Latest developments in Sintang and Tembak
It is October 15th, 2014, and I have just arrived back in Sintang from a spectacular tribal meeting in Tembak, the Dayak village some three hours drive south of the district capital of this huge autonomous region in the heart of Borneo. There were 117 traditional leaders and village heads in the Tembak longhouse, a breakthrough for the Dayaks that will give hope to other tribes who see their land taken away. So much to catch up with and to tell you but let’s start first with my friends the orangutans in the Sintang Orangutan Center and the Tembak orangutan forest school!
First I visited Momo, Jojo, Mamat, Benoi and Joy in the Ribang Ayau forest school of Tembak. All the orangutans in the forest school are now much more muscular and their coat of red hair has become much thicker and carries an oily shine. They also seem to smell better and all of them clearly have grown in confidence. Momo is the dominant male in the group and despite his young age of less than 10 years is developing the beginning of cheek pads. Cheek pads normally develop only with dominant adult males but small ridges along the side of the face are also known from confident baby orangutans and especially the bullies amongst the younger orangutans. In this picture where we see Momo and Jojo in their night quarters after a long day in the forest and we can clearly see that Momo has a start of what can become cheek pads. Momo normally starts of the day bullish but still is one of the first to ask to go back to the sleeping cage where food and drinks await him so in the afternoon he is still easy to deal with.
Jojo, the female orangutan we originally rescued from the Tembak village, the same village where she is now living in the Ribang Ayau forest school, is doing more than fine. She is the one that builds the best nests and spends most nights in her nest in the forest. She has gained a lot of weight and looks great. But her habit of sucking on her right foot thumb has not changed yet! Mamat and Benoi, the two gentlest boys amongst the orangutans initially spent a lot of time together very high up in the trees but Mamat once fell and after that incident it took him several weeks before he went up the trees again with confidence. Fortunately it was only his pride that was broken in the fall.
Joy, the smallest female in the group, surprised everyone. Nurdiana, our ecologist that works on the behavioral observations to assess whether the orangutans are ready for the last step from forest school to the vast virgin jungle, has lots of interesting notes on Joy. Joy was tight to the pole of a small shop along a dusty road and only could move under the shed or sit on a huge pile of garbage from where she would try to find things to eat. She was very sunburned and skinny and very afraid when she first arrived in Sintang after she was rescued by the Ministry of Forestry. She was so small and malnourished that we cannot say exactly how old she is, but obviously she must have been at least two years old when the poachers got her.
Joy is amazing, the easy with which she moves between the tree crowns in the canopy is impressive up there at 50 meters height. And I saw myself how she minutes after her release in the forest school, which consists of virgin rain forest surrounded by an electrical fence, already peeled away the thorny sheets of the rattan to eat the fresh growing tips. And I saw her eating young leaves of a species of orchid, and of course she immediately went for a termite nest! The only thing that is lacking so far is her nest building skill. Now Joy has beautiful hair and looks confident out of her dark brown eyes. She is a true joy to watch!
The tunnel connecting the forest school to the night quarters is finished, allowing the orangutans to go back and forth by themselves and still allowing us to observe them and weigh them in the tunnel for regular updates on their health. We still need another large cage with tunnel so we can bring in another group of orangutans from Sintang to get to know the forest here.
In Sintang I visited the latest three confiscated orangutans, Ollie, Mungki and Cemong. Cemong is a delightful young female with an exceptionally thick and long coat of orange hair. When the sunlight shines from behind she looks like a ball of fire! The long hair unfortunately was the result of having been locked in a tiny cage for so long with the chance to move much or roll. Cemong (pronounced the Indonesian way as Tyemong) was quite healthy and quickly passed the quarantine period. She has already joined the baby group where she fits in effortlessly.
Olli is a different story although this little baby female also has thick hair, came from a tiny cage and is looking for attention all the time, often whining, while still in the quarantine facility. Her left leg is broken and dangles around. The people that illegally kept her never bothered to give her medical treatment, and that is also probably the reason she was never sold. We are waiting for a chance to have her leg X-rayed to see what we can do to give her back the use of her leg. It would be so good when our own clinic could have a small X-ray set, then often we cannot see the problems caused by the many air rifle pellets that frequently riddle their little bodies…
Mungki is a very strong 14 year old big male orangutan with a lot of anger inside. The former “owners” had him in a small cage for more than 10 years. According them he never was a problem but they never let him out. One day he escaped and caused considerable damage and the neighbors finally caught him with a net and very rough treatment. It was because of the pressure of the neighbors that feared for their children that they decided to give up Mungki. Now Mungki “dances” in the big quarantine cage, constantly swinging from left to right and back, even though the space he has is now no longer confining him to that single movement. A clear case of repetitive stress behavior. He also bangs his head against the wall and bars and gnaws on his teeth and his eyes are full of anger. It was only after three days of repeated visits that I started to get a tiny bit through his psychological wall and when he was willing to play a little throwing game. Mungki’s road to the forest will not be an easy one. He does not seem to know many of the forest food our technicians bring him and we do not know yet which other orangutans would be able to stay in one facility with him. But intelligent he turned out to be (read the blog Mungki).
