Interview with the Borneo Project’s Founder Joe Lamb

Joe Lamb, founder of the Borneo Project, is a writer, activist, and arborist living in Berkeley, California. His poetry and essays have appeared in Earth Island Journal, The Sun, Caliban, Wind, and other magazines.

Joe Lamb with director of the Borneo Project, Brihannala Morgan. Photo courtesy of the Borneo Project.

Joe Lamb with director of the Borneo Project, Brihannala Morgan. Photo courtesy of the Borneo Project.

Joe has degrees in biology, ecology, and film. He has taught biology and ecology in the United States and in Mexico. He worked as a field organizer on the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign and as a film distributor for The Video Project.  In 1991, under the auspices of Earth Island Institute, Joe founded the Borneo Project, a nonprofit that helps the indigenous peoples of Borneo secure land rights and protect their forest. Honored by the Goldman Foundation as an “environmental hero,” Joe was featured in the San Francisco public television program, “Green Means.”  For over 20 years the Borneo Project has helped indigenous peoples map their lands, bring their case to the court of public opinion, and press for the preservation of their forests through legal action. Learn more about the Borneo Project at

Joe Lamb will be attending and presenting work at the Third Annual New York Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City on February 1st 2013 (Series 3).  The festival runs from January 30th to February 2nd.  He will be showing the film Mapping Their Future and discussing indigenous rights issues in Borneo as well as holding a Q & A following the Southeast Asia film series.  Mapping Their Future, produced by Chris Franklin, explores the remarkable collaboration between indigenous peoples and a group of dedicated volunteers, both committed to keep Bornean forest standing and to protect their ancestral way of life.  In the 80’s and 90’s more timber was removed from Borneo than from all of Africa and South America combined. This tragic loss of habitat, with its attendant loss of wildlife, has gone largely unrecognized in the United States. In 1991, the Borneo Project was founded to draw attention to the forgotten rainforest, and to help the indigenous peoples who have been fighting to keep their forest home.

Joe Lamb allowed Wildlife Conservation Film Festivals to sit down with him and ask him about the Borneo Project, indigenous rights and deforestation issues in Borneo, and much more.


Allison Hanes: What brought you to Borneo? What is special about this region and why is it important to you? Can you tell us how you came to found The Borneo Project?

Joe Lamb: I have a deeply held belief that preserving the rainforest is a moral necessity and that future generations will hold us accountable for all the species driven extinct on our watch. The mass extinction caused by humans that is currently underway is a crime against nature. It is also a crime against the future of humanity. Borneo ranks among the most species-rich places on the planet; yet the destruction of its forests has gone largely unnoticed in the United States. Lisa Curran observed that more timber came out of Borneo in the 80’s and 90’s than out of all of Africa and South America combined, yet Borneo remains off the radar of most people, including many environmentalists.

Logging camp in Borneo. Photo courtesy of Joe Lamb.

Logging camp in Borneo. Photo courtesy of Joe Lamb.

I created the Borneo Project to draw attention to the forgotten rainforest. It began as a citizen diplomacy project, drawing inspiration, in part, from the citizen to citizen peace work that, according to documents since unearthed in the Soviet archives, proved instrumental in ending the Cold War.

I went to Borneo with a friend, met with Friends of the Earth Malaysia, and then travelled up-river to the village of Uma Bawang to propose that Berkeley and Uma Bawang become sister cities. I had the backing of Loni Hancock, the Mayor of Berkeley at the time, and then-Berkeley City Council member Nancy Skinner. Villagers from Uma Bawang were, at great personal risk, blockading the logging roads illegally constructed on their land. Many of the villagers were thrown in jail, and the village endured significant hardship. A couple of decades ago the government of Malaysia tried to repress the indigenous rights movement by restricting the flow of information. They placed Harrison Ngau, a spokesman for indigenous rights and the first Goldman Award winner from Asia, under house arrest; they confiscated the passport from Jok Jau Evong, the leader of the Uma Bawang Residents Association, to prevent him from attending the UN Conference celebrating the Year of Indigenous Peoples; and they restricted travel by foreigners into areas where longhouses were protesting against logging. We travelled up-river by pretending to be tourists headed to Gulung Mulu, a national park, but went instead to Uma Bawang.

The sister city relationship was created to publicize the blockades, to give the indigenous rights movement political cover, and to provide ongoing moral support. Berkeley has a tradition of forming sister cities to advance the common good. An earlier sister city association between Berkeley and a township in apartheid South Africa prevented that township from being bulldozed.

