Up river in North Kalimantan


Our speedboat glides so fast it bounces off the water on the Makassar Strait. The clouds roll above us and drops of light rain touch our skin.

We are on our way to Sekatak, a remote area in the newly anointed capital of North Kalimantan. For curious travelers, the key to a thrilling trip is to go where not many people (i.e., tourists) have gone before. I was sure that traveling to remote areas of Kalimantan, the second-largest island in the world, would undoubtedly bring on the thrills. But, I got more than what I asked for when my travel partner disclosed her secret expertise of driving a speedboat.

Not to worry for those whose friends are less than a secret speedboat driver. The new province of North Kalimantan has more than its share of excitement. It holds natural beauty untouched by mass tourism. Its large and meandering rivers evokes the charm of the Mekong Delta of Indochina when river trips there were not too much like a theme park. And unlike as in North Kalimantan’s southern counterpart, its forests have yet to be transformed into swaths of palm oil plantations, its hills have yet been run down and the land is yet to be covered by pits made by mining companies.

High gear: A speedboat bounces off the water on the Makassar Strait.

High gear: A speedboat bounces off the water on the Makassar Strait.

My travel partner and I found our little speedboat in Tarakan, an island-city in North Kalimantan, the stepping-off point from Balikpapan in East Kalimantan. We fly out of the mainland Kalimantan to Tarakan to reenter through its water ways. Airlines Lion Air and Sriwijaya Air are some of the carriers operating the Balikpapan-Tarakan route. Another route would be to take the small twin-otter planes operated by Susy Air, straight to Tanjung Selor in North Kalimantan from Balikpapan.

Tarakan holds a historical part in the World War II. In 1941, Japanese troops first entered what became Indonesia through Tarakan. Some relics such as cannons and bunkers have become a testament to the war.

We passed the war sights, however, and headed straight for Sekatak. From asking around, we found that chartered speedboats to Sekatak were moored at a pier in Beringin, a dense area where the houses are built on stilts and stand above the water. Under the houses, trash floats on the water, disgusting and strangely serene at the same time. There is another port in Tarakan, which is the official one and bigger than Beringin.

Boats head to Tanjung Selor, the capital of Bulungan regency and North Kalimantan’s center of administration, depart from Tengkayu port. This port also serves Bunyu Island, Nunukan regency, Malinau and other northern territories.

We chose Beringin as the chartered boats there can go straight to Sekatak via Sekatak river. It costs us Rp 100,000 (US$10) per person to take the two-hour ride to Sekatak. It’s a bit of a gamble with the speedboat’s reliability. Ours broke down in the middle of the Makassar Strait. We were lucky that another speedboat departed Beringin with us. So, after some unsuccessful meddling with the motor, we transferred to the other boat.

Standing by: Speedboats moor by stilt houses at Beringin pier, Tarakan, North Kalimantan. Chartered speedboats are available at the pier to take passengers to mainland Kalimantan from Tarakan island.

Standing by: Speedboats moor by stilt houses at Beringin pier, Tarakan, North Kalimantan. Chartered speedboats are available at the pier to take passengers to mainland Kalimantan from Tarakan island.

Kalimantan is home to hundreds of indigenous groups. In Sekatak, some seven indigenous groups – Punan, Kenyah, Tidung, Belusu and Bulungan live in that district, after they were relocated closer to the river by the Soeharto government in the 1970s to make way for timber company Intraca.

Traveling to the isloated communities, one can see the tension between business and local communities for control of resources.

We stayed in a lodging house by the river in Sekatak Buji as the only guests. The houses overlooking the river are made of wood planks. School children jump into the deep water from an iron bridge. You can rent a long boat and glide along the meandering Sekatak River. Interesting sights pop up, such as a little toy boat adorned with decorations. Our boat driver said that the boat was filled with offerings intended for a white crocodile. He said that there must be a family around the area who holds the traditional belief that they are descendants of the creature.

From Sekatak to Tanjung Selor, we took overland route using an unofficial taxi. We sat for four hours for the bumpy ride. A lack of infrastructure made the 120-kilometer journey bumpy. But the sight of the forest, with the tall Mengaris tree made the journey worth it.

Tall and proud: Mengaris trees stand tall in the forest between Sekatak and Tanjung Selor.

