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For indigenous kids in Indonesian Borneo, an early start to forest stewardship

A river runs through the forest in Punan Adiu village. Photo by Christopel Paino

  • A Dayak indigenous tribe in Indonesian Borneo has been campaigning for years to protect its forest, its main source of food and sustenance.
  • A competition by an NGO hopes to impress upon the village’s children the importance of the forest to the community, through an understanding of where its food comes from.
  • After fending off plantation and mining interests, the villagers have won recognition for their land rights from the district administration and are now awaiting acknowledgement from Jakarta.

PUNAN ADIU, Indonesia — It’s no ordinary day here in the tiny village of Punan Adiu, tucked away in the northeastern corner of Indonesian Borneo.

Devit, 9, is rushing off to school for what promises to be an exciting experience: “There’s a competition. There are people from the capital bringing gifts!”

The visitors from Jakarta — a three-hour drive and three flights away — come bearing gifts for the kids of this tiny hamlet of 33 households, to be handed out as prizes in a unique contest at the village school.

The competition, organized by Non-Timber Forest Product — Exchange Programme Indonesia (NTFP-EP), a network of NGOs and indigenous communities, centers on the food grown, gathered or hunted by local groups, in an effort to promote sustainable forest resource management.

For the 109 inhabitants of Punan Adiu, a subtribe of the indigenous Dayaks of Borneo, the timing couldn’t be better, and the focus on educating the children — the next generation of guardians of the community’s forests — is crucial.

The Dayak Punan prepare a meal over a fire. Photo by Vanessa Nirode.

A food source under threat

“We have 17,000 hectares [42,000 acres] of natural forests that can’t be touched by industry,” says Ursula a teacher at the local school. She adds that the forest is “a source of food that couldn’t be obtained in other places.”

Until recently, though, the fate of Punan Adiu’s all-important forest hung in the balance. Parts of the forest were designated as areas zoned for conversion, or APL, and over the past decade it has been threatened by the expansion of the palm oil, coal mining and illegal logging industries.

In 2006, the government of Malinau district, in which the village and its forest are located, issued a policy to clear 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles) of land for plantation and mining operations.

By 2008, five big oil palm companies were eyeing a chunk of the Punan Adiu land, according to Boro Suban Nikolaus, the head of LP3M, an NGO that advocates for the empowerment of Dayak tribes. These companies enlisted local officials to try to sway tribal elders to sign away their forest, Boro said, but to no avail.

“The villagers understand that if their forests are gone, then their livelihoods would also disappear,” he says.

The villagers also knew that as long as the APL designation prevailed, the forest was still in danger of being taken over for plantation or mining concessions. So they mounted their own campaign, with the help of NGOs like LP3M, to seek government recognition of their land rights.

A first major step to victory came in 2012, when the Malinau administration passed a regulation recognizing the district’s indigenous groups, including Punan Adiu. And in November this year, the Malinau district chief issued a decree that specifically acknowledged the rights of the Punan Aidu people, paving the way for the villagers to get their land rights recognized by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

Markus Ilun, a village elder, says that once their land rights are recognized by the government in Jakarta, they will issue rules to safeguard their land.

“We’re capable of protecting our forest,” he says. “Our village has even become a role model for other villages.”

Indigenous Dayak residents of Punan Adiu village examine a map of their lands. Photo by Christopel Paino.

Preserving local wisdom

For the villagers, the forest has always served as a combination of supermarket, takeout and pantry — a place where they hunt, fish, farm and gather their food. As such, there’s little need to buy processed food at the local market, says Ursula.

Even their snacks are made from scratch from local ingredients. Ursula cites the example of cookies made using flour from cassavas that grow in the woods.

Herbs and spices? The forest has that covered too. A plant known locally as kay serves as a natural flavor enhancer. “Just put the leaves in your dish. It will taste much more delicious than artificial flavoring,” Ursula says. Daily carbs come from umbut rotan, the starchy inner stem of young rattan shoots.

She then points to a bunch of round, brown fruit called lempesu, from the Baccaurea lanceolata tree that abounds here. The fruit’s flesh is sour and it’s often used in place of lime to get rid of the smell of fish.

All of these foods feature at the NTFP-EP competition at the school, where the kids “recognize the foods that they usually get from the forests,” Ursula says.

Besides making the children more familiar with local foods, the competition also aims to teach them the importance of protecting the environment, through a video about forests and the environment.

“As indigenous children, they have to preserve local wisdom so that it doesn’t disappear,” Ursula says.

And the message seems to have resonated among the children.

“Forests are important for our livelihoods because we hunt there,” Devit says. “If our forests are cleared, then they have to be reforested.”


Banner image: A river runs through the forest in Punan Adiu village. Photo by Christopel Paino.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published here and here on our Indonesian site on Oct. 21 and Nov. 3, 2017.

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