Visiting the Indigenous Dayaks and their disappearing forests
17 Oct 2012 | Blog | Long-term Development | Indonesia
|Terry Russell is Caritas Australia’s Indonesia Partnerships Coordinator, based in the capital city of Jakarta. He is a fluent speaker of the local language, Bahasa Indonesia, and has lived and worked in Indonesia and East Timor for over a decade. He recently visited some Indigenous ‘Dayak’ communities supported by Caritas Australia’s projects in West Kalimantan, on the large island of Borneo. |
The vast Kapuas river slides gently past my hotel window in Pontianak. It speaks of harmony - children bathing playfully and boatmen sweating in the morning sun. But over the next week I will travel south to Ketapang district and east to Sintang district, where a very different picture lies just below the surface.
In Menyumbung village in Ketapang District, the village chief speaks of the many times palm oil companies have tried to buy the village’s land. They identify the community leaders, starting with the village chief, and they invite them to ‘information sessions’ in fancy hotels. “Sometimes they even fly them to Jakarta or Bali”. The community leaders see a world of wealth and are offered a share of this wealth if they can pursuade their people to sell land.
It is difficult for communities to get the other side of the story. Sure, selling their land will allow them to buy a motorbike and maybe repair their house. But for these temporary gains, they will lose much forever. Usually they will keep around two hectares for themselves but the rest of the land will be lost forever. One of the key sources of identity for the Indigenous people is hunting, but soon the large animals will be gone forever.
In Menyumbung village, the people haven’t sold out yet. They are happy with their income from tapping rubber trees scattered throughout the forested hills around the village. They declare with pride that within an hour’s walk they can still find wild pigs, deer, snakes, turtles, musang (a kind of civet cat), and various kinds of monkeys. Deeper into the forest, they have even occasionally seen sun bears and orangutans. Other villages, they explain, are now just surrounded by palm oil plantations, and no animal larger than a tupai (tiny squirrel) will live in these plantations.
And then there’s the effect of palm oil plantations on groundwater. When palm oil plantations are established in forested areas like these along the new trans-Kalimantan Highway, the land and rivers downstream generally receive less water. And when palm oil plantations are established in peatland or forests, these lands of course first need to be cleared. This clearing releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and the drying process also poses a high risk of fires, which release even larger amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The loss of forestland for animals and villagers in West Kalimantan suddenly becomes a climate change problem that affects people far beyond West Kalimantan.
From Menyumbung village I head back to Pontianak and fly east to Sintang. While Menyumbung village is surrounded by forested hills, Sintang town just has oil palm plantations on all sides, and wild animals are rare indeed. My hosts from Sintang Diocese’s Commission for Justice and Peace take me to the edge of one palm oil plantation. After a 25-year cycle of oil palm, they explain, the ground will be dry and compact. Only small shrubs will grow, unless it is given a heavy dose of fertiliser. It will be expensive to re-seed this land, and the people most likely to pay this expense are oil palm producers preparing another crop.
And in Sintang, I hear more stories of disharmony. The Indigenous Dayaks are not used to making agreements in writing, so rarely do they request a written record of their agreement with a company. Sometimes after signing away part of their land, Indigenous Dayaks have not realised they must meet ongoing costs for road construction and maintenance because the road to their remaining land is a private one. On other occasions, the oil palm companies encroach far beyond the land they have actually purchased, but the Indigenous Dayaks have no written contract and no capital to prosecute the company in court. Some Indigenous Dayaks have even signed blank pieces of paper, which have later been turned into ‘contracts’ by deceitful local leaders. My hosts in Sintang take me to a palm plantation near Lebak Ubah village, where 39 Indigenous Dayaks were recently arrested after they had vandalised company equipment. It was the simplest way they knew to protest against being sidelined from a land purchase deal that they felt should have involved them.
Most of the problems above have been known for at least a decade. Civil society groups have repeatedly asked the Indonesian Government for fairer law enforcement and increased accountability by palm oil companies. But illegal practices remain rampant. Environmental NGOs TELAPAK and EIA documented a Malaysian palm oil company clearing one Kalimantan forest in May 2011 while it awaited a permit to clear. These NGOs also noted a 2011 study into forest loss in Kalimantan and Sumatra from 2000 to 2008, which found that 20.1 % of forest clearance took place in areas where clearing was either prohibited or restricted.. Unfortunately, some government officials are doing very nicely from the status quo. For one thing, many palm oil companies pay police to provide security. Moreover, next door to Kalimantan, a Regent in Sulawesi was recently arrested on charges that he received bribes to issue palm oil plantation permits in his regency, and the two offending companies were reportedly both owned by a businesswoman who is a board member of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party. A report on land acquisition by palm oil companies in Papua observed, "Highly one-sided negotiations were characterized by persuasion and pressure from company staff backed by local government officials and, at times, intimidation from military and police" . Progress is being made with awareness-raising about the need to protect Kalimantan’s biodiversity , but even faster progress is being made clearing Kalimantan’s forests.
Caritas Australia is not arguing that palm oil is bad in all circumstances . But we are supporting the right of Indigenous Peoples to hear both sides of the story, and to be better prepared to participate in policy discussions with the government. In 2011, Caritas Australia assisted local NGO Pancur Kasih to repair a community radio station broadcasting to Menyumbung and surrounding villages, enabling local people to hear information about palm oil and ecology in general, as well as other topics like sanitation and household economic management. We also assisted local NGO Pancur Kasih to provide training in rubber tree cultivation and making organic fertiliser to reduce the financial pressures that influence Dayaks to sell their land. In 2012, Caritas Australia is supporting the Diocese of Sintang to bring local Dayak leaders together to discuss the challenges they face and later bring these to a forum in Jakarta. In short, we are helping Indigenous Dayaks to find their own way forward regarding palm oil companies.
Do you have any questions or comments? Post them here, and Terry will be available to reply to them.
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 - http://www.illegal-logging.info/uploads/news6441.pdf
 - http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0709-indonewswrap.html
 - http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0523-hance-eia-exploitation.html
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