Kalimantan’s Warning: The Intertwined Dynamics of Environmental Degradation and Internal Migration

For 150 years, migration has helped drive environmental degradation in Kalimantan. But now, in a cruel, reverse twist of fate, environmental degradation is forcing the people of Kalimantan to migrate. This fate awaits us all unless we can overturn fundamental assumptions about natural resources, nationalism, colonialism, capitalism, and development.

…When I was a kid, around 1985, the government promised not to disturb our ancestral forests and lands because they provided us with food and a living. But then everything seemed to change very quickly…


Iwan, 43, is a native of Central Kalimantan, an Indonesian province on the island of Borneo.[1] The island is a massive 750,000 km2 and one of the richest places in the world in terms of natural resources. The plunder of these resources, especially over the last three decades, is well known, as is the role of environmental degradation in contributing to the climate crisis.  

This is often regarded as a local issue: extractive companies come to Kalimantan and extract resources. What is less understood is how even before this, internal migration has played a crucial role in this dynamic because of its interconnections with forest degradation.[2] The massive and rapid development of new settlements and plantations on the island in recent decades has led to massive and rapid changes in the ecological relationships in the province.  

In Central Kalimantan, such degradation (specifically of forests) is intrinsically linked to Indonesia’s internal migration patterns. For one and a half centuries, migration has helped drive environmental degradation in Kalimantan. Still, in a cruel, reverse twist of fate, environmental degradation is forcing the people of Kalimantan, like Iwan, to migrate.

This article explains how environmental degradation and internal migration are intertwined in Kalimantan, but also goes beyond this to address crucial assumptions which drive both forces. This includes the myth of “free” natural resources, the “nation”, and the ideology of nationalism, the use of “development” as a cudgel to push for extraction, colonialism and the role of international capital, and the use of migration as a policy tool. 

It details how organised forest crime has been linked to deforestation for more than 150 years and how transmigration has driven forest degradation through four periods of Indonesian history—Dutch colonialism, Republican, Orde Baru, and Post-Reformasi. Finally, it explains how the causality between migration and forest degradation has reversed in Kalimantan, threatening not only its population but with dire consequences for us all.

Organised Forest Crime and the Myth of “Free” Resources

Forest degradation has occurred at an alarming rate worldwide since 2010, with a net loss of 4.7 million hectares annually (FAO, 2020), fuelled primarily by land concessions to extractive industries such as the mining, oil palm, and fuel sectors (Gaworecki, 2018). This situation is amplified in (but not limited to) Southeast Asia, where the majority of our developing economies rely on natural resources. According to an EU Science Hub study (2019), by 2050, Southeast Asia’s forests are expected to shrink by about 5.2 million hectares annually because of mining, logging, and other sectors involving land-clearing activities, with consequent impacts on human migration.

As one of the largest economies in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is dealing with both deforestation and mass migration concurrently. Kalimantan’s forest areas—even protected ones—are vulnerable to large-scale deforestation by foreign mega-corporations, primarily from the United States of America and Malaysia, which both have local subsidiaries. These companies have destroyed forests in Central Kalimantan and have been sued numerous times by the Indonesian government, with numerous cases on land clearing brought before the Indonesian Supreme Court. These corporations, along with other companies, have recognised Indonesia’s enormous mineral wealth and have explored nearly all of Indonesia’s islands in a rapacious pursuit of extracting profit.

Their activities can be classified as what van Solinge (2016) describes as organised forest crimes due to their attempts to clear forests for extractive industries without taking into account existing social-ecological aspects. It has a multiplier effect, manifesting in biophysical disturbances (e.g., localised effects of climate change and damage to water sources) as well as social impacts on local communities (e.g., land conflicts, poverty, human displacement, or migration). 

These activities are hugely profitable because they are not properly priced, and governments (legally) gain a large share of the profits through taxes and investments. This model of extraction assumes that natural resources are “free”, simply lying on the earth waiting for someone to gather them up. As has been well documented, the cost of removing these natural resources from the earth and then using them is very expensive. 

This expense is not being paid by governments, companies, and capitalists—which is why it is so profitable for them. The expense, in the form of environmental destruction and the climate crisis, is falling disproportionately upon indigenous peoples and ecosystems. Our planet as a whole is also accruing it.

