“Bawi Kuwu Tumbang Rakumpit,
Hantelu Nyahu Ngatuntung Langit.
Intan Emas Nihau Bahirit,
Manganjang Lewu Tumbang Rakumpit.”
Abner Dius could be heard singing in the traditional sackut style as he steered his old wooden paddleboat. The lyrics, spontaneously narrated in Abner’s native Dayak Ngaju, translate loosely as “three claps of thunder ring in the sky / gold and diamonds held close / abundant in Tumbang Rakumpit.”
Abner’s eyes sparkled like diamonds as he sang. A lifetime resident of Tumbang Rakumpit, he knew very well that his village forest (Himba Tabalien in Dayak) was rich in precious minerals, but these treasures were once threatened by illegal mining and deforestation.
That afternoon, we travelled with Abner along the Rakumpit River, which snakes through the forest like an enormous python. Although it only averages about five metres wide, the river is teeming with life, including rare Siamese crocodiles (Crocodylus siamensis) and the long-nosed Tomistoma (Tomistoma schlegelii). Naturally, few residents dare to swim here.
At several points, our journey was interrupted by fallen sumping trees blocking the river. Abner even had to break out his chainsaw and a machete, hacking through the decaying trunks as wide as oil drums.
The forest was blessedly cool, and its tall canopy overhung the river from either side, shading us from the sun’s rays during the four-hour trip. We were all crowded aboard a four-metre klotok, a type of small engine-powered wooden boat.
At long last, we arrived at a whitewashed wooden hut perched atop two-metre stilts, which provide necessary protection against flooding during the rainy season.
Together, we shared the task of unloading the klotok and preparing lunch. After a quick bite to eat, we eagerly set off down the trail laid out by Abner and the Head of the Rungan Indigenous Law Community, Hermanto.
The forest was damp and dense with vegetation, and it took us about half an hour to reach the core of the village forest, or Himba Tabalien. Huge ironwood trees loomed overhead, proudly challenging the skies. Towering above the canopy, their leafy crowns were balanced atop thick trunks, half as wide as a man is tall and coated in moss.
Particularly mystical was an ironwood tree entwined with a banyan tree, forming a great monument as tall as a five-story building. Regarded as unique and sacred, these trees are closely guarded by the local community.
We could just make out the traces of felled ironwood trees, subtle scars on the forest floor which had been overgrown by moss.
“These are the remainders of over 10 years of logging. In the past, many people stole ironwood from this forest,” explained Hermanto.
Several years ago, he continued, two illegal loggers were found dead a day after stealing ironwood, their bodies tinged with a mysterious blue. After this incident, nobody from the surrounding villages dared chop down the ironwood trees in Himba Tabalien, which are sacred to the Tumbang Rakumpit community.
“Since our ancestors cursed the loggers, no one is willing to risk stealing ironwood from this forest anymore. We believe in the old ways and abide by same the customary laws which have existed for generations,” Hermanto added.
Soon after, we arrived at a clearing the size of a badminton court where young ironwood saplings grew, scarcely taller than waist-height. Ironwood seeds could also be seen scattered amongst the litterfall on the forest floor.
Hermanto hopes that these seeds can also be cultivated to help restore the forest’s ironwood. “These trees are slow to mature, and ironwood is quite difficult to grow, but we are determined to create a more sustainable future for our children, and for our children’s children,” he said, gently stroking a young seedling.
Hermanto also explained that the wider Mungku Baru community had proposed that the ironwood forest become a Customary Forest, providing legal status and protection under the Indonesian government. To achieve this, Hermanto joined forces with several other local leaders and applied for recognition as a Customary Law Community.
Customary Law Communitys
Customary Law Communities are made up of indigenous groups with strong ancestral ties to a particular area, whose existence is recognised by the state.
To obtain official recognition, indigenous communities must send a letter of proposal to the regional authority, known to the local damang, or community leader. The proposal is the result of an agreement, ratified at a supervisory meeting and prepared in the form of minutes.
