Why ‘the Lungs of the World’ Sounds like ‘the Dutch East Indies’

85 Days. 12 Villages. 42 Boats. Borneo.

On the recommendation of Lambung Mangkurat University, I spent eighty five days down a system of rivers, in 12 villages, in a backwater of Indonesia – which almost did not exist in the English language, until now…


Admiring the results of the Government’s expensive “greening” project? A grandma bathes her buffalo in a river — nearby the sunken village where she was born.

History Above the Riam Kanan Dam.

In 1974 a 30 Megawatt dam backed up the waterways of the Riam Kanan catchment. Refusing to relocate to the nearby city of Banjar Baru, entire communities went under, inhabitants forced to higher grounds – then compensated ‘a little,’ they all say. ‘But not enough!’

The dam itself was a form of compensation actually – a gift from Holland to Indonesia for 350 years of botched attempts at colonialism.

Apart from the rest of their island, the 9,588 people living above the dam struggle to see this mega-structure as a gift – actually it has them feeling colonized in a different sense.

Neocolonialism — with a twist?

‘Conserv-onialism’ in Riam Kanan.

In the first world, people lose their family homes if they do not pay taxes. Pak Basuki Rahmat in the village of Arta’in was especially shocked to hear this.

Basuki’s reply made it clear: Taxation and lack of meaningful ownership rights would be viewed as a form of colonization here in Kalimantan. An opinion I find very, very, very agreeable, as a Canadian expatriate.

If the trees in Riam Kanan were cut down, the water would dry up, causing blackouts in at least two major cities; therefore, farming is only allowed fifty meters above the river and for fifty meters inland. The planting of easy money, cash crops such as palm oil, suck up too much water – so are also forbidden. Indonesians do not like the word ‘forbidden’.

Though the cities around them were already being lit up, it would take 20 years for these villages to get power – and most of them are still reliant on noisy, problematic diesel generators. The villages of Apuai, Rantau Balai, and Rantau Bujur alone consume up to ten tons of diesel a month.

In the village of Bukit Batas, Tiwingan Baru, lights flicker on between the hours of 6 PM and off again by 11 PM; often not long enough to fully charge household devices.

“The people here are candles,” says the Pembakal of Rantau Bujur. “We are burning and other people are enjoying the light.”

Scientists have already set ‘cloud seeding’ in motion. Planes chemically seed the clouds in the north, causing rain. As clearly they’ll do anything to keep the electricity running, ancestral land rights have been taken away. Villagers here no longer have ancestral landowner rights, but hak pakai, limited usage rights. For 30 years they’ve fought for certificates of ownership, acting as collateral and enabling them to get bank loans – namely to build a single, usable road, which has also been forbidden for fears of over-development.

And because the dam would dry up, this is not going to happen.

The Emphysema of the World.

Usually between March and December, the annual torching of the world’s oldest rainforests on the same island should be as widely discussed as any ongoing global conflict – because it does involve all of us. The island’s moniker, ‘the lungs of the world,’ is starting to sound like ‘the Dutch East Indies,’ – an anachronism.

In the dry season the smoke is thick enough – even in the middle of the forest – Pembakal Hiruni of Kala’an Baru had to boat his baby niece to the city for treatment. In the middle of the jungle, the smoke was causing her to have serious breathing problems.

A firefighter from Tiwingan Lama posits perhaps only 5% of fires are natural. The rest are either accidental burns, locals taking it into their own hands to expand their allotted farmlands – by burning them – or multinational corporations recklessly clearing land for plantations.


Before and after? Dammed.

The spatial pattern of the deforestation in the study area (ie. Irregular, small-sized, scattered on the fringes of the forest area), is related to the pattern of the village distribution (i.e. both are clustered in the lower area). […] the deforestation in the study area must have been caused by illegal cutting and extending the agricultural land on an individual farmer basis […] [LAND DEGRADATION & DEVELOPMENT, 9, 311-322(1998)]

If you can do that then why can’t I?

The Governments ‘Green Project’ of the sixties was another disaster. The idea was to plant trees, such as acacia and conifers, to conserve water in the catchment. The word above the dam, proyek penghijuan was a make-work project and daily reports were falsified to keep the money coming in. Large expanses of dry land – the result of bulldozers running amok in rich and protected forest unique in all the world – remain an eyesore

And if the Government can do such a thing then why aren’t rightful heirs to these lands free to do as they please? Another reason why ‘the lungs of the world’ sounds – to them – an awful lot like ‘the Dutch East Indies.’


When Hard Knocks Pay Off.

Despite the regulations and the poverty that results in Riam Kanan, villagers here are born with more assets than many starting out in the city.

The average person does enjoy wide access to farmlands – where they plant mostly rice, peanuts, and rubber trees. These allotments of land come at a cost though: Clean water and electricity, basic education and health care are not part of the deal.

The Schools of Riam Kanan.

The throngs of beaming youngsters in these twelve villages are often more fluent in Arabic than they are in the national language of Bahasa Indonesia – confining them to a very provincial life. It’s almost as if, in their own perspective, their Indonesian cultural identity is fairly disposable. Because it’s not Islamic.

“Of course religion is important,” says a parent of Rantau Balai. “But it has nothing to do with the business of this world! It won’t get our kids jobs…We need a national school here! It’s very, very needed! That’s just my opinion though. Not everyone thinks this way.”

“A lot of the parents were worried that if religious teachings were brought down to only 75%, what would the future be like?” asked an Islamic teacher of the same village – where nevertheless I was warmly invited to give the only English language lessons these kids may ever receive (I was the first foreigner to visit the village in the past forty years).


2 thoughts on “Why ‘the Lungs of the World’ Sounds like ‘the Dutch East Indies’

  1. I wonder if the drying up of Saudi oil money, and their own desperation for self-preservation, will stay the tide of their influence on Indonesia’s particular form of Islam and education. I hope so, since I see poor people spending a lot of time in worship, and extra-curricular Koran reading classes rather than learning the basics to improve their lives and their children’s lives.

    We had CCD classes in my Catholic school back in Brooklyn, NY. I never attended, but at least learning Math and Reading took precedent over religious teachings.

    Saudi religious funding to SE Asia could be correlated to the rise of Islamic militancy of the likes of Jemaah Islamiyah (The Bali bombing group).
    The irony is that now the Saudi royals are watching out for their own necks.
    Saudi religious funding started in the 60s for Malaysia, and then in the 80s and after in Indonesia. In my opinion, having traveled in both, Malaysia is more strict or formal than Indonesia in general, if you discount the radicalized areas in each.

    I am happy to hear you call it Borneo vs. Kalimantan. Having read the likes of Joseph Conrad, I have to force myself to remember to call it Kalimantan, although for Indonesians, I take it to understand that Kalimantan is the whole island of Borneo anyway.

    Really looking forward to your future writings!


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