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People of the Forest

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Luparia has been tapping rubber since she was 13. Because the sap of the rubber trees flows strongest at night, she makes her rounds in the dark. With a hooked blade she scores the bark of each tree diagonally so the white, milky sap oozes down the cut. Each night she gathers about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of latex. In Tempayung and surrounding Dayak villages near the Lamandau River Wildlife Reserve, most of the rubber tappers are women.

Caption by William deBuys

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Atman (left) and M. Yani are ethnic Melayu, descendants of seafaring Malays who came to Borneo long ago.They tap the jelutung or swamp rubber tree — 120 wild trees scattered along 17 trails that wind through the Lamandau River Wildlife Reserve. The cessation of logging in Lamandau has benefited them, for the jelutung is much sought after by loggers.

Caption by William deBuys

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As a child, Pak Emoy learned shifting cultivation — slash and burn — from his parents, but as an adult he concluded there isn’t land enough for that kind of agriculture to support a growing population. When the Indonesia nonprofit Yayorin came to the village of Tempayung touting sustainable farming, he was among the first to adopt the methods, which emphasize intensive composting to provide crops the nutrients they need. He says that working for himself, and not for the oil palm plantation, is a great source of satisfaction.

Caption by William deBuys

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Pak Injan, headman of Babual Baboti, says 47 people in his village of 826 work for the oil palm company. The rest depend mainly on subsistence farming. As head of the village he recently denied a request from the oil palm company to acquire more land because the community had previously agreed it would like to grow rubber on the tract. He believes that the average level of the Lamandau River has dropped since the forest was cleared and oil palm plantations established upstream. In his father’s generation orangutans were still occasionally sighted near Babual Baboti, but not anymore.

Caption by William deBuys

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Ibu Simat is 50 years old and stands no taller than four and a half feet. She has four teeth and a razor-sharp wit. She keeps up a rapid patter as she works a colored basket, piloting the holes for her strips of rattan with an awl made from a sharpened steel dowel. Ibu Simat still collects her own rattan, but it is harder now than it used to be. Only the strips of forest along the rivers, outside the boundaries of the oil palm plantations, still have rattan, she says.

Caption by William deBuys

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Pak Eson stabs the air with his hands as he speaks, and the words come out with rapid emphasis. Previous demongs of Tempayung were too lax, he says. Now that he is head of the village, he wants to renew traditional culture and agriculture. Pak Eson has no love for the oil palm company. He thinks the weather has grown hotter since the forest was cut and the plantations put in, and still today the company wants to expand not just into degraded land but into healthy forest.

Caption by William deBuys

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Irus is giving Edo and her baby a ride to the morning feeding. Irus comes from Babual Baboti, one of the Dayak villages on the periphery of the Lamandau reserve where Yayorin is working to build community support for conservation. He works as a field assistant at Camp Rasak, where his duties include feeding the released orangutans and periodically following them on their rambles through the forest, seeing where they go and noting their behavior.

Caption by William deBuys

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Dian is the affable manager of Camp Rasak, which is to say he is a part-time klotok boatman, diesel mechanic, cook, personnel manager, ape feeder and primate zoologist. Were he not working in conservation, Dian might easily have become an illegal logger or an oil palm plantation worker; there are few career opportunities for young Dayak men like him. As things have turned out, he has found a calling in his work with rescued apes.

Caption by William deBuys

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Pak Marson is pastor of the 13-family congregation of Greja Bethel Indonesia, the sole Christian church in Tempayung. By day Pak Marson works for the oil palm company Pt. Sungai Rangit, recording the amount of oil palm fruit each laborer on each tract of land harvests. He keeps the records for each of the workers, and at night he enters the amounts in a ledger where their pay is calculated. His figures also provide the basis for payments by Sungai Rangit to the cooperative of village landowners on whose 369 hectares it grows oil palms.

