Where in­dige­nous cul­ture gives way to TV

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - EX­PLO­RATION RE­VIEW BY DEN­NIS DRABELLE

In ap­proach­ing Alex Shoumatoff’s im­pas­sioned new book, “The Wast­ing of Bor­neo,” don’t over­look its sub­ti­tle, “Dis­patches From a Van­ish­ing World.” Shoumatoff has taken the oc­ca­sion to ex­am­ine his whole cru­sad­ing ca­reer, start­ing with an ele­giac reprise of his child­hood — a sur­pris­ingly out­doorsy one, given that it took place in Westch­ester County, about 40 miles north of New York City. That’s be­cause much of the county was still forested in the 1950s, and Shoumatoff and his best friend at the time were al­lowed to ex­plore it at will. They also had some­one to em­u­late: Shoumatoff’s fa­ther, a main­stay of the lo­cal Audubon So­ci­ety who as a young man had gone but­ter­fly hunt­ing in Ja­maica.

Six decades later, we find the two old pals about to re­new their friend­ship by vis­it­ing Bor­neo to­gether, a jour­ney that will also be a mile­stone for Shoumatoff, com­plet­ing what he calls “my tour of the world’s great rain forests.” In the in­terim, he’d roamed the wild world, chron­i­cling the loss of ecosys­tems and bio­di­ver­sity for the New Yorker, Van­ity Fair and Smith­so­nian mag­a­zines, and in such books as “The Rivers Amazon” (1978) and “In South­ern Light: Trekking Through Zaire and the Amazon” (1986).

The world’s third-largest is­land, Bor­neo is di­vided po­lit­i­cally; the smaller, north­ern por­tion is Malaysian, the re­main­der In­done­sian. On both sides of the border, how­ever, the story is much the same: pro­mis­cu­ous log­ging of “some of the old­est and most species-rich and spec­tac­u­lar rain for­est on Earth” and its re­place­ment by a mono­cul­ture of palm trees whose oil is used, Shoumatoff writes, in “cook­ies, lip­stick, dish­wash­ing de­ter­gent, mar­garine, biodiesel, you name it . . . . Forty to 50 per­cent of house­hold prod­ucts in coun­tries like the United States, Canada, Aus­tralia, and Eng­land con­tain palm oil, and 80 per­cent of the stuff comes from In­done­sia and Malaysia. It’s a $40-bil­lion busi­ness.”

Be­fore shov­ing off, Shoumatoff con­sults ex­perts on how to min­gle with the an­i­mals and in­dige­nous peo­ples he is likely to meet. He tunes up his em­pa­thy at a South Carolina pre­serve for wounded or or­phaned an­i­mals. On an ear­lier visit, Shoumatoff had bonded with Bub­bles, the res­i­dent ele­phant. This time around, Bub­bles not only picks her buddy out of a crowd; she “wraps her trunk around me and pulls me to her breast and raises her right foot for me to rest on.” In an epic hum­ble­brag, Shoumatoff notes that the Dalai Lama “didn’t re­mem­ber me when I went to see him again sev­eral years af­ter a two-hour pri­vate au­di­ence with him in 1990 . . . but Bub­bles did, right away, and I was with seventy other peo­ple.”

This isn’t the only time in “The Wast­ing of Bor­neo” that Shoumatoff is a bit full of him­self, but thanks to his ob­vi­ous gusto for his work and causes, he can get away with it. Also, his wide knowl­edge, based on years of glo­be­trot­ting and re­port­ing, en­ables him to make com­par­isons that oth­ers might miss. For ex­am­ple, colos­sal as the loss of Ama­zo­nian rain forests has been, Shoumatoff ar­gues that in a way, the lesser­known plun­der­ing of Bor­neo is worse, with a de­for­esta­tion rate “un­par­al­leled in hu­man his­tory.”

One of Shoumatoff’s ob­jec­tives in Bor­neo is to spend time with Birute Galdikas, an au­thor­ity on orang­utans (and re­cently fea­tured in a PBS “Na­ture” se­ries about study­ing wild an­i­mals by in­fil­trat­ing their habi­tats with cam­er­a­tot­ing robots that look and move just like them). Shoumatoff’s most fas­ci­nat­ing en­coun­ters, how­ever, are with the in­dige­nous peo­ple be­ing stripped of their hunt­ing and gath­er­ing grounds as forests are felled and rivers are dammed. Many groups have had no choice but to adopt Western ways, and it’s not un­com­mon to come upon a long­house where, two gen­er­a­tions af­ter head­hunt­ing was last prac­ticed, the in­hab­i­tants gather at night around a communal TV set.

Seek­ing out elders who are still con­ver­sant with their groups’ mythol­ogy, Shoumatoff places high value on ori­gin sto­ries. Among many re­counted in the book, one stands out for its sim­plic­ity and beauty. The story, which comes from the Pe­nan, who live near Malaysia’s Mulu Na­tional Park, con­cerns the tajem tree, source of the poi­son in which darts are dipped be­fore be­ing in­serted into blow­guns:

“Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, Tajem was an ex­tremely beau­ti­ful and clever woman. Many men fell in love with her. She felt pity for all of them, and thought that if she be­came close to one of them it would not be fair to the oth­ers, so she de­cided to be­come some­thing use­ful for all of them and trans­formed her­self into the tree whose blood they could use for hunt­ing.” Such tales con­trib­ute to a hu­man cul­tural diver­sity that falls vic­tim to in­dis­crim­i­nate log­ging and river-tam­per­ing as surely as bi­o­log­i­cal diver­sity does.

Though by no means a cheer­ful book, “The Wast­ing of Bor­neo” ends on a moderately en­cour­ag­ing note. Lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional non­prof­its ap­pear to be mak­ing head­way with the Malaysian and In­done­sian gov­ern­ments (which can grant or deny per­mits for dis­rup­tive projects), and some of the fam­i­lies who have reaped im­mense prof­its from de­for­esta­tion are now fac­ing charges of il­le­gal money laun­der­ing. Shoumatoff urges that “it’s time to do our part at the con­sumer end . . . . An al­ter­na­tive to palm oil must be found so this holo­caust ends.”

For read­ers will­ing to do their part im­me­di­ately, this re­viewer has checked the house­hold larder and found one kind of cookie that does not con­tain palm oil: Fig New­tons. Den­nis Drabelle is a for­mer con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor of Book World who writes fre­quently on the en­vi­ron­ment.

By Alex Shoumatoff Bea­con. 184 pp. $26.95

THE WAST­ING OF BOR­NEO Dis­patches From a Van­ish­ing World

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