Tall and proud: Mengaris trees stand tall in the forest between Sekatak and Tanjung Selor.

We left at noon and arrived before sunset in Tanjung Selor. The town that is intended to be North Kalimantan’s capital is a hilly laid-back town with low-rise buildings and large parks. A statue of the Lemlai Suri Princess or more popularly known as the broken egg princess stands in the intersection of Sengkawit and Jelarai Selor.

The story of the broken egg princess tells the legend of the Bulungan sultanate that reigned between the 18th and 20th centuries. A childless Kayan tribal leader found an egg and a bamboo and brought home the two. The egg and bamboo turned into a baby girl and a baby boy, who would start the Bulungan Kingdom, the legend goes.

The Kayan River passes through the town, adding a relaxing vibe to Tanjung Selor. As with many rivers in Kalimantan, the Kayan River is a wide river with strong current, which makes it good for white water rafting. For those interested in rafting in North Kalimantan, a number of trekking companies provide white-water rafting trips along the Kayan River.

If you don’t have the chance to raft, the river is as enjoyable to see as to ride on. As the sun sets in Tanjung Selor, we sat on the concrete nook along the Kayan River. The dusk-time ray illuminates the trees on the other side of the river, while the water glimmer with a golden hue. My travel partner and I agreed, in a land of mighty rivers, devouring the last light by the river is most appropriate to end the day.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Bulungan | Feature | Tue, June 25 2013
— Photos by JP/Prodita Sabarini

Mining, the big challenge in guarding the environment

Coming home: An indigenous man unloads his belongings from a small boat in Sekatak district, Bulungan regency. (JP/Prodita Sabarini)
Coming home: An indigenous man unloads his belongings from a small boat in Sekatak district, Bulungan regency. (JP/Prodita Sabarini)

This is the second of a two-part report on East Kalimantan, which has recently been split into North and East Kalimantan. The Jakarta Post’s Prodita Sabarini and Nurni Sulaiman report from the richest province outside Java, which also faces severe environmental challenges. 

Young idealists in East Kalimantan dream to make a difference

Sarah Agustiorini studies biology. She loves plants, she says. The 22-year-old spent her early years marveling at the many different shades of green in the forest that surrounds her home in Samarinda, the provincial capital.

She grew up watching how the forest changed. First the trees were chopped down and were replaced with uniform trees for the timber industry. Now, from her home in Sambutan district she sees hills being scarred by the digging for the coal underneath.

Early this month, she led The Jakarta Post and a couple of curious university freshmen to Makroman village, a farming area where coalmines are quickly closing in.

Three years ago, Sarah joined the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), when the organization searched for volunteers through a writing workshop at Mulawarman University in Samarinda. Sarah is now the coordinator for women and mining issues, while she finishes her studies in conservation biology. Makroman is one of the areas where she works with the community.

In East Kalimantan, young people, who will inherit a land spoiled by the exploitation of natural resources, are eager to guard the environment and to learn to not make the same mistakes.

Sarah, for example, decided to advocate for the rights of the local community with JATAM after seeing mines spring up around her house and watching deforestation make many of Samarinda’s once readily available local fruits become increasingly hard to come by. At the East Kalimantan JATAM office, she is the youngest member of the team and the only woman.

In Makroman, she passes rice fields and heads towards a hill. She walks swiftly, tackling the hill, covered in tall wild grass. As she reaches the top of the hill, the vista changes abruptly from green rice paddies to grey, steep-walled pit mines. After the mines started operating in Makroman, farmers say their yields dropped by half as chemical seepage from the mines drastically reduced the quality of water used in their rice fields and fishponds.

“Everywhere I go the complaints are similar. How can they make the mines go [away]? How they have trouble getting water. How dusty the air has become. How it’s hard to sleep at night because of the noise from the mines. And they don’t know where to go, so they always come to JATAM,” Sarah said.

Next month, Sarah will graduate. “I want to be a taxonomist, but I will continue my advocacy work with JATAM,” she said.

A similar kind of idealistic drive to guard East Kalimantan’s environment has touched Muhammad Azrar Munir. A 17-year-old freshman at Mulawarman, Azrar chose to major in agriculture despite the mining boom in the region. He came along to Makroman as he was visiting JATAM’s office with a friend. “I want to learn more about how local farmers live,” he said.

