6 November 2014

Return to Kalimantan

3 years ago I traveled for the very first time into the interior of West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, with a team of young 'Eco-Warriors' - guided by the legendary rainforest ecologists Dr Willie Smits (TED). We were on a mission to confront the devastating palm oil industry carving its way into the heart of Borneo. By putting a spotlight on tangible community driven economic alternatives, our aim was to empower local communities resisting the invasion of industrial monoculture into their ancestral lands.

As a child of the information age, my pre-saturated mind had polarized visions of David Attenborough's steamy Bornean jungle vistas - contrasting starkly with the emerging stories of an epic deforestation crisis laying waste to some of the oldest rainforest on our planet.

The documentary based on our project in Borneo - Rise of the Eco-Warriors - explores the trials and tribulations of this group of young global citizens coming into a completely foreign bio-cultural landscape for the duration of 100 days. 

The original Eco-Warrior team with Dr Willie Smits under the honey tree of Tem'bak in 2011.

The film was finally released earlier this year and the response has been hugely positive - with a handful of vocal haters - by and large the reaction and impact has reached people in ways that none of us expected. We've had everything from people offering $10,000 donations to build local high-schools in Borneo - to pro palm oil associates waging online public hate wars under false facebook accounts. (Who was it that said, 'If You’re Not Pissing People Off, You're Doing It All Wrong!)

The impact in schools has been astounding - this is where the real leverage to create change is taking off.

For me personally - the project was an extremely challenging experience - on every possible level - failure, disappointment, heartbreak, dengue-inducing-hangovers.. you name it.

They say 'the tree of expectation is laden with the fruits of disappointment'. Well, my tree had a bumper crop that year - thankfully all the rotten fruit made for some fabulous compost - and thus the garden keeps growing..

'You come to Borneo - you face your fears' 

I hate to use the old cliche 'it changed my life' - but it really did. It was strangely through this deeply confronting experience that I fell in love with the Indonesian archipelago and it's bio-cultural extremities.

My advice to young people today would be - go out and fail, make mistakes, learn from them and keep growing. Life truly begins when you leave your comfort zone - discard societies ridiculous guidebook (it's horribly out of date - and was never very relevant anyway). 

When we look back on life years from now - I'm almost certain we'll gauge 'success' and 'achievement' in very different terms than how we may view it right now. In fact, it may not even be something we think about at all... 

When you first enter this new world, there is an inevitable confrontation of ones extensively pre-programed 'cultural baggage' which sets the standard of how things should be done in community development. Coming from a western mindset - we are so geared towards outcomes and "deliverables" that we often overlook one of the most important elements of this journey- relationship building.
After the initial project ended in June 2012 - I tried to remain engaged on the ground - however doors were not opening and I ended up going with the flow and working on other permaculture and reforestation projects in Java and Sumatra - slowly developing my language skills and understanding of Indonesian culture.

The calling to return to Borneo was seeded back in August whilst in the Yogyakarta airport when my partner and I randomly bumped into Disrekia Rimba - an inspiring young Dayak woman from Tem'bak in West Kalimantan. She had literally just finished 7 years studying English in Jogja and was now returning home to Tem'bak - the same village our project was based - to inspire a new generation of empowered Dayak leaders.

Disrekia with her students in Tem'bak junior highschool - plans are underway to build a jungle highschool in Tem'bak - one that preserves dayak culture and the local ecology.

About a month after that, while visiting my family in Australia - another Dayak friend, Agung Seberuang - was also in Australia doing a speaking tour. We caught up and explored some of the lush sub-tropical rainforest where I grew up and hung out with some friends in a secret cactus garden on the edge of the Border Ranges National Park. Agung even thought he heard a monkey - but it was just a laughing Kookaburra (Australian bird).

I assured him there are no wild monkey's on this side of the Wallace Line.

Agung and myself in the foothills of the Border Ranges National Park, Australia. Photo by Eli Fuller.

Agung shared his peoples story of the recent palm oi invasion into their neighbouring lands - the divisive tricks and techniques used by the oil palm companies to cheat the local people and gain ownership of the forest. He also told me how they eventually halted the destruction of some of the last virgin forest in the Tempunak region of West Kalimantan. Incredibly these two palm oil companies are members of the RSPO (Rountable on Sustainable Palm Oil) - an official complaint process is underway and I'll be following this one very closely.

the devastating aftermath of palm oil expansion - by RSPO member companies - 100% certified conflict palm oil.

Agung was glad to hear that I could finally speak some decent Indonesian and asked me to return to Borneo - there was work to be done and a lot had happened since 2012 - I had been summoned by the Dayaks...

flying back into the interior of Borneo - 3 years after our first expedition.

The return to Kalimantan was a bit like returning home - re-uniting with all our Dayak families. Each and every program that Willie Smits and his team had set out to initiate was being implemented - thousands of sugar palm and other species had been planted all over the land - grown in the nursery we helped to build back in 2012.

