A letter from a Dayak woman who lost her forest as a child

SONY DSCTHE TEAM working on behalf of the guardians of the Borneo rainforest received this beautiful letter from Mina Setra, a Dayak from West Kalimantan whose people lost their forest in only 10 years to palm oil. She was a child then, and has since gone on to work on behalf of indigenous people, including the people of Muara Tae. She told us her story — so deeply moving — and also told us from the point of view of a Dayak person about the vow ceremony that the people of Muara Tae will perform:

First, I would like to thank you all for giving heart and effort
to help our indigenous brothers and sisters in Muara Tae. It has been a long struggle for us, fighting with and for Muara Tae. With different partner organizations, we’ve been trying local, national and international campaigns, even suing the local government. The last thing we did with the people in Muara Tae was try to rehabilitate the territory by planting trees.

Last year, we (my organization AMAN – the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago), won a case at the Constitutional Court on our appeal for a Judicial Review of Indonesia Forestry Law. Our Forestry law no. 41/1999, basically said, “Customary forest is state forest.” For Indigenous peoples, this is one of the main causes of the encroachment into our ancestral territories for a long time. In our appeal, the Constitutional Court came out with a ruling that “customary forest is forest within Indigenous territories.” It’s a strong ruling that annulled state ownership over our territories. Customary forest is not state forest! With this strong ruling, we hoped to be able to change the situation and give power to indigenous peoples all over Indonesia to control their own territories. It’s still in process now, but in Muara Tae, everything seems stuck. The situation on the ground hasn’t changed.

I’m a Dayak myself. A Pompakng, from West Kalimantan. West Kalimantan itself was the first target of oil palm development beginning in 1976. By 1986 — ten years later — my homeland had been destroyed by oil palm plantations. I was still a little child at that time. When I grew up, there was no more forest in my homeland— just oil palm plantation and desert. People were promised with prosperity, but instead, they suffered. They keep promoting jobs, public facilities, roads, and a better economy. But it’s all a lie! There’s no forest left except my grandma’s backyard. Rivers are polluted and people become laborers on their own land.

As a respected Ibanic Chief, Apai Janggut of Sungai Utik once said: “There’s no seed for earth and water. We can’t grow them, therefore, it’s our responsibility to take care of them for our future generations.” That’s exactly what happened in my community. We lost our ancient forest and there’s no way to get it back. I just found out last month that now, mining is waiting to encroach on what’s left from the plantation.

oil palm when used upIf you ever come to my district, Sanggau, you’ll see a view with a thousand hectares of dead oil palm trees standing tall, sad and scary, dead from injection. They need time until their roots get rotten, then they’ll be replaced with new ones. It’s a really creepy view, especially at night, like dementors in the Harry Potter movie. Sometimes I wish those trees would come alive and get mad!! Poor trees — they’ve been used against all other trees and plants for the benefit of a few people on this planet.

I often cry deep in my heart every time I hear of a conflict like what Muara Tae is facing now. They happen in many indigenous territories all over Indonesia — a reflection of what happened in my own land. I remember when I was a child, I used to play in the forest while my parents tapped rubber; ate fruits and even flowers and plants that the forest provided; went swimming in Kapuas River branch or played with the canoe; caught fish with my brothers. Those are the happiest times in my life that will never happen again in our own territory. My colleague Simon Pabaras, a Dayak (Kanayatn People) from West Kalimantan, also has a similar problem. It’s really sad to experience losing part of our soul. Our people without forest is without identity. It hurts my dignity every time I think about how those people destroy our homeland, then leave!

Therefore, I truly understand the decision of Muara Tae people to conduct the ancient vow ceremony. As Dayak peoples, we have certain levels of ceremony to communicate with our ancestors and the spirits of nature for different purposes. I understand that the ceremony that the Muara Tae people are going to conduct is the highest call to the highest ancestors — powerful, wise spirit beings—seeking for help. This is a ceremony that is only conducted when there’s no other way that the community can survive. It is a very serious ceremony in the Dayak community.

About two years ago, my colleague in East Kalimantan, Margaretha Seting, told me that the Muara Tae community was willing to conduct this ritual, but somehow it was postponed because it needs serious preparation physically and spiritually. Also maybe because they were still hoping there was another way. Now I guess maybe it is the time. I fully support this effort.

ceremony statue72I just want everyone to understand the seriousness of the ceremony,
so everyone who is involved also can make preparation themselves through prayer, meditation, and a pure heart to help. Because once the call is heard, the ancestors in their wisdom will decide how to resolve things for the good of all the people and the forest. They could determine that someone who is too damaging must be taken away. Many Dayak communities didn’t do this ceremony, since it means they would have to answer to the very powerful ancestors in our beliefs. I understand, this must not be easy for people in Muara Tae to make this decision, but if it has to be, then it will be.

I don’t know how to explain, but I can give an example. A few years ago, the Dayak Semambang in Niut Mountain Area (Bengkayang District), did a similar ritual, but smaller. The community made a strong vow to protect their ancestral forest and that they would not take wood from the forest to sell, except for daily needs only, or for the collective needs of the community. They did this ceremony because at that time, there was illegal logging everywhere and they were afraid it would destroy their forest. Most of the loggers are outsiders — not member of the community.

So they did the ceremony to strengthen their commitment to protect their land, the home of their ancestors, and to to take the vow. If anyone broke the vow, they left it for the ancestors to decide what to do. So every single person in that community was bound with the vow. A few months later, two men — members of the community — died from an accident, struck down by a falling tree that they were trying to cut. Later people found out that they had been selling wood outside of the community for their own benefit. The community believed that the ancestors had done this because the men made a vow to protect, not to destroy, and it was a warning for all of them that the ancestors had heard their vows.

This is what I mean when I say that there’ll be consequences, and the community knows this and is willing to take the risk with their heart. I think for Muara Tae, they know this too, and that’s why they want to do the ceremony — to remind everyone of their responsibility to all people and to the forest, and to stop those who keep selling their territories to the company. In my opinion, this is the highest form of love and courage that they are showing: To sacrifice individual ego for the love of the forest by protecting it for a collective interest and the needs of future generations. Even if there’s a risk, so be it.

I’m glad that the group supporting the ceremony is doing meditation.
It would be good to do more for preparation and also to gather positive energy from all elements for the people in Muara Tae before the ritual. They will need supportive energy and prayers so they’ll be safe. Please don’t take my message as trying to warn or to scare you. There’s no intention in that. I just want to share what I understand as a Dayak People. I often asked myself why my people didn’t do this when their land was taken away.

Once again, thank you for supporting our indigenous brothers and sisters in Muara Tae. For me, it’s also a support for all suffering indigenous peoples in Indonesia now. Maybe one day, if everyone can get together like this, we can save the forest by first saving the people who keep the forest safe.

Mina was inspired to make this video to express what it feels like for indigenous people to lose their forest. It’s the first video she ever made, and it is like visual poetry — powerfully moving. I am so grateful to Mina for sharing with us deeply from her heart.

—More information on the ceremony, the tribe, and ways to join in
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