The villagers in Uma Bawang loved the idea; we celebrated by drinking way too much borak and dancing the hornbill and warrior dances until three in the morning.  Final approval from the Berkeley City Council for the sister city was not given the exuberant response it enjoyed in Borneo. Support was strong enough to pass, but not universal. One dissenting council member unfolded a National Geographic map of Borneo, held it up for the audience, and said that he couldn’t find Uma Bawang on the map; his implication being that Uma Bawang’s absence on the map made it unworthy to be a sister community with Berkeley. Buried in the unconscious assumptions underneath his observation is an all-too-common belief that indigenous peoples, people who are not “on our maps”, who are out of our frames of references, people who come from oral traditions, are somehow inferior to people who make maps and write laws. Unfortunately, this belief has a long and tragic history. For the 300 million indigenous peoples alive today, what is even more unfortunate is that racism against indigenous peoples is still so common.

It wasn’t long before the project grew beyond its origin as a sister city. It attracted volunteers with expertise in South Asia, some of who, ironically, had expertise in community based mapping. You want maps? We’ll give you maps. If the developed world only respects people who are on the map, we’d help teach indigenous peoples how to make their own maps. Organized largely by Martha Belcher, and using the mapping expertise of Dan Scollon and Judith Mayer, a delegation of volunteers from the project returned to Uma Bawang and hosted a two week training teaching villagers from many long houses, and some nomadic Penan, how to map their ancestral lands. The Borneo Project has grown from those two roots: citizen diplomacy and community mapping.

Indigenous peoples mapping their ancestral lands. Photo courtesy of the Borneo Project.

Indigenous peoples mapping their ancestral lands. Photo courtesy of the Borneo Project.

Allison Hanes: Do you have any interesting stories about your time in Borneo?

Joe Lamb: Eight years ago I returned to our sister city with my wife, Anna, and my two-year-old daughter, Carson. The village insisted that Anna and I get remarried Kayan style, so we had a two-pig wedding complete with a ritualistic house made from black tobacco rolled in leaves. Carson survived the mosquitos, loved riding in long boats, and developed a taste for stewed python. Showing her the reforestation project gave me great satisfaction.

Two-pig wedding at Uma Bawang Keluan 2004. Photo courtesy of Joe Lamb.

Two-pig wedding at Uma Bawang Keluan 2004. Photo courtesy of Joe Lamb.

The morning after our big wedding bash we got up before dawn, eight of us piled into a pickup, and bounced and slid our way down logging roads to the Baram River for a rendezvous with a long boat to take us downstream to Long Lama. Trouble was that the long boat driver had been at the party, too. The rendezvous spot was in a logging camp where they staged timber to be towed away in giant rafts. With no long boat in site, we were stuck in a clear cut where the only shade was the veranda of the loggers’ shack. Our guides, exhausted from a night of partying, were not shy about making themselves comfortable on the loggers’ porch, and were soon asleep. I, however, was somewhat nervous about invading the loggers territory; they were, after all, loggers and I was a foreigner and an environmentalist. Carson, being too young to care about categories like logger and environmentalist, soon discovered the kids in the logging camp and came back with new friends holding a newborn puppy. Carson provided an entry into the loggers’ world, and those categories seemed quite beside the point. Stories trump categories, and everybody had a story. Luckily for us, Jessica Lawrence, who was then ED of the Borneo Project and traveling with us, speaks fluent Bahasa. The loggers came from Indonesia, probably illegally, to Malaysia because they couldn’t find work at home. It’s an old story, one you can hear many places on the planet, but you hear it differently when it’s 100º, and your sitting with your two-year-old daughter, grateful for the puppy in her lap, and grateful for the shade.

Carson Lamb as eco diplomat at Uma Bawang Keluan 2004. Photo courtesy of Joe Lamb.

Carson Lamb as eco diplomat at Uma Bawang Keluan 2004. Photo courtesy of Joe Lamb.

Allison Hanes: What are the films you are presenting at NYWCFF?  Can you tell us a little bit about them?

Joe Lamb: Mapping Their Future is a 22 minute film about indigenous peoples in Borneo learning how to map their ancestral lands in order to protect them from logging and from oil palm plantations.

Indigenous mapping project in Borneo. Photo courtesy of the Borneo Project.

