Wehea Dayak act against deforestation to preserve traditions


This story was originally published on The Nature Conservancy website. The Nature Conservancy will host a discussion at the Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta on May 5 and 6 titled “Governance: Jurisdictional approaches to green development: Importance, challenges and opportunities“.

Ledjie Taq remembers the moment he became an adult. After a seven-day fast, he emerged from the Wehea forest with two things: a dead deer — and pride. The meat proved that Ledjie Taq could now help provide for his village, Nehas Liah Bing, in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.

Nearly half a century later, he proved it again.

In 2004, Ledjie Taq — now a primary school teacher and the first elected tribal leader of the Wehea Dayak people — rallied his community to take action against deforestation, a huge local threat.

Working with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the local government, they set aside a crucial piece of Indonesia for conservation, and enacted a sustainable management plan that restored the Dayak as forest stewards, building on the centuries they’ve spent overseeing local resources.

“Wehea Forest is our identity,” Yatim, a local Dayak ranger, says. “If the forest is gone, we lose our identity and culture too. Then what will we have left to pass on to our grandchildren?”

Wehea Forest comprises 38,000 hectares (nearly 94,000 acres) of intact rainforest on the eastern portion of Borneo. It is home to endangered species such as the Bornean orangutan, the Sunda clouded leopard, the sun bear and the recently rediscovered Miller’s Grizzled Langur.

It is also home to the Wehea Dayak people, who have lived in — and depended on — these forests for hundreds of years. On a practical level, trees provide Ledjie Taq and his community with livelihoods, food and medicines. But the forest is also core to the identity of the Dayak people. Protecting it is not just about leaving resources for the next generation—it is about making sure there is a next generation to continue the way of life that defines the Wehea Dayak.

“The forest is the source of our livelihoods, where we get food and medicinal plants,” Ledjie Taq says. “So when TNC came in to talk about community conservation, we welcomed them.”

Before the Conservancy arrived, Wehea Forest hosted other not-so-welcome guests: loggers. Deforestation was business as usual until 2004, when the local timber company’s logging license was revoked. That’s when Ledjie Taq got to thinking.

Realizing that the long-term health and livelihood benefits provided by the forest outweighed any short-term financial outcomes gained through logging, Ledjie Taq rallied the villagers of Nehas Liah Bing around the idea that conservation was the best way forward. Working with the Conservancy and their local government, local Dayak communities are establishing Wehea Forest as a protected area that’s off-limits to logging companies.

As a result, Ledgie Taq and his people are able to instate their customary laws in the Wehea Forest. Now, cutting trees or clearing land for personal purposes is prohibited, and the Conservancy helps villagers facilitate community patrols (known as Petkuq Methuey, or Forest Guardians) in which groups take month-long turns protecting Wehea Forest from illegal logging.

Those guardians also help conserve local biodiversity. With support from the Conservancy, six Petkuq Methueyrecently assessed the local orangutan population, which has aided the development of a database for orangutans in the Wehea area. The forest is home to an estimated 400 to 600 orangutans, making it a crucial refuge for the highly endangered species. Petkuq Methuey also monitor wildlife by using cameras and keeping watch over the boundaries between their forest and the neighboring timber concession.

The Conservancy has worked with the Wehea Dayak to host guided nature walks as part of an emerging ecotourism program and to develop a tree nursery plantation that will sell seedlings for reforestation programs conducted by the government and local mining companies.

A lot of changes have taken place in the decades since a young Ledjie Taq emerged triumphant from Wehea Forest — but they’re changes aimed at protecting the Dayak way of life.

“The new arrangement also helps us maintain our own tradition, our own values,” Ledjie Taq says. “With TNC’s support, our Wehea Dayak Society has been holding regular cultural festivals, and this has been a way to preserve our culture for our next generation. Just like the forests, we hope.”

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