There is a village in the rainforests of Southeast Asia that I have visited inside and out for over 40 years, doing long-term anthropological research. As the decades have passed, I have witnessed a process of extraordinary economic growth that has completely reshaped the village.
Actually, this may seem like a good thing. After all, we are told that growth is good. It is said that more income lifts people out of poverty and improves their lives. This narrative is deepened in us by development institutions like the World Bank, and is echoed by media around the world. But what I have witnessed calls into question this simplistic story.
The village is located in Sarawak, which is on the Malay side of the island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, larger than France or Texas. When I first visited Sarawak in the 1970s, the indigenous communities living there had virtually no money, but they lived well. Now they have money and can barely feed themselves. They have become impoverished even as incomes increase. It is a story of brutal dismissal that is completely overshadowed 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 and around forest communities had little money, but controlled their own abundant food supply. They grew their own varieties of local rice, complemented by hunting from the surrounding rainforest and river fish. They had a balanced diet and were very healthy and fit.
The village he visited regularly consisted of about 350 people who all lived under one roof, in a traditional traditional house that was then typical of central Borneo. An open porch ran along the side of the house overlooking 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 leading to the hills. During the cutting and planting season, and again during the harvest, everyone was busy on the farms and the home was empty. At other times, she was bustling and full of life. There was a powerful sense of shared history and tradition, including elaborate parties and elaborate seasonal festivities. No one was hungry in the long house.
From the 1980s onwards, everything changed. The forests of Borneo were destroyed at an unprecedented rate in human history. Ruthless wooden barons, fed by capitals from West Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan, and aided and abetted by crooked politicians who sold wooden licenses to the highest bidder, razed the forests of Sarawak and hid their fortunes in luxury apartments to London.
Indigenous communities resisted the destruction of the rainforest, but were brutally suppressed. In addition to the police and the army, lumber companies hired thugs to intimidate anyone who tried to obstruct the roads. I heard rumors of violence, but very little news came out because the government strictly controlled the access of outsiders, especially foreign journalists. It is disturbing to think how easily and thoroughly this news blackout worked.
After cutting down the forest, something happened that had never happened before: the forest floor dried up. Then it caught fire. The government blamed the farmers for cutting, but that was absurd. During the hundreds of years that this technique had been used in Borneo, the forest had never been burned before. Now every year, during the dry season, from March to October, thick clouds of smoke spread through the wind all the way to Thailand. It’s devastating to see. And the contribution to global warming is incalculable.
What the fires achieved was that they cleared the land for plantation agriculture. Malaysia and Indonesia account for 85% of world palm oil production, which is used in cosmetics and processed foods. The vast majority of this product is grown in the ashes of the rainforest of Borneo and the same companies that made the cut now own the largest palm oil farms.
With defunct forests and polluted rivers, the only way to make a living for the long-time people he knew in Sarawak is to work for low wages on palm oil plantations.
A whole generation of young people had become accustomed to life in the wooden fields. After working the wood in one area, they continued with the fields, if given the chance. Those who were not hanging in the long house, idle and disoriented. Many marched to the coastal cities, where they live in busier settlements and form a new proletariat.
For long-term people, food sovereignty and economic independence have been replaced by a dependency on cash that they cannot now escape. Their resource base has been destroyed, their grandparents ’farming skills are forgotten, and their priceless stocks of seed rice have been consumed (each family once had their own unique varieties). The long house has been turned into a working barracks, built at no cost to employers.
Surprisingly, all of this is forcefully heralded as development, as “growth,” but this brilliant narrative hides a much darker reality. The World Bank reports that poverty has been reduced. But the increase in income does not come close to solving the livelihoods that the inhabitants of long houses have lost. Nothing can make up for the loss of food sovereignty and economic independence and, of course, the loss of the rainforest. The whole poverty reduction narrative is a farce.
All of this makes me wonder about economic development elsewhere. The media likes to report on 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 precarious”. Migrants moving to cities from rural areas have very limited options. Workers are housed in overcrowded bedrooms. They work long hours and have very little contact with the outside world. Others survive as day laborers in informal street markets and are powerless in the face of any abuse. Migrant workers have no rights because their legal residence returns to the countryside.
GDP figures tell us nothing about the costs of growth. And, as in Borneo, the real beneficiaries of China’s growth have been the corporations and elites wielding the work of the new precarious.
Simple stories of GDP growth blind us to the extraordinary social and ecological destruction it so often entails. We must urgently abandon this metric and pay attention to what is happening in the real world: who wins and who loses, what is won and what is lost. It is destroyed too, too fast.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.