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Forest Fires, Complicity, and Helplessness

Photo from The Guardian. Click here for more: Indonesian forest fires burn causing toxic waste across south-east Asia -- in pictures.

The last time I was in Kalimantan was in 2014. There were widespread forest fires at the time. When I got home I couldn't talk about it for weeks. I felt so ineffectual as a human, so lame. I still do now. I wrote this then.

Dear Baun Bango,*

On flight GA0550 from Jakarta to Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan, I felt sickly dread and happy anticipation rise from the pit of my stomach and lodge themselves in my throat like regurgitated limbs of a tiny wishbone. Until we were below the clouds, flying over Borneo and seeing the expanse of dark green forest run through with brown, glistening, serpentine rivers, I was afraid we might not reach you as planned. A part of me was also afraid that we would actually make it. The airplane banked and revealed to us a thick column of rolling smoke, rising up from an area the size of a small village – the size of you.

Zulli and I gaped and gasped in awe. Two days before our flight to Palangkaraya, we got a whiff of the news that forest fires and haze in several Indonesian provinces were affecting nearby Singapore. Some flights to and from Kalimantan had been cancelled or re-routed. In Riau, the Department of Health was distributing free surgical masks. I was afraid that our flight would get cancelled. I was afraid that, should we get there, we wouldn’t be able to breathe. I sent a text message to F., my research assistant and my friend, asking how they were coping and whether it was difficult to breathe in the smoke. She replied, “No, not hard to breathe. But we hope your flight is not affected. Better you bring mask.”

I feared what I did not know. I had never experienced the notorious Bornean haze before as I was never in Kalimantan for the height of the dry season. All I knew about it were figures, descriptions and analyses from scientific papers and news articles I had read. When we disembarked from the airplane the morning of September 20, 2014, the sky was grey tinged with orange from the early sun. There was a hint of acridity in the air. My chest hurt ever so slightly and I paid careful attention to my body – was I okay? – as I breathed in the smoky air. “It’s not so bad,” Zulli and I reassured one another.

It wasn’t until F. and her little family pulled up in their volkswagen combi and F. and I hugged each other tight, laughing, that I realised I was breathing normally. Breathing in the smoke was surprisingly easy. Friends in NGOs said that if one were to simply match the coordinates of the hotspots seen through satellite imaging with their actual locations on the ground, it would become clear that much – but not all – of the smoke was coming from oil palm plantations that were clearing their fields and opening more forest land. I thought of how easy it was to buy products with palm oil anywhere in the world. When my friends spoke in accusing tones about whoever it was they chose to blame about the haze – whether it was the government, oil palm plantations, or careless farmers – I felt implicated because of the things I could and probably did buy at home.

The following day, we drove in your direction. At the wheel of the Innova was L., who once drove a klotok, the ubiquitous flat-bottomed motor boat that plies the rivers of Kalimantan. He told me the road had reached you in 2011, but that it was only passable for cars in 2012. We drove past hectares and hectares of burning land. I imagined an orangutan trapped in the fires and what I might do if one emerged from the flames and needed rescuing. But that was just silly fantasizing. Much of the forest in this area had been destroyed a long time ago. There were no more orangutans here. Every few kilometers I asked L., “What is that?” Transmigration, farmland, former mining areas laid to waste, new oil palm plantations, road works. It was strange approaching you by car when I had always come to you on the river. On the road I could see the scars of the land around you. I ached to be on the water, to see the river and the lakes filled with mysterious black peat waters. Surely the river had not changed. But L. said that the lakes and tributaries I once frequented had dried up during this severe dry season. It was impossible to go. Not even a small canoe would be able to enter the tributaries. I was disappointed that Zulli would not see some of the most beautiful places I had been in Kalimantan.

“It’s only rained once in the last two months.” These were the first words Mama H. said to me, when we pulled up outside the two-storey wooden building of the Cikia Inn. Then we kissed each other on the cheeks and she asked, “Will you stay upstairs, like before?” I nodded eagerly and she led the way up the steep and narrow little flight of steps into the space I once called home. The stairs led to a second-floor verandah with two benches and a little table. The verandah fronted a small hallway lined with two rooms on each side. The rooms were spartan: narrow beds, thin mattresses, hard pillows and now, a tiny electric fan, a luxury item the inn did not have before. From the verandah we could look out at the Katingan River and down to the floating rafts that lined the riverbank. On each raft was a small, fully-enclosed cubicle, a jamban. Practically every household in every village along the Katingan has a jamban floating on the river. In each stall is a hole in the floor through which people move their bowels and then bathe by scooping up water through the same hole. When I was about to go down to the jamban to pee, Mama H. cried out and pointed me towards a new structure of corrugated iron beside the building. The Cikia Inn now had a a squatting toilet built on dry ground and in an adjoining cubicle was a simple shower room where you could fill a pail with water pumped up from the river.

“Baun Bango has changed a lot since you were last here. It is hugely different.” said Pak K., a retired school teacher and the husband of Mama H. These words were repeated to me by everyone we visited on this short trip. It wasn’t just the road that had changed you. When I lived in Baun Bango in 2003 and 2005, almost every family had their own business and drew their livelihood from the river and the forest. Your people earned an income and fed themselves through fishing, swidden agriculture, the processing and gathering of tree bark and tree saps of industrial value, rattan cultivation, logging and occasionally, hunting. Now there was no more logging, and the biggest shock of all, there was “no more fish.” I couldn’t fathom this. How could there be no more fish? Pak K. and I looked at an old photo I snapped of a woman holding up a long net, heavy with hundreds of fish. “It’s no longer possible to get that plenty,” he said.


