Developments in Sintang, Borneo

August 2011, Willie writes about his visit to Sintang, Borneo, an area where he is active for years now, to protect the forest and its animals. In September he receives the 16 eco-warriors here, for the project ‘Deforestaction’.

Rebuilding Sintang

A series of huge thunderous sounds shakes the earth as if in the distance a tank battle is raging. The canon fire seems to be coming from the Kapuas River to the north west of the Kobus Foundation where I am staying in the interior of Borneo. For a fraction of a second I am imagining that a battle ship is firing its mighty guns from Indonesia’s longest river, but almost as soon as that image flashes through my mind I also notice in real time that Juliana, Father Jacques’s Dayak cook who I can see in the kitchen busy preparing the dinner, is not flinching even a millimeter with each of the enormous blasts. So obviously there must be a simpler explanation. Then a moment later the mosques start their call to prayer. It is the holy month of Ramadan and I suddenly remember a picture in an obscure report from 1890 and almost at the same time Father Jacques walks up the terrace and starts telling me a story that confirms it.

Sintang, the word comes from the Chinese Sin Tan, which could be translated as paradise garden, is a small town far upriver of the West Kalimantan capital with a mix of different cultures, comprising many people of Chinese descent, Malay Muslims and still many Christian Dayaks. The Chinese love for fireworks, and the drums often used to announce the word of Allah, and the exuberance of the Dayak seem to be combined here in the use of special barrels made of the stumps of the sugar palm. The wood in the outer ring and bottom of these sugar palms, especially if they have been tapped for a number of years, is extremely strong and durable and the termite proof stumps have been used as storage barrels in many places in Indonesia. Here they are used as canons, half dug into the riverbanks, loaded with carbide and fired with the effect that I am experiencing now both in my eardrums as well as vibrating chest. Another use of the wonderful sugar palm that I had forgotten to describe in my sugar palm book!

It has been several months now since I sat here at the famous Kobus terrace overlooking the beautiful garden Father Jacques has created that seems to seamlessly go over into the Baning swamp forest with towering trees. The Kobus Foundation is the brainchild of this 71 year old and still vigorous priest. It was set up to help the local people of Borneo to live a dignified and sustainable life. That was before the orangutans I helped rescue here were removed from this place. It has no resemblance to the “Hell for orangutans” as it has been named by certain individuals who eagerly wanted to disband the Sintang Orangutan Center. Now I have to rebuild the program here deep in Borneo.

I am sure that there are quite a few people who would love to hear the juicy details of the infighting that happened here leading to unnecessary suffering of the orangutans and deep lingering feelings of hurt with the local people and institutions. However that will be the subject of a book by an investigative writer. For now it is sufficient to say that it is not necessary to believe all that is published on the fast- moving electronic media.
a) This place was/is not illegal
b) There was/is a vet here
c) The relocation was, as confirmed by the official report, not warranted.
It has been a very difficult time and many have suffered. However, orangutans still need our help here in Sintang and lots of spiteful words are not going to save them; dedicated, relevant action that also takes into account the needs of the local people is the way forward and that is my mission!

So here I am again in West Kalimantan, contemplating a waterfall of thoughts. Father Jacques, as always trying to maximize the opportunity, is adding to the complexity by inviting many different people and organizations to this terrace to meet me. And basically they all come with the same stories. They describe to me their fight against the loss of their lands, especially how the Dayaks, who live in communities where you need no lock on your door and where the words of a person are assumed to be the truth, are easily cheated into virtually giving away their land. Often they are psychologically pressurized by their own village heads, who have been on “trips” to Java, sponsored by the oil palm companies. The list is endlessly long and I have trouble mentally mapping all tribes, villages and people’s faces. Faces with this particular expression which has now become so familiar to me: this look of simultaneous frustration, despair and sadness but mixed with determination and anger as well and perhaps a little bit of “could there be hope”?

In this blog I will not go through every day and hour and event. I cannot let the few hours of sleep be shortened anymore. There is simply too much to do in the jam-packed schedule for this week. And when we arrived right away the first 15 hours there was no electricity even here at Kobus. In the interior in the Dayak village of Ensaid Panjang where we will stay, there is no regular electricity or phone either. And there on the hard wooden floors, which serve as bed and chair, it is not easy to work at night under one’s mosquito net while at the same time persons next to you try to sleep. There the evening for the Dayak is to chat and listen and learn.

