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Indonesian environmental poet and Dayak leader Yohanes Terang, 1956-2020

  • Biologist Erik Meijaard of Borneo Futures writes an homage to Yohanes Terang, a Dayak poet, who died May 6 in Ketapang District at the age of 63.
  • Terang took up social and environmental activism long before it became a mainstream concern in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.
  • Terang wrote poetry in Indonesian about the relationship between people and nature, and the challenges currently faced by both humanity and nature.
  • This obituary is a commentary.

Yohanes Terang, the well-known and respected Dayak poet who took up social and environmental activism long before it became a mainstream concern in West Kalimantan, Indonesia

Pak (Mr) Yohanes, as he was generally known, was for decades a driving force for improved recognition of community land rights, sustainability in small-and industrial-scale agriculture, and environmental conservation in West Kalimantan.  He was also an inspirational poet, writing in Indonesian about the relationship between people and nature, and the challenges currently faced by both humanity and nature.

Yohanes Terang, which aptly translates as “John the Light”, was born in the small village of Banjur, West Kalimantan, in November 1956. He was schooled to junior high school level but always maintained a great appetite for learning. In his early 20s, he became active as an agricultural innovator and community organizer, starting to push his ideas about the crucial role healthy ecosystems play in functioning agriculture. He also developed an interest in organic agriculture, the use and cultivation of medicinal plants, as well as acupressure techniques.

Yohanes Terang writing his poetry in his Manjau home. © Douglas Sheil

From 1987 to 2006, Pak Yohannes was the village head in Lamang Satong. He became heavily involved in the many discussions and decisions about the rapid land changes that were taking place around his village. He facilitated discussions between palm oil and mining companies that started to obtain licenses from the local government in the lands that traditionally belonged to his village. He was also one of the first in Indonesia to push for a Village Forest license, which provided a 35-year government license for the protected status of the forested hills around the Laman Satong village, and allowed the village to sell carbon credits. “I realized that nature can become angry,”, he commented when asked why he supported the application. “If we lose our forest, the spirits will disagree, and this will lead to disasters. Having a legal basis will help us to protect our forest.”

After he retired from his administrative function in the village, he didn’t rest on his laurels but remained an active voice in the many ongoing debates about environmental degradation and community livelihoods and rights. He was pushing back against the powerful bauxite and palm oil companies operating near his village. He recognized that the significant water needs for bauxite processing would threaten the remaining forests and orangutan populations that lived there. It was not a battle he managed to win in the end, and the mine was developed despite protests, but efforts to contain the environmental damages and stop the mine from destroying more forest continue.

Pak Yohanes was also a strong promotor of agricultural innovation, seeking ways for agroforestry type land uses to provide income to his community. Whenever I visited his home, he would proudly show me around his extensive gardens and fish ponds, where he experimented with new varieties of fruit trees such as durian and jack fruit, the inoculation of geharu trees, as well as trees for reforestation. He was always happy to share seeds and seedlings with people in the village or companies working nearby.

Yohanes Terang in his beloved forest. © Titayanto Pieter

No visit to Pak Yohanes was possible without him reading some of the environmental poetry he had penned, whilst his audience enjoy platters of his recently harvested local fruits. With great gravitas, he would clear his throat, look his audience in the eye, and recite his poetry. Whether his guests spoke Indonesian or not, did not matter, as the meaning of his words was clear enough through his gestures and demeanor.

Many visitors came to his house, including (incognito) Dutch royals, representatives from donor agencies such USAID, and many Indonesian and foreign NGO people. They left their comments in his guest book, with many saying how open and hospitable Pak Yohanes was and how he loved to talk about his plants.

On May 6, Yohanes Terang passed away in his home village of Laman Satong in the Ketapang District in West Kalimantan after a short illness. He will be sorely missed. He leaves behind his beloved wife Cicilia Sri Rejiati, his two children, Viktor and Samson, and three grandchildren. The environmental community in Ketapang District has lost a leader but needs to continue its fight for the region’s people, ecosystems and wildlife, because, in Pak Yohanes’ words, Nature is Crying.

Nature is Crying

I was created so perfectly, no pretense, all pure love.
I was dauntless, majestic, beautiful beyond compare.
I was everything to all creatures, no exception.
Now I have changed, am withering, weak … dying.
Now, my body is frail, helpless, worsening with days passing.
My soul, screaming, my eyes pierced by a poisonous knife, I can no longer cry.
My frail body, bruised by ungrateful men with no heart.
My veins slashed by a sword, agony blood bursting endlessly.
Hair, mustache, eyebrows, all scraped by selfish –  ungrateful hands, what awaits?
Dignified hair, mustache, beard ravaged; all gone.

Rainforest in Gunung Palung National Park, Ketapang, West Kalimantan.