Migrants' Practical Reasonings: The Social, Political, and Environmental Determinants of Long-Distance Migrations among the Kayan and Kenyah of the Interior of Borneo

By Eghenter, Cristina | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Migrants' Practical Reasonings: The Social, Political, and Environmental Determinants of Long-Distance Migrations among the Kayan and Kenyah of the Interior of Borneo


Eghenter, Cristina, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


This paper focuses on the decision-making environment of the Kayan and Kenyah migrants who moved out of the interior of Borneo in the period after Indonesia's independence. It uses reconstructions of migration episodes combined with historical sources to describe the environmental, social, political, and psychological determinants of the migrants' decision to migrate and the ways they organized the move. Following Hawthorn's discussion of "practical reasonings" and other works that stress the importance of context for a causal analysis of human actions, the paper argues that any explanation of the decision to migrate needs to consider the contextual scope of the migrants within which they define their possibilities for action. There is also a need to provide a convincing account of why, given the migrants' understanding of the situation, particular courses of action were taken.

From the late 1950s through the early 1980s, more than 7,000 Kayan and Kenyah people left the highlands of the Apo Kayan in the interior of Indonesian Borneo to move to the lowlands of East Kalimantan. They abandoned the lands of their ancestors to resettle in the communities downriver where access to jobs, markets, and government services was more easily available. Migrations were long and difficult journeys by canoe and on foot, involving a large number of people, sometimes an entire village of 800 to 1,000. The migrants defied the rapids and whirlpools of the rivers of the interior, endured floods and marches up and down the mountains, and survived food shortages and diseases along the way before arriving at their destination after several months or years of travel. Their narratives provide important data for analysis -- stories of difficult decisions, regrets, the advantages and disappointments of resettlement, longing for relatives who did not move, and social and economic challenges in the relocated communities.

This paper focuses on the decision-making environment of the Kayan and Kenyah migrants in the period after Indonesia's independence. It uses mainly the reconstructions of migration episodes combined with historical and geographical sources to describe the circumstances of the migrants' decision to migrate and the ways in which they organized the move. By looking at this migration case-study, although limited in size and range, I outline an approach to explaining migrations as situated and mindful practices, activities to be understood in terms of their circumstances and the migrants' considerations of such circumstances. In doing this, I join others who stress the importance of context for a causal analysis of human actions and events (for example, Elster 1989; Griffin 1993; Hechter 1983, 1992; Vayda 1989).

1. Practical Reason and the Explanation of Migration

Since the 1970s, there has been a remarkable increase in literature concerning the phenomenon of migration in Southeast Asia (for example, Reed 1990; Lee 1985; Adem 1982; Padoch 1982; Appell 1985; Abdoellah 1990) as well as internationally (for example, Chang 1981; Du Toit and Safa 1975; Findley 1977; McNeil and Adams 1978; Pooley and Whyte 1991; Tilly 1986; Yans-McLaughlin 1990). The staggering number of people moving and relocating within a nation and across international borders as labour migrants, refugees, "transmigrants" in government-sponsored schemes, urban settlers, and intraregional migrants like the Kayan and Kenyah people has stimulated a heightened interest in investigating the reasons for and consequences of population movements among scholars from a variety of disciplines. This concern has often been combined with an effort to gain a definitive understanding of the mechanisms of migration and derive explanatory models that could be incorporated into social and economic policies influencing migration patterns (Du Toit and Safa 1975; Findley 1977).

From a methodological point of view, most migration studies seem to mm uneasily on a deeply rooted dichotomy between a macro-sociological and a micro-sociological perspective, between opposing modes of explanation that either place emphasis on societal structures and external conditions or privilege human agency and psychological states.

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