Chai Chin Neo
BORNEO: THE FIRST 20 DAYS: THE VERY BEGINNING
Here’s how I came to be involved in the DeforestACTION project in Borneo.
Back in 2010, I met Dr Willie Smits at a talk he was giving at the Nat Geo store in Singapore. He spoke about sugar palm and his vision for the dome tree for orang utans to an audience of mainly young working adults, and his ideas were among the most interesting I had ever heard about.
I was at the talk as part of my work as a newspaper reporter, and had been invited by the Singapore International Foundation, who were hosting Dr Smits. I had hoped to do a short interview with Dr Smits after his talk, but he was rushing off to catch a plane, and I had to rush through a few questions in a span of about three minutes – the time he took to stride from the Nat Geo store to the taxi stand to catch a cab for the airport.
Months later, someone emailed me to pitch a story about the call for applications for “action agents” to be featured in the movie on Borneo and its forests and wildlife. He had read my story about Dr Smits.
My bosses weren’t keen on the story, but I was intrigued by the opportunity to go to Borneo and do something about deforestation and wildlife destruction there. The opportunity to be part of it, and to work with Willie himself, felt like something I had always wanted to do.
THE 20 DAYS: THE PEOPLE
I saw and learnt much from so many people during the 20 days in Borneo.
There’s Father Jacques Maesson, whose Kobus Foundation hosted us and helped us immensely with the logistics. He also provided the premises for us to house Jojo the young orang utan who we took from her owner in Tembak with the aim to eventually rehabilitate and re-home in the forest.
There’s the Serawai-Ambalau action group comprising Obeng, Markus, Sutarman, Leny, Pak Rafael and several others, who were invaluable in helping to arrange for our trips up the Melawi River to visit and understand the plights of the villages. They are so passionate and determined to save the forests and ancestral lands of the region, despite the many challenges and even dangers faced. They want to preserve the Dayak culture and communities, and stop the unlawful land grabs and loss of quality of life that they have seen in other communities that have allowed palm oil companies in. We need to support them in any way we can.
Then, there are the villagers.
We had a welcome of epic proportions at Serawai, the first village we stopped at along the Melawi River. Thousands of children and families came out to the compound outside the village police station to welcome
us into their fold. We also sat in at a major meeting of Dayak elders in the Sintang district, where we heard their outgoing leader, Pak Abeng, speak of the importance of uniting to protect their lands. I asked Willie a few days later about who they had chosen as their new leader, and he said the outcome was not one they had hoped for. But all is not lost.
Next came visits to the villages of Tempe, Begori, and Duan. We had the honour of going to a sacred burial site of Duan village, where we learnt of the impending land grab by a palm oil company. The high priest of the village looked so pained by the prospect of sacred land being lost, that we could not help but be moved. What could they do to counter the might of the company? Who could they turn to for justice?
At all the villages we visited, Willie gave talks about sugar palm and the great alternative source of fuel and income it could be for the villagers. From the expressions of the villagers, it seemed that this idea was one of hope. They would not have to give up their land to grow sugar palm, it would provide jobs and income, and it would not entail destructive farming and harvesting practices.
The villagers of Lansat Baru, Lansat Lama and Belenyut Sibau showed us how they would not give up their land without a fight. They travelled the bumpy roads to Ensaid Panjang longhouse where we were staying to alert us of their plight – that of 80ha of land being bulldozed by a palm oil company without negotiations having concluded. A small group consisting of Paul, Cathy, Willie, Emily, Deny, Ezther and I went to meet them the next morning, where they performed rituals staking their claim on the land.
Some of the villagers had been threatened and a leader, Mr Yunosno, had been assaulted, presumably because of their activism. But they believed their land had been unjustly taken, and they would not take it lying down. We alerted several local media, who reported on the issue subsequently.
At Ensaid Panjang and Tembak village, we felt so at home as the locals warmly accepted us. Tembak village was undoubtedly the model village, with numerous sustainable practices in place including the use of hydropower for electricity. John Kern was a hit with the kids and I think we will have more happy times together during the 80 days with most of our activities based there. Ensaid Panjang, besides being our hosts for 8days, was where the music video for Mark Kuroski’s third Borneo song was made. The ladies of the village were also really nice to let me join in while they weaved and made traditional Dayak cloths. I came to appreciate just how much skill and patience is involved in the weaving of these cloths – nimble fingers, lots of raffia string and three months of work needed to come up with the finished product! Even though life is mostly tranquil for the villagers, they too face worries over the encroachment of palm oil companies – not far away, there were bulldozers that had come to clear tracts of land.
Last but not least, are the Eco Warriors. I didn’t expect us to gel so quickly as a group of 15, but we did. We all had different backgrounds and areas of knowledge and talents, which made things so much more fun and enriching. I learnt so much from all of them and look forward to seeing them and working together again. We all have a common goal – that of making a change in Borneo and supporting the locals in their efforts to protect their land, their rights, their wildlife and the future of their children.
The 20 days have given us a taste of the work that lies ahead. We have split ourselves into 4 teams: Education (producing educational materials for the locals to spread the message against illegal wildlife trade, and awareness of land rights and laws), Earth Watchers (being the eyes and hands of schoolchildren who will alert us of changes in forest cover of the region), Reforestation (building of a nursery to re-forest land set aside for the release of rehabilitated orang utans and other animals) and Animal Rescue (the rescue of illegally kept wildlife).
It won’t be easy but with help and guidance from Willie and our friends in Borneo, we hope to set in motion a positive chain of events that will make a lasting difference to the communities and animals there.
NEO CHAI CHIN