Quenching the thirst for development


Bapak Wally (left) from Indonesia and the writer at the border.

JUST last month, I finally set foot on North Kalimantan for the very first time.

The adventure began with an exciting express boat ride from Tawau to Nunukan Island. Much like other seaports in Southeast Asia, the humid atmosphere in Tawau Ferry Terminal brought a mix of scents that filled the surroundings – the smell of the sea, sweat, strong perfumes, and the odour of freshly caught fish and other seafood.

The boat, capable of accommodating over 100 people, was bustling with activity and a diverse group of individuals. Everyone seemed to be in constant motion, engaged in lively conversations and brimming with energy.

Among the passengers, I noticed some carrying boxes of electrical appliances, while others had mysterious sealed bags and white styrofoam containers. A young man roamed the boat, offering bottled drinks infused with excessive sugars that promised an instant energy boost. Nearby, another man held a large stack of cash, providing currency exchange services to those in urgent need.

The boat swiftly carried us across the border in just 1.5 hours. Upon reaching Nunukan, the dynamic energy pulsed through the air, beckoning me to embrace the lively ambiance of the border town.

Nunukan, the name shared by the regency, the island, and the town itself, exudes a unique charm with its narrow roads, colourful buildings, busy motorbikes, and little vans packed with passengers. The 64,000 people living in this little town seem to share a deep appreciation for coffee. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a delightful array of cafes offering an enticing selection of coffee beans from Gayo Aceh to Papua.

The following day, we embarked on a packed three-hour boat ride from Nunukan to Tarakan, a much larger city with 270,000 breathing people. After writing about it in an earlier article, I finally experienced the city first-hand.

Here, I came across some familiar shops like Mr D.I.Y. and J&T Express. I used the express service to send two copies of my book to a friend in Palangkaraya. It cost me 55,000 IDR, or less than RM17, which was much cheaper than if I had done it from Kuala Lumpur.

The next leg of our expedition took us along the majestic Sungai Mentarang, a river brimming with life and enveloped by lush greenery, but also home to a coal terminal and timber plantations.

Our journey continued as we headed northward, transitioning from the river to an asphalt road. The paved road, albeit with potholes here and there, guided us through the region bordering Sabah.

After a four-hour ride, we embarked on an invigorating speedboat journey from Sei Ular to Nunukan. Cruising through the waterways, we marvelled at the vast seaweed farms dispersed among the mangroves.

Facing the paradox

Like many other parts of the world, Borneo has been subject to the ideology of neoliberalism in the past decades, seeking to prioritise economic growth above all else. This has led to the exploitation of Borneo’s forests, minerals, and wildlife, contributed to various social issues, and exacerbated the challenges of climate change.

There has been a growing call to redefine prevailing notions of economic growth and embrace a new ecological-social model. The alternative would prioritise the well-being of both people and the environment, shifting the focus away from the interests of corporations and investors.

However, the drive for material expansion remains deeply ingrained in society and cannot be easily disregarded.

The individuals we spoke to throughout the journey revealed that they had displayed adaptability in the face of rapid changes and eagerly anticipated even more significant and faster transformations brought about by the ongoing and upcoming mega projects.

They expressed a positive, and even excited, outlook regarding these new developments, especially the Nusantara project. I have heard honest confessions that people are prepared to accept the potential negative impacts that may arise from development as long as the country progresses and aligns with global trends, ultimately leading to improved livelihoods for them.

I constantly reminded myself that these viewpoints do not necessarily reflect the opinions of every individual in the province, especially those who were victimised by these ‘global trends’.

Nevertheless, I do believe there is a strong desire among the local people to be actively involved in decision-making processes, especially in matters directly affecting them, such as roads, land rights, and education – “We want a seat at the table, and we will fight hard for it”.

This creates a paradoxical situation. On one hand, local communities are strongly committed to defending their rights, lands, and culture. But on the other hand, their thirst for development has fuelled an obsession with economic growth, even at a cost.

Particularly emphasised is the importance of leveraging relationships with neighbouring countries. Aligned with the policy of ‘develop from the periphery,’ it appears that people believe Indonesia should and will continue to proactively pursue cooperation with its neighbours.

However, I have also observed that this approach is being implemented without regard for whether the neighbours are ready or not. The completed but non-operational Pos Lintas Batas Negara (PLBN) on the Indonesian side of Sebatik Island serves as a vivid example of this situation.

‘The unquenchable thirst’

Before bidding farewell to North Kalimantan, we returned to Tawau aboard the same express boat that had initially brought us to this restless land. We travelled to the Nunukan jetty in a small van.

Our driver, originally from Timor, had previously worked at SFI in Sipitang before settling in Nunukan. He moved back to Indonesia to ensure his three children could attend university.

As we navigated the narrow roads of this charming town, we arrived at the jetty before 8am. The process of purchasing tickets and going through immigration clearance went smoothly.

While waiting for the boat to depart, I suddenly felt a strong thirst, likely due to the overly salty food that I had consumed in the past few days. The guy carrying bottled drinks walked back and forth, but his sugary beverages would not quench my thirst.

I noticed a large ferry in the distance, which we learned had travelled from Sulawesi, carrying thousands of passengers over a two-night journey to Nunukan. Within an hour, our boat filled up with people disembarking from the ferry – young and old, in groups or alone, adorned in stylish attire or maintaining a low profile.

I could not help but wonder what their purpose was in Sabah. However, one thing was certain for me – they all carried a deep longing for a better life, whether it was to send their children to universities, or just to buy the latest iPhones.

Dr Goh Chun Sheng is a researcher at Harvard University. He is interested in exploring sustainable development in both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo.

His book ‘Transforming Borneo: From Land Exploitation to Sustainable Development’ was recently published by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.