In Langscape Magazine Articles

Fighting Deforestation with Tradition: The Laman Kinipan Festival in Borneo

June 03, 2020

Pinarsita Juliana

Laman Kinipan Indigenous Community

Effendi Buhing, the leader of Laman Kinipan Indigenous Community, greets the guests in the welcome ceremony known as potong pantan. Photo: Save Our Borneo, 2019

Coconut leaves and other decorations were hanging on the frame of the meeting hall’s gate of Laman Kinipan, a village in Lamandau district of Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia. At the gate, a welcoming ritual called potong pantan was taking place. One after the other the honored guests, wearing traditional clothes, were given a mandau (Dayak sword) with which to split a piece of betel nut wood that blocked the gate. Once the wood would break, the guests would be welcome into the meeting hall. When all the guests got through the gate, the opening ceremony for the Laman Kinipan Festival, held September 13–15, 2019, finally began.

Traditional music played nonstop. Some Elders were dancing and singing while offering tuak, the traditional rice wine, to the guests before they entered the hall. For them, letting the guests drink tuak meant welcoming them to be part of the community.

Everybody looked happy. Many people—whether from Kinipan, surrounding villages, or abroad—gathered for the ceremony. On stage, some girls were performing traditional dance. They dressed in batik cloth with local patterns and vests made from kapua tree bark. Many of them wore the traditional hat decorated with unique sequin motifs. Everybody strived to offer their best performance.

“The relationship between our culture and nature is very strong.”

I was enjoying the moment while documenting the scene with my camera. Seeing people dance and laugh after all the problems they had faced was such a blessing! I knew that the day’s event was the fruit of their sweat and tears.

Away from the crowds, I interviewed Effendi Buhing, the leader of Laman Kinipan Indigenous Community. He explained to me the main reason for the festival: “It started because of the encroachment of a plantation company into Laman Kinipan’s customary forest,” he said. “We reported it many times to both the local and the national government, even did some demonstrations. But all our actions were ignored, with no positive response.”

The company has been clearing the forest since 2018 to establish an oil palm plantation, but the conflict had already started a few years earlier. Laman Kinipan’s customary territory covers 16,132.85 hectares, of which 5,734 hectares were allocated to this company by the government without permission or fair procedure.

The forest of Kinipan Indigenous Community, which a plantation company cleared brutally to establish an oil palm plantation. Photo: Save Our Borneo, 2019

Then, instead of just doing demonstrations or reporting the problem to government institutions, the people of Kinipan thought of trying another method. “Through this cultural festival,” explained Effendi Buhing, “we are trying to get our government’s attention, showing how much we love our land and customary territory. That way, we hope they can see that the relationship between our culture and nature is very strong.”

Before holding the event, as a laman or village, they followed the regulations by requesting permission from the sub-district and the district government, but there was no good response from them.

“For your information, today community members came to me and brought me a bowl of rice from each person,” said Effendi Buhing in his speech during the festival’s opening ceremony. Once, he wiped off his tears. He took a moment to catch his breath, then looked straight at the audience again. “It means we always have to be strong,” he added, with a hoarse voice.

There was no financial or moral support from the local government. On the contrary, the village was accused of rebellion in a statement by the Lamandau Regent, which said the plantation company had already received the permit to open up the forest.

Wilem Hengki, the head of Laman Kinipan, confirmed. Not only had there been intimidation, he said, but also accusations had been made that this festival was controlled by political interests. These developments almost put the festival at risk. “It is neither a political activity nor politicization,” he added. “We are not politicians. That’s our guarantee!” He urged the community to keep holding the festival and ignore the false statements. “We don’t care about what others think! We are Kinipan. Who are we? We are Dayak!”

It’s not just that humans need natural resources, but also that nature needs humans for balancing.