August 8th, 2011

Our last day in Sintang. It is still dark but the roosters are already announcing daybreak. I hear Father Jacques coughing in his bedroom while I am sitting here and typing at this table, carved with the tree of life Dayak symbols, in a living room that more resembles a museum, filled to every notch with 43 years of collecting Dayak items. In a few hours the others, Dudung my loyal vice-director, Cathy Henkel the award winning filmmaker, producer Richard Hearman and the staff of Kobus will wake up. Dr. Eduardo Dias and Budhi of Geodan Indonesia already left last night on the arduous journey by road back to Pontianak to catch the first flight out to Jakarta.

It has been another good week here in Sintang. I cannot wait to get back here to receive the 16 Eco-Warriors of DeforestAction in the inlands of Borneo and take them on a journey that will leave them with lasting memories and hopefully will open a new chapter of hope for the Dayak people of the Sintang regency.

Father Jacques, director of Kobus and the official applicant for the legal permits of our DeforestAction work in the Sintang region, his secretary, Dudung, Jean Kern and I went to meet the Bupati, Drs. Milton Crosby MSc.

Many persons from the Dayak tribes take names from the ‘outside’, especially names from Java, which they say helps them to get jobs in the government… Obviously the parents of the Bupati, the democratically elected leader of the Sintang regency and a native Dayak, had other inspiration, even further away then Java!

Again I was stunned by his knowledge. He remembered every detail of our previous meetings, conversations and correspondence! He perfectly summarized issues that I had not yet brought up and still this man works days as long as mine and filled with at least as many issues as also demonstrated by the long line of diverse people waiting outside. He must reread his notebook before meetings, have a remarkable memory, or have an incredible interest in what we try to do for the local people, perhaps even a combination of all three…

The Bupati was extremely supportive and happy to hear about the 16 eco-warriors coming over. I showed him the clip of what the 3D movie would be about, which is pretty tough, and showed him the earth watchers software application on the Internet. He could see that we already started to record the changes in forest cover in his district from the latest satellite images. I noticed that he flinched a little bit at some of the disturbing orangutan victim images, but when I again asked him if he was sure, and willing to expose Sintang and what is really happening in his district to the world, he resolutely said he was, as he has responded in earlier meetings. He also expressed his displeasure at the removal of “his Sintang orangutans” and vowed to rectify the situation immediately. He told me that he had already contacted other officials in other districts to give up their orangutans and cooperate with him in dealing with wildlife issues. Heart warming!

We got the invitation letters for all foreign visitors and in the next days we could hear the buzz in Sintang after the Bupati gave an interview and announced the approaching arrival of his guests, the 16 young eco-warriors from around the world, in the local newspaper. Then the transport for our eco-warriors… One phone call by the Bupati and all was arranged! It is fortunate that we have so many supporters in Sintang such as Colonel Toto and Colonel Firly of the army and police respectively who have been helping our nature conservation efforts through their support for the Kobus Foundation and their visits to our center.

I really feel so privileged to work here in this regency, where everybody wants to do the right thing. Well I guess everybody except the mostly foreign owned oil palm companies who will find their efforts heavily scrutinized in the coming months and exposed to the world! Oh, and some bureaucrats and people that let themselves be bribed to do things against the wishes of the local people…

There were a lot of logistical matters to take care of but everybody around Father Jacques eagerly helped so that was a breeze really, and we even had time to go for a walk in the Baning forest.

Adang, who used to work for the Sintang Orangutan Center guided us into the forest across the road where our orangutans last played. “Here is the tree where Momo and Mimi were climbing when Luna disappeared” he says quietly while touching the broken branches that still bear witness to the terrible day of April 6th. Deeper into the swamp forest we walk. “Here is the fruit tree that Pinoh loves most…” Adang points out. “And here is the sack that Prima always likes to play with.” The sadness in his voice can no longer be hidden by this small Dayak. And neither can the love he and the other caretakers had for “their” orangutans. Then we get to the hole under the tree roots where Luna was last seen playing and ten minutes later had disappeared.