The programs were all driven by local people and their commitment to retain their local culture and livelihood - which is intrinsically linked to the surrounding hutan adat (ancestral forests).

There is a saying in Indonesia - Sedikit Sedikit - Lama Lama - Jadi Bukit

Translation: Little by little - with time - it becomes a hill. 

Or in other words; a little effort put forth consistently will add up to something greater.

The 2014 team consisted of a few of the original Eco-Warrior crew; Ben Dessen, Kodi Twiner, Tony Allison and Mark White, plus another group of passionate supporters and philanthropists from Australia - and of course the every smiling Danu.

Our first outing was to visit the new Orangutan Forest School in the Tem'bak community forest where 5 rehabilitating Orangutans - including JoJo - are now leaving their sleeping cages each day to enter the forest and learn how to be real, free living, tree climbing Orangutan again.  A further 14 Orangutans await transfer from the Sintang Orangutan Centre.

As Willie Smits himself says "I know of no other project that has not just a rescue center and virgin forest orangutan training facility but also a release area protected by all the local people around it."

Although it looks like a scene from Jurassic Park, the above photo is actually the construction of a 2.5 hectare Orangutan enclosure inside the Tem'bak forest - Much better than being kept in a cage all day long! - the water is pure drinking water from the local spring - It's the only tap in Indonesia I've ever drank from directly - without having to boil first. So fresh and so clean, exactly how it should be.

On the edge of town a new zero-waste factory has just processed it's first 9 tonnes of 'Tengkawang' oil, a locally occurring and superior alternative to palm oil from the Tengkawang Tree - the difference being that the trees don't grow in a monoculture plantation but in a mixed agro-forestry system; allowing for the preservation of eco-system services and other non-timber forest products to be used locally.

the raw 'Tengkawang' nuts being sun-dried before processing

The Tengkawang oil after processing - a high quality local alternative to palm oil - now in full production.

The factory also produces bio-char, animal feed and compost from the 'waste' of the Tengkawang nut shell. Once the sugar palm ethanol factory is operational early next year - the factory itself will be fueled by local 'sugar palm' bio-fuel - a fully closed loop zero-waste system. 

This is the development of community level permaculture at its finest - systems like this are the only way we can truly sustain our presence on this planet beyond the 21st century.

And of course the kids have all grown up a lot - still as cheeky, free-spirited and delightful as ever. We washed in the river each afternoon and sometimes collected snails for dinner. It was a completely different experience being able to communicate with them in Indonesian.

Something I notice in this village is a great deal of pride in being a dayak - in their culture and in their forests.

I feel like their future is so bright - if they can retain their forests they will retain their rich culture - These communities truly are creating a model for an ecologically regenerative village system.

Disrekia took us to a secret waterfall - where her brother Tesedia lives nearby - located right next to the most recent destruction of forest for palm oil expansion. Her brother had successfully defended his ancestral land from further encroachment, however it is an ongoing threat and they are taking the appropriate action to organize their communities against further exploitation.

Agung Seberuang and Disreki Rimba - local Dayak youth activists inspiring hope, belief and action for the integration of Dayak culture to preserve their ancestral forests and local lore.

This was by far the most devastating forest destruction I had seen so far in Indonesia - although millions of hectares of degraded land is available for monoculture palm oil expansion - the companies target the last of the primary rainforest to make use of a common legal loophole for exploitation of lucrative timber resources. Incredibly this is an RSPO member company (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil).

Although it was a shitty feeling to see so much fresh destruction in such a beautiful region of West Kalimantan - This recent invasion has led to the formation of a local organization;


Which translates to something like

'The Seberuang Dayak Traditional Community Fellowship"

The Dayaks in this region are standing together in solidarity. 100% initiated by the local people. This is the only way they will win. outsiders can help, but it has to be driven by local unity and perseverance.

Ben Dessen exploring Disrekia and Tesedia's family 'hutan adat' forest - a hidden gem in the heart of Borneo.

I plan somehow to return in the not-too-distant future - it feels like things are only just getting started in this community - the question I am asking myself now is, how can we spread the word to other villages in Indonesia?

For a fully detailed update from Dr Willie Smits - check out this link HERE - Where Willie explains in detail how the Dayaks are self-organizing and taking on the palm oil companies. As well as a full update on all orangutans at Sintang Orangutan Centre (SOC).

"Already the news was spreading through the local TV broadcasts and other Dayak villages were contacting Antonius Lambung how they also could use the approach of the Seberuang Dayaks to defend their lands that were being encroached upon by oil palm companies! Something is brewing amongst the Dayaks. This time it is not a desperate revenge action carried by deep emotions, leading to human deaths as has happened before, but a strategic approach based upon hope and belief."

- Willie Smits,  2014

The Eco-Warrior project is now spreading awareness overseas - with a handful of Indonesian screenings - how can we now show the story of Tem'bak and Ensaid Panjang to other struggling communities within Indonesia as a beacon of hope and an example of community self determination and empowerment?