How a small village in North Kalimantan has protected 5,300ha of primary rainforest, and how we plan to help

Last year we collaborated on an expedition and film project called ‘The Journey Back’, which followed the journey of 5 Dayak elders returning to the remote mountain site of their old village, Long Saan. That village was slowly abandoned in the ‘70s and ‘80s as families took everything they owned and walked for weeks to new villages with better access to trade, healthcare, and education.

Image: Martin Holland

Image: Martin Holland

During the expedition we learned more about how people from 7 different villages with roots in Long Saan have been collaborating to reconnect with and reclaim the site of so much of their ancestry. The Journey Back was a small contribution to this effort.

Most of the Kenyah Dayak stars of that project came from a village called Long Setulang (a four week expedition over mountains and rivers for the families who ventured that way). During the expedition we learned about their village, and the area of primary rainforest that they have been protecting from logging companies: their Tane Olen. We visited Long Setulang shortly afterwards to learn more about the village, the Tane Olen, and whether it was something that we could make a meaningful contribution to.

Long Setulang itself is a beautiful village, with wide clean streets lined with traditional wooden houses built on stilts, brightly painted and fronted by colourful and diverse plants, shrubs and trees. A football pitch in the village centre is bordered on two sides by modern interpretations of the old longhouses, one of which is used as a village hall with a large stage at one end for cultural performances.

Image: Martin Holland

Image: Martin Holland

The Malinau regency government is keen to promote eco- and cultural-tourism as part of its push to find alternative ways of growing the regional economy without despoiling the environment. The regency is a self-proclaimed “conservation regency” and the Bupati can talk at length about the tragic rates of deforestation across Kalimantan and the impacts of this on people both locally and internationally. North Kalimantan still has an impressive amount of forest cover and so Malinau is indeed in a position to protect what the Bupati called the Green Heart of Borneo through such efforts.

As part of this programme, Long Setulang is one of three villages that have been designated as ‘tourist villages’ by the regional government. This is in partnership with the villages, and from what we have seen and heard in multiple prolonged visits, the village of Long Setulang does appear to be benefitting from and happy with the status.

One of the main attractions at Long Setulang is the Tane Olen, or sacred/forbidden forest: over 5,000ha of primary rainforest just a short boat ride or walk from the village that has been successfully protected from development and exploitation. It is a beautiful area of forest that provides clean fresh water, food, medicines, and other non-timber forest produce, as well as regulating the local climate and preserving an important aspect of the cultural identity of the local people.

The Head of the Village told us about the regular attempts that logging companies make to buy access to this forest’s still mighty trees. The first few times this happened, the village decided to wait and see how other villages fared after selling their rights. How would the logging companies behave, and how would the villages benefit. What they saw was enough to make up their minds, and they have been resolutely defending their Tane Olen ever since.

But there is still much poverty in Long Setulang, and it is difficult to resist the short term cash flow that a sale would provide, even knowing the long term benefits of keeping the forest standing that would be lost. The village does not want to sell, but feels under pressure to find ways of generating income from the forest all the same. That’s where the village and regional government believes that eco-tourism can play an important role.

Image: Martin Holland

Image: Martin Holland

Having spent a good amount of time in the village and exploring the forest, including as part of the largest eco-tourism project to visit the Tane Olen to date, we think that this is an area where sustainable eco-tourism can play an important and beneficial role. And not just to the villagers: this forest is a rare example of community-owned primary rainforest that tourists can reach fairly easily. It offers ordinary people an opportunity to increase their levels of understanding of and empathy toward the rainforests and the people who rely on them, while having what for some will be the adventure of a lifetime.

After being asked to support these efforts by the village and government, we are now working hard to develop proposals for how we can contribute to the aspirations of the people of Long Setulang, including scientific research into species biodiversity and abundance and the impacts of human activities on these; multimedia promotional materials and tools; and capacity building projects at village and local government levels.

This is a great example of how important it is to get people on the ground in hard to reach areas of Kalimantan – by doing so we connect with real people and communities and discover the human stories at the heart of all conservation challenges and initiatives.

People on the ground, data in the cloud. That’s what we believe in and that’s our model.

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