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Forest Freedom


new internationalist
issue 318 - November 1999

Forest freedom : West Kalimantan

When I arrive in the city of Pontianak, where the Equator runs through the island of Borneo, I am struck by the laidback gregariousness of the locals. As one resident explains: ‘It’s too hot to be too busy.’ But looks are deceiving. Activists are slowly raising the temperature in the province of West Kalimantan. Here, where the Kapuas river meets the sea, there is a torrent of dissent as the indigenous Dayak people wrestle back their land rights.

‘No-one really questioned anything then,’ says Pak Mejang, recalling the early 1980s. ‘You would hear Dayaks saying the Government was good but the trend was poverty, an increase in the destruction of the environment and it wasn’t safe for us.’ Just about all the Dayak activists I speak to in the provincial capital, Pontianak, cite the gregarious Pak Mejang as their mentor – a source of encouragement, ideas, knowledge and advice. His support for all these young Dayak people is not just personal, it is pragmatic: ‘Everyone, even the school teachers, used to say the Dayaks were stupid,’ he laments. ‘How could we get rid of this idea? We started by organizing ourselves and got our own schools, our own institutions. As we got together and talked, something became clear to us – we were trapped by a picture painted by outsiders who thought we were good as coolies, but not as bosses. I think this type of thinking was intentionally introduced for the use of Indonesian government officials so that they could control the Dayaks’ natural resources.’

[image, unknown]

Suffering without
sympathy – the hated,
hunted Madurese

Head-hunting, severed heads displayed by the roadside and wild rampages through villages. It is sensational but it actually happened in West Kalimantan. According to the indigenous Dayaks, the clashes with the Madurese migrants started when a Madurese killed or offended a Dayak. The Madurese refugees call the incidents the ‘Dayak riots’ which they say were sudden and barbaric. So far this year around 200 people have been killed in the conflict – almost all of them Madurese – and over 2,000 houses have been burned down.

There are 25,000 Madurese refugees around Pontianak alone. In a sports stadium that serves as a refugee camp Amina (right) and her child Udi have been sleeping under a shed exposed to the wet and the heat, for four months. Her other child died of fever a month ago. It is a constant battle against illness, she says: ‘The children get sick, then get better, then they get sick again and sometimes they die.’ Out of around 200 people here, 50 have died and are buried at this stadium.

‘This place is like a prison,’ Amina goes on. ‘There is hope of going home but I only want to go home if there is some sort of compromise. If this agreement does not come I would be too scared to go back.’

Despite the hardships, Amina can still manage to make a joke as she leads me around the stadium’s running track: ‘We will not get lost. I know this road well.’

It is not clear why the Madurese are a target of violence in West Kalimantan. The Madurese are not envied for their riches – most are excruciatingly poor. Yet in West Kalimantan, as all over Indonesia, they are hated. The most commonly held opinion of the Madurese is that they are rude and violent. They are told by other Indonesians that their plight is their own fault.

‘I know how it all started,’ says a refugee about the conflict in his village. ‘I was there. A Madurese got on a bus and didn’t have the money to pay the driver as he got off. A fight developed. By that night the problems had escalated. I had a brother who was Dayak who warned me and said “Leave your house; there’s going to be trouble”. I left immediately with my wife and children with only the clothes on our backs. As soon as we set foot out of the house, it was ablaze. I was so lucky to be warned.’

It worked. Much of West Kalimantan’s forest is gone completely – it has been logged by Malaysian and Javanese companies, transformed into oil-palm plantations for the likes of Unilever and Suharto’s corrupt cronies. If current trends continue, which in the wake of the economic crisis is almost certain, by 2018 there will be no products from the forest left to harvest in West Kalimantan. And all these rich outsiders are responsible for the forest fires which once again raged this year closing local airports and covering Pontianak in a smoky haze. John Bamba, a former student of Pak Mejang who now heads the Institute of Dayakology, comments: ‘The plantations were responsible for the big forest fires of 1997. They clear land or start the forest fires intentionally when local people refuse to give up their land.’

The glamour of development threatens Dayak self-esteem – making Dayaks seem poor in comparison to the prosperous newcomers. But don’t be fooled, says Pak Mejang: ‘We did a study and found Dayak people weren’t poor. If you multiplied the amount of Dayak land by how much rubber they could produce on it then Dayak people would be on a better salary than a government official!’ he exclaims with glee. ‘Poverty was just in their heads! We just have a system that is different from communism and different from capitalism. It is collective – we don’t just live for ourselves, we live for other people. Capitalism divides the economy between the big and small and they don’t care about the rest of the community and the land. We have our own ways here – like Java has its own ways – but the difference between us is that in Java the people have been empowered.’

