Asuy accepts UN award for heroic efforts to save rainforest

guardians of the forestSOMETHING TO CELEBRATE with our Dayak Benuaq friends in Borneo! Asuy attended the Paris climate talks to accept the UN’s Equator Prize on behalf of the Muara Tae community for their heroic efforts to save their rainforest from destruction at the hands of palm oil companies. The Equator Prize rewards collective action and includes $10,000, which will help them in their reforestation efforts. It also brought their story to the negotiations, where a historic agreement to reduce carbon emissions was made.

asuy and friends with alec baldwinSupporters now include actor Alec Baldwin, who is pictured here with Asuy (fourth from left) and friends at the Paris talks. In recent years, Baldwin has used his celebrity to draw attention to indigenous and land rights issues, as well as for forest conservation.

While local government officials in Indonesia have called the people of Muara Tae “anti-development” for refusing to hand over the last 4000 hectres of their forest to palm oil companies, “Ironically, the international community, in this case the UN, has supported what we have been doing for years to protect our land from being destroyed by corporations and our local government,” Asuy told the Jakarta Post.

“They’re vulnerable, no question,” said Joseph Corcoran, who manages the Equator award. “But the prize is also about achievement. The fact that they still have this area of forest that’s been protected in the face of outside pressure is really just remarkable. It’s something we want to shine a spotlight on.” (You can read this excellent article, which covers Muara Tae’s story, in Mongabay.)


asuy and friends at ubud writers festJust before the Paris event, Asuy (third from left) and three others from Muara Tae (Mimpin, Singko and Sedan) were featured at this year’s Ubud Writer’s Festival in Bali. Asuy told the story of Muara Tae in a panel discussion called “The Heart of the Haze,” which addressed the terrible fires in Borneo lit by palm oil companies that went out of control this fall, destroying pristine forests and creating a haze that spread all the way to Singapore. The four of them were then featured storytellers at the Blanco Museum garden the next evening — and their presentation was met with rave reviews. Asuy had this to say: 

The storytelling at the Blanco Museum was so amazing. So many audience. The four of us ‘performed’ with gamelan, flute, drums that we brought with us from Muara Tae. We sang the stories of the origin of the universe, the origin of humans, the origin of Muara Tae, the way we live. We chanted and sang and danced the stories of our struggle, the new friends who presented themselves to us, and the ancient rituals and vow ceremony that we did as we are tasked as a tribe to nurture and keep the forest.

Asuy would like to again thank everyone who donated towards getting them to Bali for the event. And a deep bow to David Metcalf, who organized the evening, which also featured Phillius, a Dayak Kenyah from Long Saan, North Kalimantan, who told traditional stories from his tribe. Phillius was featured in the film Long Saan: The Journey Back, which David Metcalf produced. It was shown the previous evening as part of a series of Dayak-focussed cultural events at the Festival.

Some of you asked if there is anything else the tribe needs, and Masrani (Asuy’s son) told us they could use help funding a small vow ceremony, which will cost about $1000. The idea is to renew the vows that were made at the large ceremony we funded in 2014. They need to do this now because there have been two new government appointments for chief of village and chief of Adat, both supporters of the palm oil companies. These officials need to be reminded of the seriousness of the vow the tribe took last year, because if they forget their deeper calling as Dayak’s to be guardians of the forest, they could seriously undermine all that has just been accomplished. Donate Now

On my first visit to Muara Tae, Ruwi and I were inspired by the resiliency and good spirits of Asuy and his family in the face of such relentless challenge, and we asked him how he did it. He told us that the stories from the tradition helped him, because they taught that this destruction was a natural cycle — and those who lived during cycles of destruction were instructed to save all they could. “I’m just doing my job,” Asuy said. Given this, the real enemy is not the palm oil companies or those who accept their bribes. “The real enemy is despair,” Asuy said, because it keeps us from acting on our values to protect life.

The UN’s award to the tribe for their inspiring dedication as guardians of the forest is an acknowledgment of the power of their tradition to be a force that benefits all of us. It is also a potent reminder that how we frame things — and where we focus our thoughts — makes all the difference in our effectiveness.


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