Ecological Research

, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp 403–413 | Cite as

Degradation and loss of forest land and land-use changes in Sarawak, East Malaysia: a study of native land use by the Iban

  • Masahiro Ichikawa
Special Feature Sustainability and biodiversity of forest ecosystems: an interdisciplinary approach


Swidden agriculture, commercial logging and plantation development have been considered to be the primary common causes of degradation and loss of tropical rain forests in Southeast Asia. In this paper, I chose a part of northeastern Sarawak, East Malaysia as my case study area to analyze the changes in its land-use characteristics. In the study area, as well as primeval forests, we see that land use began about 100 years ago by a native group called the Iban; commercial logging began in the 1960s, and the development of oil palm plantations began recently. I describe the changes in land use as well as their social and economic causes by referring to aerial photographs, literature surveys, interviews with government officers and the Iban, and observation of land use. My analysis of land use demonstrates that on “state land”, where commercial logging and oil palm plantation development are occurring, large areas of forest have been disturbed in a short period of time. The objective is to benefit economically in response to the social and economic conditions surrounding the study area. On the other hand, in the “Iban territory,” where the Iban practice their land use, land conversion has not occurred on a large scale and in a short period of time, even though the forest has been cut and agricultural fields have been created in response to social and economic conditions as well. They disperse small agricultural fields throughout their forest land. Therefore, the landscape of the “Iban territory” is based on secondary forest, composed of patches of forest in various stages and with several types of agricultural land. Today in Sarawak, monocrop plantations are rapidly expanding and little primeval forest remains. Given these conditions, the land-use practices of natives such as the Iban will be evaluated from the viewpoint of ecosystem and biodiversity conservation. It could play an important role in providing habitats for natural wildlife.


Tropical rain forest Iban Secondary forest Swidden agriculture Commercial logging Oil palm plantation Sarawak 



This paper is the result of Research Project 2–2 at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN). I would like to thank Ms. Josephine Wong (Forestry Department, Sarawak), Dr. Mitsuo Yoshimura (Research Institute for Humanity and Nature), and Ms. Michi Kaga (former graduate student of Kyoto University) for their kind assistance in the acquisition of aerial photographs and the analysis of land-use changes. A portion of the fieldwork and the land-use mapping was funded by the above-mentioned project.


  1. Aummeeruddy Y, Sansonnens B (1994) Shifting from simple to complex agroforestry systems: an example for buffer zone management from Kerinci. Agrofor Syst 28:113–141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Chan B (1998) Concerns of the industry on tree plantations in Sarawak. In: Chan B, Kho PCS, Lee HS (eds) Proceedings of Planted Forests in Sarawak, an International Conference, 16-17 February 1998, Kuching, Sarawak (vi–xii)Google Scholar
  3. Chin SC (1987). Do shifting cultivators deforest? In: Forest resource crisis in the third world, Sahabat Alam Malaysia, PenangGoogle Scholar
  4. Coomes OT, Grimard F, Burt G (2000) Tropical forests and shifting cultivation: secondary forest fallow dynamics among traditional farmers of the Peruvian Amazon. Ecol Econ 32:109–124CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Department of Agriculture, Sarawak (1981) A digest of agricultural statistics, KuchingGoogle Scholar
  6. Department of Agriculture, Sarawak (1991) Agricultural statistics of Sarawak 1990, KuchingGoogle Scholar
  7. Department of Statistics, Malaysia, Sarawak (2004) Yearbook of statistics Sarawak 2002, KuchingGoogle Scholar
  8. Freeman JD (1955) Iban agriculture: a report on the shifting cultivation of hill rice by the Iban of Sarawak. H.M.S.O, LondonGoogle Scholar
  9. Hong E (1987) Native of Sarawak. Institut Masyrakat, Pulau PinangGoogle Scholar
  10. Ichikawa M (2000) Swamp rice cultivation in an Iban Village of Sarawak: planting methods as an adaptation strategy (in Japanese with English summary). Southeast Asian Studies 38(1):74–94Google Scholar
  11. Ichikawa M (2003a) Shifting swamp rice cultivation with broadcasting seeding in Insular Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian Studies 41(2):239–261Google Scholar
  12. Ichikawa M (2003b) Choice of livelihood activities by Iban household members in Sarawak, East Malaysia (in Japanese with English summary). Tropics 12(3):201–219CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Ichikawa M (2003c) One hundred years of land use changes: political, social, and economic influences on an Iban village in the Bakong River basin, Sarawak, East Malaysia. In: Tuck Po L, De Jong W, Abe K (eds) The political ecology of tropical forests in Southeast Asia: historical perspectives. Kyoto University Press, Kyoto, pp 177–199Google Scholar
  14. Ichikawa M (2004) Relationships among secondary forests and resource use and agriculture, as practiced by the Iban of Sarawak, East Malaysia. Tropics 13(4):269–286Google Scholar
  15. Ichikawa M (2005a) Herbicide use in hill swidden agriculture and its background in Sarawak, East Malaysia (in Japanese). Tech Cult Agric (in press)Google Scholar
  16. Ichikawa M (2005b) Inheritance of natural resources and their sustainable use by the Iban of Sarawak, East Malaysia—lands as a common resource among generations. Full paper submitted to the international symposium on Eco–human interactions in tropical forests organized by JASTEGoogle Scholar
  17. Lanly JP (1982) Tropical forest resources. FAO Forestry Paper 30, FAO, RomeGoogle Scholar
  18. Lee HS, Davies JV, LA Frankie JV, Tan S et al (2002) Floristic and structural diversity of mixed dipterocarp forest in Lambir Hills National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia. J Trop For Sci 14:379–400Google Scholar
  19. Padoch C (1982) Migration and its alternatives among the Iban of Sarawak. KITLV, LeidenGoogle Scholar
  20. Primack R, Corlett R (2005) Tropical rain forests. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  21. Pringle R (1970) Rajahs and Rebels: the Iban of Sarawak under brooke rule, 1841–1941. Cornell University Press, IthacaGoogle Scholar
  22. Ross ML (2001) Timber booms and institutional breakdown in Southeast Asia. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  23. Salafsky N (1993) Mammalian use of a buffer zone agroforestry system bordering Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Conserv Biol 7(4):928–933CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Sandin B (1994) Sources of Iban traditional history. The Sarawak Museum Journal 67, special monograph no 7Google Scholar
  25. Walker B, Steffen J (1999) The nature of global changes. In: Walker B, Steffen J, Canadell J, Ingram J (eds) The terrestrial biosphere and global changes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 1–18Google Scholar
  26. Washitani I, Yahara T (1996) An introduction to conservation ecology (in Japanese). Bunichi sogo shuppan, Tokyo Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Ecological Society of Japan 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RINH)KyotoJapan

Personalised recommendations