Orangutan rescue mission July 2010 (part 3)

Waking up after 7 hours of sleep. The palm wine helped to overcome the heat and the squeaky bed and the very thin mattress. Nevertheless I have just like pastor Maessen a room for myself. In the other rooms there are more than 50 people sleeping together and I am sure it must be warm in there and I should have the least reason to complain. I hope that today I can live up to the expectations of these local Dayaks. Last night’s dinner and meeting was extremely intense. Several times I noticed my knuckles turning white in held back anger…

Last night at dinner several priests had already arrived. Also Yosep Lejo was there. Then pak Basah, a sixty something years old Dayak who does only approximately know how old he is, although I am sure there is some fabricated date of birth on his identity paper, arrives and joins us at the table. Soon Victor, another leader of the Mendalam tribe comes in as well. They only now show what the program is going to be about… They want me and Yosep to give them fighting spirit. They want me to talk about why our living environment is so important and what they can do to preserve it. This is their meeting, not another one organized by some NGO where they get fed well and there are drinks and for which they get their transport paid. NO!!! says pak Basah. This is them! The local people want this and they will all bring 10 kg rice and pay 10.000 Rupiah each and will pay for their own transport. This time it is the local people that want this to happen! We want change, and we have to do it ourselves, we cannot just depend upon others to help us, because nothing changes and we have been cheated too many times already! I am so touched, I almost cannot hold back my tears… It seems this is for real, the last stand, and these tribes are doing it…

During the dinner I hear horrible stories of betrayal, manipulation and conflicts. How outside parties try to set up the tribes against each other, how in November 2005 Minister Kaban of Forestry finally came to them and they received him so happily. He said he was proud of them and that he would protect their traditional forest and hunting grounds. The Mendalam Dayak gave him a real Mandau, a traditional Dayak sword of great value, with real human hair and used to cut heads. A few months after his visit their new friend signed the document for the Toras Benua Sukses timber company to take the forest of the Dayaks!!! How betrayed they felt again! Landslides followed, the deterioration of their living environment continued as did the marginalization. They show me two thick bundles of documents. They are full with letters, lists signed by fingerprints and simple scribbles, pictures of demonstrations. I ask Hardi to take photographs of each page, which he does while sweat constantly drips from his forehead holding the heavy camera steady for photographing the documents.
I ask them what they expect now after 12 years of nonstop struggle. I almost wished I had not asked the question… The grooves in Basah’s face seem deeper and more worried than the lines already permanently etched in his look, carrying the suffering of years. I can see silent tears almost flowing. We are tired Dr. Willie, we are tired. Soon the moment will come that we have no other choice but to physically fight and protect our forest home, whatever the consequences.
We have tried everything that could possibly be expected from us and we continue to be simply marginalized. All of us at the table sit silent, understanding the gravity of his words…
Had it not been for the palm wine, I am not sure that I would have slept despite the great lack of sleep of the earlier days…

That was about last night, this morning I woke up at sunrise, six o’clock sharp and wrote the above. Now it is past ten in the evening and most of the Dayaks went away to watch some soccer game! I am sure had it not been for television they could have gone on until the morning! So much sadness, anger and determination! It was an amazing experience for me as I have not had earlier. The honesty, sometimes brutal, but once the first statements were made everybody stood up one by one and all committed to the same goal: Keep your hands of our forest! The forest is our home!! But let me take you through the long day of meetings step by step.

Breakfast, only fried rice. Besides not eating rice anymore there is also some meat in it so I just eat the fried egg. Not too many vegetarians in the interior here. I remember the long house in Longnah Es in East Kalimantan, 30 years ago. There were still girls with long ears that walked topless in the village. And in the evening the meat with maggots and how I had no choice but to eat it in order not to insult the host. Here you cannot that easily refuse food and drinks offered.

The meeting starts an hour late. The groups from Mendalam are late, as are the people from the Punan Phukat who had to travel for 24 hours down river to attend this meeting! There are 12 tribes that have made the sacrifice to come instead of the expected 5, truly amazing. There are the Limbai, Kanjilu and Dayak Desah tribes, all from the Nanga Pinoh region. Then there are the Melawi, the Punan, the Durum and Kayaan tribes, the Iban, the Kanduk people and then the Taman people of the Kapuas and Embaloh tribes. The latter two are most known for the sugar palm tapping skills! Everywhere are colorful ash trays. Fortunately the big open space ventilates well, actually there is so much light that the projector hardly can throw an image on the screen.

