James Whitlow Delano

The Little People: Equatorial Rainforest Project

In the Eden-like rainforests that once clothed the equator, multinational corporations are quietly stealing the resources of powerless, largely voiceless indigenous peoples whose names still identify the mountains, the valleys, and the rivers from where oil, timber, gold and other valuable minerals are spirited away. Imagine one morning walking into the New York’s Central Park only to be denied entry at the gates as oil derricks can be seen rising up from the flowerbeds. You protest, that this is a public park and it belongs to everyone, but a stranger stands in your way waving an official document. Perhaps it has been written in a language you don’t speak, and in an alphabet you cannot read. This park is not yours, explains the stranger. In fact it never was, because it has always belonged to the government who has now leased your land to this corporation you’ve never heard of, from a country you have never been. Finally, he gleefully informs you, should you try to enter these grounds, he will have you arrested, or worse.

This is exactly what has happened in Borneo, where indigenous Dayak peoples have found themselves unable to enter forests their ancestors have hunted in for a millennium or more because a bureaucrat in an office in a city far away has given over the title to their ancestral homeland to a politically-connected corporation.

Most of the lands along the equator are sparsely populated, meaning that they are out of sight and out of mind to most of the industrial world, where the bulk of the end-consumers of commodities live. If you take away Singapore, Quito, maybe Manaus and Kinshasa, what you are left with are very sparsely populated environments where the impoverished tropical soils are unsuited to feeding large populations. Most of the bio-mass is above ground, unlike in our temperate zone where the thick, nutrient-rich topsoil stores much of the bio-mass. Cut down a rainforest and the bio-mass is gone. The forest cannot grow back. On the equator, you have a hyper-sensitive tropical environment more akin, in some ways, to the arctic. Independent industrial oversight becomes difficult because access is expensive. It is awfully easy to lose someone in the jungle and many activists have been “lost” doing such work.

In 2012, rainforest activists were being killed at the rate of one a week in Brazil.



Since 1994, I have chronicled indigenous human rights violations and destruction of the equatorial rainforest in Borneo, and Peninsular Malaysia, first in the form of logging and then by creating vast monoculture oil palm plantations (often by subsidiaries of the same corporation), reducing the vast majority of the local population to cheap unskilled labor in the cash economy. These are the “little people”. They are little in number, often little in stature and little in the eyes of government. I am aware of a potential pejorative interpretation but just as the term once referred to the “inconsequential, great unwashed” masses, the indigenous peoples of the equatorial rainforest are often regarded by resource extractors as little more than an inconvenient hindrance standing between the corporation and the wealth in raw materials they seek.

The challenge in documenting such issues is to intimately connect the consumer in the north with the economic affect their consumption has on people living on the far side of the supply chain. If the reportage is to be successful, it must demonstrate the direct connection of the actions of more-prosperous end-consumers on one side of our planet with billions of others who either labor in poverty or become impoverished so that the end-consumers can live better, more fulfilling lives. I like to pose uncomfortable questions about the capitalist system as it is practiced today.

Recently, I’ve expanded this project into the Guinean and Congo Basin rainforests of Africa; and into the Amazon Basin, where indigenous peoples are under unprecedented pressure confronting the corporate giants of raw material extraction or even rising global powers like China. A pattern begins to emerge: well-funded outside entities reduce the most complex ecosystems on the planet to surface and subterranean commodity storehouses waiting to be exploited with the promise of huge potential profit.

Sometimes, however, the “little people” successfully defend their forests, as was the case for the Saamaka Maroon people, Africans who threw off the chains of slavery and carved out entirely African societies, in the Amazonian forests of Suriname, when they slipped away from Dutch Colonial plantations in the 17th and 18th centuries. Suriname signed a Memoranda of Understanding in December 2010 for US$ 6 billion with two Chinese companies for mega-infrastructure projects including the construction of a deep water port in the capital, Paramaribo and a railroad which would open up its pristine, trackless interior to exploitation directly through Saamaka land, connecting the capital with Manaus, Brazil, in the heart of the Amazon. The Surinamese parliament voted down this project due in no small part to the political power of the Saamaka since the The Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared them to be indigenous people under international law. For the Saamaka, there are still a wide array of multinational timber and mining interests from China, Canada and the United States coveting the natural resources on their land.



