There is a country in the rainforests of Southeast Asia that I have visited on and off for over 40 years, doing long-term anthropological research. As the decades passed, I witnessed a process of extraordinary economic growth that completely reformed the country.
In view of this, that might seem like a good thing. After all, they tell us that growth is good. It is said that more income lifts people out of poverty and improves their lives. This narrative is drilled into us by development institutions like the World Bank, and represented by the media around the world. But what I have witnessed calls into question this simplistic story.
The country is in Sarawak, which is located on the Malaysian side of the island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, the largest in France or Texas. When I first visited Sarawak in the 1970s, the indigenous communities living there had practically no money, but lived well. Now they have money, and they can barely eat. They are impoverished even as revenues increase. It is a story of brutal destitution that is completely obscured by GDP growth statistics.
In the 1970s, Borneo had the largest rainforests outside of Brazil and central Africa, full of life and biodiversity. People living in communities in and around forests had little money but controlled their own abundant food. They grew their own local varieties of rice, supplemented with game from the surrounding rainforest and fish from the river. They had a balanced diet, and were in impressive shape and healthy.
The village I visited regularly was made up of about 350 people who lived all under one roof, in a long traditional house that was typical of central Borneo at the time. An open veranda ran along the side of the house facing the river, while the other side consisted of a row of family apartments. Their farms were a few hours away by canoe, along small streams that led to the mountains. During the cutting and planting season, and also during the harvest, everyone was busy on the farms and the long house was empty. At other times, he was lively and full of life. There was a powerful sense of common history and tradition, including elaborate festivals and seasonal festivities. No one went hungry in the long house.
Since the 80s, everything has changed. The forests of Borneo have been destroyed at an unprecedented rate in human history. Ruthless wooden barons, fed by capitals of West Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan, and aided and abetted by crooked politicians who sold wooden licenses to the highest bidder, plucked the forests of Sarawak and were making their living in luxury apartments in London.
Indigenous communities resisted the destruction of the rainforest, but were brutally suppressed. In addition to the police and army, lumber companies have employed kids to intimidate anyone trying to obstruct the roads. I have heard rumors of violence, but little news has come out because the government is tightly controlling the access of foreigners, especially foreign journalists. It’s disturbing to think how easily and accurately this news worked.
After the forest was cut down, something happened that had never happened before: the forest floor dried up. Then he caught fire. The government accused the farmers of slash-and-burn, but it was absurd. In all the hundreds of years that this technique had been used in Borneo, the forest had never burned before. Now every year during the dry season from March to October, thick clouds of smoke spread to the wind as far as Thailand. It’s devastating to look at. And the contribution to global warming is incalculable.
What the fires did is that they cleared the land for plantation agriculture. Malaysia and Indonesia together account for 85% of world production of palm oil, used in cosmetics and processed foods. The vast majority of that product is grown on the ashes of the Borneo rainforest, and the same companies that made the cut now own the largest fields of palm oil.
With deforested forests and polluted rivers, the only way for long-time people in Sarawak to earn a living is by working for meager wages on palm oil plantations.
A whole generation of young men had become accustomed to life in the wooden fields. After the wood has been worked into an area, they are passed through the fields – if they have the chance. Those who were not hanging around the long house, inactive and disoriented. Many left for coastal cities, where they lived in squatter settlements and comprised a new lumpen proletariat.
For longhouse people, food sovereignty and economic independence have been mistaken for a cash dependency that cannot now be escaped. Their resource base was destroyed, their fathers ’farming skills were forgotten, and their precious stocks of seed rice – each family once had their own unique varieties – were consumed for so long. The long house has become a working barracks, built at no cost to the owners.
The amazing thing is that all of this is happily signaled as development, as “growth,” but this lucid narrative hides a much darker reality. The World Bank reports that poverty has been reduced. But growing incomes are nowhere near compensating for the means of subsistence that people have long lost. Nothing can compensate for the loss of food sovereignty and economic independence, and of course the loss of the rainforest. The whole story of poverty reduction is a scuffle.
All of this makes me wonder about economic development elsewhere. The media loves to report how growth in China has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. But the reality is more complex. Sociologist Sarah Swider has described what she calls China’s “new precariousness”. Migrants moving to cities from rural areas have very limited choices. Workers are housed in crowded dormitories. They work long hours and have little contact with the outside world. Others survive by journalism in informal street markets, and are powerless against any abuse. Migrant workers have no rights because their legal residence is back in the countryside.
GDP data tells us nothing about the costs of growth. And, as in Borneo, the real beneficiaries of China’s growth have been the societies and elites that exploit the work of the new precarious.
Simple stories of GDP growth lead us to the extraordinary social and ecological destruction that growth so often entails. We urgently need to abandon this metric and pay attention instead to what is happening in the real world – who is winning and who is losing, what is being gained and what is being lost. Too much is destroyed, too fast.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.