After the opening ceremony, the next day the festival’s first competition was set to begin. Everybody already stood along the banks of the Batang Kawa River, waiting for traditional boats known as bajual bajarupis to pass by. The rocks could be seen clearly underwater, as the dry season made the water level in the river low. Many rapids appeared on the sides and in the middle of the river.

Bajual bajarupis used to be the traditional means of river transportation for the Dayak Tomun people in Laman Kinipan. It is a wooden boat with a counterbalance named bual, and it served to carry heavy cargo, such as cows, pigs, and paddy rice. “It is very rare these days to see bajual bajarupis,” said a kind lady who allowed me to stay at her home in Kinipan for a few days. “Actually, I have never seen it, except for hearing the story from the Elders. It is a part of very ancient culture.”

Then, the first boat passed by, and the audience cheered happily. I could see a boatman dressed in a kapua vest and underwear maneuvering the boat with his oar and a man at the stern following his directions. Some Elders were sitting in the shelter in the middle of the boat, showing the audience various vegetables and traditional cooking equipment they had brought with them. They smiled so broadly, that the audience was even happier to see them.

As five boats went by, it was interesting not only to observe their decorations and the traditional clothes worn by the people on them, but also to see them pass the rapids. The audience was excited. We worried whether they could go through or not. Luckily, every boat passed the rapids just fine.

bajual bajarupis boat competition

Kuin Tibung, one of the contestants in the bajual bajarupis boat competition, raises his right hand after successfully passing the last rapids in the river. Photo: Save Our Borneo, 2019

At the finish line, just after those five boats arrived, Effendi Buhing and I were having another conversation. I asked him why they included bajual bajarupis in this festival. “The reason is that we are trying to re-introduce this kind of boat. It doesn’t mean we are trapped in nostalgia, definitely not. But there are big messages behind it,” he said to me. Then he explained that bajual bajarupis could rightly show how strong the relationship between Kinipan people and nature has been from the time of their ancestors. “It seems as if we are learning the history of us and nature now,” he added.

“We don’t want even one aspect of our culture to become extinct, along with our forest.”

He believes Kinipan people cannot live without the river and the forest because they are in harmony with nature. It’s not just that humans need natural resources, but also that nature needs humans for balancing. “That’s why we fight deforestation,” he said. “And that’s why we need to wake up our generation. We can’t just wait and see our customary forest being destroyed. We have to stop it no matter what.”

bajual bajarupis contestants

Three bajual bajarupis contestants take time to rest shortly after reaching the finish line. Left to right: Albert Taguh, Darwin, Titus Welsi. Photo: Save Our Borneo, 2019

Beside the bajual bajarupis contest, there were six other traditional competitions during the festival. There were kangkurung, balogo, berayah, besoi, and weaving, all of which are culturally meaningful to the people of Kinipan.

weaving competition

One of the contestants in the weaving competition absorbed in her work. Photo: Save Our Borneo, 2019

Kangkurung and balogo are games played during the cultivation season. The difference is that kangkurung is played in the paddy planting season and balogo in the paddy harvest season. Both are joyful expressions.

In contrast to balogo, which is still played as a traditional game, mostly by kids, kangkurung is almost extinct. Only Elders can still play it. An important element for the game is a musical instrument made from a coconut shell and a stick of betel nut wood. The stick is inserted into the shell to make a handle. Hitting the ground with the coconut creates an original sound.

But if there is no forest anymore, then how will people get the material? “We are learning from this. We don’t want even one aspect of our culture to become extinct, along with our forest,” said Effendi Buhing.

