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Up the Kapuas River, a Borneo tribe lives off the land

  • The Dayak Punan turn to the surrounding jungle for religion, food, water, shelter, medicine, and defense. They have cared for and guarded the forest for centuries.
  • Indigenous peoples across Indonesia are waging a battle for the rights to their customary territories. President Joko Widodo has promised to prioritize the passage of a long-awaited law on their rights, but progress has been slow.
  • Some worry that if Indonesia’s indigenous gain absolute authority over their lands, they will only auction them off to the highest bidder.
  • Others point to recent studies showing that forests managed by indigenous peoples are among the best preserved.

Eagle stood on the bank of the Kapuas River. He rolled a small stone over and over in his right hand. He wore black spandex shorts, a black t-shirt with the sleeves ripped out, and white rubber shoes. He turned with a smile to look at us behind him, spread out on the rocky ground, shoes off, resting on boulders, packs leaning against a fallen tree. Uting and Obed fried fish over the fire for lunch. The Silent One washed plates and cups in the river.

The four men of the Dayak Punan were leading us: two Brits, a Dane, and an American on a trek through the Borneo Rainforest from west to east.

Eagle bent low, calves flexing, his right arm swinging back then forward in a graceful, muscular sweep.

The stone from his hand skipped one, two, three, four, five, six times, and then a seventh. We erupted into cheers and Eagle danced a small dance of victory in his rubber shoes on the bank of the Kapuas River.

Eagle, Uting, Obed, and The Silent One live in Tanjung Lokang, the last village before the jungle when you’re headed east across Borneo. Tanjung Lokang, built on the banks of the river, is nine to 13 hours from the town of Putussibau by speedboat. Years ago, missionaries to Tanjung Lokang constructed a narrow paved road that runs through the village center. Small bright lavender, red, and green colored houses with front porches line the sides.

A view of Tanjung Lokang from the Betung Kerihun National Park authority's microlight plane.
A view of Tanjung Lokang from the Betung Kerihun National Park authority’s microlight plane.
West Kalimantan province in Indonesia, on the giant island of Borneo. Tanjung Lokang lies in the province's farthest east, near the border with East Kalimantan province. Image by TUBS/Wikimedia Commons
Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province, on the giant island of Borneo. Tanjung Lokang lies in the east, near the border with East and Central Kalimantan provinces. Image by TUBS/Wikimedia Commons

The Dayak Punan, one of Indonesia’s hundreds of indigenous groups, turn to the surrounding jungle for religion, food, water, shelter, medicine, and defense. They have cared for and guarded the forest for centuries.

During the early 1970s and 80s, nearly 70% of land in Indonesia was designated as state-owned forest by the Ministry of Forestry (since combined with the Ministry of Environment). The government divided the state forests, which included areas traditionally inhabited and used by indigenous peoples, into protected forests and production forests. The government issued licenses for timber plantations, released permits for logging and mining operations, and converted some of the forest to non-forest areas, generally without consulting local communities. As a result, land disputes continue to be plentiful. According to the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), conflicts involving indigenous peoples’ territories in the forest zone claimed as state forests “have a high intensity and tend to not be resolved.”

There are 31,957 villages located in and around the forest zone. Approximately 70% of these villages depend on the forest’s resources to live.

This microhydro power station was designed and financed by Sungai Luar communities in Kapuas Hulu. The communities also manage the plant. Photo by Yves Laumonier/CIFOR
This microhydro power station was designed and financed by Sungai Luar communities in Kapuas Hulu district, West Kalimantan province. The communities also manage the plant. Photo by Yves Laumonier/CIFOR

In 2012, the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) along with two representatives from indigenous communities proposed a judicial review of the 1999 Forestry Law. In 2013, the Constitutional Court issued a landmark decision on this review that took indigenous peoples’ customary forests out of the state-controlled forest zone. However, the government has done little to implement this ruling.

After the 1998 fall of the dictatorial president Suharto, AMAN began campaigning for a bill on the recognition and protection of indigenous rights. Finally composed in 2009, the bill was included in 2013 and 2014 legislative agendas but left off the agenda in 2015. Current president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has promised to make the Law on Recognition and Protection of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights a priority.

“This bill is meant to provide a clear way for the state to recognize and protect indigenous peoples’ rights,” said Marcus Colchester of the Forest Peoples Programme. “The forest department has yet to develop a mechanism to revise its forest administration to accommodate this ruling, but has merely issued an instruction that local government resolves this issue.”

Alex, a Dani man in Indonesia's Papua, one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world. Photo by Rhett Butler/Mongabay
A Dani man in Papua province, on the Indonesian side of New Guinea, and the most linguistically diverse island in the world. Unlike Borneo and most of the rest of Indonesia, Papua is home to Melanesian peoples. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Tanjung Lokang is one of the villages within the bounds of Betung Kerihun National Park. The park spans 800,000 hectares and is home to a vast array of flora and fauna. Hermas Maring is the chairman of Kompakh, an independent organization in Putussibau that promotes and organizes sustainable and responsible tourism in the Kapuas Hulu district of West Kalimantan province. One of his main goals is involving local communities in this sustainable tourism.