Of course I visited all the others too. Bembi, our smartest orangutan, has left the baby group behind and is now with Penai and Tanjung Putri in one group and doing well, Juvi, Matuari, Djamilah, Bablu all look splendid and at least five of them are ready to soon join the first five in the forest of Tembak. The five babies in the large socialization facility are having fun every day in the trees and there is not the least bit of stress in the group. I can sit for hours just watching them interact and experiment.
Then back to Tembak and the big meeting where more than one hundred, to be exact 117, traditional leaders of the Seberuang Dayak tribes came together to get their Saran forest recognized as a traditional forest under their own traditional management. This forest will also be the eventual release site for our orangutans, protected by all the tribes around the almost 75.000 acre intact forest.
The Saran Forest is named after the 1.758 meter high mighty Saran Mountain that stands out in the landscape from far around although its top is often shrouded with clouds. These clouds are also the origin of the name of the mountain in the local Dayak language. Saran means place where the clouds rise. And that is what happens here along the flanks of this mountain that is covered in a spectacular variety of virgin rainforest, that is the rainmaker for the area. In the tropics rain depends upon forests and rising clouds release more rain on top of that. The following pictures show the mist and the movements of the clouds rising towards the peak and the surrounding virgin rain forest dominated by upper canopy dipterocarp trees, some of which yield the valuable Illipe nut butter.
The meeting was spread over two days. Everyone paid for his own transport and contributed some food to the event. Some wealthier members of the tribe from the city as well as Mus, a local rubber buyer, contributed more to the event. The true Dayak spirit of sharing!
Father Jacques Maessen, director of the Kobus Foundation, a Catholic missionary who has dedicated the last 46 years of his life to helping the Dayaks, and myself were specially invited by the tribe to participate in the meeting and to present there as well. Father Jacques recognized 20 years ago already the importance of the Dayaks taking formal steps to protect their land and many villages and numerous families have now still land and a future thanks to his programs, that at that time were considered ridiculous because everybody knew whose land it was anyway! But the priest is always right so the Dayaks just did what Father Jacques told them and starting measuring after the Sunday Mass with the one hundred meter rope.
Father Jacques seems almost single handedly to have married, baptized and buried half the population, at least that is what one has to conclude when one just observes all the grateful people coming up to him at every public event and reminding him of their special event, often decades ago. It is because of Father Jacques that I am here trying to bring sustainable solutions for energy, natural fertilizer, jobs and good income from non timber forest products to the local people. Over the last four years Father Jacques and myself have attended almost one hundred events big and small to tell the Dayaks that there is still hope, and not just in heaven, but right here right now. And in the mean time the Dayaks can see the orangutan forest school, the clinic, the new longhouse, the nurseries, the medicinal plant project, the illipe nut factory and the start of the new secondary school. And now we have started with a mini palm sugar factory in nearby Belimbing as well and are already planning the zero waste electricity supply for two complete villages and the marketing of other non timber forest products.
So we put our, sorry YOUR, our dear supporters, money where our mouth is. In Dutch there is a saying “Geen woorden maar daden”, meaning “No words but action!” and that is what the many local heads of tradition and village heads can witness here in Tembak.
The meeting started off very bureaucratic on October 13th, with the vice Bupati of Belimbing giving a long speech and telling the many attendendees that they could report to him the results in the next meeting… And the next meeting…? That did not sound very good, so I was very happy that Antonius Lambung almost forced Mr. Panji to join us to the Illipe nut factory. He was stunned to see a zero waste factory in full operation, producing Illipe butter, animal feed, heat for drying, electricity, biochar and compost as well as a range of other products. During the tour of the factory we also were able to tell him about the real plan to now come to a final structure for all the Seberuang Dayaks to unite to protect the Saran Forest.
