PEOPLE OF THE FOREST

Special edition booklet produced for Rare's annual board and donor dinner.
Luparia (many Dayak people use only a single name) is twenty-six years old and has been tapping rubber since she was thirteen. Most days she is at work by 3:00 a.m., leaving the house while her husband, a sawyer at a nearby mill, and her two children sleep. Because the sap of the rubber trees flows strongest in the small hours of the night, she makes her rounds in the dark, returning home shortly after dawn to rest for an hour before rising again to stir and store the latex. With a hooked blade she scores the bark of each tree diagonally so that the white, milky sap oozes down the cut. She captures the flow by undercutting a small flap of bark and inserting a leaf in the slit. The leaf lifts the trickle of sap away from the trunk of the tree, allowing it to drip into a bamboo cylinder she places at the foot of the tree. Each night she gathers about ten kilograms (twenty-two pounds) of latex, worth a little more than four dollars, of which she will owe thirty percent to the trees’ owners. Together with a rubber-tapping partner, Luparia tends a stand of four hundred trees for roughly half the year, until rice planting and other duties call her away. Most of the rubber tappers in Tempayung and surrounding Dayak villages near the Lamandau River Wildlife Reserve are women; their men work at nearby oil palm plantations.
Atman (left) and M. Yani are ethnic Melayu, descendants of seafaring Malays who came to Borneo long ago and who converted to Islam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They tap the jelutung or swamp rubber tree, which is different from both the local rubber tree and introduced Brazilian rubber trees, which grow on drier sites. They legally tend a hundred and twenty wild trees scattered along seventeen trails that wind through the Lamandau River Wildlife Reserve. Each day they traverse one trail, collecting about fifteen kilos of sap, which they strain through a cloth and store in a barrel. When the barrel is full, they cease stirring the sap and allow it to harden. Ultimately they remove the staves and strapping of the barrel to reveal an eighty-kilogram cylinder of latex, worth not quite forty dollars. Twenty days of work in a month will earn close to one hundred and fifty dollars for their two families. The cessation of logging in Lamandau has benefited them, for the jelutung is much sought after by loggers.
We interrupted Pak Emoy at his work. He and his wife were at the far end of their ladang determining where best to plant rubber trees. We had come a long way on a wet footpath to reach their farm, and we, like they, were muddy. Back at his frail, board-thin house, he excused himself to shift out of his mud-stained shorts. We sat on an immaculately swept floor. Brush knives and other tools were stored on a wall, their blades wedged behind the bare studs. A portable generator and a large chainsaw filled a corner of the room. Pak Emoy explained that as a child he learned shifting cultivation—slash and burn—from his parents but that as an adult he had concluded there isn’t land enough for that kind of agriculture to support a growing population. When the Indonesia nonprofit Yayorin, a Rare partner, came to the village of Tempayung touting the possibilities of sustainable farming, he was among the first to adopt their methods, which emphasize intensive composting to provide crops the nutrients they need. Now his farm is nearly a year and a half old. He has planted four of his ten acres by hand, for he has no access to any kind of tractor. For now Pak Emoy grows corn, cucumbers, and peppers to support his family of five. He has planted coconut, banana, mango, rambutan (a tropical fruit), and rubber trees for the long term. He hopes to try growing ramin, a high-value hardwood, for lumber. He explains that the quality of his crops depends upon the seed, and volunteers that working for himself, and not for the oil palm plantation, is a great source of satisfaction.
According to Pak Injan, demong or headman of Babual Baboti, forty-seven people in his village of eight hundred and twenty-six work for the oil palm company. The rest depend mainly on subsistence farming. They live too far from towns of any size to sell their crops at market. The oil palm workers, like their neighbors, have farms they would like to cultivate, but their jobs don’t allow them the time to do so. Pak Injan is thirtyfour and succeeded his uncle as demong only a month ago. As head of the village he recently denied a request from the oil palm company to acquire more land because the community had previously agreed it would like to grow rubber on the tract. He hopes the government will provide seed for the planting, but if not, perhaps Yayorin can help. He is pretty sure that the average level of the Lamandau River has dropped since the forest was cleared and oil palm plantations established upstream. In his father’s generation orangutans were still occasionally sighted near Babual Baboti, but not anymore.