Hermas worries that indigenous peoples may not be equipped to manage the land in a way that protects its natural resources from outsiders. He thinks the important issue is figuring out a way for the government and locals to manage the forests together.

“If the indigenous people have the absolute right of the land especially forest, I worry the purpose is for natural resources exploitation,” Hermas said. “You know if this really were to happen, local will get nothing; only rich men and investor get benefit of it. The government [should] involve local in managing land/forest especially in the national park by taking them as workers when tourists or researchers come and by planning with them what the forest around them will be.”

Hermas said that many NGOs would like to help but they are often unconnected to the community. They do not realize that the locals do not always have enough capacity or funds to manage the land on their own and could, as a result, invite investors that would destroy the land.

Muara Tae 1
Masrani (sitting) and his father, Petrus Asuy, are Dayak Benuaq men from Muara Tae village in East Kalimantan. They say a small group of residents from neighboring Muara Ponak village sold their community’s customary land to a pair of palm oil companies in a fraudulent exchange. The case was highlighted at the 2015 UN climate summit in Paris. Photo by Tom Johnson

Back in the jungle, Uting peered over the muddy edge of the cliff ahead of us. He adjusted his straw feathered cap with one hand and reached out with the other toward me.

“No good,” he said, “no good.”

I sighed and grabbed his hand. He pulled me up the last four feet of the incline to rest for a few seconds on a narrow root plateau. I looked down at the trail ahead. It descended at a dizzyingly steep angle and ended on the rocky banks of the river below. We went down sideways, Uting first, supporting me as I followed. My left hand was sore from being held so tightly in his. When we finally reached the river below, we both stepped into it. Uting’s feet never wavered across the rocky bottom. He held me up as we crossed and braced ourselves against the fast rushing current.

Uting slowed his pace so he was always just in front of me. We walked through the entire jungle together. I asked him about many things along the way. I asked about his family, his children and grandchildren, about the forest and the spirits. I asked about television and radio and the missionaries that had left the paved road behind. I asked about land rights and the government and deforestation.

He smiled when he told me how many children and grandchildren he had and, yes, he supposed the paved road was a good thing though they didn’t really have anything with wheels except one old bicycle Obed rode around the village and, no, he didn’t understand why the government thought they “owned” his land.

“Only rich men and visitors want to talk about owning the land,” Uting said.

A speedboat on the Kapuas Hulu river in Indonesia's West Kalimantan province. Photo by Lucy McHugh/CIFOR
A speedboat on the Kapuas river. Photo by Lucy McHugh/CIFOR

“Not so many people know about the issue,” Hermas told me. “The problem is a lot of the forest is not managed well because of corruption and the inability to collaborate.”

Mina Setra is the deputy for organizational development, information-communication and resource mobilization at AMAN.

“I think before talking about co-management, the government must ensure the rights of the indigenous communities over their territories,” she said. “If there is lack of skills, then it is the government’s responsibility to strengthen the capacity of the community. The government should also be willing to learn from traditional and local knowledge on managing the territories.”

Mina pointed out that local communities have their own traditional proven systems of protecting the forest and environment. Deforestation and environmental problems began when the government got involved with their massive development plans.

Recent studies show that forest areas managed by local and indigenous peoples are among the best preserved. At the recent Oslo REDD Exchange conference, a central theme was the importance indigenous peoples play in REDD+ (which stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation”) policy and implementation.

“In my opinion, of course both government and indigenous communities can work together, as long as there’s clarity of the rights, ensuring free, prior and informed consent with involvement of the community as the whole (based on their collective decision making processes — not only individual or elite capture), mutual respect and clear benefit sharing,” said Mina.

From left: Dwi (The Silent One), Eagle, Obed and Uting. Photo by Vanessa Nirode
From left: Dwi (The Silent One), Eagle, Obed and Uting. Photo by Vanessa Nirode

After building camp for the night, the four Dayak men of Tanjung Lokang, carrying only spears made from tree branches, went into the dark forest to hunt. The rest of us, non-hunters and guests, stayed by the fire, reading, telling stories, and drifting off to sleep. About an hour later, the men quietly reappeared, dragging with them an enormous wild boar they had killed with a single spear shot through the neck. We all gathered around as they expertly carved the meat from the animal. We had wild boar for dinner that night and carried the remainder of the meat (cooked the next morning over the fire) with us on our journey across Borneo.

Obed told me that the forest always provided sustenance and that they never took more than they needed to feed their families and guests. When asked about what he thought about the forest “belonging” to the government, he simply said, “The forest belongs to us. We take care of it and it takes care of us.”

For the duration of our trek through the forest, The Silent One never wore shoes. He walked through the entire jungle from Tanjung Lokang to Nanga Bungan barefoot. “Why do you not wear any shoes?” we asked.

“I know how to walk,” he answered.

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