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Faith in the forest helps Indonesia’s Dayaks keep plantations, loggers at bay

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

  • Indigenous Dayak tribes of Borneo have longstanding traditions of performing various rituals throughout the agricultural cycle.
  • These rituals keep communities united in protecting their forests, with which the Dayak maintain a reverential relationship — not just as a resource for food and livelihood, but also for spiritual fulfillment.
  • The rituals also help ensure that the bounty of harvests is shared among all members of the community, even those who have experienced a poor yield.

KAMBIYAIN, Indonesia — The village of Kambiyain lies deep within the forests of Indonesian Borneo, well off the national grid, and the nights here are typically dark and silent, save for the handful of homes with solar panels or diesel generators.

But on a particular evening in May last year, the village was lit up with bright lights, and the sounds of conversation and laughter boomed from the community center, where everyone, young and old, had gathered to celebrate the harvest season.

They sang songs in their indigenous Dayak language, as the men played traditional drums and the women served food their distant ancestors would have been familiar with. As the music died down, a village elder named Didi stepped forward to address the crowd.

“We hold this event to express our gratitude to the universe for our abundant harvests,” he said.

It’s an expression of thanks common across the Dayak heartland in Borneo, including in Kambiyain in South Kalimantan province, home to the Dayak Pitab subtribe; and one that’s been made routinely over the years for generations. The celebration this time is called Aruh Mahanyari, to give thanks for the harvest, with each tribe celebrating its own way.

It’s also one of many throughout the year; the Kambiyain villagers also perform rituals before they begin clearing their land for farming, called Aruh Babanta, and during the planting period itself, Palas Paung.

The Dayak indigenous tribe of Kambiyain village in South Kalimantan province, Indonesia, is holding an ‘aruh’ ritual to celebrate the success of their harvest. Photo by Indra Nugraha for Mongabay Indonesia.

Sustainable forest management

An integral part of the Dayaks’ farming cycle is the sustainable management of the forests they have called home for generations. For Didi and the others, this ingrained respect for the forest stems from more than just its role as the chief resource for their sustenance and livelihood, says Juliade, an activist with the NGO South Borneo Customary Empowerment Institute.

“For them, agriculture isn’t merely to provide food, but also a way to communicate with their gods,” he says. “If there’s no forest, then they can’t communicate with their gods.”

This deep connection with nature has allowed the community to persevere against the ongoing industrial-scale deforestation sweeping their region to make way for monoculture and mining interests. Other Dayak tribes, in South Kalimantan’s Meratus Mountains, face a persistent threat as plantation and mining operators encroach on their lands; but the Dayak Pitap in Kambiyain have managed to stand strong because the various Aruh rituals have united them, Juliade says.

“It’s less likely for them to get tempted” to sell off their lands, he says. “The Aruh rituals are a symbol of their fight, because it shows that their identity is still strong.”

As part of the Aruh Mahanyari, villagers are prohibited for a certain period from various activities, including farming, killing animals or cutting trees. “Even picking leaves is forbidden,” Didi says. If a member of the tribe flouts the tradition, such as by cutting down a tree, it’s a mark of disrespect toward the gods, Juliade adds.

A shaman from the Dayak indigenous tribe in Kambiyain village, South Kalimantan, Indonesia, recites a prayer during the ‘aruh’ ritual. Photo by Indra Nugraha for Mongabay Indonesia.

Strong bonds

Recognition of just how important these rituals are to protecting the region’s diminishing swaths of indigenous forests has pushed at least one district in South Kalimantan, Hulu Sungai Tengah, to issue a bylaw in 2016 aimed specifically at preventing the rituals from dying out.

Besides their benefits to the environment, rituals like Aruh Mahanyari also serve an important social function by guaranteeing that all members of the community can share in the natural bounty. Everyone who attends, regardless of whether they enjoyed a good harvest, gets a bag of rice — a practice that has allowed the Kambiyain villagers to ensure everyone has a sustainable supply of food throughout the year.

“Those who get the bag of rice can’t say no,” says Unung, the village chief. “And the harvested rice can’t be sold. It must be consumed. That’s why we never go hungry. We always have enough food for our daily lives.

“Here, we still have strong family bonds [within the community],” he adds. “To clear the land, plant and harvest, we usually help each other.”

A more subdued version of the Aruh Mahanyari ritual is practiced by the Dayaks of Mamegang, another village in South Kalimantan. Unlike the village-wide festivity of Kambiyain, here each household marks its own celebration of the harvest.

Arsanaedi, a Mamegang villager, says the main purpose of the ritual is to gather all members of the family together to give thanks, no matter if the harvest is bad.

“Even if our harvests are not that satisfying, it’s still important to enjoy what nature has given to us and to give thanks,” Arsanaedi says. “We’re asking for the owner of the universe to give us abundant harvests next season.”


Banner image: The Dayak Punan prepare a meal over a fire. Photo by Vanessa Nirode,

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