Ibu Simat is fifty years old and stands no taller than four and a half feet. She has four teeth and a razor-sharp wit. She keeps up a rapid patter as she works a colored basket, piloting the holes for her strips of rattan with an awl made from a sharpened steel dowel. She repeatedly highfives Indra, one of Yayorin’s community workers, for whom she seems to have a special fondness. “When I die,” she says, “I will come back as a ghost and haunt Indra.” Ibu Simat still collects her own rattan, but it is harder now than it used to be. Only the strips of forest along the rivers, outside the boundaries of the oil palm plantations, still have rattan, she says. She dyes the thick strips of rattan with bright colors but leaves the thin strips plain. Ibu Simat is a widow with five daughters. Two of her granddaughters play beside her under the cempedak tree where she works. None of her daughters has taken up basket weaving. She says they hope to leave the village and lead a modern life in the city.
Pak Eson stabs the air with his hands as he speaks, and the words come out with rapid emphasis. Previous demongs of Tempayung were too lax, he says. Now that he is head of the village, he wants to renew traditional culture and agriculture. But making the necessary changes will not be as easy as just turning over your hand, he says as he performs the gesture. The people need education and the kinds of workshops and assistance Yayorin is providing. Pak Eson’s wife watches gravely from the back of the room as her husband continues a speech that she has no doubt heard before. She has placed cookies and glasses of tea on the floor within the circle of visitors. Pak Eson has no love for the oil palm company. He thinks the weather has grown hotter since the forest was cut and the plantations put in, and still today the company wants to expand not just into degraded land but into healthy forest. This is land, he candidly asserts, that the community needs not for preservation but for farms. He also has a personal grievance against the company. Twelve years ago he worked his own stand of rubber trees on a small tract of land, but incompetent leadership within the village allowed the oil palm company to destroy the rubber trees and replant the land with oil palms. He still hasn’t received the compensation they owe him, even though, at Rp 5000 (less than fifty cents) per tree, it is a pittance.
Irus is giving Edo and her baby a ride to the morning feeding—except that orangutans don’t really ride, they just hang on a person like a sack of gravel, fifty pounds of the deadest dead weight. Irus comes from Babual Baboti, one of the Dayak villages on the periphery of the Lamandau reserve where Yayorin is working to build community support for conservation. He makes about ninety dollars each month as a field assistant at Camp Rasak, where his duties include feeding the released orangutans and periodically following them on their rambles through the forest, seeing where they go and noting their behavior. His duty shift is twenty-six days long, after which he goes home for slightly less than a week. Camp Rasak provides few diversions. In the evening Irus and his co-workers exchange text messages with friends and family over the camp’s single communal cell phone antenna, and they gather on the porch of what might be called a bunkhouse— except it has no bunks; everyone sleeps on mats on the floor—to pick out songs on the shared guitar and sing them softly but unshyly, their voices carrying far into the dark forest.
Dian is the affable manager of Camp Rasak, which is to say he is a part-time klotok boatman, diesel mechanic, cook, personnel manager, ape feeder, and primate zoologist. He makes about one hundred and twenty dollars per month, and like his assistants he receives health insurance, paid for by the Orangutan Foundation of the U.K., through the Indonesian government system. He and his co-workers also get what is called the “thirteenth month”—an annual bonus of an extra month’s wages. Were he not working in conservation, Dian might easily have become an illegal logger or an oil palm plantation worker; there are few career opportunities for young Dayak men like him. As things have turned out, he has found a calling in his work with rescued apes, and his insights into their psychology and behavior are penetrating. When Dian says he thinks the young females missing from the feeding station have gone north with wild males to the forests of the Mangkung River, the degreed biologists who are his supervisors express confidence in his judgment.
Pak Marson is pastor of the thirteen-family congregation of Greja Bethel Indonesia, the sole Christian church in Tempayung and the only one for many miles beyond. He attended seminary on Java; upon graduation he was directed by church elders to undertake a mission here. He arrived in 1998, and within three months had built the church. The church is spare and clean and brightly lit, and the grounds behind it are devoted to a demonstration garden that Yayorin has put in. By day Pak Marson works for the oil palm company, Pt. Sungai Rangit, whose plantations surround Tempayung. He is the kerani buah, the fruit clerk, who records the amount of oil palm fruit each laborer on each tract of land harvests, day by day. He keeps the records for each of the workers in a separate booklet, and at night he enters the amounts in a ledger where their pay is calculated. His figures also provide the basis for payments by Sungai Rangit to the cooperative of village landowners on whose three hundred and sixty-nine hectares it grows oil palms. His script is small and neat, as clear as printed type.
