A Rare Glimpse of Vanishing Rain Forest Cultures

“For hundreds of miles in every direction, a magnificent forest extended over plain and mountain, rock and morass.”—Alfred Russel Wallace

In 1994, inspired by the travels of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace—a contemporary of Charles Darwin and a 19th-century explorer of the Malay Archipelago—photographer James Whitlow Delano traveled to Malaysia to see the landscape he had read about.

He recalls taking a long boat ride up to the town of Kapit where he met an Iban Dayak man. Delano told the man he wanted to see the virgin forest. He recalls the man’s response: “There is none.” The man continued, “You have to go to the Indonesian side because loggers have gotten all the way to the border.”

A couple of years later Delano returned to test the truth of that statement. “I went in on the Malaysian logging roads almost all the way to the border of Indonesia, and he was right,” he says. This deeply troubled Delano, and over 20 years later he returned to document not only the Dayak people of Sarawak, but other equatorial rain forest communities that have been affected by international industry. So far he’s traveled to Malaysia, Suriname, Cameroon, and Ecuador to show the impact industries ranging from logging and oil palm to bauxite mining and infrastructure projects have on the people of the rain forest.

The intricacies of each of these threads—the forests, the people groups, and the industries—and the webs they form are part of an ongoing project called “The Little People: The Equatorial Rainforest Project.” Delano and I spoke over the phone about the story, which continues to evolve.

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BECKY HARLAN: What’s going on in some of these equatorial communities?

JAMES WHITLOW DELANO: I don’t think it is easy to generalize except to say that, along the Equator, just like in the Arctic, there are very few large population centers. Take away Singapore, Quito, Manaus, Kinshasa, etc., and there aren’t many cities. This means that there are fewer people around to watch the practices of corporations there. Out of sight, out of mind. For example, in Ecuador they are drilling for oil inside Yasuni National Park. It begs the question: What exactly is a national park if it does not exclude petroleum drilling? A lot of what I’ve been doing is to tell this story and show people in D.C., Paris, Tokyo, that we affect the people in the rain forest.

BECKY: What was it like returning to Malaysia in 2010 after all those years?

JAMES: It’s not the same as it was 20 years before. Some of the most amazing humans, the Batek Negritos, live on the peninsula in Malaysia. The government would prefer that they live in Kuala Lumpur and have day jobs and salaries, so they’re under pressure as a group. The way they would normally live is to go somewhere for two weeks til the food ran out and then move. They can’t do that anymore. It’s kind of split the community. There are those who want nothing to do with the outside world, and there are those who own cars and motorbikes and work on the oil palm plantations. It’s a divisive force.

BECKY: Your project is called “The Little People: The Equatorial Rainforest Project.” Why did you choose that title?

JAMES: It is a play on the phrase used by European aristocracy to describe the powerless peasantry, “the little people.” In the first Malaysian project I worked on, the Batek and Penan people really are “little” in stature, little in number, and little in the eyes of government. So, I wanted to use it in the title as a commentary on their powerlessness.

As I’ve continued, not all the people I feature are small in stature, but they are little in number and little in the eyes of government (in terms of political power). So, I thought a slightly controversial title might speak to the spirit of the project: the powerful running roughshod over the human and land rights of those less powerful.

BECKY: Your images have a timeless quality. Can you talk a bit about your photographic approach?

JAMES: I shot the project with a Leica m6 with a 35mm lens. My m6 is my new camera, and it’s 27 years old. They are quiet and low-key. Sometimes in places where plain-clothes police have a heavy presence or in areas of conflict or high crime, there is no better camera. My work and photo philosophy, although less evident in the rain forest work than urban work, is deeply influenced by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Gary Winogrand. Black and white felt right; it inherently takes a step back from reality and examines it in a different way, almost paring it down to tones and shadow.

BECKY: What were the communities’ reaction to you as a photographer?

JAMES: Every place is different. In Borneo, you are treated like family. Amazonia is just plain big and it can be hard to get to places; you need a fixer to make contact. Amazonian indigenous peoples can be wary of outsiders, given the constant intrusion into their territory, subjugation, and the negative consequences over the centuries. It’s pretty much the same with the Maroons of Suriname. You are a guest on their land, and uninvited guests would probably not be welcome. In Cameroon, again, an unannounced outsider would likely be regarded in a rain forest locale with suspicion at best. It is all about trust and respecting local customs.

Ninety percent of the people I document very much want their stories told once they know I am not there to exploit their resources. They fear powerful outsiders strong-arming them off their ancestral territory and they have plenty of evidence to support that concern. For example, there seems to be borderline desperation at times to have their story told in Borneo because the state of Sarawak and the national government are bent on development.

BECKY: Can you share a story that illustrates the current predicament of native people in the rain forest?

JAMES: The Iban are the most numerous indigenous people in Sarawak [Malaysia]. Traditionally they live in longhouses which are all wood, raised on posts. I talked to one Iban, and they said, “We can’t afford the wood to build.” And this is a wood-based society from a rain forest, but they can’t afford wood to build their houses. The corporations cut down the rain forest, make money off the wood, and then establish massive oil palm plantations. I sat in another longhouse, and there were power lines going right over it, but they don’t have power. There is a real disconnect. There isn’t trickle down that one might hope for. These are beautiful places with rich heritage and they’re really under threat.

BECKY: What is your driving force in working on this project?

JAMES: To tell the greater story of human rights, of exploitation of the very sensitive rain forest environment that can’t take the stresses that a temperate area can because all of the biomass that’s above ground. It’s like the Arctic—it scars and never comes back. The equatorial rain forests are the lungs of the planet, trapping and holding carbon dioxide while releasing oxygen in their process of respiration. As they are logged, degraded, or clear-cut altogether, so much of the carbon dioxide that would help nourish the forest ecosystem is released into the atmosphere.

When we first exploited North America, it was with mules and a big handsaw, now it’s with helicopters, bulldozers, chainsaws, so the ability to exploit and irreparably damage this environment in a fast manner is far greater today. I feel there’s an urgency.

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See more images of these equatorial rain forest communities on Delano’s website. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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