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Three recent conferences on Borneo

Bernard Sellato

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1Three conferences on Borneo took place in 2000, two with a narrow focus, respectively on historical linguistics and on environmental history, and the third with a much larger scope, encompassing the social, biological, and medical sciences.

Borneo as the Homeland of Malay, Kuala Lumpur, 10-11 April 2000

2In April 2000, the Institute of the Malay World and Civilization (ATMA, Institut Alam dan Tamadun Melayu) of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and ATMA’s director, Professor Shamsul Amri ­Baharuddin, organized in Bangi, Kuala Lumpur, a colloquium entitled Borneo as the Homeland of Malay: The Implications for Research, to discuss the hypothesis put forth in the early 1980s by historical linguists that western Borneo is the prehistoric homeland of the Malay language and its closest (Malayic) relatives.

3This colloquium, convened by Dr Awang Sariyan of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Malaysia’s Language Planning Bureau) and Professor James T. Collins of ATMA, constitutes a follow-up to an earlier international workshop organized in 1986 by the same two scholars and entitled The Reconstruction and Branches of Proto-Malay. Since 1986, several individual scholars, pursuing the matter, gathered further evidence from the field and, since 1995, UKM thoroughly committed itself to testing the hypothesis through field research in Kalimantan. So, Y2K appeared like the ripe time to take stock of the progress accomplished since 1986 and draw lessons from it.

4Of the four main speakers of the 2000 colloquium, three were linguists and specialists on Austronesian languages – K.A. Adelaar (University of Melbourne), R.A. Blust (University of Hawai’i), and B. Nothofer (Frankfurt University) – and had been present at the 1986 workshop to urge for the establishment of a research agenda. The fourth speaker was P. Bellwood (Australian National University), a prominent archaeologist and author of Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago.

5Peter Bellwood opened the first-day sessions with a paper entitled “Aslian, Austronesian, Malayic: Suggestions from the archaeological record,” providing the archaeological underpinnings of the Borneo homeland hypothesis. Then, Sander Adelaar delivered “Borneo as the Homeland of the Malay language: Fifteen years down the road,” an overview of the available comparative linguistic arguments. On the second day, Bernd Nothofer, with “Observations on phenomena shared by West ­Borneo Malayic languages and Sasak and Madurese,” examined the connections between Malayic and the Javanic languages spoken on islands south of Borneo, and Bob Blust discussed “Three themes: 1) Malay history begins in Sumatra, but Malay ­prehistory begins in Borneo; 2) The Malayo-Chamic expansion; 3) Patterns of diversity and language extinction.” Finally, Peter Bellwood presented a summation of the four panel sessions.

6Although, as it appears, there is at this point no definitive evidence for a Borneo homeland of Malay, the hypothesis comes out stronger than ever from this colloquium. More research is needed, of course, in both the linguistic and archaeological fields –West Kalimantan remains a terra incognita to prehistorians – and a comprehensive ATMA research project is to be drafted soon, hopefully to include other disciplines beside linguistics and archaeology. The papers of the colloquium will be published very soon. Let us hope that we will not have to wait another fifteen years before another such meeting is convened. For information: <>.

Environmental change in native and colonial histories of Borneo, Leiden, The Netherlands, 10-11 August 2000

7During the last decades of the 20th century, Borneo and its peoples have faced many critical environmental challenges: controversial transmigration schemes, oil palm plantation development, continued logging and mining, and devastating forest fires. This conference set out to look at environmental change in Borneo, through the native, colonial, and national lenses.

8The colloquium, convened by Reed L. Wadley, was an IIAS seminar, sponsored by the Leiden University Fund (LUF), the Royal Netherlands Academy for Scientific Research (KNAW), and the Borneo Research Council, and brought together a group of about thirty participants. Fourteen papers were delivered by scholars from various countries, far and near (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, USA, Australia, and India). Peter Nas (IIAS) opened the conference, and general comments were extended by Freek Colombijn (IIAS) and Peter Boomgaard (KITLV).

9With a deliberate historical perspective and a focus on the histories of interactions between society and the natural environment, the speakers – a majority of anthropologists, but also scholars of other disciplines and fields of study (geography, history, ecology, forestry, medicine, linguistics, and development) – examined such topics as the past and current trade patterns, conservation, extraction and extractivism, land tenure, land rights, health and disease, the varying representations of the natural environment, social change, and economic development.

10Lively, informal discussions – more time was apportioned to discussion than to presentations – revolved, as was expected, around resources in the island’s tropical environment – from land to wild forest products, via rice farming and cash crops plantation – and the questions of access to resources and of the customary and national regulations and policies controlling access. The discussions’ undeviating historical perspective led to sustained emphasis on transitions and ongoing processes, and Borneo’s geographically central position in Southeast Asia, as well as its environmentally crucial importance, also allowed discussions to take stock of the papers with a broader regional scope.

11The papers are being edited by Reed Wadley into a book entitled Histories of the Borneo Environment: Economic, Political, and Social Dimensions of Transformation. For information: <>.

Borneo 2000. The Sixth Biennial International Conference of the Borneo Research Council, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia, 10-14 July 2000

12For the second time, The Biennial International Conference of the Borneo Research Council took place in Kuching – previous conferences had been held in Kuching (1990), Kota Kinabalu (Sabah, 1992), Pontianak (West Kalimantan, 1994), Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei Darussalam, 1996), and Palangkaraya (Central Kalimantan, 1998). Borneo 2000 offered 140-odd communications in thirty-seven convened panels.

13Two broad themes were very strongly represented in this sixth edition, revealing the current major research trends, themselves reflecting major modern global concerns: environmental problems and policy, and economy and development (six panels each). Three more themes were slightly less pervasive, yet also reflected current concerns: ethnicity and identity, land use and land rights, modern politics (four panels each). Panels on language (three panels), education (three panels), health (two panels), and tourism (two panels) all also bore witness, if need be, to the generally “applied” dimension of current research.

14Finally, “classical” research, which was much stronger in previous editions of this conference, was conspicuously weakly represented, with history (two panels), ritual (two panels), oral literature, performing arts, gender studies, and material culture (one panel each).

15This conference, like the previous ones, will certainly yield in the course of the next couple of years several edited volumes, to be published by the Borneo Research Council. Meanwhile, four volumes of proceedings, edited by Michael Leigh, have been released under the general title Borneo 2000: Ethnicity, culture and society (40 papers, 900 p.), Environment, conservation and land (38 papers, 460 p.), Language, management and tourism (12 papers, 532 p.), and Politics, history and ­development (28 papers, 648 p.). Of those 118 papers, of varying quality and interest, less than twenty are in Malay, and the rest in English.

16For information on these and other, forthcoming publications: Borneo Research Council (P.O. Box A, Phillips, ME 04966, U.S.A.), or the BRC’s Malaysian Office (P.O. Box 734, 93714 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia). Information is also available on <>.

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Bernard Sellato, « Three recent conferences on Borneo »Moussons [En ligne], 2 | 2000, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2020, consulté le 24 septembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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