Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Slashed and Burned: War, Environment, and Resource Insecurity in West Borneo during the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth centuries./Sur Brulis: Guerre, Environnement et Insecurite Des Ressources Dans L'ouest De Borneo a la Fin Du XIXe Siecle et Du Debut Du XXe

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Slashed and Burned: War, Environment, and Resource Insecurity in West Borneo during the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth centuries./Sur Brulis: Guerre, Environnement et Insecurite Des Ressources Dans L'ouest De Borneo a la Fin Du XIXe Siecle et Du Debut Du XXe

Article excerpt

War and natural environmental conditions are inextricably linked, though scholars have long recognized that the relationship is highly complex and contextual, both multi-directional and multi-dimensional (Simons 1999). One aspect of anthropological research that has contributed to this still-evolving understanding has been the debate over the interrelationship between swidden agriculture (1) and warfare, in which the Iban of northwestern Borneo have played a central, exemplary role. Proposing the first full-blown theory, A.P. Vayda (1961; 1969; 1976) argued for a direct, functional link--that Iban swidden cultivators, through a 'multiphase process' stemming from imbalance in population-land ratios, engaged in headhunting raids to gain access to secondary forest for farming because it was easier to clear than 'virgin' forest (1961: 354). Warfare was thus, 'by virtue of its effects on mortality and the dispersion of populations, one of the mechanisms operating ... to adjust the size of populations to available resources' (1976: 4).

Vayda's hypothesis ran contrary to Derek Freeman's (1970: 276) contention that Iban fought over old growth forest, but Ulla Wagner, in trying to reconcile the two positions, claimed that Iban, though having a professed preference for farming old growth forest (for its supposed higher yields), sought a practical balance and conquered areas with secondary forest 'as a commodity for immediate use' (1972: 126). In his insightful critique of these positions, however, Victor King (1976b) showed that Vayda and Wagner over-simplified and misinterpreted the largely inadequate data, and that much Iban raiding was unrelated to environmental factors in the way posited. For example, Iban headhunting was often across great distances, and Iban raiding continued even when they had already moved into uninhabited or sparsely inhabited 'virgin' areas (1976b: 313). (2) In addition, neither Vayda nor Wagner gave sufficient weight to the cultural values attached to headhunting, such as social prestige and ritual necessity. (3)

Recognizing these problems in earlier ecological analyses, Michael Dove (1983a) shifted perspectives and, drawing on Ibanic Kantu' data, argued that endemic raiding would have placed a premium on farming old growth forest. Because one of the time-consuming tasks men had to perform in periods of unrest was guarding their women during farm work, preferentially farming old growth would reduce this burden by lessening weeding requirements and thus the amount of time women would need to spend being vulnerable in the fields. This was critically important given the coincidence of peak raiding and weeding: men had to either guard their wives and daughters and thus raise the labour costs of weeding, or go raiding to keep from being raided and leave their women vulnerable in the fields. The best option, under conditions of chronic raiding, was to farm old growth forest whenever possible. Conversely, those communities that gained bellicose reputations and thus reduced their risk of being raided were better situated to farm secondary forest.

In this article, I reformulate this debate further by examining the effect of both chronic raiding and European pacification campaigns on Iban swidden cultivation during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I argue that chronic resource instability and insecurity during this period helped to produce the recorded destructiveness of Iban farming, that insecurity itself being a product of often violent pacification tactics. This involves an explicit recognition that both 'tribal' warfare and tropical agriculture are historically contingent phenomena (e.g. Brookfield 2000; Ferguson 1990), with colonialism and its attendant globalizing forces playing significant roles in shaping the forms they took during this turbulent period. Additionally, I examine how European perceptions about Iban farming were also formed at this time, and how their negative opinions towards swiddening, while based on empirical observations (prone as they were to cultural bias), were reinforced by a context that the Europeans themselves created. …

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