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Borneo Culture, Geography and History
Culture and Customs of Borneo
Although an overused term, the island of Borneo truly is a melting pot of cultures, customs and religions. Home to more than 18 million people, a large majority of the population is Muslim, so most of society is quite conservative in accordance with Islamic law. Dressing modestly is recommended (covering legs and shoulders), as is being careful with public alcohol consumption and displays of affection. Indigenous people (like the Dayak and Penan people) make up the rest of Borneo's population, many of whom have either been converted to Christianity or hold animist beliefs. While many indigenous people rely on farming as a way of life, Borneo is still home to small numbers of tribal people who live a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence. Unfortunately, deforestation and mining have encroached upon their traditional lifestyle (particularly in the last 30 years) yet despite this, many are still able to hunt and gather as their ancestors have done for centuries.
Geography and Environment of Borneo
The South-East Asian island of Borneo sits just south of the South China Sea, with the Sulu Sea, Celebes Sea, Makassar Strait, Java Sea and Karimata Strait also surrounding the island. Split up between three countries (Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia), the regions most visited by tourists (Sabah and Sarawak) belong to Malaysia. Home to the oldest rainforest in the world, large cave and river systems and mountains, Borneo has an incredible range of biodiversity with hundreds of species of birds, bats, plants, flowers and insects living in this ecologically precious part of the world. Sitting 4,095 m above sea level, Sabah's Mount Kinabalu is the third highest mountain in South-East Asia and a popular trekking spot for active travellers looking for a challenge.
History and Government of Borneo
Early on, Borneo was used as a port for trade, with the Chinese and Indians stopping in on the coast as a part of their trade route from 500 to 1300 AD. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British were soon to follow. Because of this, Borneo now has a rich diversity of international influences to draw upon from these years of trade and interaction with other cultures. With most of coastal Borneo falling under the rule of the Javanese Majapahit kingdom in the 14th century, the Sultanate of Brunei extended its rule in the north from the 15th to 17th century. By the 19th century, both the British and the Dutch had colonial interests in the area, with a dynasty led by James Brooke ruling Sarawak for many years. Brooke's interest in the area stemmed from his attempts at trade in the Far East and connections to the Sultanate of Brunei. Brooke's rule was fraught with controversy and battles with the Sea Dayak people, who interrupted trade and were labelled as pirates. James Brook was succeeded by his nephew, Charles, and then his son, Vyner, in this rule known as the 'White Rajahs' of Sarawak.
Japan took control of Borneo during World War II, resulting in a high number of deaths for the local population. During the war, many British and Australian prisoners of war were sent to Borneo, with the most notorious spots being Sandakan where thousands of Allied soldiers perished due to disease, malnutrition and exhaustion. By the conclusion of the war in 1945, Borneo was freed from the Japanese yet only two decades later, Borneo was the site of more conflict, this time between Indonesia and Malaysia. This conflict arose from the union of Sabah and Sarawak with Malaya in the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. More recently, the Sultanate of Brunei became an independent nation (in 1984). Palm oil plantations have spread rapidly throughout Borneo in the last ten years, mainly due to the decline in the rubber industry. While these plantations have provided jobs and helped the economy in the short term, their proliferation has led to wide-scale deforestation, which surmounts to devastating habitat loss for many of Borneo's endangered species and displacement of indigenous people who rely on the forests and jungles to sustain their hunter-gatherer lifestyles.
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