Rafts of rubber and a hotel for birds with spit that sells

21 February 2012

There’s plenty of room at the Hotel Sri Tahjung. Any time of year… you can find it here. But if you want to stay, you’ll need a pair of wings and plenty

Credit: Mike Shanahan

The hotel is in Kereng Bangkerai, a village in Central Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, where I happened to be in January 2012. It’s a part of the world where people and nature have long danced to the same rhythms, but have begun to tread on each other’s toes in recent years.

While some people are finding new ways to make withdrawals from nature’s bank, for others conservation has come along and created credit limits to long-held livelihoods.  It’s a tough job to balance these two faces of a coin that no-one is quite sure how to count.

The hotel’s owner has sealed the building so it can serve as a nursery for the creatures that make one of the most expensive things people eat. They are little birds called swiftlets and they use their cement-like saliva to build nests that stick to the walls of caves. That’s the basis of bird’s nest soup, a Chinese delicacy and status symbol with reputed medicinal qualities.

A swiftlet's nest. Credit: Mike Shanahan

One kilogram of these nests can sell for between US$2,000 and US$10,000, depending on the variety. Little wonder that, for generations, collectors have risked their lives to harvest them. In 1998, when I saw men climb up bamboo poles in the dark wet caves of Niah National Park in Sarawak, Malaysia to do this, I wondered how many fell and never returned home.

People who are desperate or just drunk on desire will do crazy things but in recent years someone worked out a simpler, safer way to tap into the lucrative trade. Now across Asia people build the birds concrete nesting towers or add them to existing buildings, like the Sri Tahjung hotel. And so, the people of Kereng Bangkerai turn the spit of swiflets into cash. It is avian alchemy.

I saw the swift towers when I passed through Kereng Bangkerai on my way to Sebangau National Park to learn if the park offered hope to Borneo’s beleaguered orangutans. The next day a boat carried me around Kaja Island on the Rungan River on a quest. My eyes scanned the green forest in search of a flash of the rusty red fur of one of the dozens of orangutans there that await a move to a forest they can call home. I was not disappointed.

At the end of the journey, near a village called Sei Gohong, I saw what looked like strange fields afloat on the river.

Credit: Mike Shanahan

The plants were just accidental outgrowths of unfussy seeds. It was the mats that they grew on that mattered: hundreds of hunks of rubber with a peculiar acrid aroma. To make them the villagers tap trees for latex in the dry season, then pour the latex in moulds to set. In the wet season they float the pillow sized pieces of rubber downriver where buyers and processers await.

The places I had seen in just two days exemplified the way people and nature can collide or coexist.  In February 2012, the Center for International Forestry Research published a study that shows how traditional livelihoods in Indonesian Borneo are in decline because so much of its forests are now reserved for logging or mining. But forest conservation also imposes limits on livelihoods for people with few safety nets.

Villagers from Sei Gohong used to harvest natural resources from Kaja and other islands where today human visitors are banned so the rare orangutans can roam unmolested. People from Kereng Bangkerai used to visit the nearby forest to hunt, chop trees and gather wild fruits and other good things. Some had jobs in the timber sector but the logging concessions have been closed to create the park and the forest is now off-limits.

Selling nests and tapping rubber are among the many profitable offspring of marriages between human ingenuity and nature’s capacity to give. But even as that capacity declines, there are still bigger prizes to seize and both communities could soon gain in other ways.

In Sebangau National Park, I planted a tree in an area that stands to attract large sums of finance through an international scheme that will allow people, companies and countries to offset their carbon emissions by paying to plant trees and protect forests. And the orangutans on the river islands could soon attract a steady flow of international tourists with money to spend in the local economy.

What happens next will decide whether efforts to conserve the forest and the apes can really work, and benefits to local communities will be critical. But as Adianto P. Simamora, a journalist friend from Indonesia, reported in the Jakarta Post in May 2011, the locals don’t know much about the coming cash for carbon and how to get a fair share of it.

And while tourists in Africa will pay US$500 to US$750 a day to see gorillas, in Sei Gohong, visitors will be charged just US$22 to see orangutans. Yet a quick search of the Internet shows that companies are already offering tourists the chance to visit the apes of Kaja Island in tour packages that cost US$1000 or more.

If the local people don’t get a decent share of the dollars that are set to flow, I suspect some will resort to what they have done for generations, even if that means breaking rules that have been imposed (see the story of Lambir Hills National Park on the other side of Borneo).

It is one thing to monetize nature — whether from birds nests or rubber or carbon-capturing trees and the orangutans that climb them. It is something else to spread the benefits of biodiversity in a way that keeps them safe. How such prizes are shared could decide whether economies can really be green and if nature’s treasures will continue to gleam.

This blog was first published here on Under the Banyan.

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