150 Years of Forest Crime

A transmigrant showing plans of the residential area of his village. Source: Lengga Pradipta.

Indonesia has long been valued for its forests and their products because of specific geographical and demographic factors. From the early 1500s, Europeans began to establish permanent footholds in the region to profit directly from the region’s natural wealth. 

From 1595, the Dutch launched extremely profitable expeditions to access spices directly from the islands, which were then known as the East Indies. Seeking profitable monopolies and safeguarding their trading interests, the Dutch gradually conquered large swatches of the archipelago. Eventually, in 1800, their holdings were formalised into the Dutch East Indies, governed directly by the Dutch crown, and expanded via conquest throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century. 

Exploitation was fundamental to the colony. Due to pay for these expensive conquests, the Cultuurstelsel (“Cultivation System”) was implemented in 1830. This system forced Indonesian farmers to use a minimum of 20% of their farmland for the cultivation of cash crops for export, such as indigo, coffee, and sugar, effectively turning Java into a Dutch plantation run for profit. This system was massively profitable.  

By 1870, about half of the Netherlands’ entire state revenue, around 40 million guilders, came from Java alone.

Naturally, the system was hugely exploitative and disastrous for the local population, with farmers often forced to work well over their quota and grow cash crops instead of food to feed their families. Death, disease, and famine were rife, sending mortality rates up by as much as 30%. The system was finally abolished in 1870. 

But at the same time, the Dutch recognised that the forests were also ripe for exploitation. Dutch traders arriving from the 17th century salivated over the thousands of square kilometres of teak forest. Over the course of the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, Dutch colonial forest exploitation and control over these resources increased. Industrial-scale exploitation began following the 1865 Forest Ordinance, which ushered in private teak logging. 

An 1870 law further declared “unclaimed” forest lands as the domain of the state, probably to the great surprise of the indigenous peoples living in those lands. Due to enforce this, a state-managed agency was established to draw boundaries between forest and agricultural land, and to establish police forces to restrict access to trees. Ownership, usufruct rights, and tenure were frequently location-specific and recognised as such, depending on power dynamics between the colonial state, forestry officials, corporate loggers, and forest residents (Peluso, 1992).

Forest exploitation in Indonesia accelerated in the post-independence period after the government granted more logging concessions in the 1970s (Nawir & Rumboko, 2007). This was just one event in a great chain of causality, but it played a disproportionately significant role in growing the timber industry and expanding the exploitation of forests. By 1972, Indonesia had emerged as a major exporter of tropical hardwood, and competed with Malaysia for global leadership in the sector (Ruzicka, 1978).

A series of panels showing a tree disappearing.
Artwork by Konijn Sate.

Alongside forest exploitation, the colonial government also operationalised the mass relocations of people (Arndt, 1983) with goals of economic growth, poverty alleviation, and expanding opportunities for resource exploitation. Between 1905 and 1940, the “transmigration” programme began with three aims: 

  1. Relocating millions of people from the more densely populated islands such as Java, Bali, and Madura to less densely populated islands (Levang & Sevin, 1989)
  2. Alleviating poverty by providing migrants with land and employment opportunities
  3. Finding other resources in these less densely populated islands

However, only about 200,000 people (out of an approximately 30 million population) were relocated from Java during these 35 years period, thus implying that the actual impact on population density was negligible. 

This policy, now known as Transmigrasi, persisted after the Dutch left. As the first president of the Republic of Indonesia, Sukarno had high hopes for the transmigration programme. Sukarno used transmigration as a political tool. He used it by awarding land in “underdeveloped” regions to his supporters, especially members of the army. 

In 1951, he set a goal of relocating 31 million people in the next 35 years (Prihatin, 2013). However, his ambitious initiative never got off the ground, and he lost power in 1965. 

During the “New Order” era under President Suharto (1966–98), transmigration increased dramatically, and large numbers of people were resettled, mainly to Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Maluku, and West Papua. In the 1980s, massive financial support from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and bilateral donors helped to boost the programme, during which around 3.5 million people were resettled to transmigration sites (Rich, 1994), with massive impacts on local demography. In Kalimantan, around 230,000 families were transported from Java in the early 1980s.

