The poverty of ‘economic growth’

A logging truck transports tropical wood from the Sarawak rainforest [Fiona McAlpine / The Borneo Project]

Peter Metcalf / AL JAZEERA

There is a village in the rainforests of Southeast Asia that I have visited on and off for over 40 years, doing long-term anthropological research. As the decades have ticked by, I have witnessed a process of extraordinary economic growth that has completely reshaped the village.

On the face of it, that might sound like a good thing. After all, we’re told that growth is good. We’re told that more income lifts people out of poverty and improves their lives. This narrative is drilled into us by development institutions like the World Bank, and echoed by media outlets around the world. But what I have witnessed calls this simplistic story into question.

The village is in Sarawak, which is on the Malaysian side of the island of Borneo, the third-largest island in world, larger than France or Texas. When I first visited Sarawak in the 1970s, the Indigenous communities living there had virtually no money, but they lived well. Now they have money, and can barely feed themselves. They have been impoverished even as incomes rise. It is a story of brutal destitution that is completely obscured by the GDP growth statistics.

In the 1970s, Borneo had the most extensive rainforests outside Brazil and central Africa, brimming with life and biodiversity. People who lived in communities in and around the forests had little money, but they controlled their own abundant food supply. They grew their own local varieties of rice, supplemented with game from the surrounding rainforest and fish from the river. They had a balanced diet, and were impressively fit and healthy.

The village I regularly visited comprised about 350 people all living under one roof, in a traditional longhouse that was typical of central Borneo at the time. An open verandah ran along the side of the house facing the river, while the other side consisted of a row of family apartments. Their farms were some hours away by canoe, along small streams that led into the hills. During the season of cutting and planting, and again during the harvest, everyone was busy at the farms and the longhouse was empty. At other times, it was bustling and full of life. There was a powerful sense of shared history and tradition, including elaborate seasonal festivals and feasts. No one went hungry in the longhouse.

Starting in the 1980s, everything changed. Borneo’s forests were destroyed at a rate unprecedented in human history. Ruthless timber barons, fuelled by capital from West Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan, and aided and abetted by crooked politicians who sold off timber licenses to the highest bidder, tore through the forests of Sarawak and stashed their fortunes in luxury apartments in London.

Indigenous communities resisted the destruction of the rainforest, but they were brutally suppressed. In addition to the police and army, the timber companies hired goons to intimidate anyone trying to obstruct the roads. I heard rumours of violence, but very little news got out because the government tightly controlled the access of outsiders, especially foreign journalists. It’s disturbing to think how easily and thoroughly this news blackout worked.

After the forest was cut, something happened that had never happened before: the forest floor dried out. Then it caught fire. The government blamed slash-and-burn agriculturalists, but that was absurd. In all the hundreds of years that this technique had been used in Borneo, the forest had never burned before. Now every year during the dry season from March till October thick clouds of smoke spread downwind as far as Thailand. It is devastating to watch. And the contribution to global warming is incalculable.

What the fires accomplished was that they cleared the land for plantation agriculture. Malaysia and Indonesia between them account for 85 percent of the world’s production of palm oil, which is used in cosmetics and processed foods. The great majority of that product is grown on the ashes of the Borneo rainforest, and the very same companies that did the cutting now own the largest palm oil estates.

With the forests gone and the rivers polluted, the only way for the longhouse people I knew in Sarawak to make a living is by working for meagre wages on the palm oil plantations.

A whole generation of young men had grown accustomed to life in the lumber camps. After the timber was worked out in one area, they moved on with the camps – if given the chance. The ones that weren’t hung around in the longhouse, idle and disoriented. Many went off to the cities on the coast, where they live in squatter settlements and comprise a new lumpen proletariat.

For the longhouse people, food sovereignty and economic independence has been traded for a cash dependency that they cannot now escape. Their resource base has been destroyed, the farming skills of their grandparents are forgotten, and their invaluable stocks of seed rice – every family once had its own unique varieties – have long since been consumed. The longhouse has turned into a labour barracks, built at no expense to the employers.

The astonishing thing is that all this is smugly reported as development, as “growth”, but this glossy narrative hides a much darker reality. The World Bank reports that poverty has been reduced. But rising incomes don’t come anywhere close to compensating for the livelihoods that the longhouse people have lost. Nothing can compensate for the loss of food sovereignty and economic independence, and of course the loss of the rainforest. The whole narrative of poverty reduction is a charade.

All of this makes me wonder about economic development elsewhere. Media outlets love to report how growth in China has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. But the reality is more complex. The sociologist Sarah Swider has described what she calls the “new precariat” of China. Migrants moving into the cities from rural areas have very limited choices. Workers are housed in overcrowded dormitories. They work long hours and have very little contact with the outside world. Others survive as day labourers in informal street markets, and they are powerless against any abuse. Migrant workers have no rights because their legal residence is back in the countryside.

GDP figures tell us nothing about the costs of growth. And, as in Borneo, the real beneficiaries of China’s growth have been the corporations and elites who leech the labour of the new precariat.

Simplistic stories of GDP growth blind us to the extraordinary social and ecological destruction that growth so often entails. We urgently need to abandon this metric and pay attention instead to what is happening in the real world – who is winning and who is losing, what is gained and what is lost. Too much is being destroyed, too fast.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.