Indonesia: Dayak tribes in danger of extinction

Karmele Llano is holding a primate whose rainforest has been destroyed for palm oil Karmele Llano rescues primates threatened from palm oil (© Tantyo Bangun)

Nov 25, 2008

According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), at least 236 plant species and 51 animal species are in danger of extinction in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo island. Indonesia is the second country with most biodiversity in the world. It has the highest number of species, most of them endemic, and in danger of extinction. Indonesia is also well known for its continuous destruction of primary forests. The main cause of this ecological disaster is the intensive cultivation of oil palm, that continues it world expansion to produce the so-called biofuels.

According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), at least 236 plant species and 51 animal species are in danger of extinction in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo island.

Indonesia is the second country with most biodiversity in the world. It has the highest number of species, most of them endemic, and in danger of extinction. Indonesia is also well known for its continuous destruction of primary forests. The main cause of this ecological disaster is the intensive cultivation of oil palm, that continues it world expansion to produce the so-called biofuels. The long term effects of this oil palm monocultive are more harmful than those of illegal tree felling. In addition, it is protected by political corruption and in most cases it is considered to be a legal activity.

But not only fauna and flora are in danger of extinction in Kalimantan due to the action of oil palm companies: Dayak tribes are also under an important threat of disappearance. The Dayak, native of the Borneo lands, are ancient tribes whose lives have always been deeply rooted to the land. The forest has become a source of food, water and other provisions such as construction materials and herbal medicines. This sustainable coexistence has been maintained throughout the hundreds of years in which these settlers have lived in these lands.

Christophel Sahabu is one of the few Dayak ethnobotanists left in Central Kalimantan. He has been campaigning at Yakarta to save the forest of Tumbang Koling from the expansion of the oil palm cultivation. After a short interview he informed us about these medicinal plants. Ethnobotany is a popular scientific knowledge of the indigenous peoples. They use plants as a source of food, medicines, dyes, construction materials, and in their cultural rituals. Last year, COP (Centre for Orangutan Protection) and IAR (International Animal Rescue) came, for the first time, to the forest of Tumbang Koling at Christophel's call. At that time, 5,000 hectars of forest had already disappeared. This 74-year-man, who has acquired his ethnobotanic knowledge from his ancestors, has showed us the deeds from 1965 which bear witness to his ownership of these lands: “Oil palm companies do not care about who this land belongs to, and will not stop until they get them” – says bitterly. “I have tried everything, even to take the keys from the excavators. I have gone to the major, to the district manager, to the governor… but they have all been previously bribed by the company”.

The Malayan oil palm company PT.Nabatindo Karya Utama is responsible for this catastrophe. This company, one of the 400 companies that cultivate oil palm in Central Kalimantan is, of course, foreign, like almost all the others, which come from Malaysia and China. Christophel commented today: “The people from my village do not think in future generations, most of them sell their lands, in which there still exists primary forest, for little more than 200 euros an hectare. The ones that are left with no land to cultivate will have to work for the companies, even though most of them do not last too long because they earn around 2 euros a day”. “One person that lives from the forest can get more than 20 euros a day, companies fool them, they tell them it is a government project, an agricultural cooperative, but these companies seek only their own benefit”. Hardi Baktiantoro, director of COP, says: “The field study done by COP and IAR in 2007 in the forest of Tumbang Koling, found more than 34 bird species and more than 11 mammals. Only in the area of forest that is going to be destroyed by this company, there are more than 30 oraguntans”. Hardi, who directs one of the most active campaigns in Indonesia against oil palm companies, adds: “The orangutan will be extinguished in the non-protected areas of Central Kalimantan in a maximum period of three years if nothing is done to avoid it”. This company, like many others, obtains licenses for the “conversion” of tropical primary forest into plantations to cultivate oil palm without any problem. Most official reports and, in some cases, official maps, are false and tropical forest appears as abandoned, deforestated or stubbled land. The result of all the existing irregularities in a so no orthodox system like this one is devastating, doing away with the country's unique biodiversity.

The current situation of the workers of these companies has become more complicated with the global economic crisis. The tone price of the palm fruit has go down from 8,000 to 3,00 rupees (from 0,57 euros/Kg to 0,021 euros/Kg), or less in some cases. Lots of workers have lost their jobs. “Oil palm plantations are only an excuse to cut down the trees and sell the wood. In some years, when the oil palm will no longer be productive or the market will no longer be interested in trading it, all these companies will obtain benefits exploiting the coal of these peat soils” – says Hardi, who has been investigating the oil palm companies for several years. Today, in Yakarta, Christophel Sahabu and all the Dayak tribes he represents, have demanded the international community not to ignore what the oil palm fuel is doing both to the Indonesian primary forests and its inhabitants. Somebody has to stop this disaster before it is too late.

November 17, 2008 Karmele Llano Sanchez, BVSc, Veterinary Director International Animal Rescue, Indonesia.

Translation María Dolores González-Tradutores sen Fronteiras, Vigo,Spain