores a huge amount of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere both during wildfires and when the earth is excavated. With no shortage of wildfires, the devastation is not only a cause for grief for the locals, but also a blow to the very necessary global climate goals.

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about peat swamp forests, logging, fires and the oil palm plantations established in the area. However, little attention has been paid to the people who live at the frontiers of Borneo – for example, the Dayak in the village of Buntoi, where Anu Lounela is conducting her research. 

Lounela first visited Indonesia as a student of anthropology in 1993. Since then, she has conducted the fieldwork for both her master’s thesis and dissertation on the island of Java. She has been engaged in field research in Borneo since 2012.

Buntoi, the village where Lounela is currently carrying out research, is home to almost three thousand people. Due to the immigrant policy of the Indonesian government, the island is inhabited not only by the Dayak but also by people who have come there from the main island of Java. The region has a long history of habitation. Its heritage includes both Dutch colonial rule and German missionaries.

The Dayak have traditionally slashed and burnt forest for cultivation and tended their gardens. Fishing and the gathering economy are important here. In addition, rubber trees have long been an important source of income in the Buntoi region. The oldest plantations are around a hundred years old. Rubber trees yield latex, and when its production diminishes as the trees get older, the trunks are used in the wood industry. At the turn of the millennium, many Dayak saw the rubber tree as a future industry, a way to make a living from their own land.

“But changes occur quickly at the frontier. When new rubber tree plantations burned down in 2015, plans had to be changed. Latex cannot be extracted until the tree is seven years old. Fires have plagued the region on a regular basis since 1997, making it a big risk to commit to growing rubber trees,” says Anu Lounela.


Would a plywood mill bring more work?

Wait a minute, what do you mean by ‘frontier’? The Oxford Dictionary defines frontier as a) “a line or border separating two countries” and b) “the extreme limit of settled land beyond which lies wilderness.” Buntoi is a long way from the Malaysian border, but might be considered, by some at least, as a land at the extreme limit of settled land. For anthropologists, a frontier is not a place at the border between two countries or even a region on a map, but a kind of state or condition of change with a beginning and an end.

Frontiers are situated far from the centres of the world. They may be very different from each other, but they do share some distinctive features. According to the definition of anthropologist John McCarthy, people are few and far between at frontiers, the infrastructure is underdeveloped, land ownership is unclear and migration to the area is substantial because the area is perceived as “empty”. Disputes and conflicts are often caused by economic development: the frontier is a place for struggles not only about who manages its natural resources but also about what a natural resource is in the first place. Such areas are called resource frontiers.

Kalimantan is one such frontier. In Central Kalimantan, the landscape began to be used to rapidly create commodities in the 1960s.

“There were sawmills at that time and the locals sold wood, but these activities were considered temporary. Perhaps they thought that if others were doing it, why not them, but in the middle of it all they still thought the land belonged to them,” Lounela explains.

Now the situation has changed. In recent years, new companies have sprung up at a rapid pace in Buntoi, such as a plywood mill. The locals saw the company, which arrived from the main island of Java, as a promise of jobs and livelihood. When rubber tree plantations planted in the 2000s burned down repeatedly, many locals turned their attention to the fast-growing Moluccan albizia tree. Surely the plywood mill would buy their wood.

Sadly, it is also typical of frontiers that promises are not fulfilled. Now it seems that the sawmill didn’t offer jobs to many people at all, and if it did, they are underpaid and without contract. It doesn’t buy wood grown by the locals either; instead, it gets its material from somewhere upstream.

Illustration: Pauliina Mäkelä


Our land is not ours after all

There is a vicious circle in Kalimantan. Combined with the warming climate, draining peat swamp forests leads to wildfires, which means more and more emissions, local forest damage and increased global warming. 

Looking at it from Finland, it’s clear that peat swamp forests should be protected. Some of them are, and attempts are made to protect even more of them. However, for companies and investors, frontiers offer great gains, land and resources. At the same time, nature conservation work could achieve great results in places like Central Kalimantan.

But even nature conservation has its challenges that are typical at frontiers. Dayak communities have traditionally valued autonomy and extensive self-occupied land without permanent ownership. This has suited their lifestyle. 

The ever-accelerating resource economy competes over the same land that nature conservation and international environmental organisations are targeting. The Dayak appreciate the reasons for nature conservation, but as people who value autonomy, they do not want to be a passive party in such conservation either. 

Currently, the government supports peatland restoration and the protected areas, as well as factory projects, plantations and rice plantations. Oil palm plantations are closely linked to the local ruling powers and the machinery of violence. According to Lounela, researchers studying the oil palm business have received threats, and there is also a great deal of fear associated with development.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about land ownership in the region. Seeing soldiers in uniforms guarding work in the rice fields makes you less interested in resisting the powers that be,” Lounela says.