In Cameroon, US-owned Herakles Farms and its subsidiary, SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SGSOC) proposed carving out a massive oil palm plantation in Southwest Cameroon in one of the last unbroken masses of Guinean rainforest in West Africa. The plan called for the creation of a vast oil palm plantation (69,975 hectares/148,000 acres) on a 73,086 hectare (180,599 acres) concession (ten times the size of Manhattan) leased for 99 years on land linking two national parks, two forest reserves and one wildlife sanctuary. After years of effort by local activists like Christopher Achobang, in concert with Greenpeace, the size of the proposed concession has been reduced to roughly 20,000 hectares (49,421 acres) leased for 3 years, that could be transformed into a 99-year lease at a later date. The concession still covers an area more than twice the size of Manhattan. Less tropical forest means fewer leaves. Fewer leaves, which absorb carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas), means accelerated global warming and climate change. It all works in concert.

For all the uncertainty in Suriname and Cameroon, those two examples represent rare bright spots in a rather bleak roster of land and human rights violations along the equator. The Ecuadorian Amazonas region seemed to be shaping up as a 21st century role model for finding balance between commerce and conservation, while balancing the greater good versus respecting human rights and the environment when dealing with the consequences of drilling for oil.

In 2011, an Ecuadoran court fined Chevron US$ 19 billion in a lawsuit brought by residents who claimed greatly elevated rates of cancer from petroleum contamination by Texaco on their land. That victory was short-lived. In 2014, US District Judge Lewis Kaplan overturned the Ecuadoran court ruling by finding the Ecuadoran plaintiffs’ American attorney, Stephen Donziger, employed “corrupt means” to win his case against Chevron, who now owns of Texaco, for contaminating the environment and health-related issues to residents living in areas affected by Texaco’s operations there, starting in 1964. Kaplan’s decision means that Ecuadoran villagers cannot claim any of the money due them from the Ecuadoran court’s ruling. After two decades of court cases, it is back to square one for the Ecuadoran plaintiffs.



What is unusual, perhaps unique, about this region is that the pristine, untouched forests are actually downstream because the population centers of Ecuador sit high up in the Altiplano of the Andes. Texaco and others started at the foot of the Andes and made their way south and east building roads where squatters settled in behind them, pushing the indigenous people further into the forest, or drawing them out of the forest altogether into the lowest, most impoverished level of the cash-economy. Contaminants from all this activity are carried downstream into otherwise pristine habitats.

President Rafael Correa proposed the Yasuni-ITT Initiative in 2007, to forbid drilling for petroleum in this core area of Yasuni National Park, if and only if international donors raised US$3.6 billion, equal to half the value of the estimated oil reserves lying below. (Oil drilling is already taking place inside Yasuni National Park, which begs the question, what exactly is a national park for, if it does protect the environment under its jurisdiction from oil drilling?) The initiative failed spectacularly, raising only US$13 million in actual donations. The Yasuni-ITT Initiative, through which the Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini Rivers run, which would have forbidden oil exploration in this protected bio-hotspot, was officially terminated on 15 August 2013. Although 78% – 90% of Ecuadorans oppose oil exploration in this extremely sensitive ecosystem, the government will now allow oil companies to enter it.

These local crises, taken together, constitute a full-blown global crisis. There is a clear pattern where, even if the indigenous inhabitants ultimately win a legal battle or two, they are losing large swathes of their ancestral homelands. Sometimes they lose all of it. I have yet to encounter a project in the equatorial rainforest that has met company proclamations of inflicting minimal harm on the environment.



Witnessing and documenting “sustainable selective” logging in Borneo immediately reveals the practice is neither selective nor sustainable. Petroleum exploration in the Amazon leaves behind crude oil to contaminate the water table entering the human food chain through drinking, cooking and washing. The Bakun Hydroelectric Dam in Malaysian Borneo, which displaced about 10,000 indigenous Dayak residents, and inundated an area the size of Singapore, was designed to deliver electricity to distant cities. Electricity is even exported to Indonesia and Brunei while completely bypassing local rural residents, carried by high tension wires passing directly over Iban Dayak longhouse communities who receive no electric power from them at all. River courses in Suriname’s interior are hydraulically blasted all the way down to the bedrock, spoilt with mercury, in the pursuit of small amounts of gold. In two decades of documenting on three continents, scars and poison have been the norm. This leaves almost nothing but hardship for future generations. Something’s got to give. Far from pushing aside the “little peoples” of the equatorial rain-forests, who have lived for centuries in balance with these fragile ecosystems, the industrial north should be seeking them out to learn from them. In part, our long-term survival may depend on their wisdom.


