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Forests of Fortune? The Environmental History of Southeast Borneo, 1600-1880. .

Han Knapen: Forests of Fortune? The Environmental History of Southeast Borneo, 1600-1880. KITLV Press, Leiden 2001. 498 pp.

Han Knapens book is a tremendously informative piece of work. As its title indicates, it is a book on environmental history, but its significance is far broader. Based on thorough and unusually extensive archival research in the Netherlands and Jakarta, it has utilized most of the vast historical literature on Southeast Borneo, as well as current research. Since these historical sources have been rarely used, at the same time as the region considered has received relatively little scholarly interest in recent times, its importance for the regional specialist is obvious. However, the great detail in which the data is presented, and the sophisticated analysis which accompanies it, should make it interesting for all Borneanists, and beyond.

It is difficult to do justice to Forests of Fortune in a brief review. Not only is it immensely rich in data, but it is also broad in scope, attempting to describe most major forms of impact of the people on the environment during the period studied, as well as the impact of the environment on the people. The book's principal interests, however, are clearly demography and economics (broadly defined), and their interrelationship with the environment. Its central substantial chapters deal with "Population developments and patterns of fertility," "Patterns of mortality and morbidity," "Agriculture in Southeast Borneo," "Development and commercialization of agriculture," "Animal management and domestication," and "Resources of the forest and the sea" (fishing, hunting, forest product collection). In two concluding chapters, "Uncertainty, diversity, and adaptation," and "Population-environment interaction," the general significance of the book's findings are discussed.

One of the principal merits of Forests of Fortune is its demonstration of the diversity of population-environment interactions in Southeast Borneo in historical times. There was not one way of making a livelihood, but many. Perhaps the most illuminating chapters in this respect are the ones on agriculture. They describe the occurrence in the lower Barito region (which is the part of Southeast Borneo that receives most attention in the book) of several different cultivation systems, corresponding to different ecological zones: swidden cultivation (itself diverse, and diversified over time), west monsoon sawah ("ordinary" wet rice agriculture in the "fan lowlands"), east monsoon sawah (an unusual, very hazardous, but potentially extremely high-yielding form of wet rice growing in the danau area), deepwater cultivation in monotonous swamps, and tidal agriculture in the tidal swamp area. The coexistence of these cultivation systems goes a long way in explaining why, despite long-present climatic irregularities a nd yield uncertainties, the lower Barito (particularly Hulu Sungai) became such a successful rice growing area, thus making possible the regionally strong position of the Sultanate of Banjarmasin and its predecessors. The chapters on agriculture also describe, in detail, the historical use of a considerable number of cultigens other than rice, both endemic and introduced, including cash crops such as pepper, the adopted cultivation of which (initially by Ma'anyan Dayaks) "instantly put Banjarmasin on seventeenth-century European maps," but also brought early environmental degradation and diseases in its wake. Other chapters describe the use of various wild and domesticated animals, and a great diversity of forest and aquatic resources. Interesting examples in this connection are freshwater fish from the Hulu Sungai, long exported in great quantities from Banjarmasin; and ironwood, which was often subjected to taboos concerning its felling and uses, but which has, nevertheless, been locally overexploited for a long time, for example, by the Ma'anyan who cut large amounts for shipbuilding. Another particularly fascinating and thoroughly analyzed case is rattan, a non-timber forest product with an unusually long commercial history. As in other cases throughout the book, the typically far-reaching and complex influence of the Dutch as well as the Banjarmasin Sultanate on the livelihood of coastal and interior people (e.g. by way of decrees, regulations, taxes, and military presence) is vividly demonstrated through Knapen's discussion of the use of this natural resource.

Another major contribution of this book is its demonstration of the centrality of real and perceived risks and other uncertainties to an understanding of the economic strategies and general way of life of Southeast Borneans. Basically, three types of uncertainties are discussed: natural hazards (including human and plant diseases), economic risks, and political insecurity, all having affected local peoples lives historically. A very basic way in which they have done so is by prompting the development of various risk-avoiding or risk-spreading strategies, and these strategies are also, at least indirectly, very much what Knapen's book is about. Dayak swidden cultivation, with its system of mixed cropping, is one well-known example of such a strategy that Knapen illuminatingly examines from this perspective. Other examples include such practices as "silent barter," and the tendencies toward isolationism and migration that often characterized interior peoples well into the nineteenth century. Knapen notes that, even though Banjarmasin had been extensively engaged in international commerce for centuries, trade in forest products and other commercial activities in the interior (especially in the far interior) were quite insignificant until about the 1820s, at least in comparison with the subsequent period, which witnessed drastic change in this respect. The increasing presence of the Dutch beginning in the late eighteenth century also at first led to greater economic uncertainties and caused Dayak migration toward the interior (according to my own data, the ethnogenesis of some Bawo or hill Dayak in the area reflect the same influence). Increasing trade in forest products similarly first entailed increasing economic uncertainties, in addition to health risks (epidemics). In the mid-nineteenth century the tide turned, however, and economic, political and demographic uncertainties generally decreased, thanks particularly to the impact of colonialism.

