April 19, 2023

Living Like the Locals: A Glimpse into Forest-Living

“The Dayak do not need money. We are perfectly capable of living in the forest, taking only what we need.”, says Ekot*, a leader in his small community in Belubu, West Kalimantan. Unfortunately, much does not remain for his community to create a sustainable livelihood. Much of the Bornean rainforest has been deforested largely due to palm oil plantations. These sights are quite ghastly and astonishingly visible - being able to drive for miles and on hours straight of what must be hectares of palm trees old and young, sprouting even on the roadside. I write in hope that not only the memories of this trip remain as unsullied as possible, but also in hope that it will bring light to others of alternative ways of living that we might not necessarily understand, but must accept, in order to create a flourishing green economy for all those involved.

Our arrival in Merakai marks the first in my series of amazement with Ekot and his community. He is a man of small stature, but commands the respect of everyone we meet on the road. Quite literally everyone - I’d never met anyone in Jakarta as popular as him. In addition to the locals being much warmer to us (the Dayak are not known to be the most hospitable people on the planet), it was evident that people do not only respect and fear this man, but perhaps more significantly - they show gratitude to the highest degree.

Meals were significantly simple, yet nutritious and diverse. Most were plant-based and foraged from the nearby forest where we were stationed - Pakis, Sawi, Bunga Rebu, all kinds of stuff you can’t get in the supermarket in Jakarta, you name it! “When we have to resort to using money to buy things from the market, that’s when we’re poor. Food on this table is free - why would we ever need to pay for anything?”, Ekot chimes. The food served was also seasonal. Ekot would later rattle on about how surprised he was when he saw that Durian is all-year round in Jakarta, firmly believing that the increased likelihood of sickness in cities are mostly due to our diet. “How can you have Rambutan in January? That’s so crazy!” Coincidentally, the Rambutan fruit offers benefits such as having high Vit C and B5 concentration, which are extremely important in converting food into energy, increasing your immunity, and fighting off colds - all very important minerals to have during the wet season from October through to March, which also happens to be the peak of Rambutan harvest.

I quickly learned that Ekot was able to commend such respect from his peers and community - he is a provider of sorts. Creating employment opportunities to these people was obvious; they’d always refer to him as pak bos. The more nuanced parts were the social aspects. Quick example - he initiated the building of a small radio station with the small local government. When I asked him what it was for, he said it was important that the locals could find some entertainment at the end of a working day, whether it was art, music, or news. “People need to keep themselves busy in order to be productive and happy, plus it keeps them out of trouble.” No doubt one of the troubles he meant was unplanned deforestation in protected forest areas. Ladang berpindah is an indigenous selective harvesting method passed down on generations in order to generate fertility to make way for more fields, a means of living.

I was skeptical in the beginning. How can we let this continue? Protected forests are meant to be untouched, so why are we letting the locals burn down their forests so easily?

The answer that I have right now is much more simplified than it actually is. I, for one, will never be able to grasp, let alone understand, the complexity of local dynamics that Ekot deals with on a daily basis. The big picture is easier for us to digest: there simply isn’t enough money to go around.

The first reason varies from region to region, but in this case, palm oil plantation management is not so quick on compensation. Many prey on trust, only for the locals to find out at their dismay and resentment, that the fine print does not allow for advanced payment - only payment in installments that are far below the area’s minimum wage after 3-5 years the project begins. This leads many to resort to agriculture, using indigenous methods known to them that unfortunately involves unplanned deforestation.

That being said, the scale of unplanned deforestation is nowhere near as devastating as the scale of planned deforestation that is run by these plantations. For instance, within the last 20 years, there is an estimated 10 million hectares deforested in Kalimantan from palm oil, logging, mining, and other production activity, of which only 2% has had the chance to be reforested for carbon removal activities. As more and more lands are acquired, less areas are available for ladang berpindah.

The second reason also varies, however it is not surprising to find many misunderstood practices within the government itself. Ineffective communication and lack of community outreach becomes a problem when deciding which areas are to be conserved and which are to be used for ladang berpindah. This shows that community involvement is vital in the protection and conservation of paru-paru dunia - our world’s lungs**.

To my amazement, Ekot has a very enlightened response, excitedly suggesting, “We must be grateful for these plantations too, for how can I even get the chance to work with young people like yourselves, working on projects where animals are not harmed, the forests are not burned, and people are still getting paid? Where else can I get a project like that?”

As we near the end of our short three-day trip into the Western Kalimantan Province, his words resonate even more soundly to my being. Ekot is right - in what other job am I able to contribute to all stakeholders in this world that we share, without harming one or the other?

*Ekot’s real name is hidden upon request.

**Rainforests are often called the ‘lungs of the world’ for their efficient carbon sequestration properties. The Borneo rainforest is the second oldest and fourth largest rainforest in the world.

Sources: WebMD, Tridge, Mongabay

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