Of forest spirits and conservation

By June Rubis | May 27, 2011
The Malaysian Insider

MAY 27 — The problem with conservation work is this: when you have finally done a right, it feels like a wrong.

I had only been based in central Kalimantan for less than a year, when the first major controversy of the conservation project that I was managing erupted.

A couple of young men from a village situated by the wildlife reserve were arrested by my patrol for taking logs out from the reserve. They landed in jail for six months.

The fallout from the arrests was emotional. The village rallied to their defence, upset that their sons and husbands were arrested for what they felt was their moral right to harvest from the nearby forest.

We had to organise a public meeting immediately to clear the air and cool down hearts. Much to our dismay, the forestry reps showed up with firearms “for protection.”

Refusing to be intimidated on their own soil, the villagers yelled us down in a heated debate, and told us to clear off. They didn’t want any conservation education activities happening in their village.

And so we cleared off. However, because of the good work of one persistent staff who had quietly worked on the ground for months as an organic farming facilitator, we were welcomed back by the village almost a year later to host an Environment Day event.

We couldn’t have been happier. It was progress.

When that day arrived, we held colouring competitions and environmental games for the children, and gave out colourful stationery as prizes.

My team dressed up as an orangutan and a hornbill to entertain the village. We planted local fruit seedlings along the roadside with the women and children, and as the day drew to a close, played conservation film shorts on a fabric backdrop pinned on the wall of the village hall.

It was a good day.

My team and I were hosted by the one of the more prosperous residents of the village, and spent the night on the floor of his relatively spacious house.

The next morning, as we were having our breakfast of fried fish and rice, I couldn’t help but notice a young man staring intently at me. Our host noticed my discomfort, and explained in Indonesian that this man was one of those who had been arrested.

“He has a wife, and a baby who was born while he was in jail,” he added nonchalantly, as I squirmed a bit under the intense gaze.

I gave the young man a friendly smile, and asked him how he was doing. He stared back at me, without uttering a response.

Enjoying my growing discomfort, my host lapsed into a story of the young man.

This is the story as told to me.

The young man, who was caught for poaching logs, is actually a skilled hunter who has hunted in the reserve many times.

He has a special relationship with the spirits of the forest, and before he enters the forest, he prepares a special offering of leaves, betel nuts and cigarettes for the spirits. Once appeased, the spirits allow him to hunt in peace, and he has never been caught by our patrol teams.

One day, he saw a very large deer in the forest and wanted to hunt it, but it kept eluding him for hours. Frustrated, he decided to make use of the rest of the day by collecting logs to build a house for his new family.

As he lugged the logs out of the forest, he walked straight into a patrol that promptly arrested him.

He believes that the large deer was a forest spirit that had punished him for the audacity of trying to hunt it.

He spent six months in jail for his troubles.

I listened to the story with fascination, also noting the discrepancies of the later part of the story compared to what our patrol team had reported. Our team had insisted that it was a planned concerted effort with several local men, and that the logs were heading to a rich buyer in town. They took photos of the truck and people as evidence.

Justice was already meted, and the crime already paid. What was left was the young man’s belief that it was essentially his fault for getting caught, for disrespecting the forest spirits.

The people of this small coastal village are not indigenous to the land, and are of Muslim faith. However, they continue to have their own traditional system of managing their natural resources.

You take what you need from the forest, but only if you had paid proper respects to it. Otherwise justice would be meted out.

In a way, I was grateful for the passion and anger we experienced earlier in the village. It was a good reminder that proper dialogue and collaboration with rural communities is not a token exercise to appease donors, but rather it is an essential key to unlocking a long-term genuine effort for effectively managing natural resources between government, NGOs and local communities.

We had hit a bump along the way, but hopefully this was a positive start for a more conducive working relationship with the village, and of other villages surrounding the wildlife reserve.

As I thought these thoughts to myself, the young man finally stirred and said simply to me: “God be willing, I am fine. I am looking forward to returning to the forests once more.”

* June Rubis has spent the better years of her adult life with the primates in the Borneo rainforests. She has no regrets. She now spends most of her time working with humankind. There are some regrets.

  1. #1 by Godfather on Friday, 27 May 2011 - 3:01 pm

    You take the long winding road from Bintulu to the Bakun project site, and you will see the amount of pillaging over the years. Endless stream of timber lorries, some without number plates. All the Grade A logs have gone, and those that are left are Grade C, and are not spared either. Bakun is flooding an area the size of Singapore. They are building another massive dam further upstream, and there are plans to build a few more dams in Sarawak. Just for the purposes of harvesting the timber.

    Look at the Balui river, and the Rejang. All brown with silt that comes from excessive logging. No more empurau fish that used to be plentiful. No more giant squirrels that glide from tree to tree.

    Yes, we are taking what we need. It’s just that our need far exceeds what nature has in mind. Our need includes our greed. One fine day, there will be retribution.

  2. #2 by sheriff singh on Friday, 27 May 2011 - 3:31 pm

    This side of the border, we had a chap named Taib. One day 30 over years ago, he entered the forests and decided to rape, rape, rape it.

    The fellow built up a huge fortune as some reported it and in his late, twilight years managed to find a young wife.

    He lives in a huge house with large grounds.

    The spirits were kind to him.

  3. #3 by tak tahan on Friday, 27 May 2011 - 10:55 pm

    Sabar uncle singh.Come general election,he will be kautim-ed.We all will get some share from the return looted money from oversee.How’s the crackpot ar?Just out of concern,you know?

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