Thursday, 23 October 2008

Dayak people call for a helping hand

The Jakarta Post 22nd October 2008

Dayak people call for a helping hand

Benget Besalicto Tnb., Contributor, Sampit

The decline of the forest has not only affected the endangered orangutan but also the lives of Orang Dayak, the indigenous people of Kalimantan. Many reports have described the gloomy fate of the Dayaks, who have yet to benefit from the lucrative business activities going on around them, despite the fact they are the rightful owners of the land.

In several reports, a number of Dayaks have attested they lag behind migrants around them in benefiting from the incoming investment on their lands.

As most of them have gone through only basic schooling, many have ended up taking lower positions in businesses -- mainly mining, timber estates and palm-oil companies -- operating in the country's second largest island after Papua.

Daslen, a 27-year-old village head in Bangkalan, Central Kalimantan, said Dayaks have much catching up to do if they are to emulate the migrants, who are more empowered than the locals in economic and educational terms.

The native of the Dayak Ngaju tribe said economically most of the Dayak people in his area were living under poor conditions. As a result, most Dayak families could only finance their children to attend junior or senior high school at most.

Dunis, a 60-year-old Dayak man, is a retired civil servant who worked in a West Kalimantan subdistrict office. He blamed poverty for limiting Dayak employment chances, leaving people to settle for work as security officers or field-workers in mining or palm-oil plantations.

"We're poor, we can't afford to send our children to university," said the man, who lives in a village near the town of Sampit.

Sayor Atan is a 62-year-old Hindu Kaharingan priest who officiates the religion practiced by many Dayaks in a Bangkalan village near Sampit. He said the decline of the forest had badly affected them economically and culturally.

Citing one example, he said many Dayaks had to buy expensive fertilizer for their farms because they could no longer practice traditional farming methods due to declining forest which made the land less fertile. Oftentimes their harvests were scant.

"We also find it increasingly harder to find certain plants and trees in the forests for our rituals," he said. The rituals include tiwah, a ceremony to formally bury the dead using a special coffin made from a certain big tree.
He blamed forest exploitation for impoverishing them so they could no longer even educate their children beyond high school.

"I have eight children and most of them can only attend senior high school at the highest. We have no money to send them to university."
Sampit is the city where bloody conflicts between Dayak and migrants from Madura broke out in February 2001. Thousands were reported killed in the conflict.

A report prepared by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group revealed the conflict was fueled by the fact the Dayaks were being marginalized from the ongoing economic development taking place on their own lands.

According to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Board (BKSDA), the forest area has been declining by between 1.5 and 2 percent annually across Kalimantan.

Unfortunately, rare is the company which sees the need to empower locals. It seems their way of doing business has not changed much since the fall of the New Order, when businesses exploiting natural resources relied on security to manage community relations.

Only a few implemented their corporate social responsibility (CSR) to empower local people and avoid potential conflicts which could ruin their business' sustainability in the long run.

Agro Group, a palm-oil firm, offers a good CSR example. They recently built a junior high school where students can study for free.

"We also include lessons about Hindu Kaharingan, the Dayak religion, in the curriculum," said Edi Suhardi, CSR manager of the firm, which operates in several areas of Central Kalimantan, including Sampit regency.

But Daslen is striving for more. Realizing the Dayaks' weak bargaining position vis-…-vis the government and the companies operating near his village, he is working to propose several programs he thinks might empower his people.

The programs, he said, include proposals to jointly manage small-scale palm oil plantations, set up cooperatives, and develop tourism.

After dozens of years of not reaping any economic benefit from the forest concessionaires, Daslen and his community are hoping for a helping hand.
"I hope, despite our poor condition, the government and the palm-oil companies are willing to help empower the Dayaks here," he said.