We start! After a short introduction I am asked to start my presentations. With numerous cups of coffee and glasses, I spend the next 7 hours lecturing. They are completely silent! Not even a smokers cough! I talk about Easter Island and the other ecological disasters, I show them how bad the oil palms are planned. In between pastor Arifin manages to take a picture of the spies of the police that have shown up and were trying to listen in from behind a wall! They really hate it that they have been found out and quickly leave! The authorities are worried about this tribal meeting. They have been invited but nobody shows up! Also the WWF people have refused to come. The Dayaks say that they only come when the government invites them. Or perhaps they are afraid about what will be discussed here or the political consequences? I took a picture of the strange orangutan poster they had made, of which I could not understand what the intended message may have been.
After the incident with the spies I continue lecturing about sugar palms. People are amazed. They have so many and they never knew all those uses and benefits! I suggest a deal, me bringing in my patented mini factories to environmentally friendly process the sugar palm juice locally and they protecting wildlife. They love the pictures with the thousands of farmers from North Sulawesi and two of the ten people from West-Kalimantan that were sent by the bishop to visit my factory in Tomohon remember them and enthusiastically recall their observations. Sugar palms are a winner, a true alternative that helps reforestation and even food security! Finally some happy faces!

During lunch I answer as many mails as possible and deal with phone calls. Then more lecturing till almost six o’clock. Lots of questions. Now Yosep Lejo presents something about village rights. Many more questions and now the emotions really burst out! There are no good words for the government I can tell you! Not for the local parliament, district head, governor or minister.

After dinner the last session starts. Now the first leaders stand up and do the curhat, short for curah hati, meaning throw out what is on your liver. And throw out they do… A blind man from Data Dian named Lander says “Save our forest!” Others start to reveal bits and pieces of what is going on. There are so many names of people, villages and so many dates that it is hard to complete the puzzle. But I believe I have the story of what happened and what almost has lead to a tribal warfare, complete now. Let me try, because I think it is a really important real practice example of how the timber companies trick the people and break the laws and make use of corruption.

A very poorly rated timber company named PT Toras Benua Sukses, had set its eyes on the last good lowland rain forest of the Mendalam watershed. The company is for 10% owned by a Mr. Mahadi Mahmud, who seems to come from Putussibau and is the president director. Then 70% by a Mr. Arifin, the commissary of the company that no one has ever seen and 20% by Soedarso Luslim who is a director in the company. There is a Ir. Firman who has to do the actual work in the company. The Toras company had tried to socialize the idea of taking the timber of the Mendalam tribes and the tribe straight away refused. The Bupati already had given them permission through letter number 522. The tribes started demonstrations, wrote dozens of letters, had audiences everywhere many times and after a big demonstration the Minister of Forestry landed by helicopter in their village.
Minister Kaban was very nice and promised to protect the Mendalam forest. On April 6th 2006 however he issued decree 107/2006 declaring the recommendation letter of the Bupati (district head) void and directly giving the Toras company the concession rights to 24.920 hectares of the Mendalam forest! The tribes were furious and protested everywhere but to no avail. Some of their people were thrown in jail and they were preparing to go with 500 people to the jail to fee their tribe members. The jail wisely released the men before it came to the unwanted visit. But their strong stand made it impossible for the Toras company to build a log pond and to start logging. The 6000 people of the Mendalam tribes stood firm as one! No logging in their ancestral forest, where their forefathers are buried, where they hunt for their food, the forest that protects the fish in their rivers.
For a while little was heard, but then in secret the Toras company started surveying land from a nearby village called Urang Nusa. During their second survey they were found out by the female sub village head who brought the team to the newly installed and still inexperienced village head. He let them continue under the condition that they would report the results of the survey to him, which of course never happened. Urang Nusa is a different tribe and they had lived in peace with the Mendalam tribes for centuries. Over the last 30 years all of their forest has been repeatedly logged by a variety of companies so that there is no commercial forest left anymore.