I start recording all the GPS points and we trace several pathways from the spot. It turns out that at only 80 meters away there is the wooden bridge used by visitors to the Baning city forest. I ask Adang what happened and record him telling me in detail once more what transpired that day. He actually did exactly what I would have done! First he checked the immediate surroundings where Luna was last seen. She never wandered far away so after ten minutes he realized that something serious had happened. He immediately followed the path to the wooden walk bridge and asked a school student coming from the north whether he had seen anything or anyone. There were more people further to the North and the young student stated that he had seen nobody coming towards him that way. So Adang immediately followed the bridge towards the south, which I would have done! But to no avail, there was no trace of the thief.

To me it is completely clear that someone was sitting at that bridge, hidden by the leaves and unnoticed by the caretakers that were observing the orangutans climbing. That person could hear everything and knew when there was a chance to approach for the rare opportunity to steal a baby orangutan. He must have crossed through the undergrowth straight towards the place where orangutans were playing and took the most timid and slowest of them, Luna. He could not have taken more than one and any of the others would have bitten him. This was a crime by an opportunistic thief and nothing like the horrendous accusations and insults that were directed at the personnel and staff of Kobus and the Ministry of Forestry. In addition it was nothing like the fairy tales some local ‘hired’ clairvoyants came up with! And every logical action we could have taken was taken and action is continuing.

I feel so sad for little Luna. Even the hardened head of police, Colonel Firly is emotional. He came to see Luna three times at the Kobus Foundation and his wife and son, who also personally knew Luna, still keep asking the police chief when he will find her!!

During a lunch we are visited by Mrs. Leni, a small Dayak woman of the Ot Danum tribe in the Serawai area, far upriver from Sintang, with eyes projecting a combination of strong determination and simultaneously suspicion. She is a good friend of Father Jacques whom she first met 16 years ago. Then more people show up behind her, Sugiono, Sutarman but also Dayaks with Christian names such as Jacobus Primus, Marcus and traditional names like Obeng and Ringan. They have heard about the sugar palm. They tell us about how they are fighting for the Dayaks to keep their forest and how hard it is to keep up this quest when they cannot offer a better alternative for their people. They have travelled to the coast and seen what fate the Dayak, that long ago sold their land, are now suffering. Not even a piece of land on which to grow food nor forest to harvest trees to build a house! And neighbors that are not friendly at all!

There are many sugar palms in their upriver Serawai region, which is bordering on the last remaining forests, where still some concessions are cutting down virgin rain forest. What ban on illegal logging is enforced in return for 1 billion Dollars? Hah!! An oil palm company has just got hold of permits to cut down another 40.000 hectares in that area while there is officially only 18.000 hectares of land! More virgin rain forest to go!!! My blood is boiling and I cry silent tears when I hear the horror stories about their friends that dared to stand up for the local people and the forest and are now suffering in jail. They also tell about the corrupt village heads that betray their people that elected them and trusted them. I wish I could immediately go there and face off those bulldozers myself!

The group is so happy to hear that with the sugar palms they remain land owners and only sell sunshine, rain and gas made into sugar by the palms on a daily basis. A much better and sustainable alternative!

I show them some images on my computer with satellite maps showing the speed of deforestation and slides about sugar palms and the many benefits they bring. They tell me that there is a meeting in town of village heads and ask if they may bring them? Sure! Within ten minutes of making calls they have organized for me to speak to many representatives of the local people the next evening in the Kobus house. Some 70 people show up and I talk for two hours followed by heart wrenching questions and stories from young and old leaders, from students that talk from their hearts, from girls and women that speak as fiercely as the males. Cathy and Richard film the meeting and although they cannot understand the words the expressions on the faces tell so much that they also feel emotional. They definitely have a story to tell with their film!

