Community-led Conservation in West Kalimantan

Kalimantan, Indonesia’s chunk of Borneo, was once carpeted with one of the most glorious tropical rain forests on the planet. It is now, like much of Indonesia and the tropics in general, undergoing large-scale anthropogenic transformation.

Home to the Bornean orangutan sub-species, Sunda clouded leopards, helmeted hornbills, and a vast assortment of other peculiar wildlife, much of it endemic to the island itself, its forests are threatened by forest fires (above), conversion to oil palm plantations and major infrastructure projects, including a proposed new Indonesian capital and a Trans-Borneo Highway.

Can any of the natural heritage of what has long been referred to as Treasure Island be preserved for future generations to understand and marvel at? People Resources and Conservation Foundation (PRCF), a Los Angeles-based conservation NGO, has been active in Indonesia for over two decades The Nanga Lauk Village Forest, located in greater landscape of Danau Sentarum National Park, falls within the “Heart of Borneo” core conservation zone that spans Malaysia and Brunei along with Indonesia that make up the three countries that occupy the island’s 290,000 square miles

The area is home to an impressive assemblage of highly endangered species, including the Bearded Bornean Langur, Sunda Pangolin, and the Tomistoma Crocodile—a rare slender-nosed crocodilian—and Spoon-billed Sandpiper. It is a wonderland of wetlands, lakes, hills, and rainforest and thousands of local people depend on the forest for their livelihoods. Danau Sentarum is an ephemeral lake fed by the reversed waters of the mighty Kapuas River, the country’s longest and home to otters, crocodiles, gibbons, and the beautiful but endangered Asian arowana, also known as the “world’s most coveted fish” as the Chinese believe it to be good luck and fish aquarium enthusiasts the world over love to gaze at it in their own homes.

Here, PRCF is helping to empower local communities to take ownership of forest management through a unique combination of agroforestry, forest patrols, ecotourism, educational outreach, and the collection of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) like wild honey, rattan, Tengkawang or “Elipe Nute,” and fish processing. The goal is for the long-term protection and sustainable management of Nanga Lauk Village Forest to be in the hands of the people who have lived in the area and depended on its resources for millennia.

To measure outcomes, Plan Vivo, a sustainable forestry certification body, has been enlisted to help measure and review the progress of set objectives—namely the conservation of existing forest cover and the restoration of degraded forest—through remote sensing, and quarterly carbon certificates were issued in past endeavors. Thus far, the results have been outstanding, and this pretty little corner of Indonesian Borneo stands as an example of what is possible when local communities function as the key drivers of conservation initiatives.

A conservation site as diverse as this requires vigilant stewards, and PRCF states the following on their web site: “Planned PRCF Indonesia activities include further work towards community-based conservation of the endangered Tomistoma crocodile; continued support into community-led initiatives on conservation of endangered sea turtle nesting sites in Sambas; consolidation of community forest conservation work at seven community forests areas established through Yayasan PRCF Indonesia, implementation of a 25-year Plan Vivo Project with local communities through a Hutan Desa program at the village of Nanga Lauk, and scoping possibilities of an integrated conservation and development program for community-based management at the Dolok Simalalaksa/ Hadabuan Hills in North Sumatra.”

PRCF has grand visions and the experience and knowledge to turn these visions into tangible, on-the-ground conservation success stories. Timber concessions will become community forests, and the villagers themselves will conduct jungle patrols in search of infractions such as logging, encroachment, and poaching. The overall philosophy is that local people are part of the landscape; they always have been and they always will be. And any conservation project that fails to make the local people central to the plan is bound to fail. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we are seeing, in 2019, so many tropical rainforests go up in flames or felled by chainsaws.

The sound of a human voice is said to terrify wildlife, even top predators like big cats, causing them to flee and even stop eating—and this has a ripple effect through the entire ecosystem. However, if local people are not setting snares, shooting birds out of the sky, draining swamps, and revving up chainsaws, there is no reason why humans and wildlife cannot co-exist peacefully, and that is the ultimate goal of the PRCF initiative in West Kalimantan and further afield in Vietnam and Myanmar. The PRCF conservation plan is for a 25-year engagement with the Nanga Lauk community and the vision is that, with protection and management schemes in the hands of local people, the charismatic fauna and flora that have always made Borneo a magical place will always be found in the Nanga Luak Community Forest.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and PRCF associate and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor and recently became an associate of RCIF. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.