The Eco-Warriors of Kalimantan

The afternoon sun caresses the face of an old man sitting cross legged on the wooden floor, eight meters high above ground. With a machete, he slices thin strips of bamboo, which he will later use to weave baskets. Further down the longhouse hall, a younger man with a withered leg mends fishing nets that hang from the ceiling. His arms and chest are adorned by Iban Dayak tattoos made of soot and sugar-cane juice. Only the elderly, disabled, breast feeding and young ones remain at home during harvest time. Everyone else will spend weeks toiling in the rain forest fields, coming home long after sunset, and sometimes spending the night in temporary shelters.

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The Dayak tribes in Kalmantan’s jungle used to be known for their head-hunting skills and taste for human meat. Nowadays, they lead a more tranquil life in organized communities, sharing their homestead with up to fifty different families in separate apartments in a wooden longhouse. Almost completely self-sufficient, they still fish and hunt for food, grow cereals in their fields and pick their vegetables and fruits from the jungle. Even their stimulants come from just outside their door; they tap their palm wine directly from the trees and chew betel nuts for a natural high.

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But this National Geographic-worthy image is slowly dissipating. Large areas of rainforest have been cut down to make room for palm oil plantations, and diamond, coal and gold mines. Many tribes have sold their lands to make fast money, blind to the consequences. Orangutans who once roamed freely all over Borneo are now resigned to small protected areas in the national parks. Plants that have grown abundantly for millennia can no longer thrive under the limited shade between oil palms. The biodiversity is affected to such a degree that in only a few more years the little that is left of the jungle will be gone. And with it the orangutans, macaques, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, orange snakes and sun bears that cannot find enough food in an altered environment.

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Luckily, some tribes refuse to sell their native souls. As children of the forest, they have taken on the role of protector and savior. They are very well aware that once their rainforest is gone, so are they. As their forefathers, they have always lived off the land, eating whatever grows in their natural garden: coconuts, cacao, wild ginger, bamboo, pineapples, bananas, mushrooms and so on. It’s a garden that doesn’t have to be pruned, fertilized or watered, everything feeds off each other. No plant is superfluous. All have a purpose in the play of light and shade, and all of them make perfect sense and all have flourished there since the beginning of time. Until now.

Local and foreign NGOs are trying to slow down the devastation. By supporting the tribes and satisfying acute needs, the chiefs will not be so easily tempted to sell off forests to large companies. Turbines have been mounted in adjacent rivers to generate electricity for the villages and reduce emission from gasoline-powered generators. Home-stays have been constructed to allow tourists to stay the night in reasonable comfort in a Dayak village, providing the tribes with an additional source of income. Even the government is offering a helping hand by distributing seedlings that can be grown and sold expensively to Arabian perfume manufacturers.

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Here, the few tourists that visit actually make a positive difference. Every dollar they spend with the tribes will not only help save their ancient traditions, but will also let the rain forest endure a little bit longer. The way to Kapuas Hulu is rough: twenty long hours from Pontianak over bumpy roads, non-existent roads or mud-holes, depending on how lucky you have been with the weather. And once there, you’ll find no famous monuments or ruins. No tourist attractions. Just rainforests. Trees. The odd orangutan family. Rivers. And traditional villages. It may not be an easy road to travel, and it’s definitely not always a comfortable visit. But when you sit down for dinner on the floor of a longhouse, eating rice and fish with one hand, and holding a glass of palm wine in another, while watching lizards chase spiders on the walls, it will all be worth it. It is one of the few places in the world where nothing has changed for hundreds of years.

Except for the TVs, of course. And the modern clothes. And the cans of Red Bull.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. novoe slovo
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 05:34:25

    Hi Kristi, thank you for the updated info you’ve posted on Thorn Tree. I’m also heading to Kalimantan now. Just in case – do you have any idea of the price for boats upriver from Putussibau direction Tanjung Lokang? And could you probably advise me on the locations to be visited from Putussibau – i.e. what did you like most? Thank you and happy travels!

    Reply

    • Kristi D
      Feb 27, 2014 @ 22:15:28

      Hi, sorry I didn’t see your comment before now. Perhaps you’ve already been to Putussibau? I posted a lot of info on LonelyPlanet.com’s Thorn Tree with all the information I had gathered and prices and recommendations. You can search under my name “NomadWorld”. From what I remember traveling up the rivers was expensive as they had to charter a specific type of boat and we were on a tight budget. Or you could travel with the local boats, but in that case you had to speak a bit of Indonesian. Have fun in Putussibau!

      Reply

  2. viraindohoy
    Aug 18, 2014 @ 13:13:34

    Hi Kristi,
    I’m planning a trip to Putussibau, actually to Betung Kerihun National Park through Putussibau. If I’m not mistaken, there are flights between Pontianak and Putussibau, right?
    And what kind of activities did you do around the Kapuas river? anything recommended? for the record, I haven’t done much extreme activities and most likely don’t intend to.. So maybe any recommended relatively safe activites around Putussibau or Kapuas River?
    Thank you.

    Reply

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