Azrar comes from Penajam regency in East Kalimantan. The mining industry there has yet to flourish as it has in Samarinda, where 70 percent of the land has been given out in mining concessions; or Kutai Kartanegara regency, with the largest number of mining concessions, covering 1.2 million hectares; or East Kutai — home to Bumi Resources’ Kaltim Prima Coal. However, Sarah’s observation was that they were heading in that direction.

Azrar said he hoped that his regency would take lessons from other regencies and do a better job of planning. “Mining is fine, but mines should not be close to residential or farm areas,” he said.

“I chose agriculture because mining is booming. I want to develop the agriculture sector more,” he said.

“I have a dream to develop the agriculture sector even though the mining industry is booming because in the past few years, we have been facing a food crisis in Indonesia,” he said. He pointed out that Indonesia has been importing rice, while the country should be a rice exporter.

Sarah said that for all the progress that the mining industry had brought, she had yet to see any company significantly impact real human development. “Development here amounts to nothing much, except that consumerism is increasing rapidly. But progress for the people? I don’t see much,” she said.

She said that people’s way of life was changing as they moved from farming to working in mining. They experienced rapid increases in income, but were forced in to a consumerist lifestyle. “And still, some of the people don’t have electricity, like in Sempaja, Sambutan and North Samarinda,” she said, referring to districts in Samarinda.

For Sarah, Samarinda and East Kalimantan’s progress has merely focused on exploiting natural resources and has neglected investments in infrastructure and in human capital.

Sarah and Azrar are among the few young idealists that dream to create change in the region. But more young educated people like them are needed to effect change in the future.

The government of East Kalimantan seems to have realized its dependency on extractive industries and is starting to invest in its young people. The provincial government and the Education and Culture Ministry are planning to establish a new Institute of Technology in Kalimantan. Some 300 hectares of land had been prepared in Balikpapan for the new school, East Kalimantan governor Awang Farouk Ishak said. Construction is planned for 2013 and some 100 people were sent to study at Institute of Technology in Surabaya.

Hopes are high that the institute will churn out skilled workers that will fuel progress in the region. Whether the institute will, in the long run, instill a similar sense of idealism as Sarah and Azrar hold, remains to be seen.

The Jakarta Post | Special Report | Fri, January 18 2013

Indigenous Dayaks struggle to hold on to their lands

 Village meeting: Yua (far left) and village leader Yohanes (second from left) participate in a local community gathering in Sekatak district, Bulungan regency. Yua witnessed the forceful eviction of indigenous people in Bulungan during the Soeharto era to make way for a wood manufacturing company. (JP/Prodita Sabarini)

Village meeting: Yua (far left) and village leader Yohanes (second from left) participate in a local community gathering in Sekatak district, Bulungan regency. Yua witnessed the forceful eviction of indigenous people in Bulungan during the Soeharto era to make way for a wood manufacturing company. (JP/Prodita Sabarini)

Yua is a small man with fine lines on his face. He does not know how old he is but he remembers vividly the time when he was newly married and saw men with green uniforms holding rifles entering his village in the forest near the Sekatak River in Bulungan regency.

He is from the Bulungan tribe, one of the 400 Dayak ethnic groups in Kalimantan. He said that the men in uniform came into his village in the early 1970s and forced the people to move closer to the river. Four decades have enabled him to recall the forceful relocation with humor.

“They soaked them,” Yua said, chuckling. He was sitting on the floor in the house of Yohanes, 35, a village leader in Sekatak district. Yohanes explained that those who resisted the relocation were made to go into the river by the soldiers and stay neck-deep in the water for hours.

“They stripped them,” Yua added. “They pointed their guns.”

Under former president Soeharto’s rule, many indigenous groups in East Kalimantan that are connected to the land and forest around them have been forced to relocate, their ancestral lands given away as concessions for mining and timber production.

Yohanes said that seven indigenous settlements from the tribes of the Punan, Kenyah, Tidung, Belusu and Bulungan were relocated to what is now the Sekatak district. The central government gave the ancestral lands to Intraca Wood Manufacturing, a timber producer, owned by Hartarti Murdaya, he said.