With the introduction of physical boundaries for cultivated land or protected areas, the state strengthens its presence, and the boundary between law and lawlessness is emphasised – there can be a conflict between what is allowed and what people are used to. Companies are now buying and taking over land for their own use, and the ownership is being permanently transferred from the locals to companies.

“There have been borders in the past too, but you could only view the maps in Jakarta or the provincial capital. The land has belonged to those who were inhabiting it. Now the Dayak are realising that the land is no longer at their disposal. That they can run out of land too,” Lounela says.

Nature conservation practices can also evoke a wide range of emotions. For example, attitudes towards the ongoing peatland restoration projects in Kalimantan are divided. On the one hand, people want to reduce the risk of wildfires, but on the other, also to maintain the benefits achieved.

“Draining canals are important travel and transport routes for locals. They have allowed people to earn a living farther from their village. Water regulation is also important to many, despite the risks. The swamps there have been drained for exactly the same reason as in Finland: so that the land can be used to grow something. Sometimes dams built in the canals for restoration purposes have even been demolished,” says Lounela.

The contradictions are clearly visible in the landscape. The surroundings of Buntoi are a patchwork revealing the existing tensions. There is a new coal-fired power plant, the village, a plywood mill, fields of trees, nature reserves, rivers and canals. Opportunities have opened up for companies, but at the same time, opportunities for ordinary people to decide on their own lives have been reduced.

“Nature protection suffers from a common problem many development projects face. The goal is to do good, but the different projects contradict each other, and not all the activities are always ecologically or morally sustainable.”

This is also typical of frontiers.


Meso-American political forests

Sometimes a figurative border region can be located literally on the border of two or more states. This is the case at the borders of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize in Meso-America, where Hanna Laako is studying local communities and political forests. While Lounela talks about the frontier, the border regions Laako studies have a slightly different definition. In Laako’s area of study, there are national borders, and also frontiers whose definition is still disputed, but Laako is interested in a broader critical point of view, which in the literature of the discipline is called borderlands.

“The region’s three states have established many nature reserves in the area in recent decades. I am interested in this development from a social point of view,” says Laako.

Laako, who works at the University of Eastern Finland, is researching an extensive network of nature reserves called Selva Maya. The area has protected and unprotected forests, villages, plantations and a wide range of agriculture. Its unofficial name was created decades ago and refers to the region’s history: it used to be the heart of the Maya civilisation. The name doesn’t directly refer to the region’s current inhabitants.

“Many of the people living in the area today are new settlers who have moved to the region during its modernisation. Despite the name, only a few are indigenous and, of these, very few identify as descendants of the Mayans,” Laako explains.

Nature conservation is undeniably important in an area where biodiversity is extremely high. The rainforests of Meso-America that have survived are hotspots of biodiversity. In a strict sense, however, the area is not in its natural state. During the Maya civilisation’s golden age, the Mayans cultivated the land and forests heavily, and over the past five decades, the area has once again been subject to logging and colonisation. Mexico’s ‘modernisation of the tropics’ project involved bringing displaced people and intensive livestock farming to the area from elsewhere in the country, often with severe consequences for the forests.

“Many settler communities have moved to the area because their former homes have become uninhabitable due to logging, drought and erosion,” Laako says.

Nature reserves increase government control in borderlands

In the area Laako is researching in Meso-America, the government feels remote to the people, despite the nature reserves and other projects. Institutions do not affect their everyday lives, the infrastructure and services are limited, law enforcement is inadequate and the region is vulnerable to conflict. On the Guatemalan side of the forests, a civil war was being fought until the 1990s, and in the state of Chiapas in Mexico, the Zapatista movement fought a low-intensity war against government forces in the 1990s. In addition, the struggles of indigenous peoples for their rights are an integral part of the dynamics of the borderlands.

“In my research, I talk about political forests. It’s important to think critically about the way nature conservation is part of the government’s activities in the state’s borderlands,” Laako says.

Laako points out that state-run nature conservation is more than nature conservation, and the forest is not only a resource but also politics that create international relations. The Maya nature reserves are national projects that are connected to similar nature reserves beyond national borders in neighbouring countries.

“One reason for the establishment of nature reserves may be the fact that they bring a government presence to an area where there has been little government presence before. As borders and the right to govern borderlands are strengthened, new cross-border cooperation projects emerge. The government’s presence grows because there are rules and regulations, staff, laws and boundaries in the nature reserves,” says Laako.