Before they leave Leni and friends ask if I can meet Abeng, the leader of all the Dayak tribes in the Sintang regency. Sure! It would be my pleasure. The next day Abeng arrives in Sintang and we meet at the terrace of the Kobus house. Initially he is very cautious, clearly not convinced by the stories his charges told him . But some of Father Jacques’s tuak wine and my local knowledge soon start to loosen him up. When he speaks to Leni in the Ot Danum language and suddenly notices that I understand him and he can understand bits of my East Kalimantan Dayak and Tombulu languages things really become good. “So your son is married the daughter of a Dayak leader in Samarinda?” he asks with disbelief in his eyes. Yes. I tell him about the huge wedding party and the Tombulu culture in North Sulawesi. The ceremonies, the knowhow about medicinal plants, their democratic system, there are so many similarities, we are almost family!

Now Abeng tells me about an event he is organizing later this year. He asks me to come to the far upriver location and talk to the tribes about the sugar palm and rattan and other alternatives for the oil palms. Alternatives that do not take away their land the way oil palms do. He will organize the transport, the accommodation, he will take me to the forest. It is only one day travelling upriver by speedboat… Well the rest of this story and how it ends you will have to read in another blog.

Another day we board some motorbikes and a car and head to the village and longhouse of Ensaid Panjang. We pass by long, long lines of cars waiting for a chance to get a tank of gasoline. The roads are thoroughly destroyed by the many trucks that are heavily overloaded beyond the legal capacity with oil palm bunches. White sands poisoned by mercury and cyanide to mine the gold dust. Oil palms that stretch for miles, and no forest. That is our journey. We pass by the imposing Kelam Hill, a huge rock that resembles Uluru near Alice Springs in Australia. Then we cross the bridge and there it is, a beautiful well kept longhouse, or Betang as the local Dayak people call it, with motorbikes parked under it and people passing by with rubber in the baskets they carry on their back. Dogs laze around, pigs snuffle within their fenced in area. A sugar palm grows tall right behind the long house!

We step out of the car and descend from the motorbikes. Richard, Cathy’s producer, immediately approaches a side entrance to take pictures, resulting in a very sharp call from a Dayak. Not a good start… Arriving for the first time in a long house one has to enter from the front end only or bad luck will befall you!

We are quickly brought up to speed on the local situation by Riyanto, a former Catholic novice who studied in Java but married instead, and came back to his longhouse. He even speaks some English. His original Dayak name was Ringan and so he will again be ‘Ringan’ for me from now on! He has set up a small shop, selling mostly goods from Malaysia, nearby the longhouse in a small separate building in which the girls will sleep tonight. The men will sleep in the longhouse.

The longhouse or Betang as it is locally known has the feel of the longhouse in Longnah in the interior of East Kalimantan. But this one is longer, 112 meters, and there are less of the mystical decorations here, fewer hornbills and the conspicuous tree of life of the Kenyah Dayak is absent here. And this tribe of Ensaid Panjang does not have any tattoos and long pierced ears as the Kenyah in Longnah and most of the Dayak tribes do. So many similarities but as many differences too!

Ringan introduces us to the democratically elected head of the longhouse, Mr. Sembai, a very healthy-looking 45-year-old Ensaid Dayak, who receives us with sincere gratitude and a smile that could end the greatest war on earth one would think. He has heard from Ringan who heard from Father Jacques that people from outside want to come and help tell their story to the world. And he is very interested. They have also heard about my coffee drinking habits! We sit cross-legged on the floor of one of the rooms coming out on the long common space of the longhouse without furniture drinking coffee. The Dayak women outside on the large open space sit on the floor weaving using a wooden board attached to ropes from a pole as their only support for their lower back to lean against. They are weaving the traditional cloth for which they are famous. This tradition was saved and stimulated by Father Jacques. He is a loyal friend of the Dayak more so even than a missionary and has been working hard for the Dayak to be proud of their heritage. With help from people from The Netherlands Father Jacques has built them a museum, organized the women’s cooperative, got the local people land certificates, set up the first radio communication, managed schools and a whole range of other pioneering activities. A wonderful force of good and an example to all!

Father Jacques who was on another motorbike arrives and immediately the women come to him and greet him affectionately and with kindness in their eyes. Father Jacques jokes about how pretty they looked when he first visited this longhouse 42 years ago. He sure knows how to make everyone laugh. Then he asks loudly why the tuak is hidden. We all sit down on some special guest mats spread out on the floor and several women (responsible for hiding the rice wine!) come with bottles and cans of wine, each tasting different. On average they have 13% alcohol and it takes about three weeks to make the tuak. Each of the elderly women, the only ones allowed to make the wine, has her own recipe.