James Whitlow Delano has lived in Asia for over 20 years. His work has been awarded internationally: the Alfred Eisenstadt Award (from Columbia University and Life Magazine), Leica’s Oskar Barnack, Picture of the Year International, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, PDN and others for work from China, Japan, Afghanistan and Burma, etc. His first monograph book, Empire: Impressions from China was the first ever one-person show of photography at La Triennale di Milano Museum of Art. The Mercy Project / Inochi his charity photo book for hospice received the PX3 Gold Award and the Award of Excellence from Communication Arts. His work has appeared in magazines and photo festivals on five continents. His latest award-winning monograph book, Black Tsunami: Japan 2011 (FotoEvidence) explored the aftermath of Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear disaster. He’s a grantee for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, for work documenting the destruction of equatorial rainforests and human rights violations of indigenous inhabitants there. In 2015, Delano founded EverydayClimateChange Instagram feed, where photographers from 6 continents document global climate change on 7 continents.

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James Whitlow Delano

7 thoughts on “James Whitlow Delano – The Little People: Equatorial Rainforest Project”

  1. “The challenge in documenting such issues is to intimately connect the consumer in the north with the economic affect their consumption has on people living on the far side of the supply chain. If the reportage is to be successful, it must demonstrate the direct connection of the actions of more-prosperous end-consumers on one side of our planet with billions of others who either labor in poverty or become impoverished so that the end-consumers can live better, more fulfilling lives.”

    Very well said. I think in many ways, with the very high quality of both the photographs and the text, this work could serve as a master class example of how to do a photo essay.

    I’m afraid, however, that it may have failed on its own terms. I’m not seeing how these photographs, or the text that accompanies them, demonstrate any direct connection between the actions of wealthy consumers on one side of our planet with billions of others who either labor in poverty or become impoverished on the other for the pleasures of the privileged. Seems to me, it is all about the victims. It shows nothing of the perps. Much less how they are connected.

    Thus, by the photographer’s definition, the reportage is not successful.

    Tough nut to crack, I know.

    My belief, however, based on what experience has taught me, is that contrast is a way to achieve that goal of showing connections. To give a hokey, off the top of my head example, a picture of someone slaving on a coffee plantation would be made stronger if placed next to a picture of American business people in line at a Starbucks.

  2. A powerfully visual and informatively written combination of the places that so few of us understand are the source and consequent of our modern needs….our voracious consumption devours, though the cost is so often neatly boxed away….

    i have also loved James work and it comes also as no surprise that as person, he is a remarkably kind and generous one, both a supporter of others and a mentor and has spent the last 20 years trying to document places and lives long before they become ‘issues of concern’, with a steady eye and a commitment to the stories that have mattered……

    as MW, the text could serve as a masterclass for how the use of a written accompaniment and captions, serve to both enhance and draw out what the imagery describes…….

    this work has served as a beacon for many and a starting point…..that in this kind of documentary work, one must work tirelessly to get the story and the moments that stretch beyond the reporting but maybe offer some kind of struck nut, that if not cracked, fractures a bit…..

    i’m not necessary sure the work (both the essay here and the longer project) need the the wealthy consumers, for are they not there in these images …in both subtle and implied ways…..

    as both a photographer and a writer, i would hope that folk take the time to read James’ words after looking at the pics and then return to the pics…

    treasure, slipping out and bleeding, is there…..

    let us not put that aside…

    congrats James! So please to see the work here…

    and fyi for all: james’ EverydayClimateChange project for those interested…


  3. The problem with this black and white style of documentary it doesn’t draw the general public into the images let alone convince them that there is a problem.

    These photo/doco producers should take a leaf out of the fashion catwalk………… designers designs are created to sell and further the cause of fashion.

    The way that is happens in some catwalks is that every now and then a bad design presented, this helps to highlight what the designer considers as being good design as there is a contrast created.

    photo/doco should show what ……is visually enticing …..what is not so exciting but vital within the story alongside what the presentation is about be it forests, chemicals, population war etc.

