Indonesia is home to some of the most biodiverse forests on earth. They are an important carbon sink and home to many endangered species, including orangutans and tigers. The rapid rate of deforestation in Indonesia has made it a focus of major international conservation efforts.
In the minds of many conservationists and the public, nature conservation efforts are the polar opposite of illegal logging: one saves forests while the other destroys them. However, I completed 19 months of ethnographic field work in two Dayak communities in West Kalimantan – Buluh Merindu and Manjau, and I found the reality was much more complicated.
These two Dayak communities serve as examples of resource frontiers – places rich in natural resources that outside actors try to control by introducing new forms of territory, authority and politics.
Critical accounts of resource frontiers often describe local people in these areas as being exploited and suffering from socio-cultural breakdown. And indeed, residents of both locations I worked in were scared of “becoming spectators”, afraid more cunning, better educated or better-connected outsiders might seize control of their lands and resources.
But importantly, these local fears apply to conservationists as much as companies and the state.
The conservationist mindset
“Mindset” is a term often used by conservationists to describe and legitimise their interventions. It refers to the supposed internal qualities of local people, such as patterns of thought, ingrained habits and levels of environmental awareness.
Conservationists argue that mindsets limit the ability of locals to benefit from, and become participants in, conservation efforts. And they see improving local mindsets as an important part of their mission of conservation.
Although well-intended, these efforts tend not to engage with the debates that local people have among themselves about who they want to be in the world and what they want for their local community. Local concerns overlap with conservation discourse on mindsets, but in many ways the lines are drawn differently, with locals usually prioritising social and economic questions over environmental preservation.
There is also no single easy answer to questions of how to best deal with new interests and pressures from outside, and these questions were the subject of lively debate between villagers.
How do illegal loggers see things?
Conservationists often express a strong dislike of illegal logging and represent illegal loggers as unintentionally acting against their own interests. These representations are often used to justify outside intervention.
Through extensive conversations with Buluh Merindu villagers who engaged in logging, it became clear the central question for them was not about the morality of logging as such, but how to do it ethically. The villagers log in different ways, and I observed differences in attitude across two main groups: autonomous loggers and logging bosses.
For the autonomous loggers, logging was not a preferred job but a means of retaining independence from the grip of market forces, allowing them to maintain their free time and participate in village life. In contrast, logging bosses embraced capitalist relations with outsiders, and sought the accumulation of wealth and status.
Despite their different outlooks, the two groups of loggers coexisted in relative peace due to a shared cultural belief in the importance of harmonious social relationships. The people of Buluh Merindu actively discussed the ethical questions raised by logging, and different people took different positions.
Conservation needs nuance
External portrayals of local loggers as villains or victims are oversimplified. The reality is that illegal logging and conservation efforts pose both opportunities as well as risks for local communities, and all stakeholders have developed strategies to manage the risks of these interactions.
A central insight of my research is that conservation does not take place in isolation, but is part of a wider set of frontier relations that people across rural Borneo are juggling. How rural communities perceive and engage with conservation is shaped by their past, present and anticipated interactions with a range of outsiders.
Some may be reluctant to participate in a conservation scheme, not because of any inherent deficiencies of the scheme, but because of their antagonistic relationship with the state or bad experiences with previous NGO projects.
Others may embrace conservation projects not just because they care about nature, but also because it enables them to repel goldmining activities by unwanted outsiders, or gain legal recognition for their land claims.
The frontier relations that matter most may be different in each case, and they keep shifting. Finding out what they are requires conservation actors to invest sufficient time and resources to listening and responding to community members, both before and during interventions.
Attempts at understanding and changing local mindsets must take into account the fact that the owners of these mindsets are diverse, reflexive and dynamic people.
This blogpost is based on research findings of the POKOK-project. The author would like to thank The Arcus Foundation and Brunel University London for generously funding this research.