Adiu: Forest is our mother

Michael Eko


North Kalimantan, Indonesia

Punan Adiu: Forest is our mother, explores the struggle of the Punan Adiu Indigenous Community in protecting their customary forest. When nature exploitations and human rights violence rampantly happen to indigenous communities and their land ecosystem, the story aims to decolonize and counter the status quo narrative where the indigenous people are represented as a passive community and have no rights to speak.

Punan Adiu is a village in Malinau District, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia. As a hunter-gatherer, the Punan who inhabits the village, rely on forest as a source of food, medicine, water and all aspects of their life. After decades of living in the margin of society, where they did not have rights over their territory, the community eventually obtained legal recognition to protect and manage their customary forest.

It began in 2012 when they started a participatory mapping and registered their customary land through a social forestry scheme in Indonesia. After years of deliberation and negotiation, in 2017, the Malinau District Government granted a decree on recognition and protection of Punan Long Adiu Customary Community. The community now has full rights to protect and manage 17,415ha (almost equivalent to Washington, D.C / 17,700ha) of their customary land.

As a natural sanctuary, the forest has significant roles in protecting biodiversity; provides food and contributes in reducing global emissions. A research in 2017 estimated 55,216 metric tons of CO2 emissions reduction per year