- Local people have mapped their customary forest but still must deal with companies who are given permits to exploit their land.
- Residents derive a variety of benefits from the surrounding environment, including food, medicine and cultural inspiration.
- The central government has recognized local people with an “ecolabel” for their dedication to customary law and local wisdom.
On this rare occasion, the longhouse in Sungai Utik, a Dayak Iban settlement in Indonesian Borneo, was extremely busy. Every one of the 28-door dwelling’s inhabitants was home, gathered for the tolak bala ritual.
On display was a true Iban smorgasbord, filled with a variety of food and drinks, all made with ingredients from the nearby forest. The dishes on offer were simple but packed with a sense of unity.
Representatives from conservation groups also attended the ceremony. There were individuals from the West Kalimantan branch of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), Rainforest Foundation Norway and the People Resources and Conservation Foundation.
An old, white-haired man sat cross-legged in front of longhouse room number 16. Cool and glowing, he had the aura of morning dew along the Utik River which flows past this hamlet.
He sat shirtless, quiet and relaxed. Various tattoo motifs adorned his hands, chest, neck and back.
This was Bandi, the tuai, or head, of the Sungai Utik longhouse, located in the village of Batu Lintang in Kapuas Hulu regency. In his own community, Bandi is known as Apay Janggut, the bearded one.
He attended to the tolak bala ceremony with great reverence. But a moment after it finished, he rose to his feet and bundled his gear, including a sword with a bamboo sheath, into a wicker basket. “Let’s go to the forest,” he commanded.
It was a Thursday in April, and the sun sat high in the sky. Apay Janggut had chosen to take guests through his people’s customary forest. He had prepared all the necessities for the several-hour journey.
On the trail, Apay Janggut displayed a sureness of foot that belied his 84 years. Though the footpaths were long and complicated, the climb steep and slippery, he did not appear tired in the least. He took it all in stride.
Along the way, he pointed out medicinal herbs like the kedadai leaf, which can be eaten as a vegetable or ground into a concoction for breastfeeding mothers who are low on milk and unable to give their children enough nutrition.
After two hours of walking, Apay Janggut suddenly stopped. Pointing to an opening between the shrubs and the giant trees like an entertainer parting the curtains, he pointed to the Utik River below.
“Come here and look below,” he said above the placid, shimmering river. “That water is our blood. Clean water gives us health so that we can sustain ourselves.”
Standing on the Utik’s riverbanks, Apay Jangut also explained that this ancient stand of broad trees is equivalent to the Iban peoples’ flesh.
“This fertile land gives us life. The air we are inhaling right now is the breath of the Iban people. It is not polluted, but fresh. This is why we have to take care, to protect,” he said, and started to walk again, toward the boundary between his people’s regenerating and virgin forest – known technically as secondary and primary forest, respectively.
The sun leaned slowly to the west. A wooden building sat on the edge of the regenerating forest. This iron forgery cum lodge was constructed by the Bela Banua Talino Foundation (LBBT) and AMAN-West Kalimantan. The local people call this place Lubuk Rupon.
The group would rest here tonight. Apay Janggut was not ready to sit down, though. The old man took to trimming the grass around the building and picking sour eggplants for dinner. Only when the sun went down did he enter the lodge, a proud smile on his face.
“What I showed you earlier was the fact that we own a forest that has been protected for centuries,” Apay Janggut said. “We utilize the forest in accordance with our customary laws. The Iban have conserved and maintained this forest. We use a portion for crops and rubber plantation. But most of it is protected forest. No outsider can interfere with this system.”
AMAN records the Sungai Utik Iban people’s customary forest as spanning 9,452.5 hectares. Officially designated protected forest makes up 6,000 hectares of that area. The indigenous people cultivate the rest as orchards or swidden fields.
“There are areas in this forest that are truly conserved,” said Agapitus of AMAN-West Kalimantan. “These areas function as a preserve, or what the Iban call a source of life to balance their impact on nature. Here animals and plants can develop in peace.
“There are no Sungai Utik Iban who harvest wood for commercial purposes. They cut and harvest from the forest as governed by the guidelines of traditional adat law,” Agapitus added, using a term that refers to the traditional life systems of Indonesia’s indigenous peoples.
“They may only take wood to repair or build a house. No one is brave enough to violate those adat laws.”
Walking in harmony
Officially, Batu Lintang village was established on May 25, 2007, as two hamlets, Sungai Utik and Pulan. The village spans 17,453 hectares and as of March 30th and constitutes 608 people – 308 in Sungai Utik and 300 in Pulan.
Raymundus Remang, the head of Batu Lintang, related that among the Iban, village government and adat leaders are one and the same. “Village government is a relatively new concept for us,” he said. “We still mostly consider ourselves an indigenous people operating in our traditional ways.”
The residents of Sungai Utik and Pulan mapped their customary forest through a participatory mapping process in 1998. They then adopted a zoning policy. “That’s how we derived the size of the Sungai Utik customary forest,” Remang explained. “NGOs helped us.”
The participatory mapping process also delineated the boundary between the primary forest and the area local people could cultivate. The tillable land was limited to all land that had been traditionally cultivated as of 1998. The Iban people practice slash-and-burn agriculture. After they farm a plot of land for a period of time, they let it lie fallow and overgrow for 15-20 years before reusing it.
The local people have made a commitment to maintain the forest because they use a variety of forest plants in everyday life. For example, raru bark cures stomachaches. Bintangor sap treats cancer. “This is a wealth we must preserve for our grandchildren,” Remang said.
In recognition of the community’s dedication to customary law and cultivation of local wisdom, the Indonesian forestry ministry certified Sungai Utik with an “ecolabel.”
But the task of maintaining their customary forest has not been a light one for Sungai Utik. In 1979, a company called PT Benua Indah obtained a license to exploit land in their customary forest. The company tried to harvest wood but was met with resistance from local people.
The Iban of Sungai Utik also had to withstand the temptation of illegal logging. “They fruitlessly tried to test us with money,” said Remang, the village chief. “The role of customary law and knowledge is extremely strong in our community.”
For his part, Remang said he would rather the village not develop at all rather than see the local community deprived by outsiders of their rights.
“The government doesn’t need to painstakingly build up our village if they undermine the traditional order of things in the process,” he said. “Better we have what we have. This indigenous area is safe, the children can go to school and what we grow in the fields can feed us well enough.”