DURING OUR RECENT VISIT to Muara Tae, Ruwi and I asked the Forest Guardians group for a wish list. Supporters in Ubud, Bali were planning a night of music in alignment with the ceremony and wanted to receive donations for the tribe. So we asked the group: What would help you practically to defend and replant your forest?
Everyone was quiet. Then Asuy, one of the leaders of the Guardians group, said they could really use a motorbike for patrolling the conflict areas. Conditions are rugged and the bikes keep breaking down. He had already lost three. Spare parts are hard to get. “Nothing fancy,” he said. “It will only get destroyed.”
“How about horses, instead?” One teenager offered. “We wouldn’t need fuel for them.”
“Do you know how to ride a horse?” Ruwi asked.
“No, but I could learn.” Everyone laughed. Someone suggested mules and they laughed again.
This seemed to break the ice, and Asuy let himself dream a bit. “A truck would make a big difference,” he said. “Right now, we all ride motorbikes to defend the forest and sometimes we get separated. Someone’s bike breaks down. It would be safer if we could all ride into the conflict areas together. And we could also use it to carry seedlings and materials so we can replant where they have cleared our forest.”
Ruwi asked what kind of seedlings. Good, strong seedlings of rubber and cacao, they agreed.
“The ground is really hard where they cleared,” one man said. “There are many large areas and it will be a lot of work to break up the soil. Do they make a machine that could do that?”
“Americans have a machine for everything,” someone said, and everyone laughed.
Then Asuy added that during dry season, sometimes they need to put out fires in the forest. Some kind of fire extinguisher that you could bring on a motorbike would be very helpful.
“What about uniforms?” Masrani said. Then he added, “with bulletproof vests.”
There was uneasy laughter. After all, they have been facing military police holding semi-automatic weapons.
Ruwi and I offered another wish. After being there a week and experiencing the terrible internet connection and how much effort it took just to get an email to go through, what about a dedicated internet line so they could more easily stay in touch with supporters and ngos?
Masrani said that out in the field the cell phones don’t always work. When they spread out to look for bulldozers, that’s how they let others know where they are, and when the signal goes down, they are all dispersed with no way to reach each other. An ngo supplied them with walkie talkies, but because they don’t have electricity except from a generator at night, the radio signal isn’t steady enough to use. “If we had a solar generator for our radio, we could keep in touch in the field even when the cell phone signal was down,” Masrani said.
“I’m from Lompunah, a neighboring village,” the shaman said. “I’m out there on my own because most people had their land taken over or sold it to the companies. Is this only for people from Muara Tae?”
“Not at all,” Ruwi said. “You are the same — a guardian of the forest.”
I asked him to please let us know what would help him to protect his forest, and he agreed to think about it.
The next morning, we sat down to talk. I learned that his name is Phalam, and he is 90 years old. He has been a healer and shaman for the last 30 years. He thinks of Masrani and the others as his grandchildren and he is happy that there is support for them to stop the grabbing of their land.
“The ceremony is a way we have protected the forest from time immemorial,” Phalam said. “We need to do it from time to time. It is good to do it now. I am very glad I was able to take part and contribute to this ceremony. I am on my own — tending my farm, taking care of the forest. Before I was lonely, but now I know there are friends here and there is a feeling of fellowship and family. It’s good for us to come together like this.”
He told me about his ancestral forest. “There are many beautiful trees and rocks. I love them and like to be with them. Next time you come I can show you. In some areas where the companies haven’t yet reached, I still have many ulin trees. It saddens me to think that the land might be destroyed by the plantations. You asked what would be of practical help in defending it. My problem is mobility. It takes four hours for me to walk the circle of my land and check for encroachment. Because of my age, it is getting harder to walk those distances. Sometimes my daughter comes and drives me and it is very quick. If I had a motorbike, it would be a big help. I inherited 200 hectares from my grandparents and I want to keep it safe for future generations.”
One time, he heard that the bulldozers were coming. It was night and he went with others to confront them. “There was an argument. I told them to go and bulldoze their own land – not to do it here,” he said. “The police special forces are usually young. They like to shoot their guns in the air to scare people and the people I was with ran away. But I am too old to run, so I just stayed and talked to them. To run away is too tiring.”
He told us there were others in Lompunah defending their forest, but everyone was on their own. The chief defends his own land, but encourages the company to take over other people’s forests. One man from Lompunah sold other people’s land to the company and facilitated the bulldozing where they encroached on others. But then, he sent the bulldozers to someone’s land who had a group to defend their forest. They turned the tables, sending the bulldozers to get his land. “So now he is in trouble too,” Phalam told us.
Ruwi asked him about a woman from Lompunah who we had met at the ceremony a few nights before. “She has it hard,” he told us. “Most of her forest was sold to the company by others. She has only islands of farmland left.”
I asked him if he had any thoughts for those supporting the tribe from a distance. He thought a minute, then said, “Please don’t let others take away the forest. I have lost 20 hectares, but I am defending the rest. While our forests are still here, please keep supporting us.”
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