“Where is the market here in Long Duhung?” I innocently posed the question to Ibu Dolba, a Punan Dayaknese woman who took me for a boat ride on a traditional canoe called a ketinting along the Kelay River.
In answer to my question, Ibu Dolba suddenly burst into laughter — apparently, at me — and then said: “No, we don’t go to a market. Everything we need is here [in the forest and the river].”
I was bemused, for her answer to me was quite unexpected. However, her prompt answer struck me as a reality that I had apparently not been aware of — that Long Duhung is one of a few isolated villages situated in the depth of East Kalimantan’s dense forest, as isolated as my knowledge about a Dayak tribe that its members still mostly rely for their living on hunting and gathering.
Ibu Dolba, who couldn’t answer how old she was when I asked about her age, and her brother are members of one of around 38 Punan Dayaknese families who live peaceful lives in Long Duhung, a small village situated in the Kelay sub-district, Berau, East Kalimantan.
After spending a night in Tanjung Redeb, the capital of Berau, a 4×4 Mitsubishi Pajero brought me and a few friends from The Nature Conservancy — a conservation organization that works to preserve land and water — in a thrilling and shaky five-hour off-road journey along a seemingly endless gravel pathway to this tranquil little village.
That same road is the only land access available connecting Long Duhung to Tanjung Redeb as well as other villages in Kampung Hulu Kelay. Long before the road was built by a logging company in the 1980s, the only access available to reach the village was by going down the river with a ketinting.
Pak Janes, Long Duhung’s village chief, greeted us with a smile upon our arriving at his village earlier that afternoon. Our dusty and muddy 4×4 vehicle was parked right beside a wooden stilt house, which was going to be our home for the night.
Right after we put all our belongings in the house, we went to Pak Janes’ house for lunch and a little chat. Most of the food served for our lunch was freshly caught and freshly grown. The fish were caught with nets from the nearby Kelay River, while the spinach and the chili were freshly plucked from a garden that the villagers take care of. All those facts made me understand why Ibu Dolba laughed at my question.
There is no “nearest” market. Going to a market to shop for daily needs requires a lengthy time canoeing or a weekly hitch-hike on the local logging company’s vehicles. All the Long Duhung people’s needs are met by hunting and farming. The village may be removed from modernity, but is certainly not poor.
Matthias, another Long Duhung villager, had just returned from a hunt in the deep of the forest. In his ketinting, which was tethered to the river bank, I saw a sprig of wild rambutan, a few buah merah (a local fruit similar with durian) and two dead wild boars: his prey for the day and my first close look at the real beast.
Matthias told me it is getting harder for him to find livestock these days in the forest than it was back in the 1990s. The forest area that was lost because of the massive clearing of primary tropical rainforest is not only resulting in climate change from the release of stored carbon. The loss of rainforest as the habitat for plants and animals directly affects those who live in the area who mainly rely for their living from the forest, in this case the people of Long Duhung.
The numbers of wild animals such as wild boar, deer and lemur are constantly decreasing. Matthias said that it happens because the fruit trees and even the water puddles — the source of living for the animals — are slowly diminishing. This is also the reason why an organization like The Nature Conservancy, which has been working with the Long Duhung community for several years, tries to assist the villagers to run and manage their village and to negotiate with logging companies with sustainability in mind.
We went for a refreshing plunge at a small waterfall situated only 200 meters from the village after a quick afternoon rest. The water was chilled and crystal clear with large white rocks to surround the waterfall, making this area a perfect place to swim and take a bath. A large pipe and the wreckage of a turbine sprawled at the river bank as I was climbing onto the rocks. Long Duhung constructed the water turbine to obtain electricity, but unfortunately because of a devastating flash flood in 2010 the turbine no longer works.
Night at Long Duhung is filled with fresh air and a natural orchestra of crickets, toads and other nocturnal forest inhabitants serving as a lullaby to end my weary day. But my morning the next day started with the sound of a singing choir in the distance, reminding me that the day was Sunday, time for the villagers, who are mostly Christians, to go to church.
Approaching noon, we packed our bags and were preparing to leave the village. A friendly staff member from The Nature Conservancy was still seen having a conversation with the villagers. With the environmental organization’s assistance and after a series of negotiations both with the local government and the logging company operating in the village area, today Long Duhung village has developed some regulations to protect their clean water source area, their sacred ancestral lands and a protected forest zone for hunting.
A draft map and a village plan were also drawn to help the villagers of Long Duhung keep their part of the remaining forest untouched. While, at the same time, farming and gardening activities are being introduced to them as ways to keep their village self-sustaining.
Passing acres of oil palm plantations and logged forest areas on my way back to Tanjung Redeb I could not help but think of all the lessons I brought home from my very short stay in Long Duhung: that we humans should start to learn to live peacefully side by side with nature and respect its needs. We are here on earth not to exploit, but to live responsibly and to keep our planet Earth a pleasant place to live not only for humans, but for all living creatures.
This article is originally published on The Jakarta Post Travel