Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Accessibility and development in rural Sarawak. A case study of the Baleh river basin, Kapit District, Sarawak, Malaysia

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posted on 2021-11-16, 03:33 authored by Abdullah, Regina Garai

To what degree does accessibility to markets correlate with levels of development? This is an important question for those living in remote, underdeveloped parts of Southeast Asia during the final phases of de-agrarianisation.  My study recounts the experience of rural-based Iban households living in the Baleh river basin of the Kapit District (population of 54,200) within a day or less travel by river to the small market town of Kapit (with a population of 18,000). With no connecting roads to the rest of Sarawak and reliant almost entirely on river transport, the local economy remains underdeveloped and is losing population.  My field work among 20 villages in three accessibility zones of the Baleh river basin was undertaken over the three month period of May-July 2014. Structured interviews were conducted with 20 village headmen (tuai rumah), 82 heads of household, and 82 individuals within the households. Data was also systematically collected on 153 other individuals, including both residents and non-resident members of these bilik-families.  My conceptual framework draws on von Thünen’s model of agricultural land use in order to generate expectations about the possible effects of market accessibility. While the sale of vegetables and other commodities accords with expected patterns, most rural households are in fact dependent on other, largely non-agricultural sources of income. As a result there has emerged a disjuncture between the nominal and actual residence as those working age family members with residential rights to the bilik undertake paid work well beyond the agricultural margin.  Unable to achieve desired standards of living by accessing local markets and services in a division with no cities or roads, the working age members of the bilik sustain their families by dividing their residence between two or more locations in what I call multi-local living. The income of nominally rural households is being increasingly determined by the human capital that individuals now apply to non-agricultural labour markets. This, in turn, is leading to a widening distribution of levels of ‘development’, across individuals, their multi-generational families and their rural communities. Multi-local living is unsustainable beyond the transitional phase of de-agrarianisation and as labour shifts out of agriculture and people move to towns, connections with rural residence are likely to diminish, notwithstanding the cultural ties, and disputes over realising market values of largely untitled land will continue to complicate the transition.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Human Geography

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Morrison, Philip; Murray, Warwick