Indigenous mapping project in Borneo. Photo courtesy of the Borneo Project.

Allison Hanes: Is this the debut?

Joe Lamb: The film was made in 2003. This will be its East Coast premiere.

Allison Hanes: Why did you choose this film? What does it mean to you?

Joe Lamb: I chose this film because wildlife conservation and the rights of indigenous peoples are intimately linked.  Recent scientific studies, including the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, shows that one of the best ways to protect habitat, and therefore protect wildlife, is to leave wild lands under the protection of its indigenous peoples.

Allison Hanes: What impact do you hope these films will have in Borneo and globally?

Joe Lamb: We live in a unique time, not just in human history, but in the geologic history of the planet. Many scientists now proclaim the dawning of a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, the age of humans. For the first time in the history of the Earth, the actions of human beings are shaping the physical and biological reality of the planet. Problem is, we may not be up to the task. Climate change is the most obvious example of our shortcomings; but the acidification of the oceans, and the massive increase in species extinctions are also evidence that we were probably better off when nature was in charge of the environment. Civilization, after all, evolved in the Holocene, when the temperature of the air, the acidity of the oceans, and the distribution and abundance of animals was largely controlled by nature. From a Darwinian perspective, humans have done remarkably well for themselves; there are now seven billion of us, and we have muddled our way from caves, to wattle and dab, to megalopoli. But now our material success threatens the life support systems of the planet itself.

My hope is that these films help spark a great awakening in human consciousness, similar to what happened when we ended slavery, or when women demanded the right to vote, and that we accept our moral responsibility to protect the other species on the planet. I know that sounds a little grandiose, but that belief comes from a movement I participated in 30 years ago, The Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. Back then the greatest threat to life on Earth was the very real possibility of nuclear war. In the 1980’s a global movement emerged to limit, and later eliminate, nuclear weapons. One of the tools of the Freeze Campaign was a rather clunky film called The Last Epidemic, made by my friend Ian Thierman. Using found footage and interviews, it catalogued what would happen if a nuclear bomb exploded over San Francisco.

The Last Epidemic went the 1980’s equivalent of viral: shown in schools and churches around the country, and on the floor of the Senate. It helped spark a massive movement to prevent nuclear war. When the Soviet Union fell, and they opened the Soviet archives to foreign academics, it was discovered that the soft landing to the Cold War came about, not because of Reagan’s military buildup, as is often cited as the cause, but because the peace movement pushed Reagan to abandon his militaristic stance and helped Gorbachev convince wary generals that peace was possible. Films, combined with activism, can spark social change.

My hope is that securing human rights for indigenous peoples is recognized as a necessary and critical part of the struggle to preserve wildlife.

Allison Hanes: How powerful or influential do you think social media/internet, television and film are to global biodiversity conservation? How have you seen media, and especially digital media, impact conservation biology over your career?

Joe Lamb: Media, and social media, are critical to biodiversity conservation. Much of the impulse to preserve our fellow creatures comes from what Professor E. O. Wilson calls “biophilia,” the innate love of the other creatures. Media of animals in their natural habitat allows people to form psychological relationships with those creatures, to see them as the distant relatives that they are. At my umbrella organization, Earth Island Institute, the film, “Free Willy,” has had a dramatic impact on the conservation of marine mammals, as has “The Cove.” In my opinion, National Geographic deserves great kudos for bringing the lives of wild creatures into the homes of people around the world. Hard not to fall in love with polar bear cubs, or penguins, or most creatures when you see them up close and personal.

Allison Hanes: How important do you see community-based conservation playing into wildlife conservation? Do you see a future for public engagement via community involvement, local economic drivers, “Ecotourism,” etc?

Joe Lamb: Given that there are 300 million indigenous people on the planet today, and roughly 1 billion rural poor, we have no choice but to make community-based conservation a central part of wildlife conservation. Increasing climate change will stress land-based peoples, and if we fail to help them manage and restore their lands, wildlife will suffer. It’s a huge task, but one we can’t avoid. Because of climate change and ocean acidification, the whole world is getting a crash course in bio-geochemical cycles that we didn’t sign up for. We also need a crash course in indigenous cultures. There is a lot out there that the developed world, or what Doug Tompkins calls the “overdeveloped world,” needs to learn from indigenous peoples.

Allison Hanes: What specific conservation/ environmental issues do you think most urgently need our attention? What issues are closest to your heart?  