Illustration: Pauliina Mäkelä


Principles vs. practice

According to Hanna Laako, nature conservation has been well received in many local communities in the borderlands between Mexico and Guatemala, at least mainly and in principle. Until recently in the settler villages of the Lacandon area, forests were still called monte, which refers to a wilderness or wasteland, but today you often hear the word reserva, which refers to nature protection.

“How much of this is tactics when speaking to outsiders is hard to say, but clearly many communities are serious,” Laako contemplates.

A lot depends on attitudes. In the area Laako is studying, the state is already protecting as much of the land as it can, roughly speaking. The continuation of this protection depends on private and community projects.

There are many problems. Many parts of the Maya forests are ruled by drug cartels and other organised criminal organisations, which have cut down large areas of forest, for example, in areas belonging to Guatemala. In borderlands, there are few ways to tackle wildlife smuggling or other illegal activities if armed criminals are involved. 

In communities where internal social norms are strong, harmful practices are easier to eradicate and nature conservation projects are more likely to be well accepted. For example, in the municipality of Maravilla Tenejapa on the outskirts of the Lacandon forest in Chiapas, Mexico, the population is homogeneous, cultural revivalism is supported and nature conservation is progressing well.

In the nearby Marqués de Comillas, on the other hand, there is no consensus on nature conservation due to the extensive livestock farming and the fact that the communities come from different backgrounds.

“The municipal area is also fairly flat, which means that deforestation offers opportunities,” says Laako.

In both Mexico and Borneo, it is also a question of who has the power to decide things. Many communities oppose top-down rule, sometimes in principle, whether or not there is justification for the control. For the Dayak in Kalimantan, being independent is an important value.

“The older generation in particular feels that paid work is slave labour by definition. They may do it temporarily to make money, but in the long run, they want their own garden or their own rubber tree plantation. Of course, the younger generation are starting to think differently, and there is often a market for cheap labour at frontiers,” says Anu Lounela.

Lounela points out that strengthening local self-government can, in some cases, reduce the autonomy of the people. Giving local government more power and responsibilities means having to raise more revenue. In Indonesia, this well-intentioned scheme has meant that the concentration of power has come to lie with the local elites and companies that have come from elsewhere, to make more efficient use of land and natural resources as monetary assets.

“Yes, investors have brought in more money, but it has not gone to the poor, and in the process a lot of land and forests have been lost,” Lounela says.


Ecological destruction is here and now for the Dayak

Regardless of whether we talk about borderlands or frontiers, the concepts are understood in slightly different ways in different disciplines and research traditions, and the terms are highly controversial. As mentioned before, in Lounela and Laako’s studies they also mean slightly different things, but from both points of view, the concepts are like a lens that reveals something that might otherwise stay hidden. The world is full of places that differ greatly, and even far away from the centres of the world, there can be important lessons to learn. The concepts of frontiers and borderlands draw attention to differences and the people, sometimes in a radically stirring way.

The challenges of nature conservation are also very different at the frontier or in borderlands than they are in the rich North.

In Anu Lounela’s opinion, the environmental projects in Kalimantan have suffered from ‘projectisation’. Nature conservation that progresses one project after another can have the effect of shooting itself in the foot. When a project arrives, the locals need to consider how long the project will last and what they dare to hope from it. 

“For the locals, ecological destruction is not an abstract global concern, but something that determines their lives right here and now,” Lounela says. 

Could nature conservation support autonomy? When a state enters a frontier or borderlands, communities must establish a relationship with it. For that reason, the communities need to be involved, at least to some extent, in government projects in order to gain recognition from the it, whether these projects mitigate or contribute to ecological destruction.

Lounela points out that the Dayak in Kalimantan generally appreciate the fact that nature conservation makes sense. Similarly, settlers in the Lacandon rainforest and the coffee growers of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala have started numerous private nature reserves. But nature conservation is not the only thing that matters to them. They also care about old customs, laws and regulations and, of course, money.

In recent decades, the Mexican government has offered various subsidies to communities that voluntarily turn their land into nature reserves. The practice has become widespread in other parts of the world too. Hanna Laako explains that many researchers talk about the ‘neoliberalisation’ of nature conservation.

“We are in a situation where we have a new Mexican president and the continuation of subsidies for nature conservation is at stake. Environmental organisations are afraid that if financial support ends, conservation will also end,” Hanna Laako says.

This fear is not entirely unfounded. Many studies have shown that the financial benefits of nature conservation may work, but at the same time, they may discourage people from participating in environmental work on their own. After all, subsidies do not automatically turn into social norms.

