Michael Eko

Punan Adiu: The Forest Is Our Mother

How the Punan Adiu indigenous community have used participatory mapping to claim tens of thousands of hectares of their customary land.

Story commissioned by the Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative. Text and images by Michael Eko.
Children take a bath by the Malinau River, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia, 10 June 2020. 
The Punan are a nomadic indigenous community in the central and northern area of Borneo, both in Indonesian Kalimantan and Malaysian Sarawak and Sabah. As hunter-gatherers, the tribes rely on the forest as a source for food, medicine, water and all socio-cultural aspects of their life.

In the 1900s, the Dutch Indies colonial government started to organize the Punan to settle in permanent villages outside the forest, helping the colonial authorities to monitor and control the tribes. After decolonization in the 1970s, the Indonesian New Order government continued this approach through a project called population resettlement, organizing and registering the permanent villages of indigenous people to manage their developmental programs. The remaining indigenous communities were transferred from the interior forest to a new settlement located nearby the town. This approach left the forest empty and more open to exploitation and concessions.

Without education and having no control over their ancestral land, the Punan lived in the margins of society. The concessions of logging, mining and palm oil plantations exploited their forest and transformed their lifestyle to adapt into modern life. The Punan started to gain access to basic education in the 1970s when Catholic missions established schools in Malinau. Most of the students became village leaders and actively managed their villages. In 2005, they started to organize the community and created a network with local NGOs to conduct participatory mapping.
Punan Adiu Village at dusk, North Kalimantan Province, Indonesia, on 10 June 2020. In earlier times, the Punan lived inside the forest. Now they stay in permanent settlement and embrace modern lifestyle. 
In 2005, Niko Boro, a missionary teacher who arrived in the 1970s, established an organization named Lembaga Pemerhati dan Pemberdayaan Dayak Punan Malinau (LP3M) to support the community in advocacy and mapping their customary forest. In 2012, with support from national and international civil society groups, the Punan Adiu community and LP3M started mapping their ancestral lands. The participative mapping required much fieldwork, rechecking data and involving neighboring communities and villages to confirm the map boundary and its accuracy. It took two years of deliberation until all communities approved the final map in 2015, which claimed an area of 17,415ha–an area almost equivalent to Washington, D.C–as their customary land.

On 8 May 2017, the Punan Adiu’s land ownership and rights as indigenous community was eventually recognized and legalized by the Malinau District government, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia. The Malinau District Head, Yansen Tipa Padan, signed a decree on recognition and protection of the Punan Long Adiu Customary Community, giving the community full right to protect and manage their customary forest.

To strengthen their recognition at the national level, the Punan Adiu community submitted an application for recognition and protection of their customary community and its forest to the National Government in Jakarta on 21 June 2018 through a social forestry scheme. The Ministry will review the document and conduct field verification. When all requirements and verification have been approved, the Punan Adiu Community will obtain national recognition and have stronger legality to protect and manage their customary area in a sustainable way. 
Left: Piyang and Lukas pose for a portrait in front of a Benggeris tree (‘Koompassia excelsa’) during forest patrol on 19 March 2020. The tree grows higher than the average canopy tree and its branch is home for giant honeybees. Protected by smoke, local climbers harvest the honey for additional income. With its economic and cultural value, the native taboo forbids people to cut the tree. Right: Lukas, a member of Punan Adiu forest patrol. When he is not on duty, he maintains his farmland or hunts in the forest. Locals consider him as one of the seniors who have deep knowledge about the forest. Punan Adiu, North Kalimantan Province, Indonesia, 11 June 2020.
However, legal certification is not enough to protect ancestral land and good management practices are necessary to manage the customary territory. To strengthen their existence and land ownership, Punan Adiu conduct forest patrols, build cabins and informational boards along the customary area, plan ecotourism services and carbon trading, plant trees and cash crops among others.

The Punan Adiu also use their traditional local wisdom to divide their customary areas into several protected and community zones in order to harmonize nature conservation and economic empowerment. While the intact primary forest is reserved as protected forest, the community can utilize the other areas to fulfill their subsistence needs. The Punan relies on the customary forest to provide food, water, house materials, and a sanctuary for wildlife. 97% of Punan Adiu Territory is rainforest and it is home for endemic plants and animals.

A research conducted by LTS International in 2017 estimated that 55,216 metric tons of CO2 emission reduction per year are expected if the community can avoid deforestation in the customary forest. With its role as natural sanctuary, food source and carbon sequester, the Punan Adiu Customary Forest has significant impact in protecting local biodiversity and providing food for the community as well as preventing the global climate crisis from reaching a dangerous level.
Left: Gaharu or eagle wood are planted in Punan Adiu customary forest. Its resins are sold and used for perfume and incense. Due to habitat loss and high demand, IUCN Red List has listed this species as critically endangered. To protect this species, the Punan plant the trees in their forest. Some of the portion will be harvested and the resin will be sold as additional cash income.19 March 2020. Right: The Pythonidae snake is one of the protein resources for the Punan Adiu community. 20 March 2020.
What Punan Adiu has achieved is historically related to a land reform agenda in Indonesia. The discourse has been established since 1948 when the newly independent nation created a committee (Panitia Agraria) to prepare a new law focusing on managing agrarian reform as a means to reach the nation's social justice vision.