Roni, a young person originally from the village of Martinus but now living in Urang Nusa because he married there, tells with true emotion in his voice what happened next. The Toras company went to some people from the Urang Nusa village and promised that when they would be allowed to cut timber there (which there is no more in the Urang Nusa district) that they would provide completely free electricity and pay the village 500 Million Rupiah per year! Wow, what a deal! So many of these remote villages long for the day that they too can enjoy light in the evenings and 500 Million is a lot of money for such a remote village. Many people were against it but 9 persons had a secret meeting that was overheard by some other villagers.

Here the internal conflict started between members of the tribe…
One of the village heads and one part of the village now supported the contract with the Toras timber company. It turned out that five of those people were paid over one million Rupiah per month in secret. These people tried to influence the rest of the tribe. Then the company came back for another socialization of their plans how to “help” the tribe. The way how they manipulated the people was typical. They asked the people to sign a blank piece of paper and it was stamped. They would fill in the rest. Then they came back another time for the final discussion. According the law there should be a paragraphed document that needed to be discussed in open by both parties, but no such thing took place. But the document was only on the screen of a laptop computer. And in the Ministerial decree all of a sudden the Kapuas watershed was added (by hand!) to the terrain to be logged!

In the ensuing confusion people were pressured to just sign the papers that they agreed with the agreement, not on the document themselves. It turned out that the text was changed. There were a lot people commenting in very loud voices and I am not sure if I have every detail right though. No longer was there free electricity as promised early on. Now every family was given a onetime “subsidy” of 750.000 Rupiah for bringing in electricity. The fine print now also said that they would get 25.000 Rupiah per m3 of timber that Toras would remove from their lands. The trick was there was no timber on the land of the village of Urang Nusa! So the company would never pay the villagers because they were going to get the timber from the Mendalam land, from the tribal land where they had been resolutely refused for years! And now, just for good practice, they had personally and completely illegal added the Kapuas river shed in the area to be logged as well! Another area that was off limits! They showed an unclear map with coordinates that nobody of the villagers understood. They created confusion! And no copies of any document were left in the village, the company took all with them! Then a generator was handed over to the group of people that had done the lobbying and they now, unlike the rest of the village have a brightly lit part of the village!

Now the problems really started! The Mendalam tribe heard that the Urang Nusa tribe had given the Toras company rights to log THEIR ancestral lands. Now the situation really got dangerous and threats were directed at the village that they felt had betrayed the other tribes. In the mean time the company wasted no time and immediately started making a road into the watershed of the Mendalam tribe. And they showed a map with the stamps of the Ministry of Forestry that their logging had already been approved. Amazing!!! I have been an official of the Ministry of Forestry and they have to have nurseries, do tree mapping, all those things that have been worked out in detail, here they only went in with the machines and started! Everything illegal, but legal because the stamps are there! How much was paid for those stamps?… How are we ever going to save our forests in Indonesia with such practices!

From here I could pick up the story from pak Basah. He told me that the Mendalam people armed themselves and went into the forest and found the new road already entering their forest! They threatened the loggers and they wisely retreated. But they left the machines there to be guarded by some people from Urang Nusa… And there was news that a convoy of 15 new heavy logging equipment was on its way there as well from Pontianak! I was truly amazed at how well the tribes still communicated even all the way with Pontianak and exchanged information with their cell phones. The Mendalam tribe continued its actions with more letters, more audiences.

But the local parliament that is composed of locally chosen representatives did do nothing. They said that it was up to the Bupati, the district head. When the tribe found out that the Minister of Forestry was coming to Putussibau they took advantage and forced themselves in and handed over a letter to the Minister refusing the activities of the Toras company. The Minister only answered “when the people here in Putussibau do not complain about the water why should you then?!” Understandably frustration kept growing. All those visits to remote Pontianak. They even collected money so representatives of the tribe could travel to Jakarta to lobby, all to no avail. No wonder poor Basah almost cried when he said “We are tired, very tired”.

