Lenses on Peatland Part 1 : A Human Story
Written on September 06, 2017 (02:29 pm) | In : Forests Landscapes | 0 Comments

"How much longer?" I asked. "We're close, about 20 minutes," replied the driver. An hour later we were still bumping along the uneven roads --- "because they're built on spongy peatland," he explained. Maybe the perception of space and time is different here I thought as I observed the expanse of land and sky passing by. Off course, this is coming from someone who is usually stuck in traffic jams and flanked by skyscrapers. I adjusted the zoom lenses on my camera to capture the vast landscape of the peatlands. I had to remind myself that I was looking at thousands of years worth of plant material decaying in the water. Today, I'm traveling to the village of Mantangai Hulu on the banks of the Kapuas River in Central Kalimantan (Borneo) to meet a group of progressive farmers. For the next three days, I will experience what this strange peatland ecosystem means to them. I was impatient because up until then this so-called environmentalist has never set foot on peatland.

Photographs Top- Bottom: 1) Peat landscape with early succession vegetation after 2015 fires; 2)  View of Mentangai Hulu Village on the Kapuas River, Central Kalimantan 

Mr. Noerhadi, a village figure and the force behind the Manggantang Tarung farmers group, welcomed us at his home whose living room he turned into a ‘Peatland Learning Hall' with a modest library and a communal space for the village meetings. This farmers group, now headed by Mr. Basri, was formed because of land conflicts with neighboring palm oil plantations. Mr. Noerhadi's wife greeted us with homemade snacks from fresh harvests off their peatland farm. My favorite was salada jawau'a sticky concoction of candied grated cassava and coconut that matched perfectly with black coffee. During our stay, they spoiled us with delicious home-cooked meals of fish, vegetables, lemongrass sambal, and rice ---all nature’s bounty from the farms and beje'ponds of the peatland ecosystem.


The people here witnessed an evolving environmental crisis since 1997 when the government's 1 million hectares Mega Rice Project destroyed primary forests to give way for new rice plantations. Big canals were dug out to drain the peat and stretches of land were deforested by burning. The program proved to be a big failure because as it turns out rice doesn't grow well on the acidic peatlands. Yet, the forest fires of 1997-1998 were one of the worst ever recorded in history.  "I still remember the cries of the animals as their homes engulfed in the fire," Mr. Noerhadi said with a shake of his head. "Until now the areas around those canals are a constant fire hazard and can burn for months because of the dry peat. We call it Hell's Corridor." I suddenly felt the hairs on my arms raising. Even when the surface fires are put out, the peat will continue to burn several feet underground making it almost impossible to control. "Some parties still use burning as a way to claim land and drive us away. You usually see palm oil seedlings on newly scorched earth. These lands are our ancestral lands so we should have the rights to manage it yet we continue to be shoved aside," he continued. You can't miss the words screaming from his bright orange shirt: We are people, not cockroaches!

Photographs Top- Bottom: 1) Mr. Noerhadi our host and prominent village figure who turned his living room into a communal space for fellow villagers to learn about peatland and land rights issues, captured by Danar Tri Atmojo @danartriatmojo; 2) Mr. Basri head of the 'Manggantang Tarung' farmer group standing with the 10 hand-tractors donated by the government in support of the group's 'no-burning'  efforts.

In 2015, the forest fires swamped their village with so much smoke they couldn't see past their front door. Many, especially children became sick with respiratory diseases. The Manggantang Tarung farmers group grew tired of allegations that smallholders were the ones to blame. They wanted to prove that 'no-burning' farming can be done and that being irresponsible is not their way of life. This is what we came to see. To reach the farms, we had to maneuver through small water passages on small wooden canoes or kelotok. A group of women joined the floating crew to harvest goods for tonight's dinner. They are part of a Women's Solidarity Group who also fight for land rights alongside the men. The farmers had planted small patches of sugarcane, cassava, pineapple, banana, rice and strips of peatland-friendly tree species like galam. (I subsequently googled galam which is a woody species used as firewood and construction material by the locals).


