Stopping a War…and Promoting Sustainable Forestry in Borneo

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Published on May 15th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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A story involving poisonous snakes, wild pig hunts, blowguns with poison darts, the ancestors of headhunters and pathbreaking conservation?

That’s a hard story to pass up…even if it’s halfway around the world.

So I didn’t. In November 2007, I traveled to the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo to report on how The Nature Conservancy brokered an agreement between indigenous Dayak villagers and an Indonesian logging company that nearly came to blows over 100,000 hectares of tropical forest the villagers depend on for their livelihood…and the northeast part of Borneo depends on as a crucial watershed.

Before the Conservancy was invited in to mediate the conflict, the loggers and the villagers were in chronic conflict over use of local portions of the Segah River and alleged desecration of areas and resources of cultural importance to the Dayak (like an ancestral cemetery).

The tension had escalated to the point where the Dayak took heavy logging equipment hostage and chased loggers out of a camp by singing headhunting chants.

What the Conservancy was able to achieve here was nothing short of remarkable:

  • It brokered an agreement that allowed the loggers to sustainably harvest high-value logs from the forest (logs that, because they’re sustainably harvested, fetch much higher market prices).
  • In exchange, the loggers brought many benefits to the villages, including electricity, revenues from the logging, access to doctors, scholarships for its children, and a road to the outside world. The loggers also agreed not to violate areas of high cultural value for the Dayak.
  • The Conservancy taught the villagers collective governance best practices so they could negotiate with the logging company for their best interests.
  • And the Conservancy continues to act as an honest broker, helping the two sides monitor compliance with the agreement.

It was an exhilarating trip. But what didn’t make it into my story for nature.org was a couple of details one finds in few other places on Earth — like the wild pig hunt held in my honor one day.

(I’m a vegetarian, so I waited behind…and didn’t partake of the pig brought back for roasting. You can see the traditional starch I did eat — as well as a Dayak hunter who catches his breakfast every day using poison darts and a blowgunin the slideshow that accompanies my story.)

I also didn’t mention the poisonous snake that jumped in our boat as we crossed the Segah River one day…a snake that made everyone else jump out of the boat but froze me as it slithered directly under where I was sitting.

Fortunately, I was able to step out of the boat without being harmed…and come back from Borneo with a great story of conservation success. (The snake wasn’t so lucky. But there were many others…)

Please let us know what you think of the story, and be sure to read some of the other pieces about our new forest work now on nature.org.

(Image: Mak Goes, a Dayak villager along the Segah River in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, who uses a blowgun his grandfather gave him to hunt game. Credit: Robert Lalasz/TNC.)

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