A Battle Is Under Way For The Forests Of Borneo
Layan is a member of an indigenous ethnic group called the Dayaks, who once had a reputation as fierce headhunters. As on most mornings, his first job on a recent day is to tend to his rubber trees.
He uses a blade to cut a few grooves in each tree, allowing its white latex sap to trickle into a cup. Then he plucks a handful of fern leaves and snaps off the tops of a dozen or so bamboo shoots and puts them in a bucket. In a few minutes, he has enough for lunch. He goes to the river to wash and chop the shoots.
Environmentalists say Layan's lifestyle is a form of "indigenous knowledge" that has allowed the Dayaks to both use and protect Borneo's forests. But those same forests are now a staging ground for a complicated clash. It involves economic growth, land rights and environmental concerns, development and traditional cultures, as well as a broader fight in Indonesia against entrenched corruption.
'This Is Our Sacred Grove'
Back near Sekendal, Layan explains how the Dayaks in his community view ownership of the surrounding land.
"These stands of bamboo don't belong to anyone in particular. Anyone can take some," he says. "The rubber trees belong to me. The bamboo here is very abundant. If you go upstream, there's even more."
This is not virgin forest, Layan says. It's owned by the community, and it's been cleared and replanted with useful flora such as cocoa and rambutan trees. There is one stand of virgin forest left in the area, but it's used for something very different.
"This is our padagi, or sacred grove," Layan says in a hushed voice. "It's been here since the time of our ancestors, and we come here to pray."
Birdsongs resonate through the forest canopy towering overhead. Down below, moss grows on an altar for making sacrifices. The spirits of the Dayak ancestors inhabit this hallowed glade, Layan says, and it is forbidden to take any plants or animals out of it.
"We come here to ask for help in times of trouble, for example in times of war, and then we are victorious," he says. "We ask for bountiful rice harvests. We ask for the sick to heal. We make offerings to the spirits, even though we can't see them."
Conservation Efforts Under Way
Indonesia remains Asia's most-forested nation, but it has suffered serious deforestation in recent decades, contributing to Indonesia's status as the third-largest emitter of carbon after the U.S. and China.
And perhaps there is no starker example than Borneo — roughly three-quarters of which belongs to Indonesia, the rest to Malaysia and Brunei.
Conservationists are urging Indonesia's government to respect the Dayak's rights to their traditional lands and to affirm their stewardship of the forests based on their animist religion. But in much of Borneo, it appears too late.
Where forests once stood, towns now hum with traffic and commerce. According to Indonesian government statistics, 60 percent of Borneo's rainforests have been cut down. Only 8 percent of its virgin forests remain, mostly in national parks. Western Borneo is the most denuded.
Efforts to combat deforestation are under way. In May, the Indonesian government announced a two-year moratorium on cutting down virgin forests. As well, a U.N.-backed scheme will see developed countries paying Indonesia to protect its rainforests.
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