Inside Story

Current affairs and culture from Australia and beyond

Sarawak’s roads to development

Logging has changed remote Sarawak in many ways, but the aftermath can produce a new kind of isolation, writes Christine Horn

Above: To avoid erosion and landslides, sustainable logging guidelines require that roads should not be too steep. Here, these regulations are not being applied.
Photo: Christine Horn

THE car on the mud track swerves down the hill, sliding in the wet and threatening to go off the road and into the ditch. The driver spins the wheel and the car skids into a left turn, across a bridge, just a few metres wide, made up of large logs covered by red soil. Five metres below is the creek. The driver laughs: “Why are you so silent? Are you scared?” Behind me the other passengers, two older women and a man with his son on his lap, have gone quiet. Yes, we are scared. Scared because we know we are seven hours’ drive from the next town, the next hospital. We know there is no telephone reception here and if we crash we will be waiting a long time for help. The mud track is an old logging road that is hardly used because of its bad condition. We are on the way to a community in the remote regions of the upper Tinjar river in Sarawak, which is the largest and most sparsely populated state in Malaysia.

In the nineteenth century Sarawak was covered in tropical rainforest, with a few longhouse communities scattered along its rivers and some fishing villages on the coast. Orangutans roamed freely and Alfred Russel Wallace developed his ideas on the origin of species in a small hut not far from what is now the state capital, Kuching. Then, much of the island was practically inaccessible. It would have taken Wallace days of travel by boat and on foot to get to his camp near Mount Santubong. Now it is a half-hour road trip.

Traditionally most Sarawakians were subsistence farmers. Today most live in the four big cities of Kuching, Miri, Sibu and Bintulu, but there are still many small and remote communities that survive by slash-and-burn agriculture. These people depend on their ability to harvest a crop of padi (rice) every year for their own consumption, but they cultivate cash crops to buy manufactured goods and to send their children to school. The most common cash crops are rubber, pepper, cocoa (before the price of cocoa dropped so low that villagers stopped taking care of their cocoa trees) and – more recently – oil palm. Each crop has its advantages and disadvantages. Pepper does not grow well at higher altitudes. Oil palm offers a faster income than rubber, as it will bear fruit after three years while a rubber tree takes five to seven years for full production; but an oil palm will fruit for only fifteen to twenty years whereas a rubber tree can be tapped for sixty years or more. Rubber and pepper can be stored and delivered to the buyer at a later stage; the bulky oil palm fruit needs to be brought to the mill within twenty-four hours. One tonne of oil palm fruit, about the amount that can be loaded onto a Toyota Hilux, fetches RM500 to RM600 – around the monthly salary of a waiter in a coffee shop or an unskilled labourer in town. A rubber farmer can earn RM50 to RM100 in one morning – rubber tapping needs to be done before sunrise for the best yield – depending on the size of his rubber garden.

Aside from cash crops, there are few options for generating an income in the villages. Unskilled seasonal work, such as harvesting rice, is paid at RM25 per day, with house construction or other specialised tasks paying between RM50 and RM80, but none of these activities provides a regular income. Villages near the roads have the advantage of being able to sell their fruit and vegetables in town, but for remote villages without road access, the high cost of boat travel means that transportation to the nearest trading centre absorbs much of the profit derived even from cash crops. Basic plantation work – paying around RM8 a day – is rarely done by Malaysians, instead being performed by Indonesian workers from across the border. Logging provides work for villagers, as truck drivers, tree feller, and in management. These jobs offer career opportunities for villagers and often enable them to earn a stable income, but they can also lead to conflict in areas where land rights are disputed.

MOST of the villages I visit are located along the Baram and Tinjar river system in the remote northeast. These rivers are lined with villages and communities that until recently could only be accessed by longboat. The villagers from the furthest reaches, where the river becomes too shallow to navigate by boat, had to walk in the jungle for days to reach the nearest town. In the 1950s, the larger upriver villages were connected by a rural air service, but the smaller communities continued to rely on boat travel or walking.

In recent years logging has changed all this. The logging industry began in the 1950s and has grown to be one of Sarawak’s main revenue earners. Logging concessions are leased by the state government to private companies, generally on renewable leases of fifteen to twenty years. The leaseholders are permitted to construct logging roads through the forest to harvest the timber, so remote villages located in the logging concessions are now connected to the coast. Increased road access brings huge advantages to a village, as vehicles carry greater loads than longboats. More goods can be brought in – fuel for generators, building materials, televisions and radios, and salt, sugar, soap and other necessities – and cash crops can be taken out for sale.

