Borneo, Central Kalimantan: Indigenous communities receiving help to protect their forest and the habitat of up to 3000 wild orangutans.

Since January of 2018, Save the Orangutan has focused on a new project in the area around Rungan River in the northern part of Central Kalimantan. The project is carried out in collaboration with Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) and is supported by Civil Society in Development (CISU). The aim is to strengthen the indigenous Daya Ngaju people’s rights to the forest and thus to protect the forest against industrial interests. At the same time, a focus has been placed on creating sustainable income sources in the given villages, reducing the pressure on the rainforest and its natural resources. An estimate of up to 3000 wild orangutans live in the area around Rungan River, and they are thus one of the largest unprotected orangutan populations.

The project was initiated upon a request from the local Dayak people near Rungan River to BNF for support to protect the land.

What is Rungan River?

Rungan River is the nickname of a big tropical rainforest area between the Rungan and the Kahayan rivers north of the Bornean city of Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, covering approx. 130,000 hectares. The land has been administratively divided between three districts, but the majority of the area consists of adjoining forests and nature defined by rivers.

Approx. 20,000 people live in the area. They are spread out in around 20 villages. In principle, the project targets 4 local communities, comprising of indigenous people from the Dayak Ngaju tribe.

It is internationally known that indigenous people know best how to protect forest and nature in tropical areas. The same goes for Rungan River.

The forest in the area has an immense biodiversity because the local communities have protected it for generations. They have protected it because they believe a curse will fall upon those that destroy it. However, the land has not been granted the status of protected, and it belongs to the state. The state began to contract out parts of the area for oil palm plantations and mining businesses. Therefore, the local communities turned to Save the Orangutan’s local partner BNF for help to protect the forest. Unfortunately, the industrial development is rapid, and the protection of Rungan River against deforestation is thus a race against time.

An estimate of up to 3000 orangutans live in the forests around Rungan River. They are thus one of the biggest populations to live outside a formally protected habitat.

Rights to the forest: an essential battle at the desk

The Central Kalimantan region is generally rich in natural resources, and for decades, it has been attractive to businesses with economic interests that have bought licenses to make use of enormous areas. Up to 79% of all land in Central Kalimantan is estimated to be under the control of the private sector. Likewise, an estimate of approx. 75% of the wild Bornean orangutans live outside protected areas. Consequently, it is crucial to focus on these areas and empower the local communities.

Save the Orangutan has been successful in supporting the work to protect large areas of Central Kalimantan (Mawas) in the past. In line with the past success, the aim is thus to protect Rungan River against industrial exploitation.

Recognition of rights is a long process

The Indonesian authorities operate with several categories of forest and licenses, and the initial phases of the project will soon reveal which categories will be the most optimal. For instance, parts of the land may be classified research areas because of their immense biodiversity, while the focus in other parts of the land may be to obtain recognition of the locals’ rights to it.

Unfortunately, recognition of the indigenous communities’ rights to given lands, which they have managed for generations, is a long process in Indonesia. One of the sub-goals of the project will therefore be to focus on the local communities and to document their status as indigenous people and thus their connection to the land. This way, the local communities will look much stronger in their application processes regarding their rights to the forest.

A big focal point in the project is sustainable income sources for the indigenous communities. This photo is of a locally produced ‘fishnet’ to be used in the rivers.

Sustainable income sources will protect the rainforest

The project’s second sub-goal is to create a foundation for sustainable income sources in the four villages. Families that traditionally live in the forest and of its resources are supported in their development. Moreover, we hope to create a sustainable income base for those families, which will reduce the pressure on the forest.

Sustainable income sources provide good opportunities to improve the living conditions for those families directly involved, but we also hope the activities will inspire other local communities, and thus spread the interest in forest conservation and sustainability.

A photo from a project visit in November 2018. Fishing is one of the major trades in the area.

Project visit in November

Save the Orangutan’s Head of Programmes, Marie Sigvardt, was on a project visit in Rungan River in November to evaluate the project:

“Visiting the villages and gaining a better insight of the everyday life and challenges of the local communities was a very positive experience. Unfortunately, the industrial development in the area is much more rapid than we feared. Since the first land was licensed out a couple of years ago, numerous concessions, both legal and illegal, have been granted in the area. The river on one side and a plantation on the other side surround one of the villages, which greatly affect the villagers’ living conditions. We really need solutions right here and right now to avoid complete deforestation. It is scary to see how quickly the situation worsens.”

Rungan river
The river sprawls along the rainforest, which is under great pressure. Photo: BNF / Björn Vaugn

The cooperation with Borneo Nature Foundation

Save the Orangutan has experience with conservation work and empowerment projects in Central Kalimantan, and we have supported projects in Mawas, a protected peat forest area with approx. 2500 wild orangutans, since 2007. These projects have been carried out with BOSF Mawas as the implementing project partner.

This recent project in Rungan River serves similar purposes and has a similar approach, but it is carried out in cooperation with the Indonesian organisation BNF. BNF also has a solid connection to and history in Central Kalimantan, and it is a nature and research based organisation. BNF will manage the daily administration of the project.

The project runs until December 2019, and we are looking forward to bringing you the news from the process.