A Dayak woman unleashes the power of song in defense of Borneo’s forest.
WORDS Pinarsita Juliana | IMAGES AND VIDEO Save Our Borneo
“What is the purpose of the invitation for the Dayak to stand united? What is the purpose of loving the forest? As an inheritance for posterity, it is,” sang Rani in her rayah.
This is the story of Arnia Rani, an Indigenous woman from the Dayak Tomun tribe in Laman Kinipan, Central Borneo, Indonesia. I first met her at the beginning of 2019. I never thought I would connect with her as a comrade in the struggle to protect Borneo’s forests.
Deforestation has been rampant in the customary territory of the Kinipan communities since 2018 because of an oil palm plantation company.
Deforestation has been rampant in the customary territory of the Kinipan communities since 2018 because of an oil palm plantation company. Rani walked with Kinipan community members to the site of deforestation for a protest.
I was there to witness and document the protest. Right in the concession, they read their objection letter to the Regent. They asked the company to stop the deforestation and pull out of their ancestral land.
Rani stood there, near the Kinipan representative who read the letter. She wore a pink hat and a purple T-shirt, carrying a kampit (rattan basket) on her back, held by a strap that ran across her forehead. But she kept her head down, focused on hearing the words that were being read loudly. There was no smile on her lips, which were red from chewing betel nut and almost seemed to have dissolved in sorrow.
To signify their protest, Rani and all the other community members planted a variety of seeds of forest trees in the concession, next to the company’s oil palm plants. It was their way to express their objection to the replacement of forest trees with oil palms.
Still in 2019, three months after the protest, I came back to Kinipan with some friends. It was a fourteen-hour trip from Palangka Raya, the capital city of Central Borneo, to Kinipan. In the meantime, the Kinipan campaign had picked up massively, with efforts to keep it going until the government would take notice.
At that time, Effendi Buhing was the leader of the Kinipan Indigenous Community. Through Buhing, we would make a film about the Kinipan communities’ fight to raise public awareness of the situation. We also wanted to record Kinipan traditional music. There were several men already sitting down in front of some traditional instruments. And Rani was there too, sitting with the men.
She smiled at us. I could see that her lips were still red, as is normal in Kinipan, since most people there are accustomed to menginang or chewing betel nut. It’s the combination of saliva and chewed betel nut that produces the red color, and that’s why Rani’s lips are always red.
I was curious about what Rani might be doing there but waited patiently to find out. “OK, you can start,” Buhing said to Rani. She breathed in for a moment and then started singing in the local Dayak language, with a flowing high-pitched tone. She sang loudly:
Sayangkam jaya saka wijaya, mari dibuka setengah hari am
Kalau Bupati tidak percaya, belahlah dada lihatlah hati kami.
Sayangkam jaya saka wijaya,* if the Regent doesn’t believe us,
then let’s open our chest and let him look at our heart.
She stopped for a while, then went on:
Ukir-ukir tanah Betawi, kayu ulin habis dijual.
Bepikir-pikir di dalam hati, jangan nanti hundin menyesal.
Ukir-ukir tanah Betawi,* and the ironwoods are all sold out.
Think about it in your heart, do not regret it later.
[*Note: these are untranslatable words used to make the rhyme]
“Tak dung-dung tak-tak-tak!” As soon as the song ended, a drumbeat immediately saluted Rani’s chanting. Then, all the traditional instruments followed, playing for several minutes in perfect unison.
I was amazed. That was simple but deep. “What is that?” I asked once they finished playing the music. I even almost forgot to stop my camera, with which I had recorded the performance. “It is called rayah or berayah,” explained Buhing.
It really surprised me. The song contained words that criticized the Regent. It was no secret anymore that the Regent was in favor of the company. He was even a relative of the company’s boss.
Rani’s lyrics carried a message: an appeal to the Regent to realize that his decision to let the company destroy the Kinipan forest was wrong. It was a brave thing to do — an ordinary woman warning the Number One person in the Lamandau Regency.
