READING ADVISORY: Rather righteous sounding stuff on the Ngaju Dayak livelihood repertoire and conservationists' limitied view of "alternative livelihood".
The parallels and connections drawn between the environmental history of Southeast Borneo and the contemporary livelihood repertoire of the Ngaju of Baun Bango show that the importance and prevalence of various sources of income and sustenance have continually shifted over time. These shifts occurred – and continue to occur – through people’s interactions with physical and temporal aspects of the environment and the decisions they make in the context of these interactions. The relative ease of physical access to both resources and markets leads people to choose less risky enterprises. Decisions on ‘harvesting’ particular resources from the forests and rivers depend on the seasons as well as on the actual means by which these resources can be reached and transported out to buyers. For example, at the time headhunting was prevalent, rattan was abundant in the forest and there was a demand for it, but it was not considered a worthwhile endeavor. Logging in the 21st century is difficult, physically demanding work but risk is reduced by the fact that the loggers find buyers for their timber before they cut the trees.
People also keep an eye on the demand for particular products, and the rise and fall of prices. They are aware of how local labor can be affected by changes on the global market. The Ngaju of Baun Bango factor these in when deciding to invest time, energy, and capital into a livelihood option at a particular season. As one informant pointed out, “If people continue to buy, we will continue to sell. It’s the same with our other sources of livelihood in the forest. No one buys damar or rubber anymore, so we have stopped gathering damar.”
The fact that there is a wide array of choices available in the environment of the Ngaju of Baun Bango is a key aspect of the livelihood shifts over time. Knapen (2001: 387) argues that in Southeast Borneo people have been “most successful in making a living” in places where many possibilities are found close by, especially where there is more than one fertile ecological zone. For the residents of Baun Bango locally available resources such as the lakes, rivers, tributaries, land, and now trees embody as well as contain the affordances out of which they can build their lives. The ability to perceive and harness diverse affordances in the environment and so to diversify livelihood serve to reduce risk. Therefore, although the Ngaju of Baun Bango tend to be ambivalent about the supposed backwardness of their forms of work, their ways of interacting with the environment definitely carry advantages for them and so they maintain locally-generated rules – some of them traditionally-based – for determining access to resources.
While it appears that this has been taken into consideration in the choice of an alternative that has already proven to be locally viable, the embededness of rattan within a wide, interwoven range of options has been overlooked. Instead, it is being isolated in development plans as the alternative livelihood of the future. Conversely the “typical Dayak way” of working in several livelihood options at once is believed to be counter-productive. However, the point is, taking a deeper and longer view of the element of time shows us that the Ngaju of Baun Bango have always maintained alternative livelihoods. These options have sustained them, and continue to sustain them through economic, political, and ecological instability.