It also gained new political dimensions. In particular, the programme was accused of aiming to control and forcibly assimilate the indigenous population of the so-called “outer islands”. “Outer islands” is a term that historically refers to Indonesia beyond Java and Madura, such as Papua, Aceh, or Kalimantan. It has a strong negative connotation of underdevelopment and underpopulation. Through the import of Javanese and Muslim peoples, a dual process of “Javanisation” and “Islamisation” began. It caused severe conflicts between transmigrants and indigenous peoples—akin to China’s export of Han Chinese into the Tibetan and Uyghur areas of Tibet and Xinjiang for purposes of assimilation and political control.

This programme included infrastructure “development”, with primary forests cleared to build rice fields and new roads to enable the extraction and export of timber, minerals, and other valuable materials. A major unintended consequence was the export of cultivation practices. 

In order to survive, the Javanese migrants brought their agricultural techniques with them, along with their culture and traditions, but these were often unsuited for local conditions and wreaked havoc on the local ecology. For instance, differences in soil types between Java and Sumatra created challenges for irrigation and other agricultural requirements.

Figure 1. A brief history of transmigration in Indonesia.

At this time, the focus shifted to ensuring food security rather than simply alleviating “overpopulation”, with establishing Indonesia as a rice surplus centre becoming a key goal. The Indonesian government tried to transform transmigration destinations such as Sumatra and Kalimantan so that they could be as agriculturally productive as Java. This meant creating rice surplus centres through “rice planting programmes” in these transmigration areas. 

The target was particularly significant and insisted that by 1974, Indonesia was to increase rice production by 50 per cent in just a few short years. However, this goal failed because of a lack of consideration for local ecological and soil conditions.  

Despite transmigration being touted as a crucial population distribution policy instrument for the promotion of public welfare, the programme failed to deliver on its promises (Adhiati & Bobsien, 2001). Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific (2019) found in a recent report that transmigration to the “outer islands”, particularly Kalimantan, triggered conflicts between transmigrants and indigenous people. In contrast to the migrants, the latter claimed that the national government granted them only limited access to land. 

Today, indigenous people still lack adequate infrastructure to support their livelihoods (e.g., roads, health facilities, and schools), and their land ownership status is far from secure; local governments have issued land certificates, but it is still difficult to claim the land (Lai et al., 2021). More than 60% of Kalimantan’s primary rainforests have been cut down due to the transmigration programme, causing indigenous people to lose their homes and food sources to alleviate poverty for landless peasants and homeless people from urban Java. 

It may seem like a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Even though Paul’s debts are unaffected: the violation of indigenous rights and large-scale forest destruction have contributed to environmental degradation in Kalimantan. On the other side, it has barely alleviated population pressure and poverty in Java. Both affected parties agree on one thing, based on their lived experiences: the transmigration programme has only been a political tool to exercise power (Sage, 2015).

Suharto’s New Order government fell in 1998, bringing a reform period under new President B.J. Habibie (1998-99). Although the previous iteration of the transmigration programme was suspended, the post-Reformation establishment continued to embrace some of its aspects through local government programmes instead of direct administration from Jakarta. 

Today, transmigration has been effectively rebranded as part of the decentralisation policy that seeks to reduce Java’s centrality (Kemendesa RI, 2015). As part of this, the Indonesian government constructed new, independent, and integrated cities through the Kota Terpadu Mandiri (KTM) scheme, administered by the Ministry of Village, Development of Disadvantaged Regions and Transmigration. KTM seeks to industrialise entire landscapes by enlisting private and foreign investors in natural resource development, with local governments and the Ministry providing the necessary infrastructure, town-planning expertise, basic services, and state-sponsored migrant labour.

Artwork by Konijn Sate.

In theory, these should develop into self-sufficient townships serving mining districts or pulpwood and palm oil development schemes within 15 years (Jiwan & Colchester, 2020). Locals are to make up at least half of the labour force, with transmigrants filling the remaining positions. The Ministry’s ambitious plans called for establishing 186 such townships on the “outer islands”, with 25,000 families migrating each year (there are currently 48 of them across the archipelago). But what are the implications for local communities? So far, these schemes have received little scrutiny.