Rani created the song spontaneously. ‘It comes from my heart, a lament.’
Then Rani told me she created the song spontaneously. “It comes from my heart, a lament,” she said. For me, it sounded like poetry or a rhyme that was sung. “I warn him about how bad the destruction of our forest is. He must help us stop it,” she added.
I loved the way Rani expressed her opinion. Of course, it wasn’t just an opinion: it was resistance and defense for the Kinipan communities’ customary forest and lands that the company had occupied. It was Rani’s way to get involved in the Kinipan struggle.
Later the same year, we went to the concession again with Rani and some Kinipan community members, to monitor the situation. It was still bad and getting worse. The oil palms were starting to grow bigger, while the land was totally barren.
This concession had been and should still be part of the Kinipan customary lands and forest—a sacred place that Kinipan communities had protected for generations, accessing natural resources only for small-scale domestic needs and for the performance of customary rituals. Now that the forest has been converted to an oil palm plantation, how can Rani and all community members maintain their responsible management? They have lost not only their ability to exert their rights but also their ability to practice their customary responsibilities.
For Rani and all the Kinipan communities, preserving and protecting the forest is both their right and their obligation.
For Rani and all the Kinipan communities, preserving and protecting the forest is both their right and their obligation. Deforestation has erased all that because it has taken everything from nature: not just the trees but all the life in the forest — biodiversity, animal habitats, and livelihood sources for Indigenous people. As humans, we have the right to use natural resources, but we also have the responsibility to maintain them the way they should be.
With a broken heart, Rani sat down on a felled tree and started to sing her rayah. I could feel the strong message that Rani wanted to deliver behind her sadness. We need unity to fight this deforestation. If we love the forest, it means that we must preserve it as our precious inheritance for posterity — not just for us who can experience the Kinipan forest today but also for the next generations in the future. It was a call for us to join her and all Kinipan communities’ struggle.
They don’t want to give up. They persist to this day. They have done many protests and lobbied the government and the plantation companies. They even got criminalized, but that won’t stop them at all.
Now, they are advocating for state recognition of their Customary Law Society status. According to Indonesian law, this recognition is important in view of proposing the forest’s status as a Customary Forest — a strategy to ensure that no more extractive activities are allowed and no more forest is destroyed. Even this, though, isn’t easy at all — too many rules, intrigues, and tricks.
Fast forward to 2022, when I had an opportunity to interview Rani properly. I posed the question I had been dying to ask her: “Why did you choose the rayah as a tool in the struggle for Kinipan?”
“It’s a form of expression,” she answered. “A lament, a prayer, which is then followed by feeling,” she added.
Rani told me that while performing the rayah sometimes she cries, showing her true feeling from the bottom of her heart. It is sincere. It conveys the sincerity with which she wants to tell other people about the sadness in her heart as she sees their forest being lost.
Rani wants to tell other people about the sadness in her heart as she sees their forest being lost.
It’s the sincerity that Rani hopes will touch the minds and hearts of government, companies, and the public, raising awareness to stop this endless and senseless nature destruction. “We really love this forest,” said Rani.
Since then, I have seen Rani and recorded her rayah frequently. The lyrics evolve along with the evolving situation in Kinipan. Rani never gives up voicing her opinion, her message, and her feeling through her rayah, invoking the success of the Kinipan struggle.
Last but not least, Rani’s story is only one of many similar stories of Indigenous women who have fought for their lands and forests to this day — people who battle for their rights but never forget to carry out their responsibilities as forest guardians. I believe there are more of them who face the same situation as Rani. I hope Rani’s spirit can reach them and make them all stronger together.
Hear Rani sing her raya in Save Our Borneo’s video Rani’s Raya.
Pinarsita Juliana is a filmmaker and activist from Borneo, Indonesia. She was born a Bataknese and Dayak Ngaju. Since 2014, she has been documenting issues of human rights and the environment through film and video. Pinar started working with NGOs in 2015 and now is the manager of advocacy and campaigns at Save Our Borneo. Read more from Pinarsita Juliana.