If the Customary Law Community is located across districts or cities, then the proposal is submitted to the governor. If it is within the same district or city area, however, then the proposal can be submitted directly to the local regent or mayor. Finally, the proposal is evaluated by a Customary Law Community Committee, formed by the regional head to determine whether the proposed Customary Law Community meets all the necessary conditions for verification. Conditions that must be fulfilled to achieve Customary Law Community status include:
- A proven history
- The existence of a traditional government
- A traditional territory
- Applicable customary law documents
- Assets worthy of protection, including natural resources, art and sacred areas
The Rungan Customary Law Community
Resting on the floor, Hermanto relayed the historical value of Mungku Baru and the strong customs that have been maintained by its people for generations. One of Central Kalimantan’s most famous legends also originates here – namely, Bawi Kuwu.
“We also have many cultural relics, including betang houses, sapundu statues, traditional foods, and other artefacts. The descendants of Rawing Tihen and Talajan, who first discovered the ironwood forest, are still alive today,” explained Hermanto.
This historical significance is why local people are eager to be recognised as a Customary Law Community. Since 2019, communities in Mungku Baru have taken several steps to meet the requirements for verification, including a meeting with the Mayor of Palangka Raya in February 2020.
On October 27th, 2020, a Customary Law Community Committee meeting was held to validate the proposal data and committee recommendations. However, during this process, a number of administrative obstacles arose, making it necessary to merge the proposed Customary Law Community in Mungku Baru with one for the Rungan landscape.
Abner explained that three villages were merged to form the resulting Customary Law Community, of which he became Deputy Chair 1.
“All three villages agreed to help manage the Himba Tabalien. As part of the unification process, the Rungan Customary Law Community oversees not only the ironwood forest, but also two other traditional forest territories,” he went on.
According to Abner, the total area covered by the Rungan Customary Law Community is 47 hectares, which includes the three participating villages.
To obtain Customary Law Community recognition, there were five stages of determination that had to be completed, namely:
- Proposing recognition
- Implementation of document identification
- Implementation of document verification and validation
- Recommendations from the committee
- Determination of recognition
The Rungan Customary Law Community received assistance from the Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) Indonesia during the application process through to the determination stage
“Thanks to BNF’s assistance, the Rungan Customary Law Community was finally established in November 2022. We hope BNF will continue to offer their help to the community, so that we can preserve Rungan’s forests for many years to come,” said Abner.
BNF Indonesia staff member, Arso Susetyo, added that BNF had helped to strengthen institutional capacity, starting with community preparations for the Customary Law proposal.
“We help to bridge communities with government agencies at the city, regency and provincial levels, connecting authorised partners to facilitate the recognition process,” he said.
Based on the definition of Indigenous Law Communities, the Rungan Customary Law Community meets the criteria for recognition as an indigenous community unit by the Central Kalimantan Provincial Government.
“We are currently waiting for the Governor of Central Kalimantan to hand over this decree, and we really appreciate and would like to thank him for his support,” continued Arso.
The Rungan Customary Law Community is currently the only one to be located across multiple regency/city areas in Indonesia.
“This has certainly been a valuable experience for us and can help to inform the ways in which other regions may wish to apply for Customary Law Community recognition in future,” he said.
The Rungan Customary Law Community also fought for Customary Forest recognition from the Minister of the Environment and Forestry. On September 18th, 2023, the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry officially granted a Customary Forest decree to the community as part of a festival in Jakarta.
“Our hope is to develop the Rungan Customary Forest for ecotourism, since there is a lot of untapped potential for eco- and cultural tourism in Central Kalimantan. We want to share the incredible cultures and forests of our region while preserving their sustainability,” Arso closed.
Abner and his fellow residents are the guardians of Himba Tabalien. They have learnt a lot from the Customary Law Community process – chiefly, that the best environmental caretakers are indigenous people whose customs and history have been recognised and granted protection.
Written by Yohanes Prahara, Content Creator and Media Liaison