The Borneo Project Thinks Ahead

Helping to save the planet’s oldest tropical rainforest is more about empowering people than rescuing trees. That’s the philosophy of Earth Island Institute’s Borneo Project, which for the past 10 years has aided indigenous peoples of the world’s third-largest island in preserving both their forests and culture.

Begun as a sister-city relationship between Berkeley, California, and the Kayan village of Uma Bawang in Sarawak, Malaysia, the Borneo Project has branched out to help more than 50 villages map their ancestral lands, an essential step in asserting rights against logging companies and palm oil plantations. Other initiatives have included reforestation efforts, support for local artisans—several products can be purchased on the Borneo Project’s web site—and, currently, a pilot micro-hydro project to replace a diesel generator with clean electricity.

Borneo Project workers help villagers install a small-scale hydro-electric plant.
John Paisley

The latest venture, done in partnership with Green Empowerment and Friends of Malaysia, will divert a portion of stream flow to a generating turbine. "There’s no dam, and we don’t heat the water," says Wick Pancoast, the Borneo Project’s Executive Director. "The turbine is fairly low-tech, so it can be maintained locally. It will provide lights and refrigeration for 400 people."

Another work in progress involves the Penan tribe, a nomadic people ravaged by development. "We’re trying to help develop marketing strategies to sell the gorgeous rattan mats the Penans weave," says Joe Lamb, the Borneo Project’s founder and inspirational leader. Lamb cites challenges both in finding markets and in maintaining a supply of native materials. Assistance in developing sustainable resource management practices is another Borneo Project priority. "The forest that is legally theirs is a spectacular resource that can provide the opportunity for a whole new future," Lamb says.

The path to that future is not easy. Many tribes have had to shift from traditional to modern societies in a single generation. Children are leaving home to get the only work they can: as loggers and palm oil producers. This trend, and the bribing of some community headmen, have led to deep rifts within once-harmonious communities. "The pace of change has been staggering," says Pancoast. "I think of our work as change management."

The people, like the forest, are resilient, though. Pancoast considers the project’s greatest success to be its development of human resources, leading to awareness of rights and opportunities and, ultimately, empowerment.

They’re in it for the long haul, say the leaders of the Borneo Project. With respect to ancient forests and civilizations, that only makes sense.