Joe Lamb: I believe we need to set fundamental goals. All projects should be judged by whether they protect species diversity, respect the human rights of all peoples, and do not threaten the life sustaining systems on which all life depends.

Allison Hanes: What scientists and conservationists have been inspirational for you? Are you aware of any particular work happening now that is especially inspiring to you?

Joe Lamb: Adrian Banie Lasimbang, Baru Bian, Harrison Ngau and many other indigenous rights activists in Borneo are high on my list. Elinor Ostrom, Rhett Butler, E.O. Wilson, Jose Fragoso, David Brower, William Laurance. Rachel Carson (my daughter, who was born on Earth Day, was named in her honor), Alfred Wallace, Bill McKibben, Niko Tinbergen, Nancy Peluso, James Hansen, John Harte, Charles Darwin, Giordano Bruno, Jane Goodall, Marc Bekoff, and I could keep going.

I draw great inspiration from because they have a movement that transcends the traditional boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, and religion to find a common unifying goal in protecting the climate.

I also draw inspiration from Rhett Butler’s work at Mongabay because he provides clear, insightful, and engaging reporting about critical issues that get little attention.

Idle no more. I continually draw inspiration from the many indigenous organizations around the world that work to protect their lands.

Cynthia Ong’s work at LEAP Spiral, helped stop the construction of a coal fired power on the Sabah coastline: very inspirational.

I love the International Tree Foundation’s use of strategic plantings to alleviate poverty and mitigate climate change.

Allison Hanes: How do you feel wildlife documentaries and film made more accessible to the public can affect wildlife conservation? Where would you like to see this festival progressing in order to best support conservation of biodiversity over the next decade?

Joe Lamb: Putting them on the web and providing links to high school teachers around the world could spread the word. Hold the festival in countries where you want to highlight conservation struggles.

Allison Hanes: What achievements of The Borneo Project are you most proud of?

Joe Lamb: That the mapping took off, and the people in Borneo were soon teaching each other. The measure of its success was that longhouses used maps they made themselves to stave off monoculture plantations and illegal logging. I’m also proud that we are still alive and kicking at 21 years old.

Indigenous mapping workshop in Borneo. Photo courtesy of Joe Lamb.

Indigenous mapping workshop in Borneo. Photo courtesy of Joe Lamb.

Allison Hanes: What do you envision for The Borneo Project over the next decade?

Joe Lamb: Over the next decade the Borneo Project will work on educating Americans about the human rights struggle of indigenous peoples and on finding new ways to help indigenous peoples protect their forests against oil palm plantations, coal mines, and mega dams.

Allison Hanes: Do you have specific goals at the moment professionally and personally? What’s next on your agenda?

Joe Lamb: Educating Americans about SCORE, the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy, a plan that includes coal mining and the construction of many mega dams which, if built, will destroy many acres of rainforest and displace thousands of indigenous people.

Allison Hanes: Would you like to add anything to this interview? Do you have any final comments you would like to share?

Joe Lamb: The next 20 years could well determine the fate of the climate. Yes we can stop anthropogenic climate change, and yes we can stop the human caused extinction of other life forms. These goals transcend the yes-we-can category; they belong in the category of Yes-We-Must.

Lord of the Ants

“The world’s species are not spread out evenly, about 50% live in 2-3% of the earth’s surface.”

Every so often a giant emerges on the stage of science, someone who transcends the narrow boundaries of a particular line of research and alters our perspective on the world. E.O. Wilson is such a man.

Ant expert E.O. Wilson has spent his career studying tiny creatures. Yet what sets him apart is his ability to step back and see the grand scheme of things. Newly appointed to Harvard, Wilson ignores charges by molecular biologists that his work with ants is mere “stamp-collecting.” He goes on to discover ants’ extraordinary means of communication, which opens up whole new areas of study.

Wilson realizes that the chemicals governing an ant’s behavior must have a genetic basis. Does this hold true for other animals, including humans? His answer, the 1975 book Sociobiology, unleashes a firestorm of controversy. As the controversy slowly dies down, Wilson turns his attention to a new crisis: the ongoing loss of biodiversity. In the Florida Keys, he undertakes a groundbreaking experiment that provides data critical to the new field of conservation biology.

After his sixth decade at Harvard, Wilson launches his Encyclopedia of Life and continues writing books and actively campaigning to protect what’s left of the world’s endangered ecosystems.

Third Annual New York Wildlife Conservation Film Festival