Borneo – all those special resources!

by Michael N. Hofman

Janet and I have the fascination with Indonesia, as some of you may know. This is a county extending the same width and almost the same distance from north to south as the USA, and the population is very close to ours (261 million in 2016). More impressive the country consists of somewhere between 17,000 and 18,500 islands, many with their own culture, language and traditions. We hadn’t been to Borneo before, but learned that it is home to three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and the Sultanate of Brunei. But what we did see was resources in action.

Gold – sitting in sand at the bottom of the river we traveled on to see orangutans – has been “mined” for years, so much so that the river is now brown. This photo shows a number of barges with pumps dredging the silt at the bottom of the river to find gold. The usual result is about 3 grams of unprocessed gold a day or about 1 ounce per day! A lot of work, noise and disturbing of the beautiful river for a small amount of gold, but the profit is obviously worth it as we saw many of these barges on the river.

Photo courtesy Roger Van Dok

Photo courtesy Roger Van Dok

Bird’s nests – For some reason, farming sparrow nests for bird’s nest soup has become a big business. In almost every village we saw a swallow barn to allow the farmers to remove the nests (to which the swallows add a great deal of their saliva). This tower is somewhat temporary (made out of sheet metal), but many are concrete and produce quite a significant income for the owners (sometimes a community venture). By the way, bird’s nest soup is considered a Chinese delicacy and the ingredients are highly rated.


Lumber -- As we were heading out to an offshore destination, we traveled along another river heading out to the ocean and came upon many barges, stacked to the brim with newly cut lumber. When we hear about the destruction of rainforests and how harvesting of trees reduces the ability of the earth to retain carbon, this is a perfect example of the loss of native forests. Some of the barges will so stacked with lumber that it seemed they couldn’t move (if you look closely you’ll see that the lumber is almost falling out of the barge at the rear).


Coal -- Not to be outdone but the lumber, coal barges were everywhere, being exported also being used to power the electric plant for the area we were in. We learned that this coal is not clean, but a course coal with many impurities, thus an environmental impact that is quite significant (this photo shows both types of barges in action). What impressed us was the sheer quantity of coal being moved in the barges. (Of course, if we were in coal country here we’d see endless train loads of coal moving toward electric plants).


Plastic – Recent news stories have discussed how much plastic is ending up in the ocean. We saw plenty of plastic wrappers, plastic bags, plastic bottles and many other forms of waste in the rivers and beside the roads. However, we also saw efforts to recycle, reuse and repurpose plastic. Most impressive was this use of plastic bottles in a small community library and resource center! Notice the plastic bottle curtain with larger plastic bottles used for small planters. The intent of the librarian was to show the kids how these items could be put to good use and also a creative use to improve the environment.


The river – In Indonesia, if your home is not built on land, you don’t pay taxes, so it’s not uncommon to see entire villages built on the side of the river. Thus, the river is not only used for transport, commerce, deriving precious metals but it’s also home. Here’s a photo of us on the way to the library mentioned above, walking on the “main street” which starts at the end of the road (at the scooter parking lot) and continues in this case for almost 100 yards along the river. Electricity, small stores, even dish tv provide all the normal comforts of home (the library is just out sight at the far end of the photo).


The orangutans – one of the primary reasons we went to Borneo was to see these incredible animal, whose numbers are declining due to loss of habitat, being hunted, disease and other factors. But they have friends who are helping them to learn how to survive and then move them into a national park far in the interior (with no available road or other access to the public). They represent the past and the future of the environment: how much has been lost and yet how much can be gained back (check out It was quite amazing to see these animals living in island preserves on their way to going back into nature (many were formerly pets that people had abandoned). It’s our hope that these resources are carefully managed so that in the future there will still be wonderful experiences to share with future generations!