When the representatives of the tribes asked the police to help keep peace the police did nothing. They just asked Roni to help guard the peace in the village. Roni answered he would do as long as the Toras company would not show themselves, when they would show up again he would not guarantee anything! That brings us to the present situation. The tribal meeting. How to deal with the internal conflict between the Mendalam tribe and the Urang Nusa tribe. How to deal with the Toras company. But the meeting has been presented to the local government as a meeting to learn about nature from me and about economic alternatives and the official title is “How to love our ancestral lands”.

I am so amazed to see all those people today in the meeting, all of them having sacrificed so much to come, all longing for respect for their traditional ways… When I lecture they are all dead silent, full with attention. The LCD projector of the church gives a yellow picture but the information still comes across. I make lots of jokes about pastor Jacques and palm wine which always loosens up things. Father Jacques Maessen is much better than me at sitting cross-legged for 12 hours in a day than I am! These Dayaks are too. Even the six o’clock morning mass in the small chapel with Dayak ornaments is done with the attendees sitting on pillows instead of the normal Spartan wooden benches. Walking through the long house, all those empty rooms, no wonder that the words of things like chairs and table have all been taken from other languages. In my Tombulu language from North Sulawesi for example a chair is called “kadeira” from the Portuguese.
Now back to the evening session. Yosep Lejo talks about some laws that might help the villagers but the outburst of anger and emotion now clearly lays bare what is brewing inside those people! Those laws are made to divide us! All those classes, rules, our village and traditional rules are just being stepped on! They just want to confuse us so they can manipulate us! We don’t ever want logging in our lands anymore! Franciscus Pramono, a Javanese but already for a long time part of the community in the Kapuas watershed says “Refuse Toras! All our water and fish will be gone soon!” Another leader stands up and shouts: “We can do it ourselves! No NGO! We are Dayak, we share a common belief, we are one, we all are sad and angry!”. An older Temunggung, a Dayak Kayan leader named Benjamin Sadar, stands up and says: “We were born here! This is our land! And we must keep it good for 7 future generations to come! Outsiders, leave your hands from our forest! We need it!”

Now the people of the problematic village stand up, first Dailan from Urang Nusa. We are cheated! We have no forest anymore! They just want to use us to get access to and steal the timber of the Mendalam watershed! We don’t want Toras! Roni says: “Please help us! Our village is divided because of this Toras company, our peace is gone”. The village head of Urang Nusa also stands up and says that they never wanted war with the Mendalam and he cries when he tells about the broken peace and harmony in his village because of all those dishonest outsiders and their lies. No! Enough, we all have to refuse Toras, these bastards! We want peace again not all this pro and contra with all tribes here! No conflict!
Every time the statements are made there is roaring applause! The unity is back! There is peace again between the tribes! They all will stand firm! And they will do it themselves. Some people that I will not mention here say words like they are slowly killing us and we need to shed blood when necessary! We have no other way. No wonder all those institutions and NGO’s that had been invited did not dare to come, they must have known much more than me being local. But I come here to tell the people that the Indonesian law actually still acknowledges traditional rights above the new land rules. I tell them about other tribes around the world that have had their claims recognized, from Indians in North and South America to Aboriginals in Australia. That their cause, of you who are at the edge of the mountains, the last vestiges of the rain forest with oil palms approaching, that your cause needs to be known by the world! And that there are better ways to survive for example by using the sugar palms. I tell them that they cannot continue to rely upon fish from the sea here a thousand kilometers from the sea! That they cannot depend upon imported vegetables and fruits all the way from Java! They need organic farming here!

The soccer games will start at ten o’clock and most would like to see it, but the tension and the spirit is so high, nobody cares anymore! A team is formed to formulate the action plan. I am asked to join it but politely refuse because this is their cause, and although I support it, they should continue to do it as they do now, by themselves. This is so real, there should not be the slightest doubt that this is the tribes talking and not because of the influence of anyone outside, including myself. The bell of the chapel rings. It is ten o’clock and the people all move to the sleeping quarters while the team that has been selected starts to work on the resolution for tomorrow. I go back to my room and write this report, rather overwhelmed. Pram has filmed the whole thing, the raw emotion, the outbursts the tears, the determination. I will put up some clips of these formidable Dayaks standing up for their forest on the Internet, hoping that in some small way some people will take notice and help us to help them. Injustice is no option!