100 Days in the Jungle: Borneo Diary Part 5
We are now at the end of Day 18 and preparing for our journey home. The first 10 days were intensely fast and furious, but in this second phase we shifted into a new gear, and finally I’ve been able to find some time to reflect and write.
The essence of this project is becoming clearer and sharper for me. This is a story of youthful innocence coming into direct conflict with corruption and destruction and charting the reactions and responses of the young Eco-Warriors. The question of the film is this: what can 15 young people and a visionary scientist achieve in 100 days in the jungle, and can they lay a foundation for lasting change? The stakes are extremely high. We are witnessing one of the most intense conflicts in human history – the march of ‘progress’ and the pursuit by an elite few to conquer nature to ensure human comfort and short-term profit at the expense of our natural world and the future of life on this planet. In our story it is the forests of Borneo, the Dayak communities and the orangutans who’s futures are at stake. But so too, is the future of all life on this planet, for without the forests and its biodiversity, this planet becomes uninhabitable. The battle lines are drawn but this is not an even playing field. The juggernaut of destruction is driven by Big Business and Greed, fed by Technology and even Science and supported by Politics and Law Enforcement all in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘endless economic growth’. On the opposing side are individuals, community and environment groups who are less organised and resourced but passionate about defending the natural world against the onslaught. Many of these grass-roots activists and crusaders are young people, informed and aware of the suicide path their leaders and ‘the progress proponents’ are steering them, and determined to stop it. A movement is starting to develop, led by school students around the world, and supported by their DeforestAction representatives on the ground, the young Eco Warriors, whose main organising tools are the social media and internet channels and their commitment to action. They are spread across the planet, and they are starting to become visible. 100 Days in the Jungle will chart the journey of 15 Eco-Warriors who have teamed up to take on the challenge of stopping deforestation, saving the forests of Borneo and its inhabitants and showing the positive power of constructive individual action.
They arrived with determination and innocence, in search of ways they can contribute to saving their future from the hands of decision makers who are destroying it. They brought commitment and creativity, but they lacked local knowledge and awareness of the full extent of the crisis unfolding here. In their first week, they were thrown into the deep end and although all came out unscathed, some of them thought they might have drowned. This was an orientation of the most extreme kind. After 18 days, they have a much clearer picture of the realities here and the crisis unfolding around them. They also feel the full weight of the hope and trust that the Dayak people are placing in them. In the past 8 days we have seen them through a roller-coaster of emotions, from adrenalin high excitement, to awe and wonder at things they have never seen, to crippling anxiety and even panic at the enormity of the expectations. They have more questions than answers at this stage and their innocence is already giving way to deep anxiety coupled with fierce determination. What can they do and will it be enough? Once they get back home, will they have a change of heart? What resources and support can they muster in the coming months to bring back here? When they return, what can they actually achieve in 80 days and what foundations can they lay for the future of the project? Will they make a difference and what are the consequences if they fail?
Monday (Day 10): This morning the EWs connected with thousands of school students across the Asia Pacific region in a Webinar organised by Microsoft and Taking It Global. This was a chance to report on what they have seen and to introduce their first rescued orangutan, Jojo, to the students. They also introduced the head of police in this region, LtCol Firley, who voiced his commitment to end the illegal animal trade in the region and to assist in the rescue of at least 60 orangutans.
In the afternoon, the EWs all recorded video diaries, outlining their experience to date and how they saw themselves making a contribution. They did these alone in their sleeping spaces, and some were extremely emotional.
