The fight for Borneo’s soul

by Neo Chai Chin

With palm oil companies slashing vast swathes of forest, the Dayaks of West Kalimantan are desperately struggling to save their ancestral lands and way of life

Houses and Mountains. Photo courtesy: Ben Sutherland

On the porch of a wooden house deep in West Kalimantan, a shirtless man sits, staring out at endless rows of palm oil trees surrounding his home like a besieging army. Pak Kabul does not know his exact age, only that he was born in the 1950s. Neither does he know what the future holds – except that life took a turn for the worse when a palm oil company took over the bulk of land nearby. The company chased nearly everyone off their land; only he refused to budge, he said. These days, he and his wife, together with some chickens and pigs, live a lonely existence in the middle of a sprawling plantation about an hour by road from the nearest town, Sintang, 420 km west of Pontianak city.

They eke out a living tapping rubber, earning about 360,000 rupiah (S$51) each month. Their son teaches at a nearby village and visits sometimes. Javanese immigrants brought in to work on the plantation live nearby, but Pak Kabul does not interact with them.

Borneo rain forest. Photo courtesy: Ben Sutherland

He remembers better times when the land was still forested and the villagers could live off its bounty. “When we had the forest, nobody came to hurt us,” he said with quiet resignation. “I have no more hope; I can only hope my son will be good.” According to him, the only benefit reaped from the palm oil company is the road built through the estate.

It was this road on which we were travelling, en route to a village three hours from Sintang, that we spotted Pak Kabul and decided on impulse to stop and talk to him – and heard yet another account of the Dayak indigenous people’s struggle with palm oil companies.

Our group comprised more than 20 people from countries like Australia, the Netherlands, the United States and Indonesia. Led by Dutch-born Indonesian conservationist Willie Smits, 15 young people dubbed the EcoWarriors – of whom I was one – were in West Kalimantan for a project to combat deforestation and illegal wildlife trade in partnership with local communities. Our efforts are to be made into a documentary by Australian director Cathy Henkel.

We were in West Kalimantan for 20 days in September, the first leg of a 100-day project. Accompanied by some Dayaks who have banded together to raise awareness of unlawful land grabs, we visited remote villages in the Serawai and Ambalau – the only two of Sintang’s 14 sub-districts that have resisted the palm oil companies. 

But for how much longer? Already, the locals speak of their livelihoods and communities being threatened by the relentless expansion plans of these companies.

The Dayaks love a good celebration, and we were welcomed warmly with traditional dances, rituals and generous amounts of a rice wine called tuak. Behind the smiles, however, lay deep anxiety for their future. The issue is not simply about the local communities depending on ancestral lands and forests to live, but about deforestation and wildlife habitat destruction – a struggle for Borneo’s soul.


The third-largest island in the world, made up of Malaysia’s Sabah and Sarawak states, Brunei and Indonesia’s Kalimantan region, Borneo is known for its lush rainforests and stunning biodiversity. But since the 1980s and 1990s, large tracts of forests have been cleared for pulp and timber.

Deforestation in Borneo Image Courtesy: Maps.grida.no


In the past 15 years or so, palm oil companies have moved in; according to a 2009 report commissioned by Amsterdam University’s law faculty, the plantations occupied 3.2 million hectares of land in 2006, with another 2.8 million hectares cleared.

A July report by independent monitors Forest Watch Indonesia estimated that between 2000 and 2009, 1.5 million hectares of forest – an area 21 times the size of Singapore – were destroyed each year, a third of it in Kalimantan.

The villages we visited faced the very real danger of losing land that has been passed down for generations. Nearly every adult villager had a tale to tell – of suspicious tactics by palm oil company staff to survey the land, the bribery of select villagers to create rifts within the community, or the abuse of villagers who vocally opposed the companies. In Duan village in Ambalau, a sacred burial ground is part of the land being eyed by a palm oil company. Duan practises shifting agriculture, moving to a different spot every eight years to allow land to lie fallow. This allows the companies a chance to pounce on seemingly unoccupied territory.

When we visited, the traditional village high priest opened the vault where the bones are kept for us – a rare privilege and sign of trust that our group will tell their story of struggle and desperation when we return to our home countries. He grew increasingly distressed as he told us of seven generations of high priests who have watched over the grounds.

Should the palm oil companies try to take the land, it would be a “fight to the last drop of blood”, he said.

The locals also told of a villager, Joseph Obeng, who was framed by the palm oil company into accepting timber, then reported to the police for unlawful possession of it and thrown into jail.


Over 300km from Duan, the three villages of Lansat Baru, Lansat Lama and Belenyut Sibau have found 80 hectares of their land bulldozed by a palm oil company. The company had also planted saplings on the land and driven their truck in – all without having obtained the necessary permits or completing negotiations with the community, villagers claimed.

Enraged, they confiscated the keys of the truck in September. Hearing of the Eco Warriors’ presence in a longhouse three hours away, the villagers travelled the bumpy, muddy roads to tell us of their plight.

The next morning, some of us drove to the disputed site. We spoke to the village leaders, and watched as they performed a traditional Dayak ceremony to stake their claim on the land, and uprooted several saplings. “Nobody has agreed to this and the palm oil company just steals and rapes our land,” said a leader, Mr Yohanes Aliam.

The palm oil company retaliated – it made a police report and the following morning, another leader in the group, Mr Yunosno, was arrested and taken to the police station. Several of the Serawai-Ambalau action group bailed him out after nearly a day.

Mr Yunosno maintained that the villages had not been properly compensated for their land. But in a report by the news site Kalimantan-News.com, a company representative was quoted as saying the company had followed proper procedure.


The villages’ struggle to hold on to their land comes about because of lax enforcement and corruption, and overlapping laws and claims for the land. Palm oil companies are supposed to go through a multi-step licensing process – securing location permits, plantation business permits, forest area release and, finally, business use permits – before clearing the land. 

But this is seldom the case, going by what we observed as well as findings of the Amsterdam University report.

According to the Dayaks and Dr Smits, even if the palm oil companies present required legal documents such as environmental impact assessments of the land (known as Amdal), or papers that show the majority of villagers are pro-palm oil, their authenticity could be questionable.

A 2009 investigative report done by several non-governmental organisations found that despite “constitutional and human rights provisions which recognise customary rights in land, most local communities and indigenous peoples in Indonesia lack secure land titles”. Community representatives surveyed in the report were also under the impression that they were temporarily relinquishing their land to the companies – suggesting “community leaders had not received adequate information about the law prior to entering negotiations”.

The report also said that locals who sign away their land do so in hopes of receiving jobs and income. But according to Dr Smits, this is not the case. The locals end up being deeply indebted to the palm oil companies. They are paid about 600,000 rupiah for one hectare of land, and have to borrow the equivalent of thousand of dollars to buy seedlings and fertilisers from the company.

As palm oil trees take seven years to mature, a downward spiral of debt results, eventually leading the locals to lose even the 20 per cent of land allocated to them in a typical agreement with palm oil companies.


Having heard so many accounts of injustice and desperation, we searched for a glimmer of hope during our 20 days in Borneo – and found one in the village of Tembak, just after our encounter with Pak Kabul.

The village faced off with a major timber company in 1996 and won; its reply to palm oil is also an emphatic “no”. As a result, roads to Tembak are undeveloped, almost impassable after heavy rains. But the 650 villagers remain united and fiercely protective of their forests, and have developed a system of turbines to generate electricity from a nearby river. They have offered us land for release of any orangutans we rescue and rehabilitate.

If other villages, through dogged struggle and maybe some help from the rest of the world, see an outcome similar to Tembak’s, the future of their children would look brighter. Such victories would also be salve for Borneo’s soul.

To find out more about the Eco Warriors’ project, visit their website here.


Neo Chai Chin is a journalist with Today Online where this article appeared originally. It has been reproduced with permission. 


DeforestACTION Live Event – March 28!

On March 28th 2012, join Dr. Willie Smits for an exciting online collaborative learning event! Be prepared to be taken deep into the heart the Borneo jungle to connect with orang-utans. Hear from Dr. Willie Smits and the Eco Warriors about the work they are doing with the Masarang Foundation, and speak with other schools around the world taking action to stop deforestation. Register for the event here.



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Posted by on Mar 26 2012. Filed under Biodiversity, Green Activism, Sustainable Agriculture/GMO/Organic, Sustainable Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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