However, Adhiati and Bobsien noted in their (2001) report that political considerations also spurred this rebranding. The continuance of the transmigration programme in the face of all its criticism was partly to demonstrate Jakarta‘s commitment to implementing the austerity policy required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in exchange for new loans. 

The first IMF reform package, signed in 1998, forced the Indonesian government to open its doors to further foreign investment in oil palm plantation development. Economic assessments by ADB and the World Bank stressed the economic opportunities for export-oriented agricultural production in cash crops, while downplaying their environmental and social damage. 

According to research carried out by Indonesian NGOs in the early 1990s, ADB-financed schemes have contributed to deforestation, environmental pollution, loss of biodiversity, increased erosion risks, and indigenous people’s displacement. Farmers are left vulnerable to world market commodity prices and face land entitlement problems, corruption and malpractice, and difficulties in paying off their loans.

In response to criticisms of the land conflicts and environmental destruction resulting from transmigration, in 2007, the Indonesian government adopted a procedure requiring target sites to be “clean” (that their development will not cause environmental harm, follow due legal processes in land acquisition, and respect the prior rights of existing residents, including indigenous peoples) and “clear” (that the proposed sites have been clearly surveyed and boundaries have been set) prior to the establishment of new settlements (Potter, 2012). 

Regardless of the fact that these are now ostensibly local-level projects, the establishment of these sites is considered national-interest projects and thus subject to the central state’s power to expropriate land, with the only concession being that they also ostensibly subject to adequate processes in compensating prior rights-holders while also strongly urged the indigenous peoples’ consent be obtained before their lands are used (Permenakertrans, 2007).

Regrettably, the KTM scheme has still caused numerous issues for indigenous people, particularly with regard to the takeover of their lands for settlements and plantations (Barter & Côté, 2015). These consequences include:

  • the denial or non-recognition of native land ownership,
  • the failure to conserve existing forests,
  • land conflicts between migrant settlers and palm oil companies,
  • the scarcity of remaining farmland for basic subsistence,
  • delays in providing promised smallholdings as well as assigning land titles to smallholders, and
  • the weakening of local culture and traditions. 

The new form of transmigration has not been without its advantages. The general populace, including indigenous people, welcomed the resulting road construction, electrification and job creation, even if some of this came at the expense of indigenous people. However, because of the KTM’s mandatory nature, locals have had to surrender their forests and lands, and village heads were pressured into signing authorisation letters against their will (Colchester, 2017). 

The discrimination is all too clear: sponsored migrants from Java are given houses, food rations, and other services in the name of “national development” whereas locals are not given similar benefits, yet are expected to provide their own housing and farming areas, suggesting that the Javanese are part of the “nation” while indigenous people are not. Unsurprisingly, this state of affairs has given rise to a popular perception that settlers’ interests are being prioritised over indigenous ones. Underlying this crisis is a lack of official recognition of indigenous rights, with disastrous consequences for social inequalities.

A land certificate provided by the government, but barely worth the paper it was printed on. Source: Lengga Pradipta.

Nevertheless, even transmigrants who were issued land titles (one example is pictured above) have found their rights violated. The national government has granted investors Hak Guna Usaha (Cultivation Rights) on land for which locals and/or transmigrants already held land titles. These Rights are for an initial 35-year term, but can be extended for another 25 years (Undang Undang Pokok Agraria, 1960).[3] Then, the hierarchy is clear: transmigrants are favoured over indigenous people, but capitalists are favoured over both.

The government and other related sectors have failed to consider socio-cultural tensions, local political instability, and impending environmental disasters in their migration and regional development policy. Moreover, the transmigration and development policies continue to be driven by an unequal alliance between international capital (now expanded beyond foreign governments and companies to include neoliberal organisations like the World Bank) and the Indonesian government, who reap the profits while locals and the environment pay the costs; and from a Java-centric perspective, implicitly prioritising the viewpoint and interests of a Javanese-centric elite. While formal colonialism was over, colonial exploitation of Kalimantan funded by international and domestic capital continued, driven from Jakarta instead of The Hague.