After the vice Bupati, Mr. Panji, had left we moved the event from the old church building to the new longhouse where everyone had to sit on the floor and where there is no stage. There we all talk at the same level…
There was a very good line up of speakers. After the Vice Bupati the provincial head of forestry was to speak but he was unfortunately called away to Jakarta during the dates of the event. But he sent us letter 8.2835/IV-K.21/Um/2014! A wonderful letter expressing the appreciation of the Ministry of Forestry for our wildlife conservation efforts. Indeed I know of no other project that has not just a rescue center and virgin forest orangutan training facility but also a release area protected by all the local people around it. During the first release the officials of Forestry helped transport the orangutans from the rescue center to the forest school in Tembak and spent time with the local people to verify that the many documents with all the signatures were for real and they were very happy to find that indeed something special is happening here!
The next speaker was Dr. Piet Herman Abik, a Dayak lecturer from Pontianak and with years of experience in “hukum adat” or traditional Dayak law in various projects. He fought many battles and actually won some against oil and timber companies! Piet gave an excellent overview of the legal basis to protect the Saran Forest under the rules of the Seberuang tribe. The Indonesian law states that when the local community still adheres to the traditional laws and rituals and uses the forest locally it can be recognized by the government as theirs.
Piet went into great detail about the exact steps and timelines that are needed to achieve this recognition. I was so pleased!! Really concretely formulated step by step and clearly achievable! We could have had no better presentation for the first day! Then I spoke about the looming land shortage and that the traditional way of life with slash and burn agriculture also would not be possible for much longer with the increasing population. I also spoke about the values of their forest and the potential to generate environmentally friendly sustainable income. One person reminded us that Willie had predicted that it would be risky to rely upon a single product for their income and had especially warned about the risks with rubber. And now indeed three years later the prices had gone down more than 80%! So better listen… Lots of questionsa and a lively discussion followed.
Then, at the end of the evening, it was time for Father Jacques to address the crowd under the thick layer of cheap cigarette smoke. And speak he did! And attention he got! He always does. “the land is not yours! It belongs to your children and grandchildren, just like you inherited it from your parents! The land is your life, don’t sell it!!”
That night the people continued talking till 3 am! Everyone slept in one of the six large rooms of the longhouse or on the gallery. But despite the very short night all participants were back the next morning. Father Leonardus Miau, a Dayak priest spoke about the church program to save the environment and to help the Dayaks whose land had been taken without their consent with legal support. He quoted examples from the Bible and mentioned the “Program Ekopastoral”.
Some NGO’s did firy speeches but the Dayaks were not impressed by the volume or good sounding sound bites… They were going to do it their way, the traditional Dayak way. Then some members of parliament who had come that morning having heard about the unusual event taking place in this remote village were politely given the chance to address their voters. They promised support and of course asked for support. The local TV from Pontianak filmed the whole event and over several days after the meeting pieces and interviews from the meeting were broadcasted, including mine.
Last part of the morning session of the second day was a letter from the Bupati of Sintang. Amazingly the person that had signed the letters for those oil palm companies to do surveys against the wish of the people was now 100% on their side! It really looks like lots of flags start pointing in a different direction now…
During the lunch break a small team formulated the declaration of the “Persekutuan Masyarakat Adat Seberuang” or the United Traditional Seberuang Dayaks”. After the lunch the declaration was approved by all 117 traditional leaders of the Seberuang tribe and an oath was taken read by every representative. Father Jacques and I looked to each other. We both realised what had just happened. The Dayaks were claiming their traditional land and rights and swore to protect their forests. In the same meeting Antonius Lambung was appointed leader of all the tribe with full administrative authority! That ends one of the arguments of the RSPO that there was no proof that Antonius represented the tribe in the official complaint against the DSN palm oil group!
Dr. Piet Herman Abik was appointed special advisor to the tribe for legal issues and will assist Antonius Lambung and Ecorecht in the further processing of the complaint with the RSPO and in the process of acquiring/regaining their traditional rights. Agung Bedhura, son of Apui the medicine man, will help the remaining villages in their border mapping work. Two days later a detailed work plan had been made with time lines and mile stones and clear job descriptions and budget needed. They did it all themselves, their unity showing stronger than ever before! It was the trust, the patience, the real presence of our activities that gave these people the hope and believe that they have to stand up for their own future! Already the news was spreading through the local TV broadcasts and other Dayak villages were contacting Antonius Lambung how they also could use the approach of the Seberuang Dayaks to defend their lands that were being encroached upon by oil palm companies! Something is brewing amongst the Dayaks. This time it is not a desperate revenge action carried by deep emotions, leading to human deaths as has happened before, but a strategic approach based upon hope and belief. I believe this is indeed the way forward. I feel most privileged to have been allowed to be present during this, perhaps historic moment in time. And time will tell.