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The Dayak Meratus

Borneo contains one of the most bio-diverse rainforests on the planet. In a single 10-hectare area over 750 different species of trees can be found. The island has in total over 3,000 types of native tree (the UK has only 33), 13 species of primates including the endangered Orangutan, 222 mammals, 420 birds, 100 amphibians, 394 fish and 15,000 plant species. Scientists readily agree that these figures are at best a rough approximation. Since 1996 a further 361 species have been discovered. This unique habitat could well disappear within the next decade.

In the last century Borneo’s massive forests have been extensively logged. But it wasn’t until the 1990’s, amid the growing demand for bio fuels, that it triggered a startling rise in deforestation. Huge swathes of rainforest have been lost, replaced by vast monoculture plantations producing rubber, soya and palm oil. In Indonesia’s South Kalimantan Province the remaining forests can only be found in the Meratus Mountain region. The mountain range is known to have extensive reserves of timber, gold, coal, iron ore and oil; already many prospective mining, logging and plantation companies are exploring the area for lucrative state sponsored contracts. These thickly forested highlands are home to the indigenous Dayak Meratus, a semi-nomadic group who still practice an ancient tribal existence of hunting and gathering food from the forest and worshipping a blend of shamanistic and animist faiths. These small communities are slowly disappearing as timber and mining companies squeeze the once vast tracts of forest into ever-smaller pockets of wilderness.

The Dayak people, according to modern anthropological research, came originally from Yunnan in the south of China and arrived in Borneo over 3000 years ago. They along with other indigenous groups spread and settled throughout the islands of Indonesia, giving this archipelago a richness in terms of social and cultural variety. Gradually as time passed Chinese, Indian, Arabian and Malaysian traders settled along Borneo’s coastline, followed by the Dutch and English, and in more recent times trans-migrants from Java, Madura and Bali; as competition for land increased the semi-nomadic groups, such as the Dayak, found themselves being pushed further into the interior of the island. As a result these ethnic groups have become increasingly marginalised from a coastal governed society flourishing from the profits of trade and commerce. The word Dayak, a blend of Malaysian and English invention, means ‘people of the upstream’: a people considered remote from modern society: this isolation has remained with the Dayak population to this day.

“Every day I walk through the forest to my farm,” said Julak a diminutive, compact old woman. Julak seemed ungovernably cheerful; a smile drew wizened lines across her deeply tanned face. We had left the village shortly after dawn following the course of an old broken road, which soon became nothing more than a track of deep dust and sharp edged stones. The sun had yet to clear the crest of mountains, nonetheless the heat was already stifling and we walked in comparative silence. Descending a steep-sided gorge we heard the sound of monkeys moving through the treetops towards a feeding tree. The path cut through a thick intricate mass of scrub, mostly rattan and bamboo and gradually as we climbed further into the hills the tall slender trunks of trees and their enveloping canopies closed in above us. “On my farm I have a small paddy field,” said Julak. “It will be ready for harvest one week from now.” Walking alongside it was hard to distinguish what was farm and what was forest. “We have many trees – mango, lychee, langsat, durien, coconut, kepayang, cassava. I also have rubber trees, so mostly I tap rubber. For my family, rubber is our main income. I use the money to buy sugar, fish, salt or cloth. I save what is left to send our family to school. For a better life.”

Each Dayak village according to traditional customary rights owns a certain part of the forest, some of which is held as a ‘community reserve’, whilst another part is cultivated as a ‘community garden’. In routines that have changed little over generations, they clear small patches of land to cultivate hill-rice and plant fruit, vegetables and other crops amongst the natural vegetation of the forest. From this small-scale agriculture they can feed themselves and commercially trade what is left, along with rattan and rubber, which is also harvested. Once a certain period of time has elapsed, the locations of the gardens and the reserves are rotated, thus ensuring that the resources of the forest are used sparingly and then carefully regenerated. Like most indigenous groups, the Dayak’s farming and land-use practices ensure the sustainability of their forests. This landscape dictates their way of life: it shapes their rituals and beliefs, their history and their culture.

There are several problems facing the Dayak. Because of the nature of their existence and the fact that their history, their communal stories had long been passed down through word of mouth, none was ever committed to paper, therefore the Dayak like many indigenous populations, possess little actual written documentation supporting ownership of their land. A simple permit from a forestry official granting a logging company permission to extract timber from the blank co-ordinates of a map can effectively mean a community that had existed for thousands of years can simply disappear.

This powerlessness has been further exacerbated by their continued exclusion from district and national government, fundamentally it has left them without a political voice. However, through a local group Lembaga Pengembangan Masyarakat Adat (LPMA), the Meratus Dayak are pursuing a programme where they can secure not only legal recognition of their traditional land rights but also strengthen economic development within their villages.

“Our main aim is to help strengthen indigenous communities.” explained Yasir Alfatah, a local member of LPMA. “We focus on economic development in the Dayak community through non-timber forest product management. The forest is customary land, handed down by the Dayak’s ancestors and owned and managed by the community for generations. In the face of threats from logging, mining and plantation companies, we try to strengthen the community, so the voice of the people will be heard.”

Through initiatives such as extensive GPS mapping of community land and the formal re-drafting of traditional forest management laws, most of which had never been written down before, LPMA is beginning to establish a legal framework and rights for the Meratus Dayak. This has led to the establishment of a variety of community-based institutions.

One of these, known as Koperasi Dayak Alai (KDA), focuses on improving the benefits the Meratus Dayak receive from the rubber trade, currently their main source of income. Before KDA was formed, farmers gained only a meagre proportion of the market price for their raw latex. KDA has been able to eliminate traders and middlemen who had previously controlled these prices; effectively doubling the price local communities receive.

LPMA has also created a local Credit Union. Established in 2002 the Credit Union has acquired 728 members from surrounding villages and has so far amassed assets of two billion rupiah (£116,000). This means the community is now self-funded, allowing it to invest and grant loans to its members, and offer financial assistance and management advice. This has allowed the Meratus Dayak to begin to prosper and to improve their economic wellbeing.

“Our target is for the indigenous people to have a financial institution which they can manage by themselves. We support the community through education, giving them a better understanding of financial management and a clearer representation of government policy, so they can analyse what benefits and disadvantages there are for the community.” Juliade, Credit Union representative for Batu Kambar, Dayak Meratus village.

However, the Meratus Dayak still need to establish legal claims to their ancestral land. To achieve this, they have undergone a political metamorphosis and, for the first time in their history, they are now entering the Indonesian political arena.

A local organisation, the Dayak People’s Union Organisation, or Persatuan Masyarakat Adat (PERMADA), has been formed to promote ‘adat’ – the traditional rights and laws of the Dayak people. With the support of other indigenous groups and the encouragement of NGOs, PERMADA is drawing up these peoples’ own constitutional rights.

“I established PERMADA in 2003. We have now built a political movement to develop solidarity among the Dayak. The communities’ aspirations must be heard by the government, because the Dayak have their right to life. Until now they’ve had no political representative. I became chairman to protect these indigenous rights; this is why I still struggle. We will move on, we will risk fighting for our people.” Zonson Masri, chairman of PERMADA.

This process, aimed at acquiring legal recognition of ‘adat’ law, could mean that the Dayak can continue to live in the forests of the Meratus region. It could also have conservation benefits. If the rights of the Dayak people are accepted, these communities can also assist in nurturing and protecting these forests which they – and the world community – value so highly.

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