NOAH JACKSON embarks on a project to conserve the rainforest using his skills in photography and writing. Read his personal account of the story so far.
Written by Noah Jackson on 13 Dec 2007
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Borneo is a maze of river networks that act as highways for wildlife and people. Borneo is un-ending tropical
forest; the last holdout of our notions of wild jungle, primary forest. Known for wildness, home of former
headhunters, the mysterious white rhino, and now, perhaps by a march of plantation lands, sources of tropical
timber logs, plywood, and pulp causing rivers muddied with hope and confusion: Borneo is a river in itself.
Borneo has always been in my dreams; at the fringes of my understanding of geography, development and place
for as long as I remember. Most of us know it from photography books showing forest broken by rivers and some logging roads. Or perhaps you've heard of the Penan and their plight, forest disappearances, and the
struggle of a state government on the brink of industrial development.
Reality is in between these spaces. In Kuala Lumpur, I sat in frigid air conditioned offices, looking at the skyline of both smog and forest fringes, explaining that I had come to
photograph and write of this disconnection, the hope, and this change. I break down the process of explaining my work this way: I will travel to the last intact forests, areas of mostly primary forest where
there are still people working within and proximate to forest areas. I need to show how people are still living in these areas, how people claim land, share resources, harvest forest products and build lives
around resources they trust and know. I will show some hope for the future of all forests this way.
I will live in these places. I will work in the forest with individuals I meet and those whom I'm directed to. These forest experts that I seek out will become the subject of my images, my
stories, and the text of my book. To fill in the gaps, and some aspects of the story that I will miss, I will give out cameras to others whom I meet. They will document some of their successes and challenges
of living within the forest. The images from this work will fit into my book and the people will own them.
Often, people who I tell this to me stare back at me over a horizon of a tropical hardwood desk. "That is not possible," I'm told. Sometimes it's because of politics but mostly it's
because people believe that the forest is just too far, too fragmented, too gone.
"Look," a friend from a travel-adventure company told me, "your friend from National Geographic comes and he has an unlimited
budget, renting helicopters and landrovers. To get upriver you will
need to go far, very far, you will spend $500, $800 on petrol for one
trip. You will never make it."
And then there are those who are inspired about what I'm doing. I will now speak of those people. They are from grassroots NGOs, they are artists and activists, they are people who still have hope for forests. They are some of the people who have invited me on their journeys, upriver and inward, into the forest and into the soul of what I want to explore. As I move from a fragmented forest edge, the
river, light, and people will become clearer.
Let me speak of the forest. The forest is fragmented in Borneo, and for Southeast Asia it's the last holdout of the
timber industry and also people that make it home by living off forest resources. Roads circuit the coast of Borneo, and into the interior to an extent, giving way to logging roads and clearcuts and some
industrial forestry, notably rubber and palm plantations. The remaining forest is primary and recovering secondary forest.
Let me describe how this place is changing me. I've spent some time visiting some of these patches that remain on the coast in between meetings in the past weeks. We've taken buses to
them and followed some of the forest fruits to market. Searching for proboscis monkeys we balanced packs on logs and swam across rivers to find a
campsite. Searching for said campsite we sampled at least one poisonous vine that caused my wrist to burn most of one night in the tent. Lately, I've worked with swiftlet nest gatherers to understand
issues related to cave conservation and forest product markets. Forays into these caves have taken me through layers of bat guano and required clinging to bamboo and ironwood ladders to get to remote collectors
outposts on the sides of cliffs. And finally, one morning, in a sanctuary for orangutans confiscated from the pet trade, I came face to face with a 200
pound, 27 year old male. He stared down into my eyes; I looked up and saw part the forest canopy. A park ranger, far down the narrow path motioned for me to quickly move out of the way. I was transfixed. I
did not move. I could not. For a moment I had found the forest.
In my writing and photography, I'm trying to reach that destination of understanding that happens at the edges of forests and along the
journey. These are places of the orangutan's eyes, places logged over and recovering, places not on maps, places where the forest meets the rest of
the world. Finding these places, getting there, and having the patience of understanding, getting past the barrier of language and learning to have the courage to see takes all I have. In the course of the
next months, I hope to find these edges. In the process of making images and writing I'll do a lot of experimenting. These letters will provide a window into this evolving process.
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This article is part of our Seed Grants series.
In our continuing effort to give back - we set up Wild Asia's Seed Grants, small grants given directly to researchers, activists, and communities working around Asia in eco and environmental causes. Read on to see what work has been done by these inspiring conservationists.