There is a village in the rainforests of Southeast Asia that I have visited on and off for over 40 years, doing long-term anthropological research. As the decades have passed, I have witnessed a process of extraordinary economic growth that has completely reshaped the village.
At first glance, that might sound like a good thing. After all, they tell us that growth is good. We are told that more income lifts people out of poverty and improves their lives. Development institutions like the World Bank instill this narrative in us, and the media around the world echo this narrative. But what I have witnessed calls into question this simplistic story.
The town is in Sarawak, which is on the Malaysian side of the island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, bigger than France or Texas. When I first visited Sarawak in the 1970s, the indigenous communities that lived there had practically no money, but they lived well. Now they have money and can barely feed themselves. They have become poorer even as incomes increase. It is a story of brutal destitution that is completely obscured by the GDP growth statistics.
In the 1970s, Borneo had the most extensive rainforests outside of Brazil and central Africa, teeming with life and biodiversity. People living in communities in and around the forests had little money, but controlled their own abundant food supply. They grew their own local varieties of rice, supplemented by game from the surrounding jungle and fish from the river. They had a balanced diet and were incredibly fit and healthy.
The town he visited regularly consisted of about 350 people living under one roof, in a traditional longhouse that was typical of central Borneo at the time. An open verandah ran the length of the side of the house that faced the river, while the other side consisted of a row of family apartments. Their farms were a few hours away by canoe, along small streams that flowed into the hills. During the cutting and planting season, and again during the harvest, everyone was busy on the farms and the longhouse was empty. At other times, it was boisterous and full of life. There was a powerful sense of shared history and tradition, which included elaborate seasonal festivals and parties. No one went hungry in the longhouse.
Starting in the 1980s, everything changed. Borneo’s forests were destroyed at a rate unprecedented in human history. Ruthless timber barons, propelled by the capital of West Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan, and aided and abetted by corrupt politicians who sold timber licenses to the highest bidder, traverse the forests of Sarawak and hide their fortunes in luxury apartments in London.
Indigenous communities resisted the destruction of the rainforest, but were brutally repressed. In addition to the police and the military, the logging companies hired thugs to intimidate anyone who tried to block the roads. I heard rumors of violence, but very little news came out because the government strictly controlled access for outsiders, especially foreign journalists. It’s unsettling to think how easily and deeply this news blackout worked.
After the forest was cut down, something happened that had never happened before: the forest floor dried up. Then it caught fire. The government blamed slash-and-burn farmers, but that was absurd. In all the hundreds of years that this technique had been used in Borneo, the forest had never been burned before. Now every year during the dry season from March to October, thick clouds of smoke blow downwind to Thailand. It’s devastating to watch. And the contribution to global warming is incalculable.
What the fires did was that they cleared the land for plantation agriculture. Malaysia and Indonesia between them account for 85 percent of the world’s palm oil production, which is used in cosmetics and processed foods. The vast majority of that product is grown in the ashes of the Borneo rainforest, and the same companies that did the logging now own the largest palm oil farms.
With forests gone and rivers polluted, the only way for the longhouse people I met in Sarawak to earn a living is by working for meager wages on palm oil plantations.
A whole generation of young people had become used to life in the logging camps. After the wood was worked in an area, they continued with the camps, if they had the opportunity. Those who were not in the longhouse, idle and disoriented. Many went to the coastal cities, where they live in illegal settlements and form a new lumpen proletariat.
For the people of the longhouse, food sovereignty and economic independence have been traded for a monetary dependence from which they now cannot escape. Their resource base has been destroyed, their grandparents’ agricultural skills are forgotten, and their invaluable reserves of rice seeds (each family once had their own unique varieties) have long been consumed. The longhouse has been converted into a labor barracks, built at no cost to employers.
The amazing thing is that all of this is smugly reported as development, as “growth,” but this brilliant narrative hides a much darker reality. The World Bank reports that poverty has been reduced. But the increased income does not come close to making up for the livelihoods lost by people living in longhouses. Nothing can compensate for the loss of food sovereignty and economic independence and, of course, the loss of the rainforest. The whole narrative of poverty reduction is a sham.
All of this makes me think of economic development elsewhere. The media loves to report how growth in China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But the reality is more complex. Sociologist Sarah Swider has described what she calls China’s “new precariat.” Migrants moving to cities from rural areas have very limited options. The workers are housed in cramped dormitories. They work long hours and have very little contact with the outside world. Others survive as day laborers in informal street markets and are powerless against any abuse. Migrant workers have no rights because their legal residence is in the countryside.
The GDP figures tell us nothing about the costs of growth. And, as in Borneo, the real beneficiaries of China’s growth have been the corporations and elites that leeches off the labor of the new precariat.
Simplistic stories of GDP growth blind us to the extraordinary social and ecological destruction that growth so often brings. We urgently need to abandon this metric and instead pay attention to what is happening in the real world: who wins and who loses, what is won and what is lost. It is destroying itself too much, too fast.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.