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A Dayak village campaigns for rights to its forests

Indigenous villagers walk through the forest in Sebadak Raya. Photo by Aseanty Pahlevi

  • Residents of Sebadak Raya have rejected entreaties from oil palm companies for many years, although that might be starting to change.
  • Some in the village have accepted the companies, but others view the forests spiritually as their source of life and don’t want do business with the firms.
  • After villagers mapped their traditional-use forests, the government gave them rights to a portion of what they asked for. Villagers are campainging for more.

Traditional law runs deep in the Kayong Dayak village of Sebadak Raya, a small hill community in West Kalimantan along the provincial border with Central Kalimantan. The pride the residents take in their civil society is apparent in their neat and orderly settlement, where you won’t find livestock running loose in the streets.

“We have an unwritten rule that has been passed down through generations,” village chief Mikael Edi Sairundi told Mongabay. If an animal is loose for more than three days, it can be killed, and the owner can be punished. In this way, villagers prevent conflicts that might arise if, say, someone’s pig were to destroy a neighbor’s crops.

The forests surrounding the smaller hamlets that make up Sebadak Raya consist of rocky hillsides populated with springs and cascading creeks which water the fertile farmland and rubber gardens below. It’s a wholly peaceful and pastoral scene that is under constant threat of destruction.

“When the first oil palm company came here to buy our land in 1998, we instinctively refused,” Edi said, “even though this was the first we had thought about it.”

Mikael Edi Sairundi, chief of Sebadak Raya village in Ketapang, West Kalimantan. Photo by Aseanty Pahlevi

At 42, Edi exudes a youthful idealistic vigor as he speaks about staving off plantation developers. He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting in Pontianak, the provincial capital, but after several years working for a bank decided to return to his village to help improve peoples’ lives there. Despite, or perhaps because of, his background, Edi believes an intact forest is more valuable than the price of its parts.

Offers to buy the land kept coming. The villagers refused every one. Rubber prices are reliable, they reasoned, and provide a predictable and steady income, enough to cover basic needs and children’s schooling. Residents can even afford the occasional motorbike or satellite dish.

Further, the Kayong Dayak people believe the forest is the community’s source of life – a spiritual notion manifested in practical form. At present, micro-hydropower installations in the forest provide 50 homes with electricity. If the trees were to be cut, they fear that in addition to ecological disaster there would no longer be enough water to turn the turbines.

In 2011, amid increasing worry about their legal claim to the land they have lived on for generations, Sebadak Raya, together with Flora and Fauna International (FFI), an NGO, began mapping the traditional-use forests around the community. Their surveys found an abundance of wildlife including orangutans, hornbills, pangolins, proboscis monkeys, leaf monkeys, gibbons and sun bears.

“Along a single two-kilometer transect, we observed 500 orangutan nests,” Edi said. Counting nests and noting their level of decay gives a rough estimate of the size of the orangutan population in a given area. In short, there are a lot of orangutans here.

All told, they mapped 14,000 hectares of traditional-use forests around the community, which they submitted to the Forestry Ministry (since merged with the Environment Ministry) for official recognition. Disappointingly, however, the village was given ownership of only 2,425 hectares – and those in an area located far from the village.

Trees said to be hundreds of years old stand in the Sebadak Raya forest. Photo by Aseanty Pahlevi

Confused, but not deterred, the citizens of Sebadak Raya installed 600 border stakes around the land they were granted, and now patrol it twice a month. Meanwhile, they have continued their campaign to get the other 11,500 hectares protected, worrying that if the land is converted to plantations, residents will be forced to relocate.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the community is as concerned about the forests, and the oil palm companies know this. Whenever the price of rubber drops, the companies send people door-to-door with bags of money offering to buy their land on the spot.

“There are people who bring a pile of cash to your house and only ask that you sign an agreement to sell your farm,” says Ason Nelos, the head of Sebadak Raya Village Affairs. “If the money is enough, the temptation is high.”

Several landowners have already found that temptation impossible to resist. Others have started planting oil palm among their rubber trees.

Edi explains that those who have sold don’t believe in the importance of an intact ecosystem because they haven’t yet experienced negative consequences from the absence of one. If he has his way, no one will have to. Edi holds out hope that his people can get the rest of the land protected soon before the forest, and the villages that depend upon it, disappear completely.


Aseanty Pahlevi. “Hutan Desa Sebadak Raya, Tegar Bertahan di Tengah Kepungan Kebun Sawit Perusahaan.” Mongabay-Indonesia. 3 May 2015.

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