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 (www.cifor.cgiar.org/mla), 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