On a Borneo mountainside, Indigenous Dayak women hold fire and defend forest

  • Indigenous women in Indonesian Borneo often have to combine domestic responsibilities with food cultivation, known as behuma in the dialect of the Dayak Pitap community in South Kalimantan province.
  • Swidden agriculture relies on burning off discarded biomass before planting land in order to fertilize soil and limit pest infestations. But a law enforcement campaign to tackle wildfires has seen criminal prosecutions of at least 11 Borneo women for using fire to grow small-scale food crops from 2018-2022.
  • Dayak women and several fieldworkers say the practice of burning is safe owing to cultural safeguards against fires spreading that have been passed down families for centuries.
  • Indonesia’s 2009 Environment Law included a stipulation that farmers cultivating food on less than 2 hectares (5 acres) were exempt from prosecution, but Mongabay analysis shows prosecutors and police have pressed charges against small farmers using other laws.

KAMBIAYIN, Indonesia — Eka Karlina repeats a mantra to her Dayak Pitap ancestors as she runs her fingers through the soil, combing the field in Kambiayin village for weeds.

“Hopefully this year’s harvest will be good,” Eka told Mongabay Indonesia in the foothills of the Meratus mountain range here in Indonesian South Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo.

Like many Dayak women, Eka blends extensive domestic responsibilities with farm work and a demanding day job (the 27-year-old mother of one teaches at the local junior high school).

“It’s school holidays today because of Ramadan,” Eka said, referring to the Islamic fasting month. “Usually when I am teaching, either before or after school I’ll make the time to come to the huma [field], even if it’s just to have a look or pull weeds.”

Growing food is so pivotal to the local adat, a broad term in Indonesia used to describe Indigenous rules and norms, that anyone who doesn’t farm is considered to risk pamali, a curse of misfortune.

Reni Antika, a midwife from a neighboring Dayak village, married a man from Java who didn’t understand the Indigenous society’s farming tradition. Reni decided to give up cultivating food. “I told my parents that if you need rice, you should just buy it,” she said.

Reni’s second child was born in poor health and had endured fevers for around a year when the family visited a local balian, a medicine man, to plead for help.

“I was called pamali, because I was not behuma,” Reni told Mongabay Indonesia, using the Dayak word for farming.

Later, Reni returned to the field and began cultivating a 1.5-hectare (3.7-acre) plot owned by her family.

“Thankfully,” she said, “my child is no longer sick.”

After cultivating rice, the Dayak Pitap Indigenous People communities plant other seasonal crops, such as peanuts.
After cultivating rice, the Dayak Pitap Indigenous People communities plant other seasonal crops, such as peanuts. Image by Riyad Dafhi Rizki/Mongabay Indonesia.

Planting season

The Dayak Pitap count around 1,700 people across a customary area of 22,800 hectares (56,300 acres) arranged over five villages: Ajung, Dayak Pitap, Kambiayin, Langkap and Mayanau.

Indonesia is the world’s third-largest producer of rice, and smallholder farmers like Eka and Reni account for 90% of the approximately 50 million metric tons grown in the country every year.

However, rice is more than a food staple for Dayak societies. The grain is a gift sent to Earth for prosperity, and rice fields are the layer between the physical world and the eternal. Intricate rituals mark every stage of the growing process.

When land is ready to be sown, a balian will first place a fistful of soil that’s been blessed under the pillow of the landowner. The nature of the farmer’s dreams that night reveal the growth prospects.

“If the land is suitable for becoming a huma, then we usually dream of climbing mountains, dream of swimming, or dream of seeing fruit,” said Juhan, the balian of Kambiayin village.

However, visions of a trickle or rush of water mean a kind of flood, while nightmares involving a chase presage invasion by pests.

“Dreams of the sun or fire are a sign that the huma will burn,” Juhan added.

Night terrors will prompt the community to agree on a change of location to avert crisis. However, if all is well, the community will then clear the land and burn any biomass after a 10-day wait. Farmers will monitor the weather, dig a firebreak and wait for a calm day to preclude a conflagration.

“If the fire spreads to other land, then there are customary sanctions that have to be paid by the person who set the fire to the owner of the burned land,” Juhan said.

But these heritable farming traditions as practiced by Eka and Reni, passed down over centuries, have faced unprecedented challenge over the last decade after around 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of land burned during Indonesia’s 2015 dry season.

Farming is an obligatory tradition for the Dayak Pitap Indigenous community.
Farming is an obligatory tradition for the Dayak Pitap Indigenous community. Image by Riyad Dafhi Rizki/Mongabay Indonesia.

Fire risks

Across Borneo, the Dayak people’s swidden agriculture depends on fire to replenish nitrogen in the soil, reduce acidity and kill pests that eat away at their crop yields.

For countless other remote communities practicing subsistence farming in Indonesia, where cash economies are often incipient or nonexistent, access to chemical fertilizers is scarce or culturally remote.

Like many Indigenous farming societies in the archipelago, purchasing urea fertilizer or other chemicals doesn’t conform with Dayak adat.

State prosecutors have pressed criminal charges against at least 202 people in Indonesian Borneo for burning land since President Joko Widodo vowed to prevent a repeat of the nation’s 2015 wildfire and air pollution crisis, Mongabay found in an analysis of court records from the island. Around three-quarters of the defendants were small farmers operating on 2 hectares (5 acres) of land or less.