Above: Where a village has no road or river access, villagers must carry all traded goods by foot to neighbouring centres.
Photo: Christine Horn

Often, the logging companies also make individual agreements with villages, paying a small share of the timber revenue to keep on good terms. In one case a longhouse of around one hundred doors (one door is a section of the longhouse inhabited by one family) is compensated by the logging company with RM10,000 (about A$3000) per year going to village funds. One tonne of timber – about one large tree – cut into planks fetches around RM1000 on the local market, depending on the species, which means that the longhouse receives compensation equivalent to ten large trees per year. Meanwhile, one of the many logging trucks that head for Miri every day can carry fifteen to twenty trees, and the villagers are unable to find suitable logs for building houses and boats. Other jungle products, such as vegetables, fruit and rotan for basketry, are also increasingly difficult to collect, and the logging causes siltation of the rivers, muddying the water and suffocating the fish. The development brought by the roads comes at a cost for which the villagers are barely compensated.

The impact of roads is not only felt by the human inhabitants of the logging concessions. Logging and land conversion for plantations are often criticised for their negative impact, through habitat loss, on the abundant species diversity in tropical rainforests. Unregulated hunting in the logging concessions also presents a real threat to many species. In Sarawak, hunting is part of the traditional lifestyle. Hornbill feathers and beaks are used in decorations and ceremonies, and wild boar meat is one of the local delicacies, along with other wild meat that is not as abundant, such as python or pangolin. In Sarawak, most animals are eaten, be they snake, civet, bat or monkey. While this may have been unproblematic as long as there were only a few hunters using blowpipes with poison darts, now many rare species are under threat. Hunting has become much easier with roads providing access even to remote parts of the forest. Where hunters would once walk for hours to a particular place, they can now drive there in a matter of minutes. The roads also allow in hunters from outside the communities. Anybody with a car and a gun can hunt for wild boar, barking deer and other wild meat, even though only local villagers have legal hunting rights, and these only apply to unprotected animal species. Gun owners need licences, and are entitled to buy a limited amount of ammunition each month, but for the right price, ammunition can be bought on the black market. Hunters coming in from the cities rarely discriminate between the types of animals they kill: when hunting at night, the eye shine of animals in the torchlight prompts hunters to shoot, and they will only check later to see what they have shot. Although it is illegal to sell wild meat in Sarawak, the demand for it is huge and the price per kilo is high, in the logging camps as much as in the city.

THE car reaches a junction and we turn in and stop. One of the women climbs out. She heads towards the river where a boat is anchored; this is the local trading station. During the wet season, the boat travels down to the nearest town once a week; in the dry season the river becomes too shallow to navigate. For centuries the villages along such rivers have relied on traders coming up the river to buy and sell: big ceramic jars, which were in the past so popular that they were used for everything from making rice wine to human burials; heirloom items such as gongs; and everyday items like sarongs, salt and sugar. Today I can see big containers of cooking gas, and bottles of fuel.

The goods for sale here are expensive. In the villages, many living costs are much higher than in the towns. A typical monthly electricity bill for a family home in town may be around RM200. With fuel transport costs, running a generator in the evenings in a village costs around RM10 a night – around RM300 a month – and even then washing machines, fridges, televisions and radios can only be used for a few hours in the evening. Only the government-funded schools can afford to run a generator throughout the day. Goods brought in from town are also more expensive in the villages.

Transport via the logging road is expensive, but not as expensive or slow as river transport. A trip to a community that is eight hours away by road – the distance does not matter as the quality of the road determines the speed – costs around RM80 to RM90 one way. The same trip by river would take three days, and use much more fuel, making the trip more expensive. In most cases, the roads can only be managed by a four-wheel drive, carrying four or five passengers, just like the one I am sitting in. Even these vehicles sometimes get stuck, especially in bad weather. In one community I visited, a schoolteacher had driven his car up to the village on the logging road but got stuck after heavy rain. When I visited the village, he was planning to bring it back to the city on a raft.

