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Finding Eden: A journey into the heart of Borneo by Robin Hanbury-Tenison

24 November 2017

Adam Ford on the life of jungle dwellers and those who seek them

THAT ancient and powerful image from Genesis, of man and woman being driven out of Eden, resonates disturbingly with our experience today. There are few places left on earth for travellers to enjoy nature’s wild garden. Our footprints are everywhere. We are mindlessly expelling ourselves from paradise.

Forty years ago, the explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison led a Royal Geographic Society team on an expedition into Mulu, the remaining jungle of Sarawak, in the heart of Borneo. His concern was for the nomadic Penan, once head-hunters, victims of what he calls “the deforestation holocaust”. International greed, logging, palm-oil plantations, and ill-considered dams are not only wrecking the biodiversity of the planet, but devastating the lives of indigenous peoples.

As founder of Survival International, Hanbury-Tenison has had a lifelong concern for the welfare of tribal communities, and he wrestles with the agonising question: “Are nomadic people better off settled?” (the belief of many patronising and unsympathetic government ministers the world over).

“We are at last beginning to realise”, he writes, “that parks created by evicting their indigenous inhabitants are not the best solution. Tribal people are the best conservationists.”

The main body of the book contains his journals, kept during the 15-month expedition in the form of brief notes jotted down at the end of the day. They give a real and unadorned taste of life in the jungle: septic wounds and swollen ankles; scorpions, leeches, spiders, and venomous snakes; the agonising bites of giant centipedes; and the discomfort of wet sleeping bags. Happiness is in not having a filthy towel.

All this alleviated by the friendship of the nomadic Penan, people who have few possessions and display a contented absence of need.

Hanbury-Tenison has no romantic illusions about life in the jungle, and quotes the anthropologist Margaret Mead: “All primitive peoples lead miserable unhappy cruel lives.” And yet he can also see that there is joy and human wisdom in their existence. Supported by access to education and medication, they have a unique part to play in caring for our fragile planet.

The future may look bleak, but “it is never too late to put things right.”


The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls.


Finding Eden: A journey into the heart of Borneo
Robin Hanbury-Tenison
I. B. Tauris £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

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