After having spent over a decade researching the Arctic, why have I decided to undertake research in the tropics?
I spent last week in the decidedly non-Arctic location of Borneo. It’s the third largest island in the world, following Greenland and nearby New Guinea. Whereas Greenland is covered in ice, Borneo is covered in rainforest. In fact, the tropical island is home to some of the world’s oldest rainforests: 140 million years old – twice as ancient as the Amazon. Their lengthy existence is a major reason why Borneo has such staggering biodiversity. Creatures like chevrotains (“mouse-deers”) and clouded leopards roam the thickly wooded hillsides, though in decreasing numbers. And where the Arctic has the polar bear, Borneo has the sun bear. The two species can be traced to a common ancestor a couple of hundred thousands years ago. Like its distant northern cousin, the sun bear is losing its habitat, but due to deforestation rather than climate change.
You might wonder why, having spent over ten years researching the Arctic, I decided to undertake research in the tropics.
One reason is admittedly logistical. From Hong Kong, traveling to the remote interior of Malaysia requires nearly as many hours as it getting to northern Canada or Alaska. Reaching our destination in the interior of Sarawak, one of the Malaysian states in Borneo, required four flights and an hour-long boat ride since the village is not connected by road. Despite the significant travel involved, there is one major benefit compared to traveling to the North American Arctic: no jet lag. (Another benefit that might surprise those of you who haven’t been to the Arctic in summer is that there are way fewer mosquitos in the tropics. Unfortunately, however, some still carry malaria, which means you’re recommended to take pricey antimalarials.)
A second and more important reason for doing research in Asia is to try to draw comparisons between the experiences of Indigenous Peoples in the polar regions and in the tropics. With the generous support of an Early Career Grant from the Regional Studies Association, I’m examining the relationship between Indigenous land tenure and attitudes towards development in Sarawak (Malaysia) and Alaska (USA).
Undoubtedly, the political and geographical contexts are starkly different. But still, there’s a chance that some lessons might be still be transferrable across Indigenous Peoples. In the Malayisan city of Miri, I met with one Indigenous activist who had traveled to northern Norway for a global gathering of Native peoples. He was impressed by the Sami and how they had managed to create their own parliament (whose architectural design, coincidentally, isn’t too dissimilar from a traditional longhouse in Malaysia).
The consequences of ownership
In Sarawak, Indigenous land tenure is based on customary rights largely determined by whether or not a native group had cleared land prior to 1958. The problem is that the while Sarawak’s many Indigenous groups have long inhabited and lived off of much vaster areas that weren’t cleared, the government does not necessarily recognize these spaces as being under their ownership.
The weak land tenure regime has opened the door to logging companies, whose activities are opposed by most – but not all – Indigenous Peoples in Sarawak. As one Elder described to me, almost all of Sarawak’s Orang Ulu, or “upriver people,” see the jungle as providing everything they need, from food (including what they charmingly kept referring to as “reindeer,” even though it was a different type of deer) to medicine. Yet some people cannot resist the allure of instant money, and therefore will make deals with logging companies. These splits among the various Orang Ulu peoples make it harder for them to put up a united front against either the government or logging companies.
Tens of thousands of miles away in Alaska, a similar rift among the state’s Native communities is taking place. Last month, the board of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation decided unanimously to split from the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), a group formed in 1966 to represent Alaska Natives’ common interests as part of the wider land claims movement that was gaining traction in the state at the time. With its decision, ASRC announced that it “intends to focus on the various needs within Alaska’s North Slope, where there is an increased degree of alignment as well as additional efficiencies related to shared geography and other interests.” That “shared geography” is the oil-rich tundra sitting underneath the North Slope (and not, for that matter, under the rest of Alaska).
ASRC’s move in part reflects a reaction to AFN’s declaration in October 2019 at its annual convention of a “state of emergency.” At the gathering, several speakers identified culprits of this climate crisis: oil and coal companies. Meanwhile up north, Arctic Slope wants to keep drilling for oil. After all, this is the corporation that purchased Shell’s 21 offshore leases in the Beaufort Sea after it pulled out. Divides over oil and gas and climate change are splitting Alaska Natives, just as differences in opinion over the timber industry are challenging the Orang Ulus’ ability to unite in Malaysia.
I’m curious to understand is how land tenure – and perhaps more importantly, the presence of lucrative natural resources with the potential for global export – is affecting Indigenous attitudes to development and restructuring their societies. If a group of people owns their land, are they more likely to want to develop it? In other words, if Alaska Natives hadn’t been successful in their land claims process, would we instead see greater opposition to the oil industry on the North Slope – perhaps similar to the blockades that many Indigenous groups in Malaysia have undertaken over the past several decades to prevent logging?
Tomorrow, I’ll be heading to Alaska for the second half of my fieldwork. I’m planning to visit Anchorage and the North Slope to speak to people from Native communities about their opinions regarding the relationship between land tenure and development. And with those final words, I’m putting my loose linens and rubber sandals back in the closet and taking out my parka and sub-zero boots.