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A Reversal in Causality and a Growing Crisis

From around 2010, a new pattern in migration has emerged that underlines the crisis facing Kalimantan. Before 2010, migration mapping findings tended to show that migration was the driving force behind deforestation because of how it triggered urban-rural migration. Migrants from cities would settle in regions with abundant land resources to alleviate their poverty and transform their livelihoods. To do so, they would exploit forest wealth, leading to forest degradation.

However, post-2010 findings suggest a reversal in causality: that migration now occurs as a result of deforestation. It reveals the extent of the crisis facing places like Kalimantan: the exploitation of its natural resources has reached the point where it can no longer even support its people.

From 2010 to 2020, forest degradation in Kalimantan continued because of the many investments in extractive businesses, such as the mining and palm oil industries. The massive influx of KTM migrants, not only from Java but also from other parts of Indonesia, believed that Kalimantan was a promising area in terms of economic development (Santika et al., 2019). Furthermore, the forthcoming establishment of the new capital city of Nusantara in the province of East Kalimantan will likely significantly contribute to future migration trends.

The conversion of forest lands to alternative means of production, such as agriculture or livestock farming, has resulted in job losses and poverty, especially when industrialisation forces such interventions and the resulting loss of land. Deforestation exacerbates degradation and amplifies climate change, potentially leading to increased flooding, landslides or other disasters that further drive relocation. It has driven indigenous people to relocate in pursuit of more secure lives.

On his initiative but prompted by forest depletion, Iwan relocated internally to another part of Kalimantan. Despite state authorities’ assurances that their ancestral forests and lands would not be disturbed,  Iwan recalls the rapidity of local changes:[4]

… the new establishment of the oil palm industries and also many programmes from the Indonesian government, including KTM, seem to pose the greatest threat to me and my family. In the past five years, we have had difficulties in securing our food, and also flood disasters have become a major problem for everyone in this village. That is why we considered moving to a different area, and I have contacted my extended family in another area [near the Betung Kerihun National Park] to give me another chance, even though I’m not sure what the future will bring, I only knew that I have to leave this village…

Nevertheless, it’s not as simple as indigenous people being forced to migrate due to environmental degradation. It’s also because they are often not considered for local jobs. Migration scholars have noted how certain class and race-based assumptions underpin population mobility and the types of people who make economic contributions (Ananta et al., 2021). Degree-holders who migrate from Sumatra to Kalimantan, for example, are considered “successful individuals” because they can secure positions as permanent staff in oil palm companies. 

For Silmi, an employee of a foreign investment company (PMA) involved in the oil palm plantation business, Kalimantan offered a bright future because it was difficult for him to find a suitable job in his homeland of West Sumatra. He could also send remittances to improve his parents’ economic standing. However, locals such as Iwan are not considered suitable despite already living in the area because they are not as well-educated. 

Numerous factors influence education levels beyond a person’s control. Kalimantan has fewer schools and universities and, thus, fewer educational opportunities. The existing schools are generally more poorly funded and of poorer quality than their counterparts in Java. Furthermore, the relationship between higher levels of pollution—like that produced by mining or extractive industries, or exacerbated by forest degradations—and lower levels of educational development has been well established elsewhere (Zhang, Chen, & Chang, 2018), and there can be little doubt that growing up in a polluted environment will affect the development of children. 

Additionally, perceptions of inferiority become self-reinforcing. Kalimantan would not be the first place where locals are deliberately passed over for jobs, leading to local underdevelopment. It is then taken as a basis for a myth of local inferiority, thereby justifying passing over locals for jobs (Alatas, 1977). This myth then provides an easy justification for companies which are already financially incentivised to hire transmigrants.

So although transmigration creates job opportunities, they are only for those who can seize them. It often excludes the locals, who lack the opportunity to obtain the necessary skills. Corporations that lack social or local accountability have every incentive to hire workers from outside Kalimantan and place them in higher positions, with locals in blue-collar roles.

Kalimantan’s Warning

A new road built on land set aside for transmigration purposes in Kalimantan. Source: Lengga Pradipta.

The underlying point that must be emphasised is that migration, which is predicated upon population mobility and employing the antiquated logic of the transmigration programme, has been frequently used as a short-term coping strategy rather than a proactive adaptation strategy. Not only does it particularly increase the vulnerability of individuals or households lacking economic and social capital, but it also has significant implications for indigenous people. Some of them, like Iwan, is partly displaced by the resultant ecological damage despite their established legal rights. 

