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  • Borneo Transformed: Agricultural Expansion on the Southeast Asian Frontier
  • Ooi Keat Gin
Borneo Transformed: Agricultural Expansion on the Southeast Asian Frontier, Rodolphe De Koninck, Stephane Bernard, and Jean-Francois Bissonnette (editors) Singapore: NUS Press, 2011, 216 pp.; maps; biblio.; ISBN: 978-9971-69-544-6

Published under the Challenges of the Agrarian Transition in Southeast Asia (ChATSEA) project, headed by Professor Rodolphe De Koninck, University of Montreal and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Borneo Transformed: Agricultural Expansion on the Southeast Asian Frontier showcases the exemplary nature of Borneo in cropland expansion over population growth that has recorded spectacular progress since the early 1990s vis-à-vis other areas in the region and globally. Throughout Borneo, comprising the two East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, the sultanate of Brunei, and Indonesia’s Kalimantan, oil palm plantations have been since the 1980s the main expansion agents. The intention of this volume of seven papers is to illustrate and analyse the complexity and diversity of agricultural expansion and the concomitant nature of agrarian transition and transformation that has occurred as well as the challenges and difficulties that have emerged.

The first two papers view agricultural expansion from a global scale (chapter 1) and specifically on island-wide Borneo (chapter 2). The next two works focus on Sarawak per se, on agrarian transitions (chapters 3) and the impacts on indigenes, the Ibans, the largest native community (chapter 4). Sabah’s oil palm plantation sector is specifically examined (chapter 5) while various aspects of agrarian transitions in all Kalimantan’s four provinces (West, East, Central, and South) are explored and analysed (chapter 6). The final paper (chapter 7), by way of conclusion, recollects the analyses of the foregoing papers and at the same time looks ahead to the future of oil palm expansion on the island and beyond.

All in all, nine outcomes are discerned from this Borneo research. While boom crops, oil palm in particular, take the lead in agricultural expansion, the other forms of resource development continue; likewise, urbanization progresses rapidly. The latter, however, is not always or necessarily in tandem with agricultural growth. The second finding showed that agricultural expansion occurred [End Page 126] in combination with intensification whereby ‘waves of expansion and contraction [can occur], within which are found pockets of intensification and “disintensification”’ (p. 204). Thirdly, both agricultural expansion and intensification did not proceed (or recede) in similar fashion across Borneo with different boom crops (tobacco, pepper, rubber, oil palm) taking the lead during expansion over the centuries. Oil palm, however, became the main player of expansion throughout the island from the 1990s. Fourthly, a direct correlation was found between rapid territorial expansion of commercial crops and demography impacting spatially, quantitatively, and qualitatively. The fifth finding observed the gradual assumption of private corporations replacing state/provincial authorities in engineering boom crop expansion. This trend became apparent from the 1990s when hitherto state-driven agrarian expansion with a poverty reduction agenda was being taken over by the private sector of capitalist-driven large-scale plantation operations. Interestingly, these private plantations often enjoyed support from state authorities.

Nonetheless, the sixth observation showed the steadfast resilience of indigenous smallholders who adopt and adapt to the new boom crop, namely oil palm, as they had done in the past (tobacco, rubber). Others, however, sought to oppose and resist the encroachment of large plantations. Consequently the contestation over land tenure witnessed a three-cornered struggle between local communities, private corporations, and state/provincial authorities. Resistance from the local inhabitants towards private plantations at times turned violent; other indigenes such as the Sarawak Ibans turned to legal avenues for redress over their traditional rights of access to native customary land.

The seventh outcome showed the ‘territorialisation role’ played by state/provincial authorities in agricultural expansion at the expense of forestland, an island-wide phenomenon resulting in ‘a considerable wastage of forestland’ (p. 206). It has been demonstrated in Kalimantan (chapter 6) that it was common practice of ‘companies clearing the forest, taking the timber and not planting’ (ibid.). Large-scale plantation expansion often supported by state authorities is bringing into question the indigenous peasantry’s land usage...


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