Pak Isar has leased his land to the oil palm company, and after twelve years he will own the trees the company has planted on his property. This is not a bonanza, however, for an oil palm is most productive between its seventh and twelfth years. Still, Pak Isar regards the arrangement as a good deal. While the palms produce, he will receive fifteen percent of the value of the fruit harvested from his land—perhaps forty-five dollars per month at the height of the harvest season and half that the rest of the year. The rents are paid into the one-hundred-fifty-sevenmember village cooperative, which will distribute to Pak Isar his pro rata share of revenue. This money will supplement the roughly three dollars per day he earns as a field laborer working on his own land, essentially as a sharecropper. He and his wife Suham are in their mid-thirties and have three sons and one daughter, whose husband drives a truck for the oil palm company. Together they make a modest but sufficient living.
It is only eight a.m., and already Pengli’s shirt is drenched in sweat. He wields a spade-tipped lance, called a dodos, which he has filed to a sharp edge, to pare away the leathery fronds that conceal the palm fruit, and then to sever the fruit from the tree. Each jab of the lance goes exactly home: one, maybe two strokes for each obstructing frond, and with the fruit laid bare, two or three stabs more will bring the bushelsized cluster of oily, reddish eggs thumping to the ground. When he has cut the fruit from several trees, Pengli piles the cut fronds, loads the clusters of fruit on a frail red wheelbarrow and heads for the road at the end of the long row of palms. Then he returns down the hot, shadowy aisle to cut another load. Pengli’s base pay is not quite three dollars a day. He is also rewarded according to the total weight of the fruit he harvests. On March 20, 2009, for instance, he cut and hauled well over three thousand pounds of fruit, enough to earn an additional dollar.
Togu Simorangkir says his job description consists of one word: “Dream.” He is director of Yayorin, which is shorthand for Yayasin Orangutan Indonesia—the Indonesia Orangutan Foundation. He is an athletic man with a large presence, quick to joke and quicker to laugh, and he has managed to bring many of Yayorin’s dreams to fruition. When Togu came to Yayorin in 2003, it had only one other employee and no assets. Today it has its own building, set within a model farm and environmental education campus on land it owns. Its staff of more than two dozen runs a battery of programs embracing biological conservation, agricultural extension, community development, and childhood education. Yayorin’s portfolio banked a major new asset when Rare accepted its proposal to launch a Rare Pride campaign on behalf of the Lamandau River Wildlife Reserve. Armed with Rare’s social marketing methodology, Yayorin’s field workers will be better able to build community support for the reserve. Togu holds a master’s degree in primate biology from Oxford, but he thinks of himself less as a scientist than an as educator. In 2000, after facing down a mob of armed loggers bent on harvesting the best remaining primary forest and orangutan habitat in southern Borneo, he concluded that his research would become meaningless if the object of its study were destroyed. One day a western friend asked him, “Togu, if I put one million dollars on this table to save the orangutan, would you take it?” He replied, “No, but if you give it for education and social improvement, things like that, I will say yes. If the focus is only on the orangutan, it creates social conflict and people respond with dislike for the orangutan.”
Steven Brend studies a map of the Lamandau River Wildlife Reserve by oil lamp at the Prapat guard post. Brend is a senior conservationist with the Orangutan Foundation of the United Kingdom and has worked in Borneo since 2002. A few weeks after this photograph was taken, he departed the island for the fresh challenge of veterinary school, but he left behind a very substantial body of conservation achievements, including the formation of the Lamandau Ecosystem Conservation Partnership, in which he played a leading role, and a five-year grant from the European Union that sustains it, which he helped to secure. The Prapat guard post is one of the fruits of his work. It stands where a former logging road penetrates the northern border of the reserve, which once was subjected to extensive illegal logging and devastating fires. The guards who staff the post, paid from the EU grant, are the best defense possible against logging and fire. Through the long, quiet, exceedingly hot days at their remote outpost they busy themselves tending a nursery of native trees, with which they are reforesting the burned lands.
More than anything else, “it’s the eyes and hands” that attract us to orangutans, says Stephen Brend, senior conservationist of the Orangutan Foundation. It is said that a female orangutan is four times as strong as a fit human male, and a male orangutan is eight times as strong. Such comparisons are easy to believe once you’ve seen the apes glide through the trees, calmly lifting and levering themselves through maneuvers no human gymnast could execute. Even so, we humans are accustomed to witnessing the extraordinary athleticism of the animal world. The slow, steady gaze of the orangutan presents a different kind of experience. There is thought in the depths of those dark eyes, as well as feelings not far different from our own. It’s no surprise, then, that in Bahasa Indonesia, orangutans translates to “people of the forest.”
Orangutan in Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.
preparing hand-mounted prints for the exhibition
Presenting People of the Forest at Blue Earth's Collaborations for Cause. Portland, OR.
People of the Forest exhibition at the Durham Art Guild with Duke University. Durham, NC.