The upcoming establishment of the capital city of Nusantara will likely result in a large number of new residents of Kalimantan within years. When the capital is relocated from Jakarta, Kalimantan’s indigenous people will experience significant changes—such as new infrastructure and the need to coexist with new settlers—potentially while still dealing with existing problems. Instead, new issues related to development will likely arise, and the government may allow migrant interests to usurp indigenous land again. Even if the indigenous people have legal titles, the paperwork alone does not guarantee future survival. 

Relocating to a capital city encompasses more than the challenges of changing administrative processes. It also evokes questions about the seat of power and the place for decision-making processes, which in turn affect lives and national futures, especially given its influence on population trends and future developments beyond its borders (Gottmann, 1983). This relocation will particularly impact deforestation in Kalimantan in addition to requiring a substantial amount of resources in terms of effort, time, and money. Vuurst and Escobar (2020) argue that while this relocation will result in significant economic growth, it will also result in environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and conflicts resulting from migration.

Alternatively, it may spur changes in the thinking of the national government, moving it away from the historically Javanese-centric view and becoming more sensitive to indigenous views. Nevertheless, it may also begin a new wave of exploitation of Kalimantan as elites from Java and globally converge on the Indonesian side of the island. What is clear, however, is that fundamental assumptions about development and migration need to be thoroughly interrogated in order to avoid repeating the failed legacy of transmigration in Indonesia.

In particular, as this article has identified, there are five fundamental interlocking assumptions which must be challenged:

“Free” Natural Resources

The actual cost of what is taken from the earth (minerals, oil, wood, etc.) is rarely taken into account in the profits and losses of the business . Lumber companies which cut down forests sometimes try to mitigate this by replacing them with trees. However, trees alone are not forests, which are complex ecosystems and very expensive to rebuild.

Likewise, mining companies take minerals and think they do not need to put anything back. They have paid for the equipment and bought the concession, but they never paid for the production of the minerals themselves (nor could they, since some take millions of years to form), and they will not replace them for future generations. Thus, they are essentially taking what they mine for free. 

The profits from selling lumber and minerals are then pocketed by international capital and governments, while indigenous people and the environment pay the actual costs. What would paying the actual costs of natural resource extraction involve?

The “Nation” and the Ideology of Nationalism

The exploitation/development of Kalimantan has been carried out in the name of “national development”—but who comprises the “nation”?

Historically, the actions in Kalimantan indicate that the interests of the “nation” have been equated primarily with the Dutch and then the Javanese—but only secondarily the people of Kalimantan, if at all. It is not to say that non-Javanese do not benefit from “national” development, but that it prioritises the interest of elites first. While the idea that extraction can benefit the “nation”, and conversely, that anyone who opposes this is against the “nation”, is pervasive throughout the rhetoric arguing for more “development”.

Colonialism and International Capital

Is Indonesia genuinely free to act for the benefit of its people? Indonesia won political independence in 1945, but, as Nkrumah (1969) warned, former colonies continue to be dominated by the demands of international capital. The actions of the elites have been highly influenced, both willingly and unwillingly, by international capital and neoliberal organisations like the IMF, World Bank, and ADB. Their policies have exacerbated environmental degradation, enabling international capital to profit from trapping farmers in debt, all in the name of “development”. The failure of the Indonesian government to stop foreign companies from ravaging Kalimantan, even through multiple lawsuits, suggests that in this area, at least, its government is not truly sovereign.

Development as a Normative Good

Ultimately, who benefits from “development”? 

The idea that economic growth is a moral good is mainly unquestioned, but growth does not benefit people equally. When the forests of Kalimantan are being felled, foreign companies accrue profits through local subsidiaries. Transmigrants also benefit at the expense of locals. “Development” policies have been shaped by political and economic interests rather than multisectoral and inclusive policies that combine evidence-based research, consider people and nature, and involve planning, design and capacity building that focuses on human and ecological benefit rather than financial gain. 

Migration as a Policy Tool

Migration is inevitable and is neither inherently good nor bad. However, as this article has shown, it has far-reaching consequences, especially when incentivised as a tool for economic and political aims. Who migrates, and why, and what is the impact on where they depart from and where they move to? 

