Dennis Drabelle is a former contributing editor of Book World who writes frequently on the environment.
In approaching Alex Shoumatoff’s impassioned new book, “The Wasting of Borneo,” don’t overlook its subtitle, “Dispatches From a Vanishing World.” Shoumatoff has taken the occasion to examine his whole crusading career, starting with an elegiac reprise of his childhood — a surprisingly outdoorsy one, given that it took place in Westchester County, about 40 miles north of New York City. That’s because much of the county was still forested in the 1950s, and Shoumatoff and his best friend at the time were allowed to explore it at will. They also had someone to emulate: Shoumatoff’s father, a mainstay of the local Audubon Society who as a young man had gone butterfly hunting in Jamaica.
Six decades later, we find the two old pals about to renew their friendship by visiting Borneo together, a journey that will also be a milestone for Shoumatoff, completing what he calls “my tour of the world’s great rain forests.” In the interim, he’d roamed the wild world, chronicling the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Smithsonian magazines, and in such books as “The Rivers Amazon” (1978) and “In Southern Light: Trekking Through Zaire and the Amazon” (1986).
The world’s third-largest island, Borneo is divided politically; the smaller, northern portion is Malaysian, the remainder Indonesian. On both sides of the border, however, the story is much the same: promiscuous logging of “some of the oldest and most species-rich and spectacular rain forest on Earth” and its replacement by a monoculture of palm trees whose oil is used, Shoumatoff writes, in “cookies, lipstick, dishwashing detergent, margarine, biodiesel, you name it. . . . Forty to 50 percent of household products in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, and England contain palm oil, and 80 percent of the stuff comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s a $40-billion business.”
Before shoving off, Shoumatoff consults experts on how to mingle with the animals and indigenous peoples he is likely to meet. He tunes up his empathy at a South Carolina preserve for wounded or orphaned animals. On an earlier visit, Shoumatoff had bonded with Bubbles, the resident elephant. This time around, Bubbles not only picks her buddy out of a crowd; she “wraps her trunk around me and pulls me to her breast and raises her right foot for me to rest on.” In an epic humblebrag, Shoumatoff notes that the Dalai Lama “didn’t remember me when I went to see him again several years after a two-hour private audience with him in 1990 . . . but Bubbles did, right away, and I was with seventy other people.”
This isn’t the only time in “The Wasting of Borneo” that Shoumatoff is a bit full of himself, but thanks to his obvious gusto for his work and causes, he can get away with it. Also, his wide knowledge, based on years of globetrotting and reporting, enables him to make comparisons that others might miss. For example, colossal as the loss of Amazonian rain forests has been, Shoumatoff argues that in a way, the lesser-known plundering of Borneo is worse, with a deforestation rate “unparalleled in human history.”
One of Shoumatoff’s objectives in Borneo is to spend time with Birute Galdikas, an authority on orangutans (and recently featured in a PBS “Nature” series about studying wild animals by infiltrating their habitats with camera-toting robots that look and move just like them). Shoumatoff’s most fascinating encounters, however, are with the indigenous people being stripped of their hunting and gathering grounds as forests are felled and rivers are dammed. Many groups have had no choice but to adopt Western ways, and it’s not uncommon to come upon a longhouse where, two generations after headhunting was last practiced, the inhabitants gather at night around a communal TV set.
Seeking out elders who are still conversant with their groups’ mythology, Shoumatoff places high value on origin stories. Among many recounted in the book, one stands out for its simplicity and beauty. The story, which comes from the Penan, who live near Malaysia’s Mulu National Park, concerns the tajem tree, source of the poison in which darts are dipped before being inserted into blowguns:
“According to legend, Tajem was an extremely beautiful and clever woman. Many men fell in love with her. She felt pity for all of them, and thought that if she became close to one of them it would not be fair to the others, so she decided to become something useful for all of them and transformed herself into the tree whose blood they could use for hunting.” Such tales contribute to a human cultural diversity that falls victim to indiscriminate logging and river-tampering as surely as biological diversity does.
Though by no means a cheerful book, “The Wasting of Borneo” ends on a moderately encouraging note. Local and international nonprofits appear to be making headway with the Malaysian and Indonesian governments (which can grant or deny permits for disruptive projects), and some of the families who have reaped immense profits from deforestation are now facing charges of illegal money laundering. Shoumatoff urges that “it’s time to do our part at the consumer end. . . . An alternative to palm oil must be found so this holocaust ends.”
For readers willing to do their part immediately, this reviewer has checked the household larder and found one kind of cookie that does not contain palm oil: Fig Newtons.
By Alex Shoumatoff
Beacon. 184 pp. $26.95