Vignettes of a year in Borneo: land in dispute

Sentarum Lake, West Kalimantan. Photo by Yayan Indriatmoko/ CIFOR

BOGOR, Indonesia (9 March, 2011)_This book tells a story. We lived in the middle of Borneo, as a family, working on the first year and a half of a Conservation Project. The book is partly the story of our personal adjustment. We found that creating a life in the middle of Borneo was not always easy—even when one member was an experienced anthropologist! We had funny, touching, enlightening, saddening experiences that seemed to bear telling.

This is also a story of Borneo’s people. I hope their individuality, their personalities, feelings, likes and dislikes come across. I wanted this story to make clear their essential humanity. Forest people must be seen not only as victims and destroyers, but also as creative actors, as human beings who can contribute to finding solutions to our shared problems. This story is about real people who happen to live in tropical rainforests.

Lastly, I wanted to convey the kinds of problems that hamper significant success in conservation projects. In my view, local people are not the primary problem. External attitudes and management, along with administrative barriers to local action, are far more central. These latter issues are what drove me from my work at Danau Sentarum Wildlife Reserve (now Danau Sentarum National Park), and have incapacitated many of my colleagues who are striving to contribute to conservation goals.

The book publisher has set aside some of the sales proceeds to support Riak Bumi, a West Kalimantan-based NGO that focuses on conservation and community welfare and works within the communities living in and around Danau Sentarum.

To purchase your copy of ‘Vignettes from a Year in Borneo’ and contribute to Riak Bumi’s action, click here.

Land in Dispute

We returned to Selimbau, where we attacked the remaining tasks: Explaining what we wanted in a Field Center to Haji Idui and learning what he would need to accomplish the task. Three days before we had to leave Selimbau, we learned that the “governing troika” had called a meeting at the Istana Kapuas. We assumed it was to be a sort of finalization of all we were planning to do.

At the appointed hour, a variety of men in uniforms began arriving. More and more boats of varying sizes and shapes came, bringing more and more folks—including one particularly unpleasant looking fellow wearing the cap of a Haji (one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca). I realized that I was the only woman in the group.

People were just about settled when the unpleasant looking Haji abruptly and forcefully began talking. “You can’t have this land. The Germans came wanting it last year and the French tried to get it from us before that. You can’t have it!” This short and rather explosive speech was a double whammy.

First, all indications to date had been that things were going smoothly with regard to the land acquisition question (which we had worried about privately). Second, Indonesians very rarely indulge in aggressive outbursts of this kind. I realized that the onus of communication in this matter was going to fall on me as the more fluent Indonesian speaker.

I also found myself in a difficult ethical position. For years I had been defending local people’s rights to traditional lands in Borneo— particularly against timber companies. And I expected, on this project, to be working with local communities to develop ways to allow local people to continue residing in the wildlife reserve. Although this was contrary to existing Indonesian law, the project had an implicit mandate to seek solutions to this real and ubiquitous problem. But now, before we could even start the project, I was going to have to play the heavy. I didn’t like it at all….but I couldn’t see any way out of it—particularly given the time constraints we were under.

I explained gently that we had asked the people at Bukit Tekenang and in the camat’s office, and been assured that the people there did not own the land. “In fact,” I said, “since this area was a national wildlife reserve, even the kecamatan’s claim to the land was questionable. In Jakarta people argued that it belonged to the national government.”

I knew I was in muddy waters. Land tenure laws in Indonesia are perhaps more disputed, contradictory, and ambiguous than any other legal matters. “Traditional laws” of land tenure apply, the provincial government has recognized claims, and the national government in some sense supersedes all else. Each dispute is actually handled individually.

The Haji continued the attack, I tried to counter, he would attack again, and again I would counter. I was debating something of critical importance in a dialect of Indonesian with which I was not yet familiar. I knew I had to maintain my cool. Getting angry is almost never effective in Indonesia. It certainly wasn’t an option in this setting, though the man was infuriating. The effort was beginning to wear.

After quite some time, the Police Chief began to speak. I held my breath, petrified that he would bring all his authority down on this objectionable man. Though convenient in this particular dispute, it would have been a very bad sign for the project’s long-term success.

What a relief when he simply took the role of rational moderator. To my extreme surprise, he showed a great deal of sensitivity to local interests. In my earlier experience, in eastern Borneo, I’d found government officials to be singularly unsympathetic to the concerns of local people. The men of Selimbau’s Troika were showing rationality and concern, and they were making sincere efforts to solve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction. I was very surprised and pleased. This would bode well for future efforts to secure people’s rights to land within the Reserve.

Our meeting ended without resolution—except that we would have to make one last emergency trip to Putussibau to get support from the kabupaten (District) officials in this matter. This trip—with only the three of us and Markan—went much faster, and we were able to get the support we needed. When we returned to Selimbau, the Haji’s complaints had evaporated and he was in fact in Pontianak expressing his support for our project at the Conservation Agency.


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