SARAWAK exports its timber mainly within Asia, at a value of over RM7 billion in 2010. Of this timber, 31 per cent went to Japan, while India, Taiwan and Korea were other major customers. Some of the logging companies operating in Sarawak claim to be implementing sustainable forest management, but only one concession in the state is certified under the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme. None are certified under the Forest Stewardship Council, the international body for forest certification. Very little timber is exported to Europe, because the European market requires certification, but most Asian markets do not make certification a prerequisite. This attitude means that many of the guidelines that seek to make the logging industry more sustainable and responsible are not strictly implemented in Sarawak. The logging companies here select the most precious species and profitable trees, then move in to extract them. While this avoids clear-cutting, the logging operations are wasteful. Many logs are cut but never sold. Some trees are destroyed during felling, some are rejected as faulty after cutting, and some are used in the construction of bridges across the numerous creeks and rivers in this vast water catchment area. Other trees are uprooted by landslides caused by road construction.

In some cases harvested logging concessions are converted into plantations. The Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme allows for 5 per cent of the logging concessions to be converted into plantation every five years. In Sarawak, large-scale monoculture plantations are either oil palm or acacia. With a booming market, many thousands of hectares have been converted to oil palm. This business is attractive as it involves clear-cutting, generating cash upfront from timber sales. However, the conversion of land into oil palm plantations is not straightforward. The local soil cannot sustain the plant so it requires fertilisers, and the runoff from the fertilisers pollutes the rivers. While forest that has been logged once still maintains a high diversity of both animal and plant species, this is not the case for plantations. In monocultures, only generalist animal species thrive; specialists cannot survive. Rarer, forest-dependent animal species disappear. Oil palm also degrades the soil and makes it unsuitable for most other plants to grow. Perhaps because of the success of oil palm as a cash crop, websites discussing the impact of palm oil are unavailable in Malaysia. Because the companies that run the plantations will maintain the roads, many villagers welcome the land conversion.

Logging and plantations are the only type of development and modernisation available here. But although every day the logging and plantation companies extract thousands of ringgit worth of produce, very little of this money is shared by the villagers. When the companies leave, the villages are back to where they were before. Even the road will be gone only a few months after the company withdraws. The Sarawak Forestry Corporation has identified logging roads as a primary cause of soil erosion and stream sedimentation, so its guidelines require that once a coupe, or logging sector, has ceased to be worked, the “feeder” roads connecting the harvesting sites to the main logging roads must be closed. Without traffic, the roads are soon overgrown by low and dense secondary vegetation before the larger, slow-growing species take over. This growth helps to keep the soil in place and allows the vegetation to regenerate, but it also cuts off the villages from the coastal towns and local trading hubs. The main roads do remain open, but as they are no longer maintained they become dangerous and sometimes impassable. Sarawak has an enormous annual rainfall, and a few rainy days are enough to create big gullies in the roads, which are already perilous when wet. And much of Sarawak is hilly, so the terrain becomes unstable when the soil washes away from the tree roots. The bridges are made of large logs covered by a few tonnes of soil: when the rivers swell up they are simply washed away and that is the end of the road.

The state government will not take over maintenance of the roads. In Sarawak, the soil is so soft that roads need deep foundations, making them especially expensive to construct. The government implements other schemes to bring development to the rural areas. Programs to develop visitor homestays and to cultivate new breeds of rubber and other crops are in place, along with financial and material aid going directly to the villages. Yet the projects often don’t seem to catch on. Villagers feel that they are missing out on development. As it is, most of those with an education move to town where they can find work, and go back to the village only for Christmas. Many Sarawakians have intense feelings of nostalgia for their kampong, or village, and often keep a house there to which they plan to return once retired. The reality is that there is very little work available there other than farming. These villages are often only a few kilometres away from town, but the practical distance is much greater. The key to bridging this distance is the road.

The village I am heading for today has been connected by road for at least twenty years, but now the logging operations here have ceased. The driver tells me that he used to be able to speed along the road at up to seventy kilometres per hour. Then, the trip only took four hours; today it takes us nine. And even after nine long and rough hours we have not yet arrived. Instead, the driver parks the car near a river landing, and we unload all the freight into a wooden longboat, which takes us the rest of the way to the village. The road up is not navigable anymore from here; and soon, I think, the road we just took will suffer the same fate. We finally reach the village as the sun goes down. The boat landing is only a log, submerged in the water, with a slippery wooden staircase going up the bank, and I nearly fall in. It’s the only access to the village. •

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