The continuity of nature conservation is also threatened by competing financial subsidies: in Mexico, livestock farming receives more subsidies than nature conservation, and in the state of Tabasco, for example, large areas of forest have been cut down to make way for livestock farming. Because people’s livelihoods and future are tied to the land, this can easily create a dependence on subsidies, laws and incentives. Communities long to be independent of the state, but the problem is, what will replace the state. In borderlands, people need to make a living from the land.


How to offer ecotourism without electricity and water?

In the Maya forest area, the restoration of biodiversity depends on nature conservation projects. Conservation is slow: in Petén, Guatemala and Tabasco, Mexico, for example, there are many impoverished areas where forests have been cut down, but which could become an important part of the region’s network of nature reserves, if provided with decades of conservation work. A broader network is needed to strengthen the region’s invaluable biodiversity.

That is why many organisations have tried to find ways to make environmental protection an economically viable option even if state subsidies are no longer available. Many environmental organisations are trying to break harmful dependencies by supporting, for example, ecotourism projects. The civic organisation Natura Mexicana has run such a project, for instance, in the previously mentioned municipality of Marqués de Comillas, where conservation projects have encountered problems in the past.

“Ecotourism is of particular interest to the younger generation, but the weak infrastructure is a problem. Without well-functioning mobile phone connections, electricity, water and a road network, running a tourism business can be challenging,” says Laako.

It is clear that there are old harmful paths that are easy – or sometimes necessary – to traverse, but at the same time new paths are quickly being cleared. In the area Laako is studying, the most drastic modernisation projects have been carried out in the state of Tabasco in Mexico, but new winds are already blowing there too. 

“Organisations and institutions are trying to introduce sustainable farming methods, indigenous crops and beekeeping, from the perspective of increasing biodiversity. A lot of forest has been felled in Tabasco; yet this can be a slow but sustainable road to something better,” Laako says.

Biodiversity can be supported in other ways too than by fencing off areas from human use. Many of the Maya nature reserves are biosphere reserves with communities still living in them. And if the land between nature reserves is healthier and more biodiverse, there will be more room for human communities to thrive too and to plan for their future. 


Does environmental thinking leave room for the people living at frontiers?

Kalimantan researcher Anu Lounela admits that her experiences on the field have made her a sceptic when it comes to nature conservation projects.

“The negativity comes from research. When I arrive on the field, people immediately come to me and tell me what has happened, what they hope for and what they are afraid of. The overall picture I see is that people’s perception of future opportunities is becoming narrower,” says Lounela.

Sometimes it seems that the lives of the people, communities and indigenous peoples at frontiers are difficult to take into account at all in environmental thinking. There is already a lot of talk about the economy in the context of climate and environmental emergencies: green growth, degrowth, reducing consumption and the circular economy. There is much less talk about human rights. In his book of essays The Great Derangement (2016), the Indian author Amitav Ghosh asks why we don’t talk about the equal distribution of power in the same way as we talk about economic inequality – do words even exist for a world where the affairs of sparsely populated areas are not dictated from capitals and headquarters?

Many projects in Kalimantan also involve sustainable action. For example, some REDD forest protection projects have involved working together to build storehouses for the locals next to rubber tree fields, thus supporting their self-sufficient way of life. Problems will remain until they are resolved.

“Yet the situation can be seen in a more positive light. A frontier such as Central Kalimantan is not a place where good development ends with a fire. There, change is ongoing, and if the government and organisations are able to work with the communities to create long-term ways of doing things, there is great potential at frontiers.”

In borderlands and at frontiers, people’s livelihoods are inseparable from the land they inhabit. That is why nature reserves or overly market-led environmental measures may face strong resistance. The road is slow, and only dialogue will help both the planet and the people at frontiers and in borderlands who crave freedom.


The research project ‘New Regimes of Commodification and State Formation on the Resource Frontier of Southeast Asia’, led by Anu Lounela (University of Helsinki) received research funding from Kone Foundation in 2017.

Hanna Laako’s (University of Eastern Finland) research project ‘Political Forests – Protection of Tropical Rainforests in Meso-America’ received research funding from Kone Foundation in 2019.

More information about Laako’s research: Laako, H. and Kauffer, E. (2021): ”Conservation in the Frontier: Negotiating Ownerships of Nature at the Mexican Southern Border”. Journal of Latin American Geography 20:3.

Another source used in the writing of the article is “Valtion Antropologiaa” (Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura SKS, 2021) by Tuomas Tammisto and Heikki Wilenius. Tammisto has also worked as a researcher in Anu Lounela’s research project.

Text: Mikko Pelttari

Photographs: Pauliina Mäkelä