AsiaViews, Edition: 27/VI/September/2009
CLIMATE change is becoming more evident as the earth's temperature rises. In July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated that the previous month of June had seen the world's ocean surface temperature rising to its warmest since 1880, breaking the previous 2005 record. This is nature's way of telling that climate change has become an even more pressing matter.
Far away from all the global clutter of climate-saving efforts, people from a remote East Kalimantan region have made their own breakthrough. They made a commitment to save the forest as a means to deal with climate change. Ever since they made the commitment, illegal logging and unlicensed animal hunting activities in their area have dropped to 0 percent.
They are the Dayak Wehea people living in Muara Wahau and Kombeng district, East Kutai regency. To reach the place where they live, we must undergo a 14-hour trip of combined land and river travel from Balikpapan, capital city of East Kalimantan. For these people, the forest is a source of life, and a guardian against natural disasters. Before taking anything from nature, Dayaks would offer something to the forest spirits first.
Their effort to save the forest began in 2004. Ledjie Taq, chief of the Waheas, pioneered this effort. That time, a forestry concession right-holder company abandoned the forest within their territory. Ledjie saw this as an opportunity. He was certain that the frequent floods and the demise of several animal species were connected with the destruction of forests. He believed that the natural forest is indeed the giver of life, and therefore must be preserved.
On 5 November 2004, a grand meeting was held, attended by chieftains, government officials and common people. The representatives of a conservation organization, The Natural Conservancy (TNC), which had been involved in conservation programs in East Kalimantan since 2001, was also present.
The meeting agreed to protect a 38,000-hectare area of the forest. It means that both the government and the people may only utilize the forest in a limited fashion?a bold action from a legal point of view, because the area is still regarded as a production forest.
Fortunately, the commitment has many firm supporters, among whom are the Regent and provincial administration, the Forestry Department, the Tourism Department and security. A board was then formed to manage the protected forest, the Wehea Protected Forest Management Board.
This management board issued customary regulation No. 01/2005, which prohibits timber logging for personal or economic purposes. It also prohibits land clearing for farming purposes, and protects animals within the territory from hunting.
People use nearby lands around their village to farm. Wahea forest itself is a three-hour drive from their village, and is traditionally reserved as a conservation zone. Exploiting the riches of Wahea forest is only allowed if permitted by village administration officials and the management board.
Under this management board, a forest ranger patrol group called Petkuey Mahuey (PM) is assembled. Its members are the local people themselves, old and young alike. Natives as well as newcomers are involved.
Around 24,000 people live in two districts in Wahea territory, with backgrounds ranging from Wehea native tribe, other Dayak tribes, and newcomers. Some 5,234 people from the total population are Wehea natives. Newcomers are usually transmigrants, and logging workers who decided to settle down in the area.
They would each take turns to live in the forest for one month, leaving their farms, homes, and families behind. The management board compensates their service with a Rp1,000,000, a meager amount compared to their sacrifice of staying on guard 24 hours a day for a whole month. They do this simply because of their love for the forest.
Ahmad Fuadi, TNC's Communications Director, recognizes the people?s huge responsibility towards forest conservation. In his visit to the forest some time ago, Fuadi witnessed their dedication. ?It was midnight, cold and foggy. We were all asleep, but one of them stayed awake and measured rainfall. It is proof that they are dedicated to their work, even when being left unsupervised,? he said.
The role of this patrol group is actually not limited to securing the forest only; they are also there to monitor the fauna, vegetation, and rainfall within the forest. This monitoring is carried out from a monitoring station built inside the forest. The Wehea Management Board along with TNC jointly develops their inventorying capability.
In case of a violation, the Wehea Management Board is ready with a customary sanction for each specific case. The sanctions are usually rehabilitative, like tree replanting and replacement of killed animals from unlicensed hunting. The sanctions are meant to preserve the ecosystem of Wehea protected forest.
Wehea forest is home to many protected species flora and fauna. According to research done by TNC and the East Kutai regency administration in 2003-2006, the forest contains 750 orangutans and a number of rare plants including black orchids.
The activity of Wehea Management Board then diversified. It?s no longer solely dedicated to forest preservation, but also being employed to empower the people. Working together with TNC, they opened training programs for PM patrol groups. Through this training, they are encouraged to assist local and foreign researchers. This area has been a research zone for 150 researches from all around the world since 2004.
This program also facilitates people to obtain private scholarships, to continue their education to college. The Management Board and TNC have also formed a credit union (CU) to get people accustomed to saving their money.
Ahmad Fuadi explained that people are basically eager to ask and learn new things?the kind of attitude which gives them wisdom despite their isolated life. ?When they?re guarding the forest, an inter-generation communication takes place. Older people teach younger ones the richness of the forest, like introducing to them the different kinds of medicinal herbs and plants,? said Fuadi
All this time, people?s economy empowerment is focused on the development of rubber and cacao plantations, betutu fish kerambas (fish breeding using water cages), organic farming, and forest seeding provisions.
Rubber and cacao plantations were chosen amid the pressure to open oil palm plantations because those two plants are more environmentally friendly. They are able to contain both direct and indirect rainwater, as well as enriching the soil. What?s more, rubber plantations do not require maintenance and a long wait for produce, which fits comfortably with the culture of Dayak people.
Women are involved in organic farming activities. This farming method does not employ pesticide, and the only fertilizer used is bat guano taken from caves around the village.
As for the forest seeding provision, it comes in handy to rehabilitate forests destroyed by mining and timber logging operations. Each year the government allocates quite a large fund for forest rehabilitation. In 2007, the fund measured more than Rp29 billion. One main obstacle is the lack of forest plant seeds. To resolve the situation, Wehea people made a forest plants nursery in their village. PM members then gather the seeds in the protected forest.
For this achievement, as a pioneer of forest conservation, Ledjie Taq has received various awards. A few days before the nation?s Independence Day, Ledjie Taq received the Bintang Jasa Pratama honor, which was bestowed by the President of Indonesia on August 15, 2009 at the State Palace.
This honor is the second-highest decoration for civilians awarded by the Indonesian government after the Bintang Mahaputra. The honor is bestowed upon those who have shown tremendous devotion to the country in non-military aspects.
Previously, Ledjie Taq, an elementary school teacher, received the Kalpataru 2009 annual environmental friendliness award, which was also presented by President Yudhoyono on June 5.
Wehea people?s achievement of preserving the protected forest has also crossed international boundaries. In 2008, this coordinated conservation effort made it to third place of the Schooner Award in Vancouver, Canada. The reward of US$1,000 was granted because Wehea?s conservation management model was considered very adaptive and relevant to present conditions.
Now, Ledjie and his people hope that the government would soon officially change the status of Wehea forest, from production forest to protected forest.
Asked about what the Wehea forest would have to say if it could talk, Ledjie said: ?It must be smiling now, being able to give us life.? Nature, basically, is here for us humans.
By: Kamellia S. Soenjoto
Tempo No. 01/X/01-07 September 2009