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Part 2: An Anthropological Perspective

THE VOICE OF MY GRANDFATHER Ribuh Long (his name means “The confluence of a thousand rivers”), still rings clear in my ears: “Rivers flow downriver from their origin upriver; their flow can never be reversed from the rivers’ mouth where they end.” It was a metaphor he used to depict the importance of time spent to connect with one’s relatives. Those times can never be relived. For time, like a river, can never return to its origin, therefore the same water cannot be touched twice.

And yet, another dimension to the metaphor is: in reality rivers do connect people, cultures and ideas. As passageways, rivers allow civilisations to connect across widespread geographical areas. The banks of rivers have bred great milestones of human history. Amazon River basin bellied “an interconnected, advanced series of fortified villages spanning over 1,100 miles that flourished”1 in the pre-Columbian Amazon rainforest; River Nile in Egypt flourished its banks for one of the world’s oldest civilisations; the Tigris- Euphrates river system is renowned as a cradle to ancient Mesopotamian civilisations. Similarly, the Yangtze River and Yellow River in China have been crucial to the emergence and development of Chinese civilizations.

…its rivers have been passageways of history, traditions and knowledge that connect its people to meet, negotiate and exchange ideas and objects.

No matter the time and location, river basins are great places to live. Lewis Mumford, the philosopher of technology once claimed, “All the great historic cultures have thriven through the movement of men and institutions and inventions and goods along the natural highway of a great river.”

The situation is no different on Borneo, the world’s third largest island. Borneo appears hard to reach physically and difficult to understand culturally. Its dense forests, mangrove-fringed shores, rugged mountains, deep valleys, crossing and recrossing of ranges and streams make ventures within almost impossible especially for a stranger.

Yes it is possible that Borneo’s rugged features prevented a unified civilisation on the island, but its rivers have been passageways of history, traditions and knowledge that connect its people to meet, negotiate and exchange ideas and objects. Its major rivers like Kinabatangan (560 km), Kapuas (1,143 km), Mahakam (980 km), Baram (400 km), Barito (890 km), Martapura (600 km), Rejang (563 km) and their myriad of tributaries and confluences give Borneo a picture of consistency.

Writing about her experiences of the Five of the best Borneo river trips, Tamara Thiessen2 gushes, “the best way of experiencing the rainforests of Borneo is to jump on a boat,” for “the lush rainforests of Borneo hide a startling array of flora and fauna, as well as tribes who live by the islands’ waterways.”

With an area of 743,330 square kilometres Borneo is commonly divided into 3 distinctive physical geographic zones: upland, the riverine, coastal. The upland areas are made of rugged mountains towering over 1,000 metres. Like a central spine, it is an important watershed for the island, with most Borneo rivers originate from this mountainous region.

The second zone is dominated by ridges and furrows. The furrows that lie between the hills and mountains become rugged watercourses. These serve as important channels for the river systems on the island.


The third zone made up of areas less than 600 feet above sea level hosts the estuaries of great rivers flowing from the first and second zones. Mostly flat, these estuaries composed of sediments deposited by the rivers are conducive for settlement and farming. Besides they mass trading opportunities between the interior and coast, creating fertile ground for political power fortification. Major cities of Borneo like Kota Kinabalu, Bandar Seri Begawan, Kuching, Pontianak, Banjaramasin, Samarinda, Miri, Bintulu are located in the coastal zone.

As environment for human habitation and adaptation, each zone nurtures specific cultural landscape with defining values and beliefs. Some local communities use the analogy of tree as a metaphorical map in order to make sense of the diversity of cultural habitat, locations and people between these zones.

Those living in the coastal areas make the base of the tree. These are mainly Malays and Chinese. The middle zone comprises of those living along the banks of the main rivers who make up the tree trunk. These are the Iban and Bidayuh. They traditionally inhabit much of the lower part of major rivers. The Orang Ulu especially the Kayan and Kenyah who traditionally inhabit the upper parts of these rivers along the river branches and tributaries form the tree branches. Meanwhile, those living in the headwaters of the rivers make up the tree’s flowers and fruits. These are upriver communities like the Penan, Punan Bah, Kayan, Kenyah, Lun Bawang, Tagal, Potok, Berau, Milau, Saban, Kelabit and the Kerayan people.

It is a picture of symbiosis. The rivers provide life-giving water to the people. Longhouses on stilts typically built along the banks of streams and rivers. Nearby streams play central roles in the everyday life of the people. Children play and swim in the rivers. From the same rivers, adults draw water, wash clothes, bath and fish. All these add life and colours to already vibrant rivers and streams.

Rivers are means to move people and their products, as waterways for the spread of techniques and technologies, and for the mobility of objects of desire such as beads, jars, pots, and gongs between places and people. For upland communities who were once cutoff, who produced their own salt, planted their own rice, hunted and roamed the jungle for food, rivers made possible the adoption and adaptation of nonlocally produced ideas and objects to take place. These did not happen through direct contacts with the coast, but through a series of village-to-village trading, barter exchanges carried out along the river, perhaps starting from an entrepôt at the coast.

Traditionally, people moved on the rivers because of cultural practices of distant travel, which contributed to a person’s social status. Known as merantau amongst the Malay, bejalai amongst the Iban and mengerang mado by the Kelabit and Lun Bawang, historically the practice involved a long journey that a man and woman might undertake. The adventure would carry him/her far from home, allowing him/her to acquire new skills and knowledge and grow in strength and character. For generations, traveling far is one of the most important traditions used by the diverse communities to create connections with the rest of the world. Some of those journeys have been transposed into legends, epic tales and mythical stories.

“Jump on a boat,” said Tamara. Prior to the existence of roads, a trip from the coast required river journeys, besides weeks of trekking across rugged mountains. For the river journeys, different types of hand-carved vessels of long-boats and dug-out canoes were used to negotiate the waterways. Nowadays there are modern designed boats such as express boats, electric boats, speedboats and engine-run long boats. These reflect waterways still connect landscapes and communities in different parts of Borneo.

Simply put, rivers are central to human existence. Today, rivers are used to regularise sanitation and to produce hydroelectric power. In certain regions, rivers are places to focus spiritual energies on, and are called majestic and mighty. In India, rivers are revered and are wrapped in myths, epic tales and sacred texts. In Australia, New Zealand and India, rivers, like human life, have been granted legal rights. In Sarawak, features of rivers are still adopted as names for people and places. The settlements of riverine communities in the tropical rain forests are invariably located between two rivers, at long or kuala in Malay – confluences or estuaries – like Long Banga, Long Tungan, Long Semadoh and Kuala Baram.

Poline Bala obtained a B.A in Southeast Asian Studies from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya and an M.A in Asian Studies from Cornell University, US. In May 2008 she graduated with a PhD in Social Anthropology from University of Cambridge, UK. She is now an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, University Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS).

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