In particular, the experience of Kalimantan shows that Indonesia’s transmigration programmes have been deployed as quick and easy solutions with many unintended environmental, social, and political consequences. Worse, they have been influenced by racial, class, and cultural stereotypes to justify the denial of jobs and resources to locals. Rather than spending money to bring in migrants, why not educate and employ the people who are already there?

Artwork by Konijn Sate.

The irony is that transmigration aimed to alleviate urban poverty and density by driving people towards the “underdeveloped” areas of Indonesia, but is now resulting in the exact opposite. Kalimantan is losing the capacity to support its own people. 

For people like Iwan and his family, their ancestral forests are no longer liveable, and they must flee to existing populations to look for work. Over time, as former resource-rich areas like Kalimantan, the Amazon rainforest, and central Africa become degraded and unliveable, the migration of people desperate for work will only increase population density in existing developed areas, putting pressure on ever-scarcer resources. Unless we heed Kalimantan’s warning, we will all suffer.

Immediate Ways Readers can Act

  • Support the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working to mitigate environmental degradation in Kalimantan, including WALHI, Tambuhak Sinta, Pandu Alam Lestari, and Orangutan Indonesia.
  • Contact your political representatives and make your concerns known. Ask them, and other party’s political candidates, what their position is on transmigration and environmental degradation. A General Election in Indonesia is due in 2024 and will be an opportunity to influence the direction of the next President and Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (People’s Representative Council). Find out whether your province, district, or city is an exporter, importer of transmigrants, or a contributor to environmental degradation.
  • Share this article with your friends and family, and discuss your concerns with them.
  • Attend New Naratif’s events to discuss this issue and connect with other people who want to fight for change.

Further Discussion


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Alatas, Syed. (1977). The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th Century and Its Function in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism.Frank Cass & Co. 

Ananta, A., et al. (2021). Migration, Ethnic Diversity, and Economic Growth: Towards an Empirical Understanding of Regional Development in Indonesia. Working Paper No. 66, Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. https://ias.ubd.edu.bn/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/working_paper_series_66.pdf

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Gaworecki, M. (2018). Extractive Industries Threaten a Million Square Kilometers of Intact Tropical Forests Around the Globe. Mongabay. https://news.mongabay.com/2018/07/extractive-industries-threaten-a-million-square-kilometers-of-intact-tropical-forests-around-the-globe/

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Jiwan, N., & Colchester, M. (2020). Transmigration Townships and The Dayak Bekati. Forest Peoples Program. https://www.forestpeoples.org/sites/default/files/documents/Transmigration%20Townships%20v3%20%28002%29.pdf 

Kemendesa RI [Kementerian Desa, Pembangunan Daerah Tertinggal, dan Transmigrasi Republik Indonesia]. (2015). Transmigrasi: Masa Doeloe, Kini dan Harapan Kedepan. http://ditjenpkp2trans.kemendesa.go.id/resources/files/a2e27404a080382134857e7ef4874c6f.pdf

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  1. In Indonesian, the entire island is also called “Kalimantan”. This article uses “Kalimantan” to refer to the Indonesian part of the island occupying around 72% of its area, and which is itself subdivided into five provinces – North, South, East, West, and Central Kalimantan. The island also includes Brunei and two states of Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak.
  2. Interview conducted by phone on September 10, 2022.
  3. Undang Undang Pokok Agraria (Agrarian Law), established in Indonesia since 1960, regulates land management and ownership in Indonesia.
  4. Interview conducted by phone on September 10, 2022.

Kalimantan’s Warning: The Intertwined Dynamics of Environmental Degradation and Internal Migration

Publication Year: 2022

Author Lengga Pradipta

Editor Wailiang Tham, with additional editing by Fadiyah Alaidrus

Illustrator Konijn Sate

Graphic Design Ellena Ekarahendy, Mufqi Hutomo

Funding This article is produced in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll-Stiftung e.V., Grant C12.22_2021

This research report, excluding its illustrations, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/. All illustrations are property of their respective illustrators.

Please cite this report as Pradipta, Lengga. 2022. Kalimantan’s Warning: The Intertwined Dynamics of Environmental Degradation and Internal Migration. New Naratif.

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