Tuesday (Day 11): We took a long boat across the river this morning to visit Tertung, a village that is already harvesting and using sugar palm effectively for their own use. Willie spoke to them about setting up a Sugar Palm Hub so they can produce products for export to other villages and beyond, and also to produce biofuel for own cooking, transport and electricity. In the afternoon, a bus arrived to take us out to the longhouse at Ensaid Panjang about an hour and a half from Sintang. There was a simple and very sincere welcome ceremony, and the EWs set up their sleeping quarters at one end of the long corridor of the longhouse. I was very honoured to be given my own room inside the quarters of the village chief and his family. In the evening after dinner, the EWs each gave a creative introduction of themselves: who they are, where they are from and what skills and interests they bring. Kodi sang about angels, Emily danced her story and Mark brought the house down with his exuberant comic style and sang his new song in Bahasa. Several of them did considerable parts of their talk in Bahasa and the villagers had certainly never hosted such a large and eclectic group of foreigners in their house before. It was a very positive start to what ended up being an 8 day stay in the village.
Wednesday (Day 12): Sean Tierney, one of the founding board members of DeforestACTION, had been travelling with our group since last Friday and had organised the webinar at Kobus House on Monday. He was joined on Monday afternoon by his Microsoft colleague Neil who came to see first-hand how the project is shaping up. They both left this morning, assuring us they will continue to raise awareness about the project within Microsoft and beyond and help the EWs to secure more support and resources for their massive task ahead. This kind of support from a major corporation was exactly the kind of encouraging news the EWs needed to hear at this stage.
In the afternoon, they hiked to a waterfall that proved to be much smaller than expected. There has been very little rain in the region and the water levels everywhere are low. Back at the longhouse, the pace slowed and for most, this was their first chance to stop and consider what they had seen and what it all means for them. That evening it became clear that as a group they were feeling the full weight of expectation from Willie and the Dayaks and had more questions than answers. Willie had gone back to Sintang to speak to high officials and as a group they looked lost and frightened.
Thursday (Day 13): A day of despondency and new hope. After breakfast, we filmed a group meeting where the feelings of anxiety and overload bubbled to the surface. There were tears and some anger at what they perceived as unrealistic expectations being placed on them, enormous frustration at the lack of money and resources to achieve their tasks and a complete sense of overwhelm at the scale of the problem. At the same time in Sintang, Willie was addressing the plenary session of the local parliament, presenting a strong and uncompromising message about the tactics of intimidation and trickery being used by the palm oil companies to take the land from the Dayak communities. He also spoke about the devastating effects of palm oil on the global climate and biodiversity and the communities that depend on the forest for their livelihood and the sustainable alternatives that existed. Some of the politicians who are working closely with the palm oil companies challenged him in confrontation, but there was little doubt that the message was heard loud and clear. The event was the subject of a front page article in the local paper the following day. Willie and Father Jacques took the strategic step of inviting the head of police, the army and the department of forestry to Kobus House for dinner that evening. I went into Sintang in the late afternoon to join them for this historic event. For the first time there was a real commitment from the heads of three key government law enforcement institutions to collaborate to end illegal trade in wildlife in the region and to bring captured and illegally held orangutans to Kobus House as a holding station until a new animal rescue centre is built at Tembak.
Friday (day 14): In the morning Willie returned to the longhouse to bring the news of hope to the EWs. The mood shifted to a more positive one and they immediately launched into their many questions and presented the first drafts of their action plans. Since arriving at the longhouse, the pace of events has slowed and the EWs had a chance to integrate into community life in the village. They took the opportunity to help the women with the weaving and cooking, to swim in the river and play sports with the children, to learn the local Dayak dialect and teach them some English, to draw with the children and sing songs. They were witnessing first-hand a fully sustainable, healthy and happy community with a way of life that the EWs came to admire and even envy. What they did not yet realise was that even this village and its way of life is in immediate danger – just as with all the other Dayak communities they have visited. The palm oil companies are already cutting and burning the neighbouring lands and have begun encroaching on the forest that the Ensaid Panjang community depend upon. In the afternoon, the chief led Willie and the EWs on a long expedition to see the front line of their battle to save the forest. They saw the provocative red marks on the trees carved by the palm oil workers as an indication that they intend to clear these trees in the very near future. Further on they saw oil palm plantations that had been made on land taken by the Gren oil palm company without compensation. Coming out of the virgin peat swamp forest with all its riches for the local people and illegally planted on deep peat, it was a shock. Then they noticed the oil palms burning! Some kind of revenge by some unknown locals! A couple of days later we filmed bulldozers hacking into the nearby forest while the village leaders stood by helplessly and watched. This brings it all very close to home for the EWs. The palm oil companies are threatening a village whose people and children they have come to know and love, and the urgency and immediacy of the issue becomes more real and tangible for them then ever.
