What it’s like in Muara Tae: Sheila’s story

sheila kartikaSHEILA KARTIKA is an Indonesian communications specialist who has worked on behalf of the Dayak Benuaq people. Here she tells about her visit to Muara Tae and why she was drawn to join the Indiegogo team to raise money to support their ceremony:

I DON’T THINK I WILL FORGET the days I spent at Muara Tae. During the one-day roadtrip from Sepinggan airport, I saw how Borneo, the island I used to see only on a map and imagine as a ‘green island,’ now had its forests fading away. Vessels loaded with coal went back and forth in the Mahakam river. A 23-year-old me was trying to understand how the world worked and how to see the bigger picture of all this.

I visited there a couple of years ago when I worked for Telapak [an NGO in Indonesia] and was accompanying several journalists from AlJazeera. Muara Tae’s forest was like an oasis in the middle of a desert, surrounded by mining holes and palm oil plantations. It’s the last forest that has survived in that area, thanks to Muara Tae residents like Pak Asuy, Pak Singko, Pak Masrani, and others. They keep the forest intact even as it is threatened by the palm oil and mining companies. We went to see the burnt-down security guard post that the community had built to watch over their forest, protecting it from the companies that were encroaching on their land. We also visited the forest nursery where they grow ulin and other kinds of seeds for reforestation. Ulin is one of Borneo’s endemic trees is considered a threatened species.

It is such an irony that despite being surrounded by coal mines, they don’t have enough access to electricity. The electricity is only available from 6pm until midnight. Luckily they have a generator. There’s a saying, Ayam mati di lumbung padi or in English, “a dead chicken inside the granary.” Rich natural resources surround them, but they are not the ones who get the benefit of them. Instead, it’s for the sake of other people in the other part of the world. The coal is mostly exported to foreign countries.

Muara Tae has a long history of being encroached on. This isn’t the only time they’ve been threatened by the companies. It started back in 1970’s. Pak Asuy told me how when he was young, he had to run and live in the forest for three months because he organized protests. He was chased by the company and targeted by the army. Several community members were imprisoned for six months. They were accused of violating the law because they burned down the company’s basecamp after the company bulldozed their land illegally.

Pak Asuy inspires many of us who are connected to Telepak. Om Ruwi was so inspired, he called Pak Asuy, Pak Andreas, Singko and the Muara Tae community Asterix, Obelix, Abraracourcix and the Gauls community. You know — the characters from French comics: They are not afraid even if their village is surrounded by bulldozers and army. They stick with their beliefs and will not give up their forest.

I remember shopping for groceries and helping Ibu Laiyen [Asuy’s wife] cook in the kitchen. She told me that I’m a good cook, I wasn’t. I can’t cook, besides boil water and make instant noodles. “Well, at least you can light the fire without trying to burn this home,” She joked. They still use firewood and it was quite hard for me who is used to a stove. I asked her what would happen if the company took their forest and land. The first thing she said was, “I don’t know how my kids would be able to live and survive. I guess they would have to live without forest and our culture would be extinct.” At that time, she had just given birth to a beautiful baby.

Pak Asuy’s family and the Muara Tae community just want simple things. They don’t need much — they just want to live in peace. They want to keep their forest because it’s their source of livelihood; it’s their home; it’s their playground; it’s their sanctuary. They depend on the forest. I remember one night, taking shower at the back of Pak Asuy’s house, which is a typical Dayak wooden house. The bathroom is just a corner in the back enclosed with wooden boards. As I showered, I looked up above and saw the beautiful sky full of dazzling stars. I was amazed and looked until my neck was sore. It was such a privilege for me to be able to experience that moment.

After the AlJazeera journalists finished with their coverage, me and three other Telapak members stayed. Things were pretty tight and worrying at that time, with the conflict between Muara Tae and the neighboring village, Muara Ponaq, over land that traditionally belonged to Muara Tae. We decided to go to the Regent’s office in the city to help resolve it. It took us more than two hours on motorbikes to reach the office. Don’t imagine the Historic Route 66 smooth asphalt — the road trip was dusty and bumpy. After we arrived, we met with the Regent’s staff. The Regent himself was too busy to meet with us. They said they would help to settle the land dispute and they showed up to do the mapping, but still neglected the boundaries that prove the land belongs to the Muara Tae community.

It’s been more than two years since those land conflicts arose and I understand why the community decided to hold the vow ceremony. I understand their weariness and their worry. That’s why I decided to help — to do what I can when Om Ruwi emailed me about what was happening there. I do what I can do from my laptop at home with all this technology and geeky things, talking about deforestation and climate change. Meanwhile the Muara Tae community is on the front lines, facing bulldozers and the army, experiencing the scarcity of clean water and lack of electricity.

I really hope this one will work out. I believe that when humans try their best, at a certain point the only thing they can do is “let go and let God.”

God bless Muara Tae and us all.

—Short video on how this effort came to be
—More information on the ceremony, the tribe, and ways to join in
—Guardians of the Forest on Facebook
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