Ninety-eight percent Air humidity, even the local Dayaks are sweating. The sun has just gone under and the thermometer shows a sweltering 33 degrees Celsius. There is absolutely no breeze whatsoever. We are in Deo Soli, meaning only god, the Catholic Church compound located in Putussibau, in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. In the nearby kitchen, across from the perfectly kept clean tiled gallery on which all rooms come out, I can hear there is some activity indicating that there will be an evening meal in another hour or so. Soon the priests will have their vesper prayer in the small chapel at the end of the gallery. Some dogs are barking in the distance sometimes overwhelming the frog and cicada sounds that form a constant jungle back ground noise from the swamp surrounding this compound. While I type here in the dark, electricity just gone off, with the screen of my notebook computer attracting more flying insects, I can feel how my legs and arms get punctured by numerous mosquito bites. Welcome to the hot heart of Borneo.
I am in Putussibau, the name of the district capital here, consisting of two words, “putus”, meaning where it stops or is broken, and “sibau”, which is the name of the river that at this point enters Indonesia’s longest river, the Kapuas. Sibau is the name of a jungle fruit tree that once was abundant along this side river of the mighty Kapuas. We are a few kilometers north of the equator and at about one thousand kilometers up river from Pontianak where this endlessly meandering river enters the sea, and the altitude here is still only a little over 100 meters. But from Putussibau the last territories of the inner tribes start. Here the rivers become faster flowing with lots of rapids and the altitude increases quickly in the many smaller water sheds. In the distance, shortly after landing, I could see the many quirky shaped white chalk mountain formations, home to millions of swallows producing the nests for the Chinese bird nest soup that together with the traditional rattan and perfume timber make up much of the economic income for the local people.
I was here a few years ago in 2005 in a meeting with the local tribes that brought me to tears. At that time there were no oil palm plantations yet in this extremely remote area in the heart of Borneo. The fight was with the timber concessions and the many environmental problems they caused. Floods that never were there before, rivers getting shallow, fish disappearing, landslides everywhere, the animals of the forest gone, the water muddy and no longer drinkable, diseases becoming more common than ever before, basically the life as these Dayaks had known it was crumbling before their eyes. On top of that they faced manipulation, lies, bribery by all these outside parties, including threats. Now Indonesia’s largest palm oil producer, Sinar Mas, has moved in and started land clearing, boding bad news for the orangutans in this area and most likely to further bring problems here for the local people as well… Just now a Dayak leader, whose name I shall not mention for his own security, mentions me that when they refused the presence of the timber concession on their ancestral lands to the Minister of Forestry the, at that time governor got so angry that he declared: “the government can bring life, but remember we can also bring death!”
Unimaginable! These people have lived in balance with their environment and with their own language and culture for millennia and now some outsiders, for that is what they are, are just coming in and destroying their life. The analogy with what is happening with the orangutans could not be clearer to me. Pastor John Suri of SMM (Serikat Maria Momfortan), a catholic denomination here in the interior of Borneo, talks at length with me. The stories again are heart breaking, as they were in 2005 when I lectured about the environment to many of the same people that are now gathering here in Putussibau to spend two days with me and Yosep Lejo, an activist and environmentalist who now lives in and works from Pontianak through his OEDAS foundation.
Yosep is a Mendalam Dayak, born in the forest from the tribe that lives in the nearby watershed of the Sibau river, where these local people try to defend their forest and their way of life.
Father John used to live and work here with the local people. He cares for the environment, he cares for his flock. He was there when it all happened, eventually culminating in the large demonstrations against the timber concessions destroying their watershed. He tells about how people tried to refuse him entrance to meetings with the local district head when he was accompanying his people. Church has no business here, he was told. He said that he was not there to chose sides in terms of the local people and the government, but to take the side of justice and righteousness. The local people respect father John, this young simple local pastor, and they knew what risks he was taking. They would coordinate that whenever he had to move between his different church communities in the remote wilderness various groups would bring him to one side of the river and other groups would wait to receive him there, so as to protect him from “unexpected” accidents. Two years ago father John was transferred to Sintang. When I ask him whether the bishop perhaps did not like it for him to be so involved with what are now political issues he vehemently denies. But Basah and Victor, two of the Dayak leaders who share the table with the pastor and me, say that the tribes are convinced that the church gave in to pressure from the government, to isolate the tribes, and therefore pastor John had to be separated from his people.
It is almost time for dinner, there is light now, I am sweating profusely and will have to go throw some buckets of water over me to somewhat freshen up for the dinner. A quick recap of today, for surely once we sit at the table the stories and perhaps some more palm wine are to take my time and concentration…
At three o’clock this morning the security at the CICO compound in Bogor knocks on the door. At least this night I have had three hours of sleep. Yesterday it was only one hour sleep and an additional half hour in the traffic towards the BOS Board of Trustees meeting in the luxurious Meridien Hotel in Jakarta. No time for showering, too little time and I also do not want to wake up Richard and Simon who will join me to Kalimantan tomorrow, a day later, for the small airplane can only take 4-5 passengers. Dudung arrives and immediately the two of us head for the Jakarta airport. Amazing how crowded this airport can be at 5 in the morning!