Caption by William deBuys

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Pak Isar has leased his land to the oil palm company, and after 12 years he will own the trees the company has planted on his property. While the palms produce, he will receive 15 percent of the value of the fruit harvested from his land. The rents are paid into the 157-member village cooperative, which will distribute to Pak Isar his pro rata share of revenue. He and his wife Suham are in their mid-30s and have three sons and one daughter, whose husband drives a truck for the oil palm company.

Caption by William deBuys

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It is only 8 a.m., and already Pengli’s shirt is drenched in sweat. He wields a spade-tipped lance, called a dodos, to pare away the leathery fronds that conceal the palm fruit, and then to sever the fruit from the tree. When he has cut the fruit from several trees, Pengli piles the cut fronds, loads the clusters of fruit on a frail red wheelbarrow and heads for the road at the end of the long row of palms. Then he returns down the hot, shadowy aisle to cut another load.

Caption by William deBuys

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Togu Simorangkir says his job description consists of one word: “Dream.” He is director of Yayorin — the Indonesia Orangutan Foundation. Togu holds a master’s degree in primate biology from Oxford, but he thinks of himself less as a scientist than an as educator. In 2000, after facing down a mob of armed loggers bent on harvesting the best remaining primary forest and orangutan habitat in southern Borneo, he concluded that his research would become meaningless if the object of its study were destroyed. One day a western friend asked him, “Togu, if I put $1 million on this table to save the orangutan, would you take it?” He replied, “No, but if you give it for education and social improvement, things like that, I will say yes. If the focus is only on the orangutan, it creates social conflict and people respond with dislike for the orangutan.”

Caption by William deBuys

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Steven Brend studies a map of the Lamandau River Wildlife Reserve at the Prapat guard post. Brend is a senior conservationist with the Orangutan Foundation of the United Kingdom and has worked in Borneo since 2002. The Prapat guard post is one of the fruits of his work. It stands where a former logging road penetrates the northern border of the reserve, which once was subjected to extensive illegal logging and devastating fires. The guards who staff the post are the best defense possible against logging and fire. Through the long days at their remote outpost they tend a nursery of native trees with which they are reforesting the burned lands.

Caption by William deBuys

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More than anything else, “it’s the eyes and hands” that attract us to orangutans, says Stephen Brend, senior conservationist of the Orangutan Foundation. It is said that a female orangutan is four times as strong as a fit human male, and a male orangutan is eight times as strong. Even so, we humans are accustomed to witnessing the extraordinary athleticism of the animal world. The slow, steady gaze of the orangutan presents a different kind of experience. There is thought in the depths of those dark eyes, as well as feelings not far different from our own. It’s no surprise, then, that in Bahasa Indonesia, orangutans translates to “people of the forest.”

Caption by William deBuys

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Orangutan in Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.

Caption by William deBuys


Guinness World Records declared in 2008 that Indonesia had the world’s fastest deforestation rate. Borneo alone has lost more than 50 percent of its original forest cover; half of that loss occurred in the past 20 years due to logging, mining, fire, development of palm oil plantations and other habitat-destroying human activities.

Stopping deforestation throughout the tropics has become one of the global conservation movement’s top priorities. Deforestation’s repercussions go far beyond the loss of endemic wildlife and the displacement and impoverishment of local people. Vanishing species leave holes in the web of life that ultimately sustains all humans. And deforestation arguably causes more damage to the climate than any other human activity.

But deforestation is not a simple problem, and there is no simple solution. In Borneo, questions about whether to conserve forests, burn them for farmland, or log them and plant the land with oil palms are tied up in complex cultural and economic considerations. While conservation has long been science driven, success will ultimately come down to changing the way people relate to nature.

These images depict some of the social complexities of conservation along the border of the newly established Lamandau River Wildlife Reserve in Indonesian Borneo.

Jason Houston is a documentary photographer, filmmaker, multimedia producer and photo editor dedicated to stories at the intersection of social and environmental concerns. To see more of his work, visit jasonhouston.com.

A version of this image gallery originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Momentum magazine, Ensia’s predecessor, as “People and the Forest.”

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