“We are fighting for our land in our homeland,” explained Emmanuela Shinta as she approached the front of the stage proudly at the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter event in Jakarta, May 18th 2017. Shinta brought along the stories from the ground all the way from the western part of Borneo, to Jakarta, the busiest business district of Java.
Shinta comes from the most well-known indigenous group in Indonesia, the Dayak people. Wrapped in her traditional clothes, she drew the attention of media and the world to the life of Dayak’s indigenous people through RANU WELUM Foundation. RANU WELUM means, “Air Kehidupan,” in Bahasa or, “the water of life,” in English.
Despite the elemental name of her organization, “living water” has been fighting with fire since 2014.
Peatlands have always been an integral part of the identity and culture of indigenous people of Borneo, especially the Dayak people. According to CIFOR, in 2012 Borneo has 5.7 million hectares of peatlands, which contain 5 – 10 times the carbon contained in natural forests. The abundance of peatlands in Borneo is and has always been an important resource for subsistence and agriculture for local people.
In spite of the resources they provide to people and the climate, peatlands are being drained at an alarming rate. There were almost 25,000 fire and haze hotspots scattered on the island of Borneo in 2014 – 2015, and these hotspots are vulnerable to uncontrollable fires in the dry season, usually sparked by slash-and-burn land clearing practice done by then large companies and local people.
Everything hung in a fine balance until El Niño hit Indonesia in 2015: the drought caused massive fire outbreaks on the islands of Borneo, Papua, and Sumatra. The fires produced acidic and toxic smoke that affected the health of at least 600,000 people. The haze hit neighboring countries, causing Indonesia to be blamed and shunned on the international stage. While Indonesia as a nation was deemed culpable for the spreading smoke, the local people fought for air in the middle of fires.
“We had to fight for oxygen. We didn’t have place to hide from the smoke,“ Shinta lamented, describing the drama of life in Palangkaraya. While this oxygen crisis was unfolding in 2015 in Indonesia, still land and forest fires were considered passé issues. On the stage at the GLF: Peatlands Matter, the horror of the fire and haze that happened on Borneo brought a chill to the spines of many in attendance.
Formed in 2013 and coordinated by CIFOR, The World Bank and UN Environment, the GLF has advanced the landscape approach for dealing with complex social and environmental issues like peat fires. The landscape approach is not only about the ecosystem, flora, or fauna, but also the engagement of indigenous peoples, the private sector, governments, and scientists. This GLF event, honing in on the theme of peatlands, is a milestone for elevating the voices of local people to speak their truth and fight for their engagement on these issues in front of world’s power-brokers.
Too many things are kept beneath the ground of peatlands, instead of carbon. There might be stories, histories, cultures, or wars. One voice has spoken, does it still require several more to be heard?
Let RANU WELUM be RANU WELUM without fighting with the fires.