We meet up with Pram, officially Pramoedya, one of my best guys with an orangutan tattooed on his left shoulder. He will document our trip and will train more people in the undercover work and do more investigations himself. A bit later Hardi, the founder and director of COP (Center for Orangutan Protection) also shows up. Last night after the BOS meeting we had another O-Team meeting in Bogor and consequently Hardi was very late getting back to Jakarta. We have made some good progress and an important meeting with the director general of nature conservation and forest protection is coming up in West-Kalimantan soon. But that is another story. We check in, go through the usual cues with pushy people and sit in the Batavia plane. Got a half hour of sleep on the short flight of one hour and fifteen minutes. In Pontianak pastor Jacques Maessen is waiting for us. But there is a problem. Last night I got an SMS from Gerhard the German pilot of the missionary company that operates the Cessna’s. They have an inspection coming up and not enough flying hours left for us. Putussibau is twice as far as Sintang… That is a ride of almost 20 hours on bad roads… The prospect of losing so much time is not good. But we walk to the small hangar and weigh ourselves and our luggage. Great, I lost 7 kilograms! Then we have to decide. There are four hours of flying left. If we go to Sintang first and then on to Putussibau that’s it. All four hours gone. What about Simon, Richard and his wife Robin who are coming tomorrow?…
Luck! We can get on the twice weekly Trigana flight to Putussibau! Some friend of pastor Jacques manages to get us five tickets and we go back to the terminal to catch the flight. Now the Cessna can be used tomorrow for the second group and Dudung and Hardi will have to find a way to get from Putussibau to Sintang tomorrow. And after our rescue operations we can still be picked up with one group from Sintang. Off we go in the small Trigana airplane. Loads of oil palms eating into the forest everywhere beneath us when there are gaps in the clouds.
Putussibau airstrip. This airport has a fence! We are met by pastor Gun, a local Dayak. We check into our rooms in the Catholic compound and we get some food. Then off to hire a car and start our survey. Opposite the shop where we hire a car there are a lot of bird cages hanging in front of the telephone shop. A Chinese shop owner talks with me about his hobby and gradually I bring the conversation to orangutans. Well a few weeks ago he was offered one! Actually already four or five times, because people know he likes animals. But his wife does not like orangutans because of their children. So he just sticks to birds. How much? Well it varies from 200.000 to 800.000 Rupiah for one baby (22-88 USD!). A policeman, sergeant Eko comes into the shop. So I also address him. Nice guy, ten years here already. Orangutans? No never seen one with people here. Not sure what to think of him now. Seems highly unlikely. Now the Chinese shopkeeper also starts changing his story…
We get into the hired four wheel drive vehicle and Dudung steers. The steering wheel has considerable free movement and the turning cycle of this Daihatsu even causes difficulties at roundabouts! It looked nice when we hired it but the banging with every hole and the swinging movements make it now look like a much less attractive choice. Anyway, we are looking for the Ministry of Forestry nature conservation office. After some effort we find a small dilapidated house with a sign in front suggesting that this might be the place. We knock on the door and are welcomed to sit down and wait for pak Roman Silaben, a Christian Batak from Sumatra, to appear.
Nice man. He talks openly. He has been here 8 years. Do you like it here? Do you want to move? Well no money for moving unfortunately, the Ministry had cut backs. Three children, their school, guess I will be here for a long time… Orangutans? No. There are only 200 left in the wild around Putussibau according the data from WWF here. Aha they have an office here? Yes the orange large building along the main road. They do education here telling the people not to hunt orangutans. And a few weeks ago Ramon evacuated one of the rare orangutans that was confiscated to IAR’s Ketapang center. The mother had been eaten. In his eight years here he has only found 8 orangutans so far. The first three were brought to Nyaru Menteng, the others to Ketapang, the center that I originally helped set up in the south of West-Kalimantan. But at that time Mrs. Betty was still there and the Gunung Palung Foundation.
So are there still any orangutans to be rescued? No not here in town. Perhaps in the outer villages where there are people setting traps and they may sometimes catch an orangutan. But basically there are only orangutans left around a village where 90% of the people are Muslim and they don’t eat bush meat. Hunting is a problem with the local Dayaks. They eat everything. We tell him about the shopkeeper being offered an orangutan baby. He is genuinely surprised and asks the right questions. Hardi gives away that he was the vice-manager at Nyaru Menteng when Roman brought the orangutans. He now remembers. And pak Willie is the guy that wrote some of those orangutan protection rules! He is a bit shy now, but he is a good guy, stuck in this outpost. Very willing to cooperate. Father Jacques explains him about the new Kobus center and that we can help with a vet or assistance when needed. Roman is very happy, the only vet of Putussibau has left a few months ago to go back to Sumatra. He knows about the Kobus Foundation in Sintang.
We move on to the outskirts of Putussibau. A village named Suawe, with a traditional long house along the Kapuas river where the Dayak community still lives the old way, each family in their own partition. I start asking about palm wine, which brings us to different rooms and eventually to the palm trees. Some drunk kids tell us everything, while taking hundreds of pictures with their cell phones. Some drunk girls on a wooden bench under a sugar palm along the river are drinking palm wine and smoking cigarettes. The village head is also there. Several palm tappers gather and exchange know how about tapping the sugar palms with me. A bit unorganized. The girls bother father Jacques until I tell them that he is a good looking 70 year old pastor!… In between we ask about orangutans. Same information. There are no more here. All eaten a long time ago. All animals are virtually gone. Except some long tail macaques that reproduce very fast.
On the way back to Deo Soli we meet a traditional hunter. He shows us his rifle like blow pipe mix. Using long rubber strips he can shoot a monkey at 100 meters with it! He shows me the poison darts, tipped in the juice of the Antiaris toxicara tree, a kind of a fig that grows here wild and is also an indicator of fertile soil. He has darts that are suitable for monkeys, some for pigs and there are even some that will kill people… His name is Sulang, we take some pictures and he agrees to take Hardi with some other hunters on a trip another time, so Hardi can find out much more. It is now getting dark and we have to get from these bad roads back to the center where the first traditional leaders start arriving. And that is now! I am going to throw some water over me and join the others in the eating room. More tomorrow!