    Give the public something to discover instead of trying to convince the public that you as the photographer is right. People like to have a choice.I

  4. I liked this photographer’s work when I first saw it some 15 years ago, and looking at his website I like some of the individual pictures in the slideshow on the first page. Similarly, I like his pictures from Tokyo shown on the Guardian website and his color pictures shown on the New Yorker website. But I agree with what Imants says.

    I find the writing in the photographer’s statement too wordy to be engaging, and couldn’t go through it without skimming: a shorter statement would have more impact. Same thing for the pictures. Maybe all the rain forests look similar and have similar light. If that is the case, why show so many here? Also, the pictures are processed similarly to achieve a certain style of moodiness: this murky moodiness just looks too mannered and too forced and artsy. The uniform tonality is overdone and fails to engage the viewer, unlike the way the website slideshow, which has a similar consistency of style but a much broader range of subjects, does.

  5. I have had James Whitlow Delano’s website bookmarked and check it regularly, so I’m delighted to see bios work presented on Burn.

    I too found the introduction and the captions wordy but I think this is because the photographer is very much in the business of educating his audience at he certainly does that. Much, if not all, of my knowledge of palm oil production comes from James, Thank you James.

    Considering the level of detail given to the captions I am always a little frustrated when viewing James’ photographs. I love the fact that he still uses film and I like very much that he has a consistent, recognisable style; but I always find myself trying to peer into the out-of-focus areas of his photographs for some detail. In view of the subject and the pressing need to educate both public and corporations to the devastating effects of uncontrolled exploration of the earth’s natural resources, I would think it almost imperative that as much information be accessible to the viewer. That said, I do find myself drawn in by the dreamlike technique.

    I would love to see some recorded conversations with the indigenous people directly affected by what we are shown here.

    Thank you James, stay safe.


  6. The topic is important, I believe the pictures to be fundamentally good, but I cannot ponder and study them because it is just too hard and painful for me to try to peer through all the indistinct fuzziness to the subjects themselves. Maybe after I go through my surgery and experience what I hope will be full recovery I will come back and take another look, but right now I just can’t bear to look at these images. The effort literally hurts both my head and my eyes. Not figuratively – literally!

    Sorry. I try to encourage and I know you are an excellent photographer and so I just wasn’t going to comment at all, but that felt like a negative comment itself, so I decided I had better explain.

  7. James Whitlow Delano’s heart is clearly in the right place. He has both passion and compassion. And he clearly works hard. He goes to lots of interesting places and enters interesting milieus and has guts. He deals with important and significant issues. And I think he has an eye for composition.

    The problem for me is that I’ve never been much moved or even engaged by his photographic style. I understand that he can do other things, and even works in color sometimes, but in general, and in the three essays of his I’ve seen on BURN, the photos suffer from his unrelenting mannered and heavy-handed signature ‘look.’ Apparently some people really like it– he clearly has an audience. To me the heavily vignetted b&w ‘classic film’ look tends to reduce the whole world to a one-dimensional common visual denominator. All those different countries and cultures, and they all look the same?? He’s very successful at creating anachronistic photos that look like they were taken 75 years ago. But as several other commenters have noted, the subjects and issues he wants to engage us with are contemporary ones.

    I was very impressed when he got into the disaster area in Myanmar right after the cyclone there, I’m impressed by his initiative in trying to document the tsunami-struck areas of Japan, and the obvious long-term commitment and concern he shows in this present equatorial forest story. He deals with the kinds of places and issues I used to teach about when I was a geography-environmental studies teacher and activist, and I applaud him for that. But I really think it’s a shame that the photographic style he seems so committed to gets in the way of the message he’s trying to convey. Whenever I see one of his pictures, I can’t help but think how much better it would be in color and without the heavy vignetting and intentional blurring.

    As for the text statement, clearly he wants to use this opportunity to educate his audience. It may be a bit long and wordy for some viewers in this particular context, but I sympathize with the intent.. the problem is that it badly needs an editor and proofreader.. It rambles, there are grammar mistakes, and some passages are quite awkward. We have many artist’s statements on BURN written by non-native speakers of English and I tend to cut them a lot of slack, but JWD is a native speaker. The seriousness of the message he is trying to convey demands a better-organized and more carefully written statement.

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