Colfer, C.J.P. (1997) Beyond slash and burn: building on indigenous management of Borneo"s tropical rainforests. Advances in Economic Botany, Volume 11. Scientific Publications Department, The New York Botanical Garden, New York. xi + 236 pp, figs, tables, photos, glossary. Paperback: Price: US $28.00. ISBN 0 893 27405 4.

This book describes the sophisticated system of forest management practised by the Uma’ Jalan people of East Kalimantan, a province of Indonesian Borneo. As the title indicates, this book clarifies many misconceptions about this negatively termed ‘slash and burn’ system, and suggests ways of building upon indigenous management of Borneo’s tropical rain forests. The book draws upon 12 years of research conducted by the author and other collaborators; this research was based at three village sites positioned along a gradient of accessibility to the outside world.

In order to describe different aspects of the indigenous management system, the chapters in this book discuss, respectively: 1) the ways in which the Uma’ Jalan perceive their resources and allocate their time to resource management; 2) the agricultural elements of the agroforestry system; 3) the forestry elements of the agroforestry system; 4) the role of natural resources as a subsistence and income-generating base for the Uma’ Jalan; and 5) the ramifications of these findings for forest management in the tropics.

There are many boxes throughout the chapters. Some give examples in the form of stories that clarify and enliven the drier research results. Others give recommendations for possible conservation or development initiatives that arise out of the research results. Overall, the book’s structure and format are good, with only minor flaws, such as the numbering of boxes in the text but not in the boxes themselves.

In brief, the research results describe how the Uma’ Jalan create, manipulate and use all successional stages of the forest, from cleared rice fields (called ladang) to primary forest. This type of forest management results in a great diversity of crops and products for the local people to use. It also reduces the risk inherent in relying too heavily on one crop or product. This system is also shown to provide a good diet for the Uma’ Jalan, to fulfil their basic subsistence needs with relatively little effort, and to provide them with a cash income. It is also environmentally sound, as it has been found to preserve soil, protect rivers and maintain forest dampness (the latter is an insufficiently understood characteristic of forests that is believed to be crucial for preventing forest fires). Finally, this system is an intrinsic part of a larger cultural system that is renowned for its social and gender equity.

However, a comparison of villages with different levels of access to the outside world shows that the Uma’ Jalan with greater access to towns are now focusing more on monoculture tree crops and cash crops as a way of claiming land (land managed in the traditional way is much more difficult to claim) and increasing their income. This has had negative results for the environment. It has also decreased women’s role in agriculture, as women tend to focus more on subsistence crops whereas men tend to focus more on cash crops. The Uma’ Jalan’s food security may also be threatened as a result.

This book is meant for policy makers, scientists and development workers. Colfer expresses the hope that an understanding of indigenous management systems might stimulate this target audience to see indigenous systems as models for future research and development rather than as harmful practices to be obliterated. Her book makes a number of suggestions about how an understanding of indigenous systems can be used as a basis for planning conservation efforts, sustainable timber extraction and ways of providing improved livelihoods for local communities.

This book was published in 1997, thus it was written just prior to a number of changes in Indonesia that have had dramatic impacts on forest and forest-dwelling people. The forest fires of 1997–98 received international attention and are estimated to have destroyed a phenomenal four million hectares in East Kalimantan alone ( Siegert & Hoffmann, 1998). A major economic crisis, anticipated to have caused the Indonesian economy to contract by 5% over 1998, has resulted in bail-out packages from the International Monetary Fund, which encourage the use of the forestry, agricultural and mining sectors to repair the economy. Thus, some of the negative forest-based development activities described by Colfer, such as unsustainable logging, industrial tree plantations and transmigration projects, are likely to continue. A new force unanticipated by Colfer is the burgeoning of oil palm plantations; 3.5 million hectares of which are planned for East Kalimantan in the next few years (according to the newspaper Kaltim Post, 27 November 1998).

One optimistic note is the current political atmosphere of reformasi (reform) in the Indonesian government following the fall of Soeharto in May, 1997. Attempts are being made to rid the country of the corrupt cronyism that caused much of the forest-based development to benefit only a handful of the nation’s elite. There is also talk of improving forestry and plantations policy so that the forest-dwelling people are benefited rather than harmed. It is to be hoped that these decision-makers have some form of access to the information presented in Colfer’s book, so that the forest policies that they develop to benefit local people will respect and build upon the indigenous systems already in place.


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  2. References
  • Siegert & Hoffmann (1998). Evaluation of the 1998 forest fires in East Kalimantan (Indonesia) using multitemporal ERS-2 SAR Images and NOAA-AVHRR data. Proceedings of the International Conference on Data Management and Modelling using Remote Sensing and GIS for Tropical Forest Land Inventory, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2629 October, 1998.