Reformasi (political reformation) is just a word in most Dayak villages, explains Pak Mejang. ‘The situation hasn’t changed much since the fall of Suharto. For example, when Dayaks burned down the forest concession camp on 10 June this year there were 90 people arrested, beaten up and treated badly. People from my village went to speak to the corporation involved in the dispute. We wanted to engage in dialogue but we rejected the plan to take our land. And when we went to talk to the corporation, the military were there, the police were there, the government officials were there, the district head of government was there. We wanted a discussion. But what we got was this collection of people!’ he says, astonished.

‘So the people were cornered into an agreement. Many became angry and the brave ones burned down the camp. This is proof nothing’s changed yet. Even though the military separated themselves from the police, it’s obvious they are still policing incidents such as this.’

Faced with such a strong coalition of government, military and corporate power, it seems there is little that the Dayaks could do. But Ita Natalia, another activist encouraged by Pak Mejang to find ways out of this deadlock, says all is not lost.

She has maps. Huge maps that she sprawls across her lap, my lap, the coffee, the tape recorder, the floor. Anywhere they can be examined and referred to frequently. They are impressive in their size and painstakingly drawn by local Dayaks and mappers like Ita. But what’s the point?

‘In one case in Satu Desu,’ she explains, ‘there were demonstrations and negotiations involving Hutan Tanaman Industri, who brought the Governor to the village. The company wanted to present its case and say this programme will be good for the welfare of the community. But the community were waiting with banners. The banners said “WELCOME!”. But they also said: “We reject Hutan Tanaman Industri”.

‘The Governor was shocked. The companies just said: “Why do you reject this plan?”. The Dayaks got out their maps and said: “We already have a plan for this area of land. If you want to take the land you have to match our price and pay according to our numbers, not yours.” And they didn’t want to pay – the price was too high. In fact the Dayaks didn’t want the money but suggesting a high price was a way to refuse the company. So this is a process and with this tool, the maps, they’re not actually saying just “No” they can also say “because...”

‘So that was a success story. There are also stories where communities have not been successful. But everything is practice in empowering communities.’

Budhi Wijardjo at the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation in Jakarta also hopes reformasi will include a system of law which can take land out of the clutches of corporations and put it back in the hands of indigenous people, farmers and the urban poor. ‘The new government has not been finalized, but there are changes which are clear. First, the system is falling down. Second, we have a huge debt. Some say there is only one solution – exploiting natural resources. I think that we should return to traditional policies of how to use natural resources.’ His office has several court cases under way in which locals are attempting to reclaim their land or fend off corporate encroachment.

Another way forward from corporate control backed by the military and the state may be a federation that would allow autonomy for resource-rich areas like West Kalimantan. Regional governments in Indonesia currently keep on average only 17 per cent of local taxes compared to 56 per cent in Malaysia and 43 per cent in Australia.1 In Kalimantan all but two per cent of local government income goes to Java.

But it is not just a share of the economic revenue that Dayaks seek. ‘A federal state is not an ideal solution,’ says John Bamba, ‘because the federal state is very strong in places like Malaysia for example. But at least for the present the federal model may be a good one for Indonesia.’ His colleague Stephanous adds: ‘In this issue we have a lot to discuss, we need a political discourse but right now there is no space for this, especially with the dual function of the military still in place. So I think we have to change the paradigms of the Government first.’

Pak Mejang is also sceptical: ‘If I were faced with President Habibie, perhaps I would not say anything. Our rights are not owned by him, we have our own struggle. So far we’ve been given a little bit of freedom but our hands and feet are still tied. We know that local control or federation is not going to fall from the sky. We have to work for it.’

Is federation possible? ‘Why not?!’ he says with a smile and others in the room echo him: ‘Why not?’

Stephanous cuts to the heart of things when he explains that the Dayak struggle is for survival of the spirit: ‘Land to the Dayak people is a place of past, present and future generations and it is also home of their spirit. With all this cultural and social heritage, once they’ve lost their land, they’ve lost their sense of life. You cannot be a human being without that connection – the spirits of the ancestors and the present.’

1 Far Eastern Economic Review 21 January 1999.

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