Meanwhile, every night there would be berayah, a traditional poem that is sung in the Dayak Tomun language, and besoi. Me, I didn’t really understand besoi, so I took the initiative of asking one of the judges. “It is a welcoming, honoring speech,” he said. “It introduces the Elders and leaders who come to the ceremony or meeting one by one, according to their rank, mentioning their customary title. But I don’t understand the speech clearly word by word. It uses ancient language.”

weaving competition

The Elders enjoy taking part in and watching the weaving competition. Photo: Save Our Borneo, 2019

I was still puzzled as to why besoi is so important, until he told me more. “We need to remember where we are from. Knowing the Elders and leaders makes you understand our genealogy.” Suddenly, I remembered that my dad, as a Bataknese, always taught me about our genealogy. He said that, if I learned it, it would then create strong solidarity with our family members, whenever and wherever we met.

traditional musical instrument

The Elders play their traditional musical instrument called kangkurung. Photo: Save Our Borneo, 2019

The people of Kinipan certainly have it: a strong family relationship. Now, I could understand another reason why they are against deforestation: it is about losing not only the forest but also their way of life and their family relationships if the oil palm company succeeds in occupying their village.

Then, my eyes turned toward the stage when the host called the next contestant. It was for a berayah performance. I observed the woman as she stood on the stage. I thought she must be over thirty-five years old. Her name was Almi. She was thin and not very tall, and had brown skin. Behind her eyeglasses, she looked shy and not really confident. Everybody was now waiting for her to say something from the stage.

And then she sang the poem. “Let’s go cut the pakit [a kind of tree in the forest], cut the pakit at the top of the hill. How badly it breaks my heart when I see the jungle already cleared by the oil palm company!” She stopped her song for just a second. Everybody was amazed and gave her a big round of applause. I did too. Her voice was high-pitched, but she sang the poem loud and clear.

Almi, the favorite contestant in the berayah singing competition. Photo: Save Our Borneo, 2019

She sang several poems that night. Those were about the people’s sadness in losing their customary forest, their rejection of the oil palm company, and their struggle to keep their forest. “What tree do you want to plant? We just want to plant rubber trees. We are begging the government in our struggle, but there is no support from them,” she sang in her closing poem.

That sincere poem lifted the community’s spirit. They gave her a really big applause and great acclaim. I could feel this electric atmosphere. Everybody remembered how long and hard they had struggled to that day. If they didn’t fight to the very end to protect their forest, who else would do it for them? Almi’s poems were right. Deforestation and no government support were the reality they got. And it was awakening them even more.

Kinipan Indigenous Community

During the last day of the festival, Kinipan Indigenous Community holds an action campaign to raise public awareness and solidarity. Photo: Save Our Borneo, 2019

But can the people of Kinipan handle this alone? And does the impact of this deforestation only affect them? I don’t think so. Everybody must be responsible for this. This festival is not only for the Kinipan people’s rebellion to the occupation of their forest; it is also a way to show outsiders that Kinipan is fighting now and needs help.

Most of us use palm oil in many products and for many needs. So, we also contribute to deforestation by oil palm companies that expand their plantations and production. We also, without thinking, support the people who trample the rights and way of life of Kinipan people and destroy biodiversity there.

“The remaining forest is for our posterity, and it also serves as the world’s lungs. It is not only for Indonesia but also for the world!”

“We just ask for one thing of government and friends,” said Effendi Buhing. “Please help us preserve this forest! Enough with destroying our forest. The remaining forest is for our posterity, and it also serves as the world’s lungs. It is not only for Indonesia but also for the world!”

I do agree with him. Along with forest fires, deforestation contributes to climate change. It’s not just about the Amazon. It is also crucial that the Kinipan forest always remain green to help balance the world.

It’s time for us to stand up and join Kinipan to fight deforestation!

Watch Pinarsita’s videos of Kinipan:

Meratap di Kinipan (Kinipan Customary Forest)
Mengapa Kinipan Melawan Sawit?
A Letter from Kinipan’s Kids
Kinipan, Tidak Pernah Dijual !!!
Teaser: FESTIVAL


Pinarsita Juliana is a filmmaker and activist hailing from Borneo, Indonesia. She was born a Bataknese and Dayak Ngaju. Since 2014, she has been documenting issues about human rights and the environment through film and video. Pinar started working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in 2015, and has been on the staff of Save Our Borneo (https://saveourborneo.org/) since 2018.