Interview with JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

Interview 03/09/2011, Green Social Festival,Bologna.National Exhibition Premiere :”The little People“, dedicated to natives of the RainForest of Malaysia, by James Whitlow Delano. An interview with the International Photojournalist about how “green”Bio-Fuel is destroying the Malaysian Rainforest and Disrupting the Native’s lives.

FM: James, you’re presenting the story of Malaysia’s Little People against the loggers. How did you start to work on this project, why did you choose to focus on their reality?
JWD: Well, I’ve been interested in different aspects. First, I call little people not only because they’re small, but because they have little
powers, they’re totally dominated by the government . I work in the magazine
world and that means that if something I’m interesting in I have to be able to create a situation where people in Bologna, in Milano or of other cities can relate to what is happening in Malaysia and its population. We think bio fuel is environmentally sustainable, but it is not ,in many cases, and certainly oil palm it is not. So we are attractively helping to destroy their world.

FM : This leads to my second question. Your pictures show clearly how oil palm plantations extend continuously to the edge of the Forest at Taman Negara National Park, the same Virgin Forest that has been for centuries the Native’s homeland. How much did their lives change because of this process?
JWD: Completely, it ruined it. I choosed two people, the Negrito people – who look entirely African- that live on the Peninsula, and the Penan,
that live outside the National Park, so as the Negritos. Except for very very
tiny pockets of Forest, it is all gone…So Batek Negritos have gone from self-sustaining (kinda Einsteins of the Forest) to being unskilled labourous with no power…

FM: at all?
JWD: No. They do their labour, they survive by going into little pockets of the forest, the government does not want them to go into the
national park. Whether they do or not I don’t know, they say they don t. If
they want to live on the Forest in most of the cases they have to. Their lives have been completely changed and as a people, as a race of people, the first people to come out of Africa, they may very well disappear, completely . I went to a high school that the malesian government has set up, but they are enemies ,and all of the girls I met were wearing Islamic hijab, meaning that they have been converted to Islam. The school claims that they did so this volunteerely.
I tossed the Batek and they said no. The Penan are in a different situation.
The process is in an earlier stage, thirsty logging companies come through to log. It is a brutal distruction of the Forest, they went through one or two times selectively and then the same people who were the border directors are border directors on the logging companies of the oil palm plantations…

FM: Corruption…
JWD: Absolutely. And they would completely cut down the forest and plant palms. In the isle of Borneo, in the malesian state of Serawak, where the Penan live, this process is moving inward very quickly from the coast.

FM: This leads to a third matter. Most of the European citizens, as well as Americans or rich inhabitants of Asia are not aware of the risk of loosing the huge heritage represented by the Rainforest of Malaysia, in your opinion, what should the Institutions do to guarantee its safeguard for the next generations?
JWD: That’s not an easy question. One thing I notriced is that, first of all, the rainforest is like the Arctic,very sensitive.When you cut the
forest everything washes away very quickly. You know, for example Toscana one
time was a forest. This has already happened in other parts of the World, but in this case they’re not leaving, not developing a beautiful landscape behind them, they’re destroying it. They’re not building infrastructures behind, they’re simply going in, taking the resources and leaving a ruined landscape. How do we stop it? Well, better regulation, more rights for the Indigenous People, replanting the Forest. I mean If they had …( loss of words)

FM: You mean if they had the chance to re-plant the Forest?
JWD: In the first place, they have large responsibility along the coast. If they carefylly manteined that land, they wouldn’t have to keep going
inland to destroy more Virgin Forest. But it is so much easier to go in and take all the available trees than it is to mantein a tree farm. So there are thousands of this logging roads throughout, you can see it on google earth,
it’s worth the look. And yet, were I was there was no good road from the coast, not a single road. I had a flight cancelled, there are few sea planes twice a week and once cancelled, there was no way out, because there’s no road.

FM: You work for magazines such as the National geographic, which is meant to “Inspire People to Care about the Planet”. Their mission makes me think about Unesco- United Nation Agency for Education and Culture, born to protect the heritages of our World (cultural and Natural ones). Nowdays, what is the role of Photography in helping causes like these?
JWD: I can only say what I’ve tried to do and that is to go in, and shed light on what is really happening. And is very difficult,because…

FM: They won’t accept you?
JWD: No, they’re quite open, I think the government would rather I not be there. Sometimes the community is divided, ’cause the logging companies were paying and some people take money and some people no, but the problem is how we present it, if we present this just as another story of logging…What I want to show is the process, how it’s affecting the Penan and how is affecting the Batek Negritos. It’s not the Amazon, the Amazon is a continental size Forest and it’s a disaster in its own way…In South-East Asia they’re are Peninsulas, they are islands. You go 100 km in from the sea and you’ re in the center. There was no protection, so the situation in south-east Asia I’m trying to show is much more severe than it is in the Amazon. Reality is it’s a geographical situation.

FM: Final question. The FAO- United Nation Agency for Food and Agricolture, has published a World Hunger Map that shows clearly that this will be one of the biggest challenges of our times. We remind to the readers that in the developing countries the undernourishment level is very high. I was wondering if you are willing to work on this subject in the next future.
JWD: Well, another tuff question. I’m working more on the environmental side and on human trafficking, Human Rights in that way. One of
the great achievements of most East Asia is they have overcome a lot of the
hunger, which is very important. What I want to do is to take deeper in the subjects that I touched already. I’d like to go back where I was two weeks ago, in Malaysia. I would like to make the connections particularly in China, to document the cost for the environment of the increasing development. For me is about what we’re doing to Mother Earth ,and have great passion for Human Rights. Both are important.

FM: Thank you so much. It was an honour and a pleasure for me to meet you.
JWD: My pleasure. Thanks.

 Comments of the Author: I can say that meeting James Whitlow Delano has meant for me the fulfilling of a childhood dream. As a Geographer, and being a young journalist, I’ve always wanted to write about environmental issues (especially focusing on Asia) and Human Rights, and travelling to those countries to document what is happening. James has been extremely kind to me, showing me every single picture of the exhibition, spending time telling me each single story, unique fragments of a mosaic that deserve attention and protection. The Copyright of all the pictures in this article are by J.W.Delano. Enjoy! F.M.

More about James Whitlow Delano on http://www.jameswhitlowdelano.com/

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About Odile Milton

I travel through words whenever possible. Odile Milton is my signature on the web as I wanted an alter ego to indicate only my writings and works, not my personal life. Odile like the dancer in black swan, and Milton from the novel An old-fashioned girl. View all posts by Odile Milton

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