The Reformasi era after the fall of Soeharto, which included decentralization, did not do much to change the plight of indigenous people. Their lost lands remained in the hands of private companies.

Internationally however, the rights of indigenous people are starting to gain ground through the non-binding UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, which includes the rights of indigenous people to “free, prior and informed consent” of projects in their customary lands. In Indonesia, legislative members are deliberating a bill on the recognition and protection of indigenous people.

In Samarinda, the National Alliance for Indigenous People (AMAN) East Kalimantan coordinator Margaretha Seting Beraan said that the tension between the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI) concept and indigenous people’s rights could be seen in the difference between the latter’s suggested draft of the bill and the legislature’s. In the bill, recognition for indigenous people’s rights was conditional on the principle of NKRI.

“Actually, I don’t agree with the concept of NKRI if they homogenize groups. I only agree with the NKRI concept if pluralism is respected,” Margaretha said. “Basically we come from different cultures with different customs and laws that come together in one country,” she said.

Back in Sekatak, village leaders say their people rely on the forest and land. Having been pushed out from their ancestral forest, many of their people have been criminalized for illegal logging. “We have at least 50 people jailed for illegal logging,” said Zainal Abidin, 37, leader of Ujang village in Sekatak.

He said that people used the wood to build their houses, climbed the trees searching for honey from giant beehives and planted fruit trees and rice.

Margaretha, who comes from the Dayak tribe called Kayan, said that Kalimantan’s indigenous people came from Yunnan, the southwest part of China that borders Southeast Asian countries such as Laos,
Vietnam and Burma.

“Some come from Sumatra and some come from the Philippines,” she said. “The Punan was believed to be the oldest group that came here and the rest mixed with people who came later and created subgroups,” she said.

Each group would settle on a plot of land and develop its language and customs, she said. The borders of each group’s land are usually determined by the hills and rivers. “If the water from the mountain flows down toward a tribe’s village then it’s considered part of that tribe’s land. If the water flows the other way, then that belongs to another tribe,” she said.

Each ethnic group understands the respective borders, she added, and customary leaders usually settled disputes using customary law. The authority of administrative governments and their power over land however, undermines customary ways. This not only worked to the government’s advantage in giving concessions to private companies, but also caused conflict between villages like in the case of Muara Tae, West Kutai, according to Margaretha.

Kutai Barat regency has made concessions on Muara Tae’s land to a palm oil company. Masrani, a village leader, said the palm oil company started to bulldoze the ancestral forest there, which belonged to the Dayak Benoaq in Muara Tae, after a neighboring village claimed that Muara Tae’s land was theirs. He said that people from Muara Ponak village gave away land that was within Muara Tae’s customary village border to a palm oil company in 2010.

While bulldozers have started to cut off the forest, the regent, Ismael Thomas, released a decree saying that the 638 hectares of land that were cleared were Muara Ponak’s. “But this is our land that has been passed on for generations. Our village border with the neighboring village is nature’s border. We have different rivers with Muara Ponak, there’s a hill and that becomes our border,” he said.

Margaretha said that disputes of customary land could be solved using customary law, but that the government’s commercial interests in those lands undermined these laws.

In West Kutai, customary leaders even had to be officiated by the administrative government, which made it easier for the regional government to control local communities there. “The customary leaders become government pawns because their position depends on the government,” Masrani said.

As the national law does not explicitly recognize the protection of customary land, Margaretha said that the Muara Tae had community fought for their rights through various avenues, including by filing a complaint to the Kuala Lumpur based-Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Despite these efforts, the palm oil company continues to operate on their lands.

East Kalimantan province has a slogan for its 2009-2013 development plan: “Building Kaltim for all”. The government is preparing big projects to speed up development. One of them is the Maloy Industrial Zone and International Port. Margaretha is worried how it will affect indigenous people in the area.

When Governor Awang Farouk Ishak was asked whether the development would consider the rights of indigenous people, he answered: “We do not differentiate between religious groups or ethnic groups. Every one should enjoy progress.”

Margaretha says indigenous groups are concerned because experience shows that the government’s approach has exploited nature, while the groups themselves have learnt to live and care for their natural surroundings.

JP/Prodita Sabarini and Nurni Sulaiman, Bulungan/Samarinda

The Jakarta Post | Special Report | Fri, January 18 2013