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Back to the grassroots
Wild pigs, sago palms and a trojan horse

Being asked what they think about forest management -or, for that matter, anything else - is a novelty for the Dayaks of East Kalimantan. For decades prior to the fall of President Suharto in 1998, loggers, miners, traders and government officials did much as they pleased with the forests. The local people, many of them forest-dwellers, were seldom consulted.

But times have changed. Devolution has meant that local communities now have more say in what happens to their natural resources - in principle, at least. At the same time, scientists have taken a greater interest in how local people view the landscape. “Classical biodiversity surveys tend to reveal what matters to scientists,” explains CIFOR ecologist Doug Sheil. “What we’re doing is establishing what matters to local people, and then feeding the research results back to the villagers and local decision-makers.”

Since 2000, the research team has been working in seven communities in Malinau Research Forest. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, they have collected a wide range of information about the needs, preferences, culture and aspirations of the local communities. They have also conducted surveys of the soil and vegetation in 200 sample plots, and recorded the presence of grave sites, settlements and farmland.

Virtually everybody canvassed considered unlogged forest to be the most important land cover. Logging, according to the villagers, was a major reason why many useful plants and animals were declining. Among these was the much-valued wild boar, which provides the bulk of animal fats and proteins for many forest communities. Logging has also led to a shortage of construction materials, and a law which stipulates that logging companies must slash the undergrowth to clear away 'weeds' has led to the disappearance of many valuable plants. Even sensitive logging practices can have a damaging effect on key species. Reduced impact logging guidelines restrict heavy machinery to ridge tops. Unfortunately, this is the habitat favoured by sago palm, an important source of starch during times of crop failure.

In 2003 a grant from the World Bank enabled the researchers to establish a website and a data base (, but this is neither accessible nor intelligible to people living in remote villages. “We wanted to share the information we gathered with the local communities in a way they could identify with,” explains Miriam van Heist, a consultant to the project. The research team developed a series of posters which illustrates local perceptions about the landscape, as well as a pack of playing cards that tell the stories of the 40 most highly valued species of plant and animals.

The posters are colourful and generously illustrated, with photographs of identifiable individuals involved in the project, as well as plants, animals and artifacts which are considered important. The researchers spent considerable time discussing the content of the posters with the villagers, and the final drafts were only produced once the latter declared themselves happy with the way in which the information was presented. “Asking the villagers to validate our research findings has given them greater confidence in their own lifestyles,” suggests van Heist. This is certainly not the sort of thing that happened during the Suharto era.

However, will this information make any difference to the way the forests are managed? The researchers, and the villagers, believe it will. The posters will be popular with the villagers themselves, but they are not the only target. After all, they know which landscape features and species matter most to them. “We see the posters as a sort of Trojan horse,” explains Sheil. “They will be distributed to local government offices, village halls and schools, and we hope they will help everyone, including local politicians and civil servants, develop a much better understanding about which elements in the landscape matter to local people, and what that implies.” In future, decision-makers might think twice before they promote activities which threaten the interests and survival of forest communities. CPS.

This article first appeared in the CIFOR Annual Report 2003, published September 2004.