Demography is, as already mentioned, a major preoccupation of Forests of Fortune, and Knapen is especially interested in discussing factors affecting fertility and mortality. He attempts as a central task to answer the question of why population numbers in Southeast Borneo were so low before 1800 (a fact which impeded various forms of economic development in the area), but also what enabled them to slowly rise in the nineteenth century. Hence, he sets out to identify and assess the relative importance of factors limiting and promoting population growth. On the negative side, limiting growth, he discusses, among other things, various endemic and epidemic diseases (especially malaria, cholera, smallpox), headhunting and warfare, prolonged breast-feeding, sizeable marriage payments delaying marriage, sexual abstinence, various taboos, and the female workload. Among these factors he identifies disease as particularly consequential (and headhunting and warfare, for instance, as less so), but also intentional and u nintentional interference with fertility, especially upriver. On the positive side, he identifies as singularly influential the Dutch vaccination campaigns, the Pax Neerlandica (largely effective already in the early nineteenth century in the Barito region), and increasing opportunities for trade (itself much a consequence of the two first mentioned factors, being decisively prompted by the decreasing incidence of epidemic disease and the cessation of warfare, piracy, and headhunting). Knapen also notes that the value of children as social capital must have risen significantly under the combined influence of pacification and increasing trade opportunities, at the same time as the institution of slavery gradually lost ground, thereby increasing people's motivation to bear more children. Earlier, on the other hand, in the context of the uncertainties prevailing then, children had represented, in cost-benefit terms, a more risky investment than slaves (who, unlike children, were expendable, moveable, and exchang eable), something which may also have contributed to the historically low population growth of Southeast Borneo.

Forests of Fortune also includes a chapter on "The history and peoples of Southeast Borneo" containing basic, but, nevertheless, rare and highly interesting information on the ethnic groups of the region, the Dayaks as well as the Malays. Particularly interesting in this chapter, perhaps, is Knapen's discussion of the Ngaju and the Bekumpai. According to his findings, the Ngaju, Southeast Borneo's most numerous Dayak group, who are today interior peoples, were formerly coastal dwellers, engaged in trade, seafaring (including piracy), and probably incipient tidal agriculture. In the more remote past, they appear also to have practiced longhouse residence to a greater degree than they did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They gradually moved away from the coast toward their present locations as a result of the development and expansion of the Sultanate of Banjarmasin, and, later, Dutch taxation and corvee labor demands. The Bekumpai are an indigenous population descending from the Ngaju, Islamized in the seventeenth century, but retaining their original Ngaju-related language. They used to live mainly on the lower Barito around Marabahan at the strategic confluence of the Barito and Negara rivers, acting as middlemen of the sultan and controlling much of the trade in the area. Since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, as a result of improved opportunities for forest product trade and Dutch attempts at breaking the Bekumpai's trade monopoly on the lower Barito (including the Bekumpai War, 1824-25), they have continuously migrated ever further and further upriver, and in the process, marrying and assimilating local Dayak. Through this process they have also contributed critically to the development of interior trade, and created for themselves a distinct ethno-economical niche as interior traders, intermediate between Dayaks and Malays.

Knapen also gives a presentation of the past hunters and gatherers of Southeast Borneo, those of the upper Barito and its tributaries. Discussing the Luangan and Bukit of the hills of the Meratus Range, he suggests that these Dayaks, too, used to be hunters and gatherers, a proposition which does not seem firmly sustained by the references that he advances as support. Contrary to this hypothesis, what information I have obtained on the area includes no straightforward evidence of hunters and gatherers ever occurring in Southeast Borneo south or east of the Lahei river (a tributary of the upper Barito).
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Author:Sillander, Kenneth
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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