FORMADAT: Peoples in the Heart of Borneo

The Highlands in the Heart of Borneo

The highlands of Borneo, in the far interior of the island, are divided between the neighboring and sovereign states of Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah) and Indonesia. The highlands of Borneo comprise the Ulu Padas area in Sabah, Bario, often known as the Kelabit highlands, Ba’ Kelalan and Long Semadu in Sarawak, and the Krayan in Kalimantan (Indonesia). The highlands include among the largest surviving intact forested and traditionally farmed catchment area on the island of Borneo. They are also home to a rich assemblage of megalithic monuments witness of a history of long settlement in the area. The main ethnic groups (Lun Dayeh/Lun Bawan, Kelabit, and Sa’ban) who inhabit the area number around 15,000 people, 75% living on the Indonesian side. Culturally and linguistically, the groups are closely related, speakers of the Apad Wat language (Jayl Langub, 2006).

A relatively isolated region averaging 1000m in elevation, the highlands are linked by logging road to the coast on the Sarawak and Sabah sides, but only linked by air to the lowlands of East Kalimantan. Traditionally, communities have practiced wet rice agriculture in the wide valleys of the highlands, and dry rice agriculture on the hill slopes. The rice agricultural system, integrally linked to animal husbandry (water buffalo), has managed to sustain the communities of the highlands and also produce agricultural surplus. Close social and economic interactions, and interdependence, remain an important aspect of the life of these communities.

Nowadays, the communities face increasing challenges in trying to develop the local economy and secure a sustainable future for the highlands. Development of infrastructure and better transportation will be essential to guarantee a market for the local agricultural products. At the same time, it is important to choose the kind of economic alternatives (like farming; ecotourism) most adapted to the local environmental and social conditions in order to maintain vital natural functions and characteristics of the highlands. The sustainability of economic alternatives needs to be assessed against both their social and economic benefits, and the preservation of the natural environment.