From 1960, after 12 years of deliberation, the agrarian law in Indonesia was regulated under Act No.5 of the Basic Regulations on Agrarian Principles (Undang-Undang Pokok Agraria), according to which the State has the highest level of control on land, water, airspace and natural resources and can regulate and organize the allocation, supply and maintenance of those natural resources to achieve maximum prosperity of the people. The rights of indigenous people over their customary land were recognized although the State still controlled legal jurisdiction of the land.

Unfortunately, before the legislature successfully created the implementation regulations, the communist massacre happened in 1965 and stopped the agrarian reform agenda and its deliberations. President Soekarno was replaced by Soeharto, a general who would institute a really different agrarian policy during his 32 years ‘New Order’ totalitarian power. With his focus on green revolution, political stability, foreign investment and industrialization in the sake of economic growth, agrarian reform was not seen as the most important priority. Moreover, during his power, the land reform discourse was constructed as a product of communism and prohibitively discussed.

Instead of continuing the reform agenda, the regime granted concessions for national and multinational corporations to convert land and forest for mining, plantations and logging. As a consequence, agrarian conflicts occurred during Soeharto’s regime and forests were converted into logging sites, monoculture plantations or mining sites. The indigenous people lived in poverty and had no control over their customary land. 
Martha during her farming work on 21 March 2020. In 2019, a long drought destroyed the Punan Adiu crops. Climate change brings significant impact to the indigenous people and their food security. When disaster occurs and farming is insufficient to support their basic needs, the forest ecosystem provides food for the community.
After three decades being in power, Soeharto stepped down when the economic crisis hit Asia in 1998 and triggered people power that led him to resign. This tipping point brought new freedom to Indonesian civil society who started to open new discussion toward land reform discourse. Within a new reformation atmosphere, civil society groups consolidated their networks and conducted new initiatives to influence the state in instituting agrarian reform into legal law.

The implementation of agrarian reform relied on political will and happened through long running deliberations between government, legislator and civil society groups. With participation and influence from civil society and indigenous groups, the local and national government started to implement agrarian reforms via regulations and other legal instruments.

In the context of the Punan Adiu, reform started when the Malinau District House of Representatives issued a district regulation on the protection of customary communities on 3 October 2012. Following this progress, the District Head of Malinau issued regulation on the Malinau’s District Management Agency for Customary Community Affairs on 19 November 2014, which granted the agency strategic roles to support the indigenous community in obtaining recognition and managing their customary land.

At the national level, progress was also made as a result of civil society’s initiatives. In 2012, Indonesian Constitutional Court Ruling allowed for the re-categorization of customary forest from ‘state forest’ to ‘forest subjects to rights,’ which involves a recognition of community rights to land and resources, although forest areas remain under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Forestry, and the assignment of rights must be renewed every 20 years.

The national government of Indonesia also develops a social forestry program which grants communities rights to manage community forest and gain economic benefit in a sustainable way. Dormant during the Soeharto regime, the program was restarted in 2007. Using a customary forest scheme, the Punan Adiu registered their forest to obtain recognition and full rights to develop their customary territory.

All those regulations and social forestry programs are the legal frameworks that eventually enabled Punan Adiu to legalize their customary forest. Through inclusive legislative process and political diplomacy, civil society groups could have a strategic role in influencing the agrarian discourse and providing contextual law instruments to support indigenous communities in obtaining rights over their customary land.
Ansel uses a cast net for fishing in the Malinau River, North Kalimantan Province, Indonesia, on 1 June 2020. With increased pollution from upstream coal mining, fishing is harder than before. Locals need to go deeper into the intact forest area to catch the fish. 
The changing ecosystem and penetration of modern lifestyle have created an existential question toward how the Punan Adiu can survive and protect their traditional values in the future. The exploitative industries, such as coal mining and monoculture plantations, offer large sums of money to communities in the area in exchange for forest conversion. Learning from other communities who have suffered from the destructive impact of exploitative industries, the Punan Adiu rejected the proposal and committed to protect their forest.

Adaptation to the modern world also creates several new basic needs that are insufficiently fulfilled by the traditional economy alone such as educational costs for children, technology and internet for online class, medical expenses, electricity and other living costs. The community needs a new economic model that could support their contemporary lifestyle as well as maintain the existing sustainable one. 
Left: A boy and his grandparents watch a YouTube video from his smartphone in Punan Adiu Village, North Kalimantan Province, Indonesia, on 13 June 2020. Right: Mariana and her children travel from Malinau, the nearest town, where she sells cash crops and buys livelihood stocks. The Punan Adiu community regularly travel to Malinau, the nearest town, to buy livelihood stocks and other activities. Open access to road infrastructure and close contact to modern life lead the community to have a new lifestyle and adapt to modernity while still maintaining their subsistence culture. Malinau, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia, 10 June 2020.
While they are still continuing the subsistence lifestyle, the Punan Adiu and its organization partners have created plans and activities to generate more income to the community, including optimizing the farming land, planting gaharu (ironwood) as cash crop, selling non-timber forest products and rattan handicraft, ecotourism program and joining the carbon market. Some programs work well while others do not. With only 32 families in the village, they have limitations and capacity to conduct all plans but working with NGOs and partners, the Punan Adiu are continuing to manage the forest and community programs.

Visit the project website to see the full story: www.adiu.or.id

Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative

This project is one of the stories commissioned by the Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative, supporting visual storytellers to produce stories reporting on a response to a problem. The initiative is a joint project by the World Press Photo Foundation, the Message in a Photo Foundation (MIAP) and the Solutions Journalism Network.