The imaginary boundary
Writer: Sharyn Shufiyan
Published: Fri, 07 Sep 2012
Work takes me to Sabah and Sarawak quite often lately, home to two of the longest rivers in Malaysia.
My recent trip brought me to Sukau where I stayed in a lodge overlooking the second longest river in Malaysia, the Kinabatangan River.
The Kinabatangan is a natural treasure as not only does it host protected habitats and indigenous species, but also plays a crucial economic role for the communities who are dependent upon its resources and an important source of tourism revenue.
Like the blood vessels in our bodies, rivers are the lifeline of a population. Civilisations grew from riverbanks and populations prosper as the abundance of the river life and fertile plains provide sustenance for livelihood.
Some of the world’s greatest civilisations emerged out of river valleys; Nile, Indus, Euphrates and Tigris.
Here in Klang Valley, the Klang River is central to our making.
Looking at the state of the Klang River, it’s easy to underestimate its value as a heritage site.
From the muddy confluence of Klang and Gombak Rivers rose the thriving metropolitan we know now as Kuala Lumpur.
Flowing from the highlands in Gombak through Kuala Lumpur and Selangor into the Straits of Malacca, this 120km body of water was the gateway for tin miners and eventually boomed into a mining town in the late 1800s.
Once an important mode of transportation, the Klang River is now a mere drain.
In some areas, rivers mark the political boundary between states. The Mississippi River formed the borders between Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee on the east side and Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas on the west.
Some rivers mark class structure like the River Thames segregating North and South London.
Some rivers are the gateway to exploration, settlement and economic opportunities. The Hudson River was named after Henry Hudson, an Englishman who explored it in 1609.
Its strategic location allowing for an entry point into the inner parts of America made it highly coveted between the English and the Dutch.
Indeed, the Europeans saw value in gaining control over rivers as geographical boundaries were marked based on topographical features.
Rivers are physical manifestations of boundaries. It is easy to segregate power with a visible and tangible waypoint.
Boundaries are agreed upon, or in some instances, fought over, by political powers interested in expansion and gaining access to resources.
Boundaries are often drawn not by the local communities but by colonialists.
The Dutch, Portuguese, British, French, Spanish, were all drawing boundaries on maps claiming their territories.
In some instances, the local communities don’t recognise these boundaries; suddenly communities who used to be nomadic and roam freely from one place to another found themselves centralised, unable to cross over an “imaginary” boundary.
Many of humanity’s greatest problems began this way; some of which, poverty, diseases, refugees, statelessness.
While I was working in Kinabatangan, one of the villages was in a dispute with the Forestry Department regarding the boundary between their oil palm farms and a forest reserve. The villagers had claimed that they were allocated 15 acres of land by the then government to cultivate oil palm but since they had limited financial resources, many of them only managed to cultivate up to half of their land.
What apparently happened was that the uncultivated land was annexed into the forest reserve which borders the village.
Of course, once the land is considered a forest reserve, the villagers could not cultivate anymore should they wish to expand.
My colleague at the time, Stephen, who was tasked to look at High Conservation Values (HCV), was just as baffled about the conflict.
He kept on saying, “But it’s the same forest.” I didn’t get Stephen’s logic for a while.
I was too caught up in the “boundary” dispute. Yes it’s the same forest, but if the villagers claimed that they were given 15 acres of land and are able to prove it, then they have a right to cultivate their land.
After a while, I realised the point Stephen was trying to make; there is no boundary. Like the rivers and drawn territories on maps, natural resources undergo the same process.
To develop a certain area, people decide what’s okay to bulldoze and what’s okay to keep as “protected”.
You end up with highly fragmented forests because people develop the in-betweens.
If the villagers get their way, the “protected” area will continue to shrink into a mere dot on a map (right now it’s like a 10 cent coin, but this is on a scaled down map).
Already the forest reserve is an island amongst development, fragmented by roads and a sea of oil palm plantations.
But plants and animals don’t recognise these man-made boundaries. They found themselves, like the centralised nomadic communities; limited in their mobility and their population threatened. And as we continue to cut up the world; slicing portions to reserve and to develop, and continue to fight over borders (like the Israelis and Palestinians and God knows everywhere else too), we continue to contribute to the demise of our own population.
And we are doing so over what? Over something imagined, manifestations of our own greed and selfishness we call “boundaries”.