Bringing Loggers and Villagers Together for Forest Conservation

East Kalimantan Map

Expand this map of the forests in East Kalimantan.

Story Highlights
  • Villagers and a logging company nearly came to blows over logging on the Indonesian part of Borneo.
  • The Nature Conservancy brokered an agreement bringing sustainable logging to the forest and benefiting the villagers.
  • The loggers are producing certified sustainably harvested wood, and the villagers can still live off the forest.

By Robert Lalasz


LONG LAAI, EAST KALIMANTAN, INDONESIA — You'll find the future of Indonesia's forests at the end of this clay road in remotest Borneo.

But first you have to survive the road — and on one monsoonial night in November, I'm having my doubts.

A wall of rain hammers on our pickup's roof and obscures everything except our windshield wipers, while our wheels spin in shin-deep mud. That is, when the truck isn't fishtailing close to the road's edge…and the 100-foot dropoff beyond.

But the road isn't just dangerous. It's also part of a pathbreaking conservation agreement brokered by The Nature Conservancy — between indigenous villagers (whose ancestors were headhunters) and an Indonesian logging company that nearly came to blows over the forest.

'Without The Nature Conservancy, The Forest Would Already Be Gone'

Here's how the Conservancy stopped the conflict between the parties and laid the groundwork for sustainable logging in this starkly beautiful area:

  • It helped the logging company, Sumalindo Lestari Jaya (SLJ), adopt sustainable forestry practices that bring more lucrative product to market — because buyers will pay more for certified wood.
  • The Conservancy identified and mapped areas of high conservation value — including socially, culturally and ecologically important areas within the concession such as village cemeteries and the nesting grounds of rare species — that the logging company agreed to avoid.
  • It also strengthened the ethnic Dayak villagers' collective governance and negotiation skills — skills they used to forge an agreement with the company that brought them electricity, access to doctors, revenues from the logging, scholarships for their children and this road.
  • Finally, the Conservancy continues to act as an honest broker — helping both sides monitor compliance with the agreement.

The result? Conflict has stopped, both parties are pleased, and the Conservancy is hoping to scale up similar agreements throughout Borneo — where an area of forest the size of Maryland is cut down every year.

"Fifty percent of the land in East Kalimantan province is allocated to logging concessions," says Ben Jarvis, sustainable forest management specialist for the Conservancy in Indonesia. "So the only way to get deforestation under control here is to work with the concessionaires on sustainable forest management."

"Without The Nature Conservancy, I'm pretty sure the forest would already be gone," adds Jonas, head of the collaborative management body for the five villages involved.

Fires, Anarchy and Headhunting Chants

Indonesian deforestation came to world attention in the late 1990s, when fires set to clear the forests created smoke clouds big enough to dim the sun across all of Asia.

But the problem grew even worse in 1998 after President Suharto's regime fell. Indonesian government became decentralized, and illegal loggers clear-cut huge swaths of forest for export as local officials and police looked the other way.

By 2003, between 73 percent and 88 percent of all Indonesian timber was illegally logged, according to the World Resources Institute. "It was complete anarchy, a very dark time," says Ben Jarvis.

Things were particularly tense in the 100,000 hectare area logging concession known as SLJ IV, which straddles Borneo's Segah River and serves as a crucial watershed for the northeast area of the island. The Indonesian government had granted SLJ the concession, but the company was considering pulling out because of chronic conflict with the villagers.

The tension escalated to the point where the Dayak took SLJ equipment hostage and chased loggers out of a camp by singing ancestral headhunting chants. The Dayak also claim SLJ blocked a small river used by the villagers and destroyed their ancestral cemeteries.

"We were ready to fight them," says Guan Lin, council chair for the village of Long Laai.

A Neutral Facilitator

That's when the Conservancy stepped in. It had worked with SLJ to improve forest management practices at another site, and the company was comfortable with the Conservancy.

But it took the Conservancy two years to build trust with the local communities, according to Guan.

"Initially, we thought they were on the side of the logging company," he says. "But they offered so many kinds of local community training — on participatory rule, mapping, monitoring, sending us to Sumatra for comparative study of similar situations — that they won us over."

The agreement was signed in June 2004 and immediately improved conditions. Now the communities meet with SLJ about once a month to discuss issues, and the villagers monitor the company's logging activities to make sure there are no violations. "The concessions work well if there's effective regulation," says Guan.

The villages made commitments as well — promising not to hunt endangered species, fish with explosives, poison or electricity, or mine with machines. In turn, the Conservancy has encouraged the local Dayak to produce traditional non-logging forest products such as rattan, resins and honey.

"We realized that we needed neutral facilitators in this situation," says Boby Bayu, forestry manager for SLJ. "The Conservancy is good with community and forest management, and they helped us with the concept of high-conservation-value forests (HCVF) — helped us define that on the ground, and to identify which areas were important to local people."

And Ben Jarvis says mapping these areas helps increase production efficiency and can reduce company costs by reducing the incidence of social claims through prevention of damage to social or cultural values.

"The HCVF concept is a very useful tool for the Conservancy," says Jarvis. "It supports our needs in so many different ways and across different sectors including forestry, plantations, agriculture and mining."

'The Forest Is Our Supermarket, Our Bank'

Despite these advances, though, threats still loom in SLJ IV. By law, more than one-third of the concession could be converted to palm oil plantations by the year 2010 — a major cause of deforestation across Borneo.

Indeed, such conversion in the areas around SLJ IV has already affected hunting patterns, according to Mak Goes, a resident of the village of Long Oking who hunts by shooting poison darts through a 10-foot-long blowgun his grandfather gave him.

"We used to get animals really easily, in the first hour of the morning," he tells me. "Now we can hunt all day and still not get anything. Oil palm encroachment is pushing the animals away from traditional hunting grounds. They're afraid."

Meanwhile, SLJ IV is moving toward certification by the Forest Stewardship Council as a producer of reduced-impact logs. And SLJ's Boby Bayu says Western consumers need to support their efforts.

"Buying products manufactured from certified wood is very important," he says. "When you do so, you're supporting a very high commitment to the environment and peace in the forest."

For the villages, the stakes couldn't be higher.

"The forest is our supermarket, our bank," says Guan. "We enter it every day, and depend on it for all our daily activities — for hunting, herbs, traditional medicines, and clean water."

"From birth to death, wood is part of our lives," adds Uliu Dau, Long Laai's village accountant. "If you destroy the forest, you destroy our life."

(April 2009)

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