“The fish couldn’t keep up with the people. And the fish are dying because there is mercury in the river from mining upstream.”

When I left in 2005 I wondered about the future of your people. They assured me that although the forest was getting thinner by the day, the Ngaju Dayak would always have the river. I left thinking I knew enough, at least, to accurately describe certain aspects of people’s lives and analyze how these articulated with environmental issues and global markets. But perhaps this was only an anthropologist’s cavalier confidence.

“So how do people make a living now?”

“Almost every household here has someone working for the kelapa sawit (oil palm) plantation,” said Pak S. “The sawit company arrived here in 2008. It’s 100 kilometers squared around us.”

“We are fortunate to have the company here,” said Pak I. “The price of rattan has dropped so much that it’s no longer worth it for us to harvest our rattan. There’s no longer enough fish in the river for everybody to make a living from fishing. The government does nothing to help us. You see? This is how the poor in Indonesia can never raise themselves up. Money is a headache. If you don’t have it, you think about how to earn it until your head hurts. If you have it, you think about what to do with it until your head hurts.”

Only Pak A.L., Pak A.R., and husband and wife W. and E. had a different story to tell. They refused to join the oil palm company.

“Why is that?”

Pak A.’s wife, Mama J., answered. “We’re used to doing things in our own time. We’re used to working for ourselves. Besides, we’re lazy,” she joked.

Pak Alfin and Ibu Tara spent their mornings tapping rubber in their own small plantation. In the afternoons they would call on friends or rest at home. Their home’s walls were built from bark. “Original” said Pak Alfin. Inside they kept musical instruments, costumes and props for cultural performances. Upstream and on the other end of Baun Bango, in Pak A.R.’s house, children were learning how to play traditional Ngaju Dayak music. Together Pak A.L. and Pak A.R. were trying to keep Ngaju Dayak and Hindu Kaharingan traditions alive.

W. and E. started an independent radio station in Baun Bango in 2005. Their station now served eight villages in the sub-district of Kamipang and had received several grants for public service and awards for excellence since then. They themselves were the DJs and announcers, but they also taught interested high school kids how to man the DJ booth. They were connected to the internet in their sparsely furnished home. They also taught the kids how to surf the net. They joked that every young person in Baun Bango was now on Facebook. When I stepped into the radio booth, E. had just announced that he was going to play some music from the Philippines, and I got goosebumps when I heard the first notes of “Lullaby” from the album of the Baguio band Session Road. I had given E. and W. the CD in 2005.

One of our last visits was with Ibu Dindi, who showed me a black bird with white wing tips and a little green bird, each in its own small cage. “Pak J. is out in the forest catching birds. We sell these to a buyer who brings them to Java and sells them there.”

Ibu Dindi brings out coffee and we tell her we will be leaving the following morning.

“Why leave so quickly? Pak Joni will be disappointed that he couldn’t see you!”

I answered weakly that I had promised I would visit some friends in Petak Bahandang too. This was partly true. But after two and a half days walking up and down your main street and paying visits to old acquaintances, I felt weary. My feet and my heart were heavy. I knew I must not and could not judge the changes in and around you and the bitter flavor of the new. I could not understand the seeming dependence of many of your people on oil palm, the ostensible lack of choice. I was aware of a budding nostalgia within me for a way of life of which I knew so little. I felt helpless and worse, useless. Zulli listened to me and tried to make sense of it all, but I couldn’t make sense of any of it.

At the break of dawn we stepped on board a klotok that ferried us upriver to Petak Bahandang. We whiled away the time watching random Thai comedy-slash-horror movies with Indonesian subtitles and laughing with our hosts’ children. At sunset we all got into a small motorboat and went for a swim by a sandy riverbank across the village. I tried not to think of what we were swimming in. That night, the smoke thickened in the air. Our eyes watered and our throats stung. For the first time since we landed in Kalimantan, we couldn’t breathe properly. Lying side by side on a mattress on the floor of our hosts’ living room, Zulli and I decided it was time to leave Kalimantan. We started on our way out the next day.

On our last night in Palangkaraya we had to stop up the door frame of our airconditioned hotel room with towels to keep the smoke from seeping in. We took a taxi to the airport at five in the morning on a Friday. The streets were deserted. The air quality monitor on the city’s main circle was broken, but the large LCD screen beside it flashed the words “Tidak Sehat” over and over again. “Not Healthy.” On the airport road a billboard read, “To love Bahasa Indonesia is to love our land, water and air.” In the airport parking lot another billboard read, “The religious leaders of Palangkaraya support the inclusion of the city in a green zone for Central Kalimantan.” But Central Kalimantan was burning and I was sneaking away.

Oh Baun Bango, I do not know what more to say.

Your one-time, would-be ethnographer,

*This is an excerpt from Letters to Indonesia, which was published in Hoy Boy, a Festschrift for Delfin Tolentino, published by the Cordillera Studies Center, University of the Philippines Baguio in 2015.


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