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Against ‘Green Development Fantasies’: Resource Degradation and the Lack of Community Resistance in the Middle Mahakam Wetlands, East Kalimantan, Indonesia

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In the middle Mahakam wetlands, East Kalimantan, local populations are hit hard by ecological deterioration in the form of degraded water quality, floods, depletion of fish stocks, and increasing sedimentation and aquatic weeds. In the short term, resources such as fish and wood are being depleted, while unpredictable floods and droughts cause insecurities and lengthy periods without earnings. In the longer term, resource depletion and water pollution threaten villagers’ health. Some of these environmental problems are produced by the fishing communities themselves but most are caused by outside actors, such as logging and mining companies and oil palm plantations. This article raises the question of why local fishing communities do not resist against outside actors and seeks to explain why they are unable to protect and manage their environment in a sustainable way. It challenges ‘green development fantasies’ and optimistic approaches which put primary faith in the capacity of local communities to manage their resources. We show instead that local communities are often unable to challenge and resist environmental changes. We explain this out of a lack of: (1) a clear enemy or a clear focus of opposition; (2) a single and relatively homogeneous community or shared ethnic identity; (3) strong leadership; and (4) the involvement of brokers with the outside world. In this article, optimistic ideas about the ability of local communities to benefit from, or protect, their ‘locality of value’ are seriously challenged.

Affiliations: 1: University of Amsterdam and Radboud University Nijmegen


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