Researcher’s new book suggests strategies to transform land-based economies in Borneo


Goh (left) presents Sarawak State Library chief executive officer Japri Bujang Masli with a copy of his book during a recent courtesy call. Also seen is Sunway College Kuching director Joseph Lim (right). – Photo courtesy of Goh Chun Sheng

KUCHING (April 3): People must work together and find the right combination of strategies to address various issues related to land use and sustainability, said Dr Goh Chun Sheng.

The Harvard University Asia Centre researcher, whose focus is on sustainable development in Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo, said this is based on the interdependent nature of economic productivity and conservation in Borneo.

The Borneo Post columnist said his years of involvement in projects related to agriculture and forestry in both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo at different capacities, including policy design, industrial development, and research have contributed to a better understanding of the land-use dynamics in Borneo from various perspectives.

“I learned that people from different backgrounds, sectors, disciplines, positions, ethnicity, and nationality tend to have very different views on land-based development and conservation.

“On the one hand, proponents of ‘modernisation’ argue that Borneo should not be left behind in economic development. On the other hand, conservationists advocate the prioritising of environmental protection and restoration in Borneo.

“These viewpoints have sparked numerous debates and generated more heat than light on many occasions,” he told The Borneo Post.

Goh said his interest in exploring sustainable development in Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo started at a young age when he first experienced haze in his hometown of Penang.

“I first learned about Kalimantan when I was 12 years old. During that year, for the first time in my life, I was instructed to wear a white dust mask before stepping out of my house,” he said, recalling how a thick haze blanketed his hometown, blocking the sun’s rays from reaching the surface.

“It was the year 1997, and the particle-laden air persisted for months. As I was informed, the source of this greyish matter came from the land fires in Indonesia.

“The reason for these fires was reduced to a set of clichés in the general public’s understanding in Malaysia – the fires were started by ‘irresponsible’ farmers in Indonesia who used fire to clear forest land for farming,” he said.

He was 28 when he made his first trip to central Kalimantan as a junior researcher at the Netherlands’ Utrecht University, while working on a UK-funded project.

“Central Kalimantan is one of the areas most affected by the massive haze generated during prolonged, severe droughts. With a local friend, Pak Agustinus, we rode a motorbike across the province and ventured deep into the mountains, forests, plantations, and gold mining sites on large rivers and small streams.

“Over a few months, I encountered a diverse range of people, including indigenous people, migrants from other islands, urban settlers, local officials, entrepreneurs, activists, and plantation workers,” he recalled.

Goh said the insights gained from his years of experiences have spurred him to write a book on Borneo’s sustainable development.

“I initiated the project while at Harvard, taking advantage of some peaceful months to analyse data, read, and write at my own pace.

“The first full draft of the book was developed in mid-2020,” he said of his first monograph entitled ‘Transforming Borneo: From Land Exploitation to Sustainable Development’.

As the Covid-19 pandemic emerged and challenges mounted at the time, he roped in Lesley Potter, a visiting fellow in Resource Management in Asia-Pacific, Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, Canberra, to join him as co-author to complement and enrich the work with her expertise and insights.

“Together, it took us two more years to complete the book,” added Goh.

On his book, Goh said it attempts to systematise the strategies proposed or implemented to transform the land-based economies in Borneo.

“It also explores the underlying dynamics in addressing the big question – how to improve livelihoods, not only without causing further environmental impacts but also repair the damage done in the past.

“It is further guided by three sub-questions, namely what strategies are implemented or proposed to transform the land-based economies; what are the current status, opportunities, and challenges of these strategies from different perspectives; and how do they complement or contradict each other in a territorial context,” he said.

Goh said the book has 14 chapters, grouped into four parts.

“Part I includes the introduction and Chapter 2, which provides background information while Part II covers five productivity-oriented strategies namely boosting upstream productivity, activating under-utilised land resources, upgrading and diversifying downstream activities, certifying industrial cash crops for sustainability, and establishing domestic demand for bio-resources.

“Part III covers five conservation-oriented strategies, including enhancing agro ecological resilience, commodifying ecosystem services, establishing eco-based tertiary sectors, marketing products from smallholdings, and encouraging traditional land-use systems for self-sufficiency and sustainability,” he said, adding that Part IV has two chapters on the potential impact of the digital revolution and future perspectives.

The book is available on ISEAS – YusofIshak Institute (ISEAS) website.

Besides his position at Harvard, Goh is also a researcher at Sunway University. He writes fortnightly for The Borneo Post under the column ‘Exploring Sustainable Development’.