Saturday (Day 15): Today was a very quiet day at the longhouse. Mark Kuroski introduced his new song, and the EWs worked with him and the kids from the village to make a video clip.
The four groups have now formed and have begun working on their action plans. They are clear about the challenges they face and each group met with Willie to ask questions, get a reality check and run their ideas past him. The rest of the day was spent swimming, playing with the kids, planning, reading and writing. Finally the full impact of what we are confronting here and the huge challenges ahead are sinking in for everyone, including the film crew. Individually everyone is integrating the past 16 days and working out where to begin. Then in the afternoon, the conflict with the palm oil companies that is raging all around us came right to our door. Two very upset and passionate young Dayak men from a neighbouring village came to tell us of the imminent threat to their village. They had heard about Willie and the Eco-Warriors and came to ask for help. Willie and 3 of the EWs agreed to go over in the morning to find out more and support them. Originally envisaged as a short morning excursion, this turned out to be the longest and most dramatic day of our trip to date.
Sunday (Day 16): At 5.30pm, we set off for the ‘nearby’ village which turned out to be over 3 hours away. When we finally arrived, the villagers from Lansat Baru, Lansat Lama and Belenyut Sibau, had gathered at the spot where a truck loaded with palm oil saplings had been disabled by the villagers as the first stage of their action against the palm oil company. The vehicle, which bore the letters “PT.WPP” on its side (Wahana Plantation and Products,) became the symbolic centre piece of their blockade. Armed just with machetes, they turned the area into a ceremonial kitchen right before our eyes. They performed a traditional Dayak ceremony to stake their claim on the once-forested land, now bulldozed over, burnt, and scattered with palm oil seedlings. “Nobody has agreed to this and the palm oil company just steals and rapes our land,” said Mr Yohanes Aliam, one of the village leaders. “This here is our land and they’ve cut everything down.” The land fringes a 1,000-hectare forest believed to be home to 40 orangutans. He said the company has tried since 2008 to occupy the land by inciting conflict among villagers and bribing officials.
According to several other villagers, bribery and the use of sham land certificates were common tactics used in the takeover of their ancestral lands. These lands are passed down from the previous generation and do not come with any official documentation; they come under the adat, or traditional law, which protects the rights of the Dayaks. With the latest infringement on their land by the company and talks with its representative breaking down the villagers had now decided to take stronger action. Accompanied by further traditional ceremony, they pulled some of palm oil saplings from the ground and built a barricade across the road, determined to fight to the death to protect their land from further destruction.
Everywhere we went during the last two weeks it has been the same story. Bribery, creating conflict between villages, between family members, sending in trouble makers hired from outside to create conflicts that lead to the Dayak giving up and just handing over their land at prices lower than even a simple month of income per hectare! They desperately want the story of what is happening to them to be told to the outside world. They want consumers around the world to understand that they can make a difference by their choices. They want us to do whatever it takes to help to protect their common ancestral forests that they have guarded over centuries.
Monday (Day 17): A day of action and frustration. Emily, Chai Chin and I took the pictures and story of the action yesterday into Kobus House and created a press release, and sent it out to the local and national media in Indonesia and to a range of international media networks. We added the story on facebook and sent it to all our personal networks. This was the commitment we made to the villagers yesterday and it was good to be able to achieve it despite the limited internet access.
While at Kobus House, I had the chance to skype for the first time with my daughter Sam. I took the laptop outside so she could meet Jojo via skype and see for herself this happy, cheeky, playful little girl who is thriving in her new home. This was a beautiful personal moment for me, feeding the mother love in me for both my daughter and this beautiful baby orangutan.