Almost all of the farmers identified in Mongabay’s data were convicted, and dozens received prison sentences in excess of three years. Only a small minority had lawyers.

Indonesia’s 2009 Environment Law includes a clause that farmers cultivating less than 2 hectares may receive exemption from prosecution over fires on their land, if they received permission to burn from a village leader and dug a firebreak.

Known as the “local wisdom” provision, this was designed in part to insulate Indigenous farmers from allegations of criminality and keep the focus on larger landholders and plantation companies, which have also been caught using fire to clear land cheaply.

However, court records showed many regional law enforcement departments opted to charge subsistence farmers under overlapping laws that prescribed burning with less ambiguity, such as the 2014 Plantation Law or Indonesia’s penal code.

The Dayak Pitap Indigenous community cleaning and planting together.
The Dayak Pitap Indigenous community cleaning and planting together. Image by Riyad Dafhi Rizki/Mongabay Indonesia.

Over the longer term, this may risk placing Dayak farmers in the firing line as the Indonesian government seeks to extinguish the potential for a repeat of fire crises, as in 1998, 2015 and, to a lesser extent, in 2019 and 2023.

Mongabay’s analysis of court records showed that 11 of the 202 defendants were women. All 11 were small farmers planting food crops at the time of their arrest.

Parida, a Dayak widow with five children, was criminally charged for using fire on less than half a hectare (1 acre) where she planted rice to feed her family and some corn for sale to supplement the family income.

A police car arrived in the morning and officers told Parida to come with them.

“I just went along with it,” Parida told Mongabay in 2023 in her home village of Dharma Bhakti, in West Kalimantan’s Bengkayang district. “The police officer said ‘When will you get to ride in a car again?’”

In court, the presiding judge told Parida she would be sentenced to one month in prison and fined 500,000 rupiah ($31). If she were to be caught using fire again, the judge said, then the next sentence would be severe.

Mongabay met Parida after she had returned from the fields as she looked after her grandchild. She described how she struggled to provide for the family as a single parent from farming alone on the land she inherited after her husband died.

Parida had used a firebreak, she said, and informed the neighborhood leader when she set the fire. The burning had never spread out of control, she said, but she felt unable to continue using the traditional method for fear of being arrested again.

“So,” Parida asked, “what is the solution?”

The Dayak Pitap community lives dependent on nature.
The Dayak Pitap community lives dependent on nature. Image by Riyad Dafhi Rizki/Mongabay Indonesia.

Conservation prize

The Dayak Pitap oversee their own customary zoning of forest protection, which fences off old-growth forests and catchment basins to protect biodiversity and prevent flash floods.

“They are food sovereign, whereas the state today is busy providing food supplies for the people,” said Setia Budhi, an anthropologist at Lambung Mangkurat University in Banjarmasin, the largest city in South Kalimantan.

Governments could learn from agricultural practices and food-security policies implemented by people living in the Meratus Mountains, he added.

“They clear the land with precision,” Budhi said. “Land that is no longer under cultivation is also given special treatment by being reforested.”

Cultural norms require responsible management of the environment, Budhi said, in teachings handed down family lineages for hundreds of years.

“Don’t equate this with the behavior of large-scale plantation companies,” he added.

In 2019 the Dayak Iban Sungai Utik people from West Kalimantan province won the Equator Prize, awarded by the United Nations, for conserving 9,450 hectares (23,350 acres) of old-growth forest.

“Their belief is that when they exploit nature recklessly, negative consequences will come back to them,” Budhi said.

The Dayak Pitap area in the Meratus Mountains is near the source of several large rivers that flow out into the Makassar Strait that separates Borneo and Sulawesi islands. The area is also rich in deposits of coal, iron ore and gold.

Data from the South Kalimantan chapter of the Indonesia Forum for the Environment (WALHI), a prominent national pressure group, showed several plantation and extractive permits were issued to companies on land around Dayak customary territory.

South Kalimantan's Walhi measures the trees on Mount Hauk, the sacred territory of the Dayak Pitap.
South Kalimantan’s WALHI measures the trees on Mount Hauk, the sacred territory of the Dayak Pitap. Image by Riyad Dafhi Rizki/Mongabay Indonesia.

Eka Karlina said she worries about what this might mean for the forests the Dayak Pitap consider their home.

“Instead of getting richer, we’ll be ruined,” Eka said. “We’ll lose places to find food and our sources of livelihood.”

She said she worries forest loss threatens the community’s stocks of medicinal plants and raw materials for building and devotional rituals.

“We would lose everything,” she said. “Our homes, culture and customs will be destroyed.”

Reni Antika emphasized the gender imbalance in the risk of forest loss or contamination of water sources.

“It’s been easy to find clean water,” a task that the community’s women are responsible for. “It will definitely be difficult if the environment is damaged,” she said.

She said she worries that future generations will no longer have the same connection to their home, and that the community could scatter with unpredictable costs.

“Tradition will disappear,” Reni said. “Everyone will be separated from each other because they are busy looking for a life elsewhere.”

Reni said she hopes the government will help protect and preserve the Meratus Mountains.

“No matter how much money we are given to sell our customary land, we don’t want it,” Eka said. “We feel that we have enough living like this.”

Banner image: The Dayak Pitap count around 1,700 people across a customary area of 22,800 hectares (56,300 acres) arranged over five villages. Image by Riyad Dafhi Rizki/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on April 30, 2024. Additional reporting by Aseanty Pahlevi.

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