By: Mongabay and The Gecko Project

Darwan’s occasional appearances in local newspapers at the time chart his rise as a representative of the business community, pushing back against any efforts to regulate it or curb its worst excesses. He protests the banning of companies from bidding for government projects due to corruption; he earns controversy for gaining an untendered contract to supply schools with furniture; he complains about taxes imposed on the forestry sector, intended to prevent illegal logging.

“The overall impression is of a typical Borneo frontier businessman who makes a lot of money in the black economy,” Gerry van Klinken, a University of Amsterdam professor who follows Kalimantan politics closely, told us.

As Jakarta’s hegemony receded, and the grip of Suharto’s circle on natural resources dissipated, the shadow economy and the characters who controlled it came to the fore. A timber mafia coursed into protected areas. Tanjung Puting National Park, a mostly swampy forest teeming with orangutans, leopards and crocodiles, was heavily targeted for its ramin and ironwood trees. One local government agency that attempted to stem the flow of logs had its office burned to the ground. When a journalist reported on the illegal logging of the park, he was soon after jumped upon, hacked with machetes and left for dead in a ditch. He narrowly survived, crippled and disfigured.

Beginning in 1999, Indonesia embarked on an ambitious program of decentralization, transferring a wide range of powers from Jakarta to local bureaucracies in the hope of both heading off separatist urges and making government more accountable. District heads, the bupatis, were granted the authority to enact their own regulations, provided they did not conflict with existing laws. They exercised this authority liberally. One of the first decisions of the East Kotawaringin administration was to begin taxing shipments of illegal logs, tacitly endorsing the shadow economy instead of confronting it.

In 2002 Seruyan, named for the river that flowed through it, was carved out of East Kotawaringin as a new district. The following year Darwan, who was by then the head of the PDIP party in East Kotawaringin, became Seruyan’s first bupati. His jurisdiction stretched some 300 kilometers north from the Java Sea into remote jungles populated sparsely by indigenous Dayaks. Its western edge encompassed part of Tanjung Puting National Park. It was dominated by the lowlands between the park and Sampit, with Lake Sembuluh at its heart. At the turn of the millennium, more than two thirds of the district remained covered in forest. Though it was thinned out by logging, it harboured a wealth of wildlife that could rival most landscapes on earth.

borneo

Island of Borneo shared among Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

The first generation of empowered bupatis were selected by members of the district parliament. Darwan’s ascent surprised some observers, who saw him as a political novice. He was said to have declared that any bureaucrat who backed his candidacy would rise in rank from echelon one to two, or echelon two to three, and so on, failing to grasp that this would actually constitute a demotion.

But Darwan was also viewed as a putra daerah, a “son of the soil,” who would fight for his people. He was awarded a five-year term, half a decade to transform the fortunes of his homeland, before facing his constituents at the ballot box.

By 2003 the district economy was stagnating. The log trade was collapsing under the burden of its own excesses. Lake Sembuluh had been a shipbuilding center that attracted craftspeople from other islands at its height. But the vessels were made from hardwood and for transporting it, and the industry died as the commercial timber dried up. With the most valuable trees already stripped from the forest, Darwan was taking the reins of a district whose heyday as a timber hub, its main source of income, was coming to a close.

Plantations, specifically for oil palm, were the most obvious replacement. The fruit of the oil palm tree yielded an edible fat used in everything from chocolate to laundry detergent and biofuel. The commodity was in increasing demand globally, and the region south of Lake Sembuluh was seen as having great potential for large-scale development of the cash crop. Though it lacked infrastructure, it was close to the port towns of Pangkalanbun and Sampit.

District officials imagined Sampit as a vibrant transit town, for laborers coming in to work the plantations and palm oil leaving for global markets. Darwan announced plans to invite investors from Hong Kong and Malaysia. He promised a new harbor to facilitate exports and an easing of regulations.

Marianto Sumarto, a local sawmill owner who had joined Darwan’s campaign team in 2003, said the assumption of power by a son of the soil generated hope. “It made people proud,” he told us. “They didn’t know that behind the scenes, he was playing a bigger game.”

Cover illustration by Corey Brickley, others by Sophie Standing. Follow Mongabay and The Gecko Project on Facebook (herehere) for updates on Indonesia for Sale, or read the whole story, in English or Indonesian.