The frustration of the day was caused by the erratic schedules of the local airlines. An acclaimed chef from Singapore, Andre, was due to join us today, but his flight into Pontianak was delayed so he missed the local Kalstar flight. This meant he would not be able to join us for special day of ceremony at the longhouse. It was the annual harvest celebration coupled with a very rare ceremony to install statues that could be used by their gods at either end of the longhouse to help protect them from harm.
That evening, our last in the longhouse, they hosted a highly entertaining event to announce which of their visitors were the most friendly, the most aloof, the most serious, the most colourful, the most fun and the most difficult to categorise. Willie and I were the first to be awarded the coveted titled of ‘most friendly’. One by one each of us was called up to be awarded a hand woven scarf with the words Ensaid Panjang Awards 2011. Steve sang one of his original songs, and Mark unveiled the freshly shot and edited film clip of his new song. While filming it in the morning, the EWs and a group of kids were striding across a wooded bridge when it collapsed beneath them and they literally dropped out of frame. The children were miraculously saved from injury by the EW’s who cushioned their fall. Tom hurt his toe, and there were a couple of bruises, but overall there was massive relief that no-one was seriously injured. The clip was received with rapturous applause and an immediate demand to play it again. This song will be launched on YouTube on Friday and we expect it to be hugely popular. After the presentations, there was a short fireworks display and then a dance party started outside until very, very late. At midnight we celebrated Fahrani’s birthday and around 3.30pm Willie shut the party down.
Tuesday (Day 17): This morning, after being their guest for over a week, we left the longhouse. Six vehicles came to pick us up, and we filmed the scene as the end of Act 1. There were group photos, lots of handshaking and finally the convoy left with the children running behind the last vehicle waving and squealing.
We drove to Bukit Kelam, where a new Christian resort still under construction at the base of the massive granite ‘sacred’ mountain became an unexpectedly good place to sleep after the seven nights on the long house floor. Chef Andre joined us there, and in the evening we were treated to a display of local singing and dancing. I gave a brief talk about out travels which Willie translated, and three of our EW girls sang a beautiful version of Hallelujah.
Wednesday (Day 18): This morning we went on an expedition into the forest at the base of the mountain to discover the many edible foods that exist in the forest. Willie and a local Dayak from the region gave Chef Andre and the EWs a fascinating insight into the richness of forest biodiversity and the many and varied ways that the plants can be used as foods and medicines. Andre collected a range of new and exotic ingredients and will look at ways to incorporate the story of the forest and the Dayak people into his restaurant experience when he gets back to Singapore.
We stopped at the local museum for lunch and a chance to see the local Dayak culture side by side with the Chinese and Malay influences in the region. Much of the Dayak culture was represented by the Ensaid Panjang community and this brought home to the EWs how fortunate they have been to spent 8 days in the last fully functioning longhouse in the region and to experience the Dayak cultural life it first-hand.
Back at Kobus House, Andre had the chance to meet Jojo and went on a second forest excursion to the swamp forest at the back of Kobus House to forage for more exotic ingredients for his kitchen. Tonight the crew will spend their last night in Singtang as we all have to fly out to Pontianak tomorrow. In the morning I will do an extended interview with Willie and follow up interviews with the EWs on what they have gained from this experience and what for each of them it now means to be an Eco-Warrior. We will also discuss their group plans and how they will prepare for the 80 days early next year. They are taking part in a major talk-back radio program tomorrow at noon where they will summarise their experiences here and what they hope to do when they return. There have been at least six featured articles about our presence in Sintang over the past 18 days and we are very aware that already the EWs are making a major impact. The question remains: what can 15 young people under the guidance of Willie Smits really achieve out here in the jungle in 100 days? Can they make an impact on the devastation facing the forests of Borneo, the local people, the orangutans and the crisis facing Planet Earth?