I’m in Borneo on an expedition to uncover the ancient past of tattooing and the secrets of the last head hunter hand tapped tattooists. While in Borneo I will be staying with the Skrang Iban tribe. The Iban tribe still live deep in the rainforests of Borneo and tattooing is at the heart of their ancient culture. Even the impenetrable jungle cannot protect them from the toxic effects of western culture and this corrosive force combined with the illegal logging industry is destroying a way of life that dates back beyond written record.
We will be spending two weeks in Borneo and travel into the heartland of the Iabn tribe to explore their unique body art and how in infuses their daily lives. My hope is that by living with the Iban we will be able to capture on film the plight of their community and raise awareness of the very real dangers they face.
While the rainforests of Borneo are some of the richest ecosystems on the planet this has not stopped rapid deforestation. Profit drives the destruction of this unique habitat and with the arrival of the chainsaw and bulldozer in the 1950’s the jungle has declined at an accelerating rate decade after decade. There is a lot of money to be made in clearing the rainforest. Trees may be cut down for the lumber trade to feed the desire for luxury hardwoods in developed countries. Once the trees are cut down the jungle never returns to its original state, and without the complex root systems to hold the ground together erosion sets in, further degrading the land. Trees are often cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a lucrative trade and can be found in many cosmetics and foodstuffs. Clearing the forest for palm oil takes away vital habitat for many critically endangered species including the Orangutan. Once the forests are cleared it allows access to previously inhospitable regions allowing hunters in to trap and kill animals, further depleting the ecosystem and disrupting fragile food webs.
The rubber industry is also clearing prime forest to make way for plantations and mineral companies are replacing jungle with mines and quarries adding industrial pollution to the equation. Some of these industries are legal and sanctioned by the Borneo government but many are not and in a country as vast and economically challenged as Borneo it is difficult for the authorities to police those illegally exploiting the rainforest.
Aside from the damage to the environment and the animals that rely on the sanctuary of the jungle there is a huge human cost to the deforestation. The indigenous tribal cultures of Borneo are being displaced and debased by illegal logging. I learnt the art of hand tapped tattooing while living in the jungle with a group of Iban tribes people. The Iban have begun to live an increasingly urban lifestyle with many villagers now having electricity and running water. Their culture has also shifted too and many Iban adopting Catholicism over their traditional shamanic belief system. For many of the Iban the old ways live alongside the new but increasingly young people are leaving the rainforest villages for the towns and cities. This population shift is causing a cultural rift and this is no more apparent than in the Iban tattoo traditions. The hand tapped tattoo masters are struggling to find and retain apprentices. Without a new generation to learn the art, techniques and symbolism of hand tapped tattooing this knowledge will be lost forever, much like the rainforest.
Illegal logging puts further pressure on the Iban. Who would want to live in a village whose tranquillity is spoilt by noise pollution from heavy logging, whose water is poisoned by illegal mining and whose safety is threatened by aggressive unlicensed hunters? No one denies the benefits the Iban have gained from modern life- medicine, education and sanitation are not mixed blessings but the Iban should have the choice and power to decide how they shape their environment and future while also feeling safe from the pressures of career criminals bent on profiting from the destruction of the jungle that has been their home for centuries. During our fourteen days in Borneo I plan to meet with leaders of the Iban tribe and provide them with an outside perspective on illegal logging and see if I can help them in finding solutions to the pressures they face. Iban art and culture has a heritage that dates back to the Stone Age and for it to be lost along with the rainforest that inspired its beauty would be a modern tragedy beyond measure.
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