The Punan are a nomadic indigenous people in the central and northern regions of Borneo Island, both on the Indonesian side of Borneo and in Sarawak and Sabah, Malaysia. As a hunter-gatherer community, they rely on the forest as a source of food, medicine, water and all socio-cultural aspects of their lives.
In the 1900s, the Dutch East Indies colonial government began moving the Punan and other indigenous peoples to settle in permanent villages outside the forest. This policy helped the colonial government to monitor and control the tribes. In the 1970s, Indonesia’s New Order government also continued this approach through a project called population resettlement.
Indigenous peoples still living in remote forests were moved into permanent villages near urban areas. This program was considered to make it easier for the government to collect data, organize aid and development programs. On the other hand, this approach has other impacts on the environment and culture of indigenous communities. When forests are abandoned, they become uninhabited and more open to exploitation and concessions.
With no education and no control over their ancestral lands, the Punan are marginalized in society. Logging concessions, mining and oil palm plantations began to exploit customary forests. Although they still live subsistently in the remaining forest, contact with modern life has forced them to adapt and embrace a new culture. No longer relying solely on forest products, they now also start farming to make a living. Some work in cities or other countries as migrant workers.
On the other hand, contact with the modern world allowed the Punan tribe to gain access to education, an important asset that would change their lives. Around the 1970s, Church missions began to reach out to tribes in the interior of Malinau, North Kalimantan (then still included in East Kalimantan Province) through the schools it established. Through these missions, the younger generation of indigenous people began to gain access to basic education. Later, many of these pioneering students would take on leadership roles and play an important role in organizing their communities. In 2005, they began networking with local, national and international organizations to start organizing their communities.
In 2005, Niko Boro-a teacher who has worked since 1970 in Malinau-founded an organization called Lembaga Pemerhati dan Pemberdayaan Dayak Punan Malinau (LP3M) to support indigenous communities in advocating and mapping their customary forests. Punan Adiu was the first village to undertake this initiative. In 2012, with support from national and international organizations, the Punan Adiu community and LP3M began mapping their ancestral lands.
Participatory mapping requires a lot of fieldwork, verification and public consultation involving the community and neighboring villages to ensure boundaries and accuracy. In Punan Adiu, this process can take up to two years until all neighboring communities and villages agree on the map. In 2015, Punan Adiu successfully mapped 17,415 hectares of its customary forest, an area equivalent to the city of Washington, DC in the United States. Not content with that, the Punan Adiu community then asked the Malinau Regency Government to recognize their indigenous community.
On May 8, 2017, the land rights ownership and existence of Punan Adiu as a customary law community was finally recognized and ratified by the government of Malinau Regency, North Kalimantan Province, Indonesia. The then Regent of Malinau, Yansen Tipa Padan, signed a decree on the recognition and protection of the Punan Long Adiu Indigenous Community, granting the community full rights to protect and manage their customary forest.
To strengthen its recognition at the national level, the Punan Adiu community then submitted an application for recognition and protection of indigenous peoples and their forests to the Central Government, through the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, in Jakarta on June 21, 2018 through the social forestry scheme. The Ministry will review the documents and conduct field verification. When all requirements and verifications have been approved, the Punan Adiu Community will receive national recognition and have stronger legality to protect and sustainably manage their customary territories.
Despite their success in gaining legal recognition for their customary forest, the Punan Adiu’s struggle has not stopped. Amidst the threat of deforestation and exploitative industries operating around the village, legal certification is no longer enough to protect ancestral lands. Communities need to continue to be active in safeguarding and sustainably managing their customary territories. To strengthen their land tenure, the Punan Adiu conduct forest patrols, build cabins and information boards along their customary territory, plan economic development through ecotourism services and carbon trading, and plant trees and cash crops.
On the landscape management side, the Punan Adiu community also uses their traditional local wisdom to divide their customary territory into protected zones and economic areas. While the primary forest is maintained as protected forest, the community can utilize other areas to meet their subsistence and economic needs. Through this management the community seeks to equally harmonize nature conservation and economic empowerment. On the biodiversity front, 97% of the Punan Adiu region is rainforest and home to endemic plants and animals.
A study conducted by LTS International in 2017 estimated that 55,216 metric tons per year of CO2 emission reductions could be achieved if the Punan Adiu community could avoid deforestation in its customary forest. With its role as a nature reserve, food source and carbon sink, the Punan Adiu Customary Forest has a significant impact as a biodiversity sanctuary, provider of community needs and contributes to preventing the global climate crisis from reaching dangerous levels for earth civilization.
Agrarian reform and Indonesia's indigenous peoples
What Punan Adiu achieved is historically closely related to the agrarian reform agenda in Indonesia. The discourse began in 1948 when the newly independent nation formed a committee (the Agrarian Committee) to prepare a new law that focused on the agrarian reform agenda as a means to achieve Indonesia’s vision of social justice.
Although it started in 1948, due to the post-independence war and the unstable government of that decade, it was not until 1960 that Indonesia succeeded in producing a law that regulated this matter. In 1960, agrarian law in Indonesia began to be regulated in Law Number 5 of the Basic Agrarian Regulations, where the state has the highest level of control over land, water, space and natural resources and can regulate and organize the allocation, provision and maintenance of these natural resources to achieve the greatest prosperity of the people. Indigenous peoples’ rights to customary land are still recognized even though, legally, the state acts as the sovereign over every land in Indonesia.
