Gonner, Christian 2002. A Forest Tribe of Borneo: Resource Use among the Dayak Benuaq.
A Forest Tribe of Borneo is the third volume in a series called "Man and Forest" whose objective is "to highlight the relevance of 'indigenous knowledge' of various tribal communities for sustainable forest management." This series is a joint research venture of several European and Asian agencies including the Chair of Forest Policy and Forest Economics of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and the Tropical Ecology Support Program (TOEB) of the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). The latter has also published several other publications on forestry and ecology in East Kalimantan and thus continued the tradition of German research in the province established by the TAD (Transmigration Area Development, later, Technical Cooperation for Area Development) project. A German version of the present book was also presented as a doctoral dissertation in Germany in 2000.
Christian Gonner's book is a detailed study of forest resource use in a particular Benuaq Dayak community on the Ohong tributary of the lower Mahakam close to the so-called Mahakam Lakes in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan. Covering practically all varieties of resource use in the community studied, it forms an in-depth case study of human-environment interaction. The study is carefully conducted and based on extensive research encompassing participant observation and numerous technical surveys carried out during a total period of about four years between 1988 and 2000.
Most of the families in the community studied by Gonner are swidden cultivators. In addition, they maintain and sell the produce from rattan, rubber and mixed forest gardens (simpukng) which are developed on former swidden sites, and many also engage in cash income-generating non-farming activities. Sources of cash income include hunting (game is sold), forest product collection (e.g., of gaharu, kayu lem), manufacture of ironwood shingles, weaving of ulap doyo fabrics from vegetable fibers (a tradition presently unique to this area in Borneo), manufacture of tourist souvenirs such as blowpipes, motorcycle transportation services, and wage labor for different companies operating in the area. Most households in the community investigated rely on two or more occupations in addition to swidden work. The area investigated by Gonner is one that has been connected with the external world through trade contacts for a long time, and after Indonesian independence it has been much influenced by government politics, missionary work, transmigration, and the activities of timber and oil palm companies in the surrounding forest (including devastating forest fires that destroyed much of the local forest in 1997-1998).
The economy of the society studied is thus not isolated or independent, but integrated into a larger economic context. The fact that its members engage in cash income-generating activities and consume some amount of market-produced goods, while they at the same time maintain swiddens and a general subsistence orientation makes this economy, to use Gonner's term, an "extended subsistence economy." As such, it may not represent the best example of a strictly self-sustainable economy, and it is, as Gonner notes, not "explicitly sustainable" (i.e., purposively constructed with the goal of sustainability). However, a special benefit of Gonner's study lies precisely in the fact that it is about forest resource use in a community complexly affected by external forces, and this community can, in fact, be regarded as "genuinely sustainable" despite, and in part even because of, these forces.
Gonner identifies a "combination of a rather conservative, safety-oriented agriculture and an extraordinarily dynamic and flexible use of additional resources as the key to securing a livelihood in Lempunah." Survival thus seems to be achieved through a peculiar blend of conservatism and opportunism which some readers may be familiar with from other Borneo contexts. "Resource diversification" is an important element of this double "strategy," and this in its turn requires a high degree of biodiversity, something which the population studied has succeeded in maintaining despite a long tradition of manipulation of its environment (which is in itself rather diverse, encompassing alluvial freshwater swamp forest and patches of primary lowland rainforest, in addition to variously managed secondary forest in a wide range of stages of regeneration). However, there are certain limitations to how much disturbance in the local environment, social system and subsistence practices can be tolerated for the described approach to resource use to be successful. In the conclusion of the book, Gonner identifies the following conditions as vital for sustainable resource use: "decision autonomy," "security of land rights and usufruct," "individual flexibility to respond to fluctuations," "maintenance of a high level of biodiversity," and "reliability of the social and religious frame." In the current situation and under the ongoing transformations of the Indonesian economy and political system it remains unclear, Gonner concludes, if these conditions will continue to be fulfilled.
Gonner's book opens with an introductory theoretical and methodological chapter which describes his objectives and research methods in detail. In this chapter, Gonner criticizes and demonstrates the limitations of the ecosystem concept (and associated notions of self-regulation, stability and units). Instead of such an approach, he adopts a "multicausal analysis of causal chains" based on A. P. Vayda's method of"progressive contextualization." The end result of this analysis of Benuaq resource use is presented in the conclusion of the book in the form of a rather complex diagram of causal chains between various active and reactive variables. Gonner notes that no clear conclusion can be made from this diagram. However, he points out that, among the variables that make up this diagram, some are more active, and others more reactive. The two most active variables are "conflicts" and "rituals," the former referring both to conflicts with outsiders, such as oil palm companies, and internal conflicts, and the latter particularly to costly Kaharingan rituals (the members of the investigated community are Christian, but do nevertheless still perform many non-Christian rituals). Out of necessity, the degree of specificity of the factors is somewhat arbitrary: everything cannot be taken into account and every variable cannot be subdivided into its constituent components. Other similar diagrams illustrate factors influencing the decision to make a swidden, the choice of swidden sites, and the size of the rice yield. Here, the impact of almost everything of potential relevance is reviewed including star constellations, dreams, omens based on bird and mammal observations, previous rice supply, alternative occupations, availability of land, age of swidden and swiddener, etc. A problem here that Gonner notes, is that the factors he investigates are not really rationales but "plausibilities," as they are in large part based not on observations of how they affect decisions of resource use in practice, but on informed assumptions about how they might do so.
The book includes a fair number of extensive appendices, including lists of collected and cultivated plants (including trees and palms), mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. Most of these lists feature both vernacular and scientific terms, a feature making them very valuable for other Benuaq and related Luangan group scholars such as myself. A Benuaq word list (Swadesh), a glossary, and an index are also provided, as well as 40 large-sized color photographs. In the second chapter of the book, entitled "Research Area and Ethnography," an overview of Benuaq social organization, land tenure, and religion (Kaharingan beliefs and rituals) is provided.
A further aspect of Gonner's research was its practical significance. An important research activity of Gonner consisted of the mapping of all local swiddens using GPS technology combined with community "cognitive mapping" of all rattan, rubber, and mixed forest (simpukng) gardens in the area. As Gonner observes, community mapping of this kind is now conducted by local NGOs all over East Kalimantan in order to document and protect the land use of indigenous communites and individuals. A central event during Gonner's fieldwork was a prolonged conflict between the community and a neighboring, illegally operating oil palm company. The community's land rights were thus under direct threat.
The heart of A Forest Tribe of Borneo consists of Gonner's description of resource use. Here the reader is presented with detailed accounts of swidden cultivation, and the management of rattan, rubber and mixed forest gardens (old swiddens with a high rate of cultivated or tended fruit trees and so-called honey trees which attract colonies of wild bees). Particular attention is given to the cultivation and trade in rattan (particularly Calamus caesius but also Daemonorops crinita) which is of central importance in the local economy.
The book is richly illustrated by tables, diagrams, and maps. The economic activities of the inhabitants are well-described, especially in quantitative terms. Basically, everything that can be quantified has been quantified. Indeed, it is questionable whether all examples of quantification are really meaningful and contribute to a deeper understanding of the processes described. But for the reader looking for detailed descriptions of various specific types of resource use based on strict systematic observations or tests, Gonner's book has a lot to offer. Indeed, it seems to me, the greatest value of the book lies in its details and in the rich empirical material, rather than in its more general conclusions. (Kenneth Sillander, Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki, Finland)
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|Publication:||Borneo Research Bulletin|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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