Would you ever think of the third largest island on Earth – Borneo (known as Kalimantan in Indonesia) – as one of the cradles of the world’s democracy? Perhaps you wouldn’t, but you should.
While Europe was engaged in myriads of internal as well as expansionist wars, in the once lush, tropical Borneo, people who belonged to the ancient local cultures, used to decide things communally, by consensus, or should we use the Western term, “democratically”. Judged by today’s standards, they were also living the lives of determined ‘environmentalists’, showing great respect for the nature around them – for all living creatures, plants, deep forests, wide rivers as well as humble creeks.
True, local people – Dayaks – were often marked as “headhunters”, at least by the European Orientalists. But that was only one of many features of their culture. Dayaks spoke at least 170 languages and dialects, enjoying complex fabric of cultures, customs and laws.
The bottom line is: in many ways and for many centuries, traditional Dayaks were able to co-exist perfectly well with their island and with the surrounding environment.
If left alone, that is what they would still be doing now – living their own lives, in their own place, and most likely, living well.
Unfortunately, that was not meant to be.
Borneo was attacked, colonized and devastated by European invaders. For a short period, the Japanese occupied the island, and then the Europeans came back again, before “independence” saw the island divided between three sovereign countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam.
Things did not get much better. The brutality – almost madness – of the Indonesian plunder which took place after the 1965 Western-orchestrated military coup (backed by foreign mining and logging interests); the plunder of the natural resources of Kalimantan, has been legendary. For Jakarta and for its foreign handlers, the so-called transmigration made looting much easier, while turning local people into a minority and into serfs on their own land.
Dayak culture is now only truly ‘alive and well’ in a few untouched pockets in the deep interior.
There, people still remember and know how Borneo used to be. They also understand what should and could be done in order to save it.
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