Saturday, September 18, 2010

It’s a jungle out there, in the forest

About 650 tribal men and women, many dressed in traditional gear and in full regalia, descended in boats from the upper reaches of a jungle river. They were heading for the district capital, armed not with spears or arrows, but with banners, replete with messages of protest, an unnerving mix of desperation, anger and determination on their faces.

Their mission? To seek justice and protect the ancestral forests without which they will have no livelihood and their traditional values will die.

The date was July 21 this year, and the tribal people were the indigenous Dayak tribes from the upper Kapuas watershed. They were on their way to Puttusibau in Upper Kapuas, West Kalimantan.

The messages emblazoned on the Dayak tribes’ banners were clear: “Stop the logging company now!” “Save the forest”, and “The forest belongs to the people not the Toras company.”

The Dayaks wanted to meet with the district head to deliver a letter they had prepared containing an ultimatum. If the government didn’t stop the destructive practices of the Toras company in the Dayaks’ forests, the Dayaks would take matters into their own hands.

The district official promised to forward the letter to Jakarta and that the government would stand up for the rights of the people.

An official promise? Sounds like an oxymoron, and that is where the problem started. In 2005, MS Kaban, the then forestry minister, had visited the Dayak tribes, promising to protect their traditional forests and hunting grounds.

In return for his promise, he was given a Mandau, a very valuable traditional sword — decorated with human hair from some of the hundreds of heads it had cut off — given only to people they deeply trust.

A few months later, however, the same minister allegedly signed a document with a poorly rated timber company, giving it license to operate in the ancestral forests of the Dayaks. If this is true, then Kaban didn’t just break his promise to the Dayaks — he betrayed them outright.

But Kaban seems to have a habit of being opportunistic. Just three months before he finished his
term as forestry minister he issued a logging permit to PT Rial Pulp and Paper.

There was just one problem: The permit was signed before the area was measured. What was supposed to be only 235,000 hectares suddenly became 350,000 hectares. Moreover, it included five protected forest areas: Tasik Pulau Padang, Danau Besar, Tasik Belat, and, incredibly, Rimbang Baliung Wildlife Reserve and Tasso Nilo National Park.

If the Dayaks had known of Kaban’s reputation, they would not have bestowed on him the trust they did. As a member of the House (1999-2004), his name had already been linked to the misappropriation by the Bank Indonesia Liquidaty Support (BLBI) funds.

He was also reportedly tied to the notorious corruption case of Adelin Lis, a prominent timber tycoon from North Sumatra.

Unsurprisingly, Kaban was under heavy pressure to resign the position of forestry minister (2005-2009), but he clung to his post, maintaining that he would resign only if the President himself ordered him to do so. But the President never did.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was recently condemned for what was considered a feeble speech on mounting tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia. His speech was widely seen as insufficiently fiery and nationalistic.

While he may have held back because of the thousands of Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia, some have speculated that perhaps the real reason was that Malaysian palm oil companies were a big source of his election campaign funding.

The Dayaks have lived in balance with the environment for centuries but their past includes a headhunting tradition, and history shows they can return to it when threatened.

In the late 1990s, Madurese migrants came to Dayak lands as part of the government transmigration program. Exasperated Dayaks, who felt the Madurese way of life was not compatible with their own, resorted to the old traditions. Carnage became the order of the day in 1998.

In Oslo, May this year, Prime Minister Stoltenbery issued a statement at a joint press conference held with President Yudhoyono, “Indonesia is a key country in terms of reducing deforestation, therefore this agreement and Indonesia’s commitment is a great step forward in achieving large scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions”.

Fine words, but the reality of what’s involved in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is very different on the ground in inner Kalimantan. Perhaps Stoltenbery and the REDD team should come directly to Putussibau where the betrayals, lies, corruption — and the logging of virgin ancestral forest — is still going on.

They should talk not only to officials, whose pockets depend on the destruction of these forests, but talk to the Dayaks, whose lives depends on them.

If not, it will really be a jungle out there, but one without any forest, just rivers of blood.Julia Suryakusuma, Jakarta Post

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