Unfortunately, before the House of Representatives could produce implementing regulations, the September 1965 riots occurred across Indonesia and halted the agrarian reform agenda. After Bung Karno was succeeded by Soeharto as President of the Republic of Indonesia, the New Order government implemented a very different agrarian policy. With a focus on the green revolution, political stability, investment and industrialization, the regime deemed agrarian reform less of a priority. Instead, the agrarian reform discourse was considered a product of communism and became a banned discussion.
Instead of continuing the reform agenda, the regime granted concessions to various national and multinational companies to convert land and forests for the timber, mining and plantation industries. As a result, agrarian conflicts became common during the New Order. Indigenous peoples lived in poverty and had no control over their customary lands.
After three decades in power, Soeharto stepped down when the economic crisis hit Asia in 1998 and triggered people power that forced him to step down as President of Indonesia. This tipping point brought new freedom for Indonesian civil society, which began to reopen discussions on agrarian reform discourse. In the atmosphere of reform, civil society groups and indigenous peoples began to consolidate networks and carry out various new initiatives to influence the state to institutionalize agrarian reform into legal instruments after the 1998 reform.
In the context of Punan Adiu, change began to emerge in 2012 when the province of North Kalimantan was officially established (having previously been split from East Kalimantan). With the birth of the new province, indigenous communities and civil society in Malinau District sought dialogue with the government and various local and national stakeholders to institutionalize and implement agrarian reform in the region.
In Malinau district, after a long dialogue and negotiation with various civil society organizations, the Malinau Regional House of Representatives finally issued Regional Regulation No.10 on the Recognition and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 3 October 2012. Following this development, the Regent of Malinau issued a Regent Regulation on the Malinau Regency Indigenous Affairs Management Agency on November 19, 2014, giving the agency an independent role to support indigenous peoples in mapping, gaining recognition and managing their customary lands.
At the national level, progress has also been made as a result of initiatives by various civil society organizations. In 2012, a ruling by Indonesia’s Constitutional Court allowed the re-categorization of customary forests from ‘state forests’ to ‘rights forests’, recognizing communities’ rights to land and resources, although legally the forest area still remains under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Forestry, and the assessment of rights must be renewed every 20 years.
In addition to the legal aspect, the struggle of indigenous peoples is also carried out through various other forms. Often with the Indonesian government’s initiative to run a social forestry program, the Punan Adiu community registered their forest through this program, with the customary forest scheme as the instrument. Through this scheme, communities can have full rights to manage their customary forests.
All of the above regulations, programs and initiatives constitute the legal framework that ultimately allowed the Punan Adiu to legalize their customary forest. In addition to the legal aspects, other aspects such as community organizing, negotiation, and working together to influence inclusive and pro-environment public policies are struggles that indigenous peoples like Punan Adiu must also take to protect their customary lands. This struggle requires a lot of energy and patience.
Quoting John P. Powelson, a researcher on agrarian issues, the struggle for agrarian reform carried out by community organizing usually takes a long time. But in that time, communities can continue to learn while strengthening their bargaining position and political representation in influencing public policies that are important to their lives.
“A land reform by leverage, on the other hand, takes time. This is a reform by which peasants, in organizations they have formed and manage, bargain with overlords or government from strength they have already achieved. … Only through reforms by leverage does the peasant acquire, in the long run, an equitable distribution of welfare and adequate political representation.”
From nomadic to modern
Ecosystem change and the penetration of modern lifestyles have raised existential questions about how the Punan Adiu people can survive and protect their traditional values in the future. In several villages around Adiu, exploitative industries-such as coal mining and monoculture plantations-are aggressively offering large sums of money to some people to sell their land. Learning from other villages and communities that have suffered the destructive impacts of exploitative industries, the Punan Adiu community has rejected these offers and is committed to protecting their forest.
On the other hand, contact with modern culture means that indigenous communities must also adapt to new habits and needs, such as: education costs, electricity, internet for schools, medicine and health, transportation, etc. Although they still maintain a subsistence lifestyle, Adiu communities need a new economic model to adapt to modernity that cannot be resisted. Some economic programs such as: ecotourism, cultivation of agarwood and peanuts as non-timber field and forest products, and plans to join the world carbon trading scheme, are some of the options that this community has built to adapt to modernity while still protecting its environment.
With thirty-two member families, the Punan Adiu community is tasked with protecting 17,415 hectares of customary forest. For a small community with limited human resources, this is a huge responsibility. While continuing to network with various parties, Punan Adiu continues to look for new ways to protect the forest and empower the lives of its community. Like their ancestors who were always alert but agile when exploring the jungle, the courage to try new things while maintaining the good values of life is the main capital to adapt to the times.
Lunang Tlang Ota Ine, Forest is mother’s milk.
To the child who is always loyal to protect it, nature will always give abundance.
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A documentary photographer. Since 2010, he has photographed indigenous peoples and communities in Indonesia and Southeast Asia adapting to climate, cultural and socio-economic change. Her work focuses on showing how the history of colonialism, now intertwined with globalization and the climate crisis, has had a profound impact on communities and the environment. His works can be viewed at www.michaeleko.com
Lunang Tlang Ota Ine (Forest is our mother) is a collaborative work made by Michael Eko with the Dayak Malinau Observation and Empowerment Institute (LP3M). This visual project is supported by World Press Photo Foundation, Message in A Photo Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. To read the full story, please visit www.adiu.or.id