Fear and apprehension for the team as they try to recruit guides for the expedition in the village of Tumbang Tohan

The Last Outpost

Tumbang Tohan is the most remote village in this area. To the west and to the North the forest-covered, ravine ridden mountains of the Muller Schwarner range rise up into plateaus and pinnacles. free-falling waterfalls dropping for hundreds of feet become streams which become rivers which eventually flow into the Joloi, on the banks of which the village is built.

It is called Tumbang Tohan because it used to be settled at the confluence of the river Tohan and the river Joloi, but some years ago, before outboard motors had arrived in the region and the only transport was by rowing wooden boats, the village decided that it should move to make trade easier.

About half the size of Naan, the village is reached from a small floating landing area with some huts built on top for storage and accommodating transients. A lean pole with notches carved into it for steps leads you up the bank to a flight of steps and an awning with the name of the village painted on it. The elders of the village sit here to chat and while away the day.

The village itself is spread out along one main street about 500m long, concrete in parts, bare earth in others. The houses are all small, one story, wooden constructions, mostly on stilts. Set behind this promenade is a clearing surrounded by the school, village hall, and other public buildings. One of these, originally built by the government to serve as a mosque, would accommodate our team and supplies while we moved everything upriver to our research site.

The Importance of Understanding

We had hoped to begin that move the next morning, but it quickly become apparent that the people of this village were not quite as ready to accept us and our work as Naan. Negotiations over boats and guides got nowhere, and so we decided to keep the team here for an extra day to show our respects, become familiar with some of the villagers, and to host a village meeting to explain our work in more detail.

The meeting was held in the school hall, with our whole team and many people from the village present. We each introduced ourselves and I talked about the project and our aims via Munir who acted as a translator. It became obvious straight away that the people here were worried that our work would eventually stop them from using their forest in the way they always had, for fuel, agriculture, hunting, and gathering Gaharu.

Gaharu hunting is the main source of income for the village. The resin from trees that have been attacked by a fungus is collected and sold to make incense, and it requires the infected tree be felled. What would the people do for money if we stopped them from doing this? How would they supplement their diet of rice and noodles if we stopped them hunting?

Guardians of the Forest

We explained as clearly as we could that this wasn’t our intention. From our perspective the people of the villages of Naan and Tumbang Tohan are the guardians of this rainforest. Some of their activities could be managed more sustainably, and with their support we hope to begin environmental education programs to help with that, but we have no right to start meddling with peoples livelihoods.

They are here, and have been for a long time, and it is probably in part because of that fact that the rainforest is still here too. One of the villagers, Usman, who is campaigning hard about illegal logging in the area, was very vocal and struck a chord with the both the villagers and our team. He received loud applause from the audience as he spoke with passion for a long time. Nervous at first that he was being vitriolic about our work, once the translation came through that he was talking about sustainable management and forest husbandry, he received loud applause from us too.

“When we cut one Gaharu tree, we must plant 5 to replace it” was my favourite quote from the whole meeting.

Trust and Collaboration

We asked the village for permission to carry out our research, and for their support and collaboration, and promised them employment and efforts to contribute to the development of the village. In return, they asked us to help them protect the forest, and to provide education and skills so that the people could diversify and become less reliant on Gaharu hunting for income.

The concern of the people of Tumbang Tohan for their forest and ways of life really struck me. As humans I think we become much more connected and emotive once other people are involved. The atmosphere in the village was completely different the next day, and we were able to hire our boatmen and guides without problems, and start moving the team and kit upriver to what would become Camp Foyle.

As someone once said, I hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.