Mr. Basri, the head of Manggantang Tarung admits that they are still in a trial phase. Acidity levels in peatland are high, so without burning the crop yields suffer. If they must use fire, they build fire-breaks and take turns to keep the fire under control. It’s a delicate balancing act. "Unfortunately not all of us are applying this new system at the same time. So the pests tend to cluster at the few trial plots," he explained. "But at least on a small scale, we've proven that we can do it, and it's enough to meet our daily needs. We will keep on trying so we can become a role model for other villages," said Mr. Basri whose group is now the proud owner of 10 hand-tractors gifted by the government to help them prepare the land for larger cultivation.


Photograph Top - Bottom: 1) Maneuvering through the peat canals on traditional 'kelotok'  canoes  to see the farms, captured by 'Bolang' Sutiknyo  @lostpacker;  2) Arriving at the farm; 3) Rice fields on the peat; 4) Harvesting sugar cane from peatland farming, captured by Danar Tri Atmojo @danartriatmojo; 5) Homemade snacks made out of cassava and bananas harvested from the farms.

These days, rubber tapping is their primary source of income but with plummeting prices in the market, they've turned to plant sengon wood mostly used in the furniture industry. "We should be the ones vetting for the best species to plant. They need to be adaptable to peatland conditions and better yet if they are local species. We have become skeptical of 'planting programs' that external parties propose as we have learned we know our (peatland) home the best," Mr. Noerhadi said. The trip through the small waterways on the wooden kelotok made me think about the kind of infrastructure these farmers may need to achieve significant economic gains from their ‘no-burning' farming efforts. Understanding these farmers affirmed my belief that including the people in the use and management of the land is an essential part of peatland restoration efforts.


Just sitting and chatting with them reminded me of the communal ties that characterize Indonesians. But it feels especially strong here. Not just ties to family and neighbors but also ties to the land. As an homage to their ancestors, the village harbors hallowed sites sacred to the Dayak people who follow the ways of the Kaharingan folk religion. No human activities such as hunting or tree falling are allowed at these places. I learned that the word ‘Kaharingan' itself means LIFE. As we walked through the village, we found a Kaharingan prayer house, a mosque, and church within a few steps from each other. They are peaceful people.

Photograph Top - Bottom: 1) Bathing and taking care of other business on the Kapuas River;  2) A lady peers out of her kitchen, captured by Danar Tri Atmojo @danartriatmojo; 3) A young child watches the day go by, captured by Danar Tri Atmojo @danartriatmojo; 4) A 'Kaharingan' (folk religion) prayer house; 5) A Dayak ceremonial house adorned by yellow flags in homage to ancestors, captured by Danar Tri Atmojo @danartriatmojo

As we ended our stay, Mr. Noerhadi showed us a ceremonial house by the river adorned with yellow flags. He is now in the running for village head and was excited to share his vision for Mantangai Hulu. "Imagine a tourism village with an ‘eco-cultural' concept. Guests can learn about the ways of the Dayak and how we respect the land. They can stay in our homes, tour the river and peatlands on the kelotok canoe, and see our farming efforts just like you did," he said with a hopeful gaze across the river. Land and nature is not just a place to live but also a source of life. Mr. Basri also confirmed this by stating, "We will live and die here. We will not abandon our ways." I felt the sense of both pride and responsibility in his statement. All they hope for is acknowledgment and protection of their land rights.


Many of us may feel disconnected to the issues of peatland, forest fires, and even more so to climate change. These problems are too complex, too distant and feel unthreatening to our way of life. As if confirming this common view, a prominent media company who intended on bringing me on their show told me that it’s too ‘political' to talk about peatland. Hmm I guess the problem is that ‘complex' issues such as these can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the viewpoint. As an environmentalist, I could easily frame peatland as an environmental issue and its role in regulating carbon for climate change mitigation. I'm fully aware of how complicated that may sound. But I was moved by the simplicity of perspective on this trip. Drought, pests, land-conflict, and forest fires aside, the meaning of peatland is LIFE for the Manggantang Tarung farmers group. By adjusting our lenses a little, we may just be lucky enough to see that it means the same to us.


Photograph: The #PantauGambut team from WRI-Indonesia, Madani Berkelanjutan, Walhi Kalimantan Tengah, @lostpacker, @danartriatmojo and myself posing with the hosts


Find out more about Indonesia's peatlands and efforts to protect and restore them here: http://www.pantaugambut.id/  | @pantaugambut

Versi Bahasa Indonesia artikel ini bisa ditemukan di: Mengatur Lensa Memantau Gambut, Pantau Gambut


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