With the alcoholic beverage now in the middle of the gallery more and more young men start coming back from their rubber gardens and shifting cultivation fields to join us with their wives and children. There are so many young people in Ensaid Panjang and they are all so relaxed and happy. Children are carried by the head of the longhouse as often as by the women. Cathy and Richard are asking questions about how the Dayak choose a leader, what laws they have, what they do when they get sick, etc. And the answers come so naturally. Basically they have each other and help each other. And this community is thriving.

But when we ask why there are no other longhouses anymore… The eyes turn sad. “No more forest, no more trees to build a new longhouse. When this one needs to be replaced we don’t know anymore… Already there is no more ironwood for our roof. And now the last Mabang trees as a second class wooden shingle are also almost gone…” They tell that there are two other groups of their tribe that wished they could live in a longhouse but it is no longer possible. They sold their land to oil palm companies, that were using unscrupulous people that could smear honey around their lips and spoke words that sounded like a song in their ears, because they believed them. Afterwards they learned that not all people can be trusted by their words alone as they, the Dayak, can…

Then Riang urges us to get ready. We have to walk very far he says. “Only the fit can come!” Riang warns. Initially we try the small boats but unfortunately none can deal with my weight so walking is the only option, all the way, for everybody. We pass by rubber tree gardens, the tapping of the trees now being the main occupation of the Dayak. Then we pass by the shifting cultivation fields with rice, cassava, corn, pepper, bananas, etc. After several ‘bridges’ consisting of slippery, wiggly stems over small streams and Richard Hearman doing a great job of entertaining the group with his somewhat clumsy antics we reach the swamp land and low forests. There is still some rattan growing here. But the product is of little value for the Dayak, as they only harvest the raw material and the rattan is taken away to be processed in Java. Then after more than an hour of walking we reach our destination. An intact forest. Finally!

I exchange knowledge about the jungle trees with the Dayak in our group. They tell me about trees yielding fruits that I did not know one could eat and I teach them about medicinal plants in the forest that they did not know yet how to use. I feel at home in this forest with these people.

There is a small and simple nursery here where Riang and his friends, who are trying to keep the oil palm plantations out, are growing Mabang seedlings. These are the trees that can yield the thin slices of wood as roofing material some day. If the forest lasts… Riang is sad because too many of his carefully collected and transplanted seedlings have died. Then he tells us that this forest together with one other patch, represent the last fragments of village forest they have. Only here can they still hunt for deer and wild boar. They do not hunt birds and monkeys. But now the neighboring village has sold their land to an oil palm company and the same company is trying to force them to sell this beautiful peat swamp forest as well. Their village head has been on several ‘trips’ to Java already and he keeps telling the tribe to just go ahead and sell their land. “It will all be okay” he tells them. However Riang and his friends are not to be fooled that easily! The Village head lives outside the longhouse but the tribe in the longhouse wants to stay together. Suddenly I notice a fresh cut in the bark of a tree and red paint… The oil palm people have been here! This is far beyond the land of the neighboring village! How can they stop this criminal encroachment???!! How can the poor people of the Ensaid Panjang longhouse prevent such powerful companies from stealing their land? Ringan tells of another piece of his land that another oil palm company just took, bulldozed and planted with oil palms. He and others protested but the company just threatened to sue them! Riang says, even though his life is threatened he and his younger brother will not give up their right to the plot of land and continue fighting for justice.

We walk back, the impending disaster weighs heavy on us and not much is said on the way to the longhouse. We reach the longhouse before sunset and women are busy cooking. The sunset is stunning red. Beautiful for pictures yes, but the deep red and purple are the result of forest fires. I decide not to destroy the special moment for the group. Jean Kern, who left the day before, has given the long house some good toilets and bathrooms. He built them to improve their sanitary conditions and so he could bring a group of Dutch children from Globalteers for an exchange program. He also helped them with the materials for a water pipe from a mountain spring where the tribe will protect the forest to preserve their water supply. The river can no longer be used as a source of drinking water. What happened to the river? Poisoned. Oil palm pesticides. Now they have to boil the water from the mountain spring and spend so much money just to get drinking water! One liter of petroleum costs 8000 Rupiah and can boil 8 liters of water. With 2.5 liters of water per person per day this means they have to spend more than 30% of their income on water!! I know what to do when we come back here!

In the evening a noisy generator lights some energy efficient lamps in the long house. No connection to electricity supply here. No phone signal either. They have a special team that maintains the water supply and one that collects the fee for the three hours of electrical light in the evening, when they sit together in front of one small television set that is put in the door of Sembai’s room. They chat, they laugh, and then they start asking us questions. Who are you, pointing their fingers at different persons each time, and each of us tells their short life story and I translate. The children and women love listening in and have no fear of the white people and touch us without hesitation. I learn more of their language and they are amazed how I do it, not realizing the many similarities with my other local languages.

Then one of the older men, named Anton, takes on a serious pose… “You know”, he said, “once our tribe had a very strong warrior. His name was Tua Tertung. Besides being big bodied and strong he also knew magic. And when the Japanese came the Dutch people asked him for help. And he did! He saved them. And then as a reward the Dutch took him to The Netherlands. And it is said that he raised a family there and that one day his sons may come back…” Now Anton hesitates and all the men around him look in great expectation. “Are you related to Tua Tertung?…” I feel so touched and honored! I can only smile and tell him that I am just the son of a Dutch farmhand. They all nod a bit disappointed and that night on the ironwood floor that still stems from the old longhouse, hundreds of years old, under the mosquito net and next to Dr. Eduardo Dias and Richard Hearman, I dream of the great Tua Tertung.

I have waited as long as I could but I cannot hold back any longer and have to raise from the hard wooden floor to which I need to recondition myself. I want to go out to see the sun rise. Through the squeaking door I exit into the dark, walking barefoot over the wet grass to the river, soon joined by Eduardo who I have woken up. My only shoes lost their soles in the swamp yesterday and there are no flip-flops (aka thongs) my size in Indonesia. We let the cool and slightly tea colored water run over our feet, listen to the cicadas, and watch squirrels. We see several people leave the longhouse on motorbikes and walking with enormous rubber boots to their fields to go tapping. They tap their trees even on this Sunday morning when all the Catholic Dayak will walk several kilometers to go to church. I go to the back of the longhouse to see the sugar palm and tell Ringan and his friends how they can use the spongy material from between the leaves to clog the holes in their boat. I teach them how the roots can cure kidney stones and the young boiled roots can reduce toothache. I tell them how the powder from the leaves can make the skin smoother. They only know how to eat the palm fruits and the palm heart. Mixed with fern leaves they make great cooking! Amazingly, they do not know yet how to tap the sugar palm though most Dayak tribes do. I promise that next time I visit, I will teach them the art of tapping. And palm wine making!

Soon we return to Kobus house, then go to the harbor, the city center, we buy lots of delicious durians, we look at the churchyard house for guests, and many more visitors drop in to talk to me. Father Piet, another missionary from The Netherlands, comes in to taste the whiskey that Father Jacques got from a visitor and to listen to my newest jokes. When he laughs his belly shakes and tears roll over his cheeks. So rewarding to tell him jokes! But we also talk about energy and I can actually get him to join me in thinking about using wood gas for electricity. He has studied all kinds of technology before coming to Indonesia and is now, besides the construction and machine field, in the composting business, using human excrement or night soil as some call it. His 8-hectare farm is lush and green!

Then a last glass of tuak on the terrace before we go to our shared bedrooms in Kobus house. Now I am back where I began this blog. Dwi is calling us to get into the car. We go to the sugar palm village of Tertung!

Final remarks

Much more happened, but I have written more already than I anticipated. It is so good that there will be a film to tell the story of the Dayak, the forest, the orangutans, the climate and what we can do to still prevent a disaster and make a difference. I am so looking forward to seeing these young eco-warriors from around the world that will join me on the 10th of September! They have to tell the story, and I shall attempt to be their guide. It will be their connection to millions of young people that will bring results. These young people still will decide where they will go and what they will do. They still can bring change.

Willie Smits