There is a village in the rainforests of Southeast Asia that I have visited and spent more than 40 years doing long-term anthropological research. For decades, I have witnessed a process of extraordinary economic growth that has completely transformed the village.
In person, this may seem like a good thing. After all, we are told that growth is good. We are told that more income brings people out of poverty and improves their lives. This story is being told to us by development institutions such as the World Bank, and is being responded to by the world’s media. But what I have witnessed is that this simplistic story is questionable.
The village is located in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo in the Malaysian side, which is the third largest island in the world, larger than France or Texas. When I first visited Saravak in the 1970s, the indigenous communities living there had virtually no money, but they lived well. Now they have money, they can hardly feed themselves. They have become poorer even with rising incomes. It is a story of severe insecurity, completely obscured by the statistics of GDP growth.
In the 1970s, Borneo had the widest rainforests outside of Brazil կյան outside of Central Africa, full of life և biodiversity. People living in the forests and in the surrounding communities had little money, but they controlled their abundant food supply. They grew their own rice varieties, which were supplemented by hunting from the surrounding rainforest and fish from the river. They had a balanced diet, impressively healthy, and healthy.
The village I visited regularly consisted of about 350 people, all of whom lived under one roof, a traditional extension of central Borneo at the time. The open entrance passed by the house on the river side, and the other side consisted of a series of family apartments. Their farms were canoes for several hours, along small streams that led to the hills. During the cutting-planting season, again during the harvest, everyone was busy on the farms and the long house was empty. At other times it was lively and full of life. There was a strong sense of common history and tradition, including complex seasonal festivals and holidays. No one was hungry for a long time.
Everything has changed since the 1980s. The forests of Borneo were destroyed at an unprecedented rate in human history. Ruthless timber barons, funded by capital from western Malaysia and Hong Kong և Japan aponia, և were supported by crooked politicians who sold timber licenses to the highest bidder, tore down Sarawak forests, and amassed wealth in London.
Indigenous communities resisted the deforestation, but were severely repressed. In addition to the police and the army, timber companies hired painters to intimidate anyone who tried to block the roads. I heard about violence, but very little was reported, as the government tightly controlled the entry of outsiders, especially foreign journalists. It is disturbing to think how easy և the blocking of this news was.
After cutting down the forest, something happened that had never happened before. The forest floor dried up. Then it erupted. The government blamed the burning farmers, but it was absurd. For all the centuries that this technique was used in Borneo, the forest had not been burned before. Now, every year during the dry season, from March to October, thick clouds of smoke spread down the river to Thailand. Watching is devastating. And the investment in global warming is innumerable.
The implementation of the fires was that they cleared the land for planting agriculture. Between them, Malaysia and Indonesia account for 85% of the world’s palm oil production, which is used in cosmetics and processed foods. Most of this crop is grown on Borneo rain forest ash, the same companies that cut down and now own the largest palm oil fields.
The forests are gone, the rivers are polluted, but I knew that in Saravac, I knew that the livelihood of the skyscrapers was to work for a meager salary in palm groves.
An entire generation of young men became accustomed to living in wooden camps. After processing timber in one area, they moved to camps if they had the opportunity. The ones that did not hang in the long cabin were idle and disoriented. Many went to the coastal cities, where they lived in scattered settlements, forming a new lumpen proletariat.
For Longhouse people, food sovereignty and economic independence are being sold for cash dependence, which they can no longer avoid. Their resource base has been destroyed, their grandparents’ farming skills forgotten, their invaluable reserves of seed rice, each family once had its own unique varieties, long gone. The Longhouse has been transformed into a work barracks built at no cost to employers.
The point is that all of this is voluntarily reported as development, as “growth,” but this brilliant story hides a much darker reality. The World Bank reports that poverty has been reduced. But rising incomes are nowhere near compensating for the long-lost household. Nothing can compensate for the loss of food sovereignty և economic independence և, of course, the loss of rainforest. The whole story of overcoming poverty is chaotic.
All this makes me wonder about economic development elsewhere. The media likes to report on how growth in China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But the reality is more complicated. Sociologist Sarah Svider described what she called China’s “new precarious.” Migrants moving from rural to urban areas have very limited choices. The workers are accommodated in overcrowded dormitories. They work long hours and have little contact with the outside world. Others survive as day laborers in informal street markets; they are powerless against any abuse. Migrant workers have no right because their legal residence has returned to the village.
GDP figures tell us nothing about growth costs. And, as in Borneo, the real beneficiaries of China’s growth have been corporations and elites who are saddened by the work of the new precarious.
The primitive stories of GDP growth blind us to the extraordinary social and ecological disaster that so often leads to growth. We must urgently abandon this meter և instead pay attention to what is happening in the real world. Who wins, who loses, what wins, what loses. Destroyed too much, too fast.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Al Jazeera.