JP/Anissa S. Febrina
To live close to nature is probably something many in the city dream of. But rarely do we realize the great responsibility that comes with that privilege, one that Lidjie Taq, chief of the Wehea tribe, takes very seriously.
"For us, the forest is a source of life," says the leader of the 2,500 residents of Nehes Liah Bing, a village in East Kalimantan's East Kutai area. "It is like a barn where we can obtain anything from meat, plants, seeds and, especially for us, a natural recycler of water. Protecting it means we are protecting our own lives."
Lidjie's efforts to protect Wehea forest have gone from guarding it to fighting for its legal conservation status. The forest is located about 40 kilometers from his community and five other neighboring villages.
It is an effort that has been recognized through the recent Kalpataru award for conservation of nature, as an example set for others, an example of grassroots activism that could hopefully snowball into a greater movement.
"We were only concerned by the destruction of nature," Lidjie says.
"Around us, plantations are being opened and are contaminating the water with the fertilizers they use. Having a protected forest that also functions as a catchment area will hopefully help repurify the water."
"Keldung Laas Wehea Long Skung Metgueen": This phrase in Wehean Dayak refers to the protection and limited use of the forest, a line that represents the local consensus to guard their source of life.
"We are close to the forest and realized that it was dying," he says, describing the turning point for locals in intensifying their conservation efforts through the forest guardian program.
In early November 2004, locals from three surrounding districts started discussing what they wanted to do with the forest. In one day they had reached an agreement to manage and protect the 38,000-hectare area as a community forest.
Despite the Kalpataru recognition, the Wehea forest has yet to be legally recognized by the government as a conservation area.
Nevertheless, the community has appointed about 30 people as petkuq mehuey or guardians of the forest, taking turns monitoring the protected areas for poachers and loggers. While many green activists are busy formulating what a conservation area is and how it should be managed, the Weheans have done it customarily for centuries.
The key word for them is keldung, a concept that translates into a modern day understanding of "conservation area", according to coordinator of environmental organization The Nature Conservancy's East Kutai, Taufik Hidayat.
The green group has been fighting alongside locals to have the customary practice of forest conservation recognized by the government.
Keldung is actually a simple, straight-to-the-point concept.
"If, for example, two brothers would like to clear their own fields, they should not clear them side by side. There should be a keldung in between, some 50 meters wide," Lidjie explains.
This buffer zone serves not only as a shaded place to rest after a hot day under the sun working in the fields, but also as what Lidjie referred to earlier: A source of life. That area allows biodiversity to thrive, locals to obtain timber to build communal huts and animals to live in the wilderness.
"Actually, the forest is divided into areas that cannot be touched at all and ones that can be of limited use. But we are trying as much as we can not to touch even the latter," he adds.
This latter area is available only for some timber to construct communal buildings and to hunt a limited number of boars.
"It's the only animal that is still allowed to be hunted as its population can grow quickly. But, still, if we are reckless in hunting boars, they will soon be extinct, too," Lidjie says.
"There are still violators, though, both locals and especially outsiders, like from Lombok and Java, who are not aware of our custom are still hunting and logging in the forest."
The poachers and loggers, known locally as pencari garu, are detained by the community, but are released after they are reprimanded and their hunting and logging tools are seized.
While the custom is inherent for Weheans, but for outsiders - including the government - the concept is difficult to grasp, let alone be recognized as equal to the law.
For outsiders, Dayak's slash-and-burn agriculture might seem destructive at first, but unwritten rules such as keldung seem to prove otherwise.
Describing the similar practice of Amazonian tribes, writer Charles C. Mann explains the reasoning behind it. "With little soil wealth to extract, Amazonian farmers face inherent ecological limitations. Farmers clear small fields with axes and machetes, burn off the chaff and refuse and plant their seeds. The ash gives the soil a quick shot of nutrients, giving the crop a chance," he wrote in 1491.
This concept "minimizes the time in which the ground is unprotected," and in a way, when farmers move to open another area, gives the soil time to regain vitality.
According to Mann, groups that have survived with this approach will build the knowledge into their ideology and behavior through taboos and other laws - much like what the Weheans do.
However, maintaining customary agricultural practices is not as easy as it seems, especially in an era of cash crops and intensive agriculture.
"Our area is shrinking, pushed back by commercial plantations and settlement areas. Thus, we have to adapt our form of agriculture," Lidjie says, adding that Weheans no longer open new forest areas and make do with the existing fields.
"If in the future the soil is no longer fertile and no longer allows our old way of farming, then, like it or not, we have to start using fertilizers," he says.
Change is one of Lidjie's concern - change for the worse that is.
"Time will change things. Each and every day there are outside forces that require us to change our ways of living. Ready or not, like it or not, we will gradually adapt," he says.
"We will never know about the future generation. But, as long as we are here, we will try to protect the forest. If it is destroyed, then the four villages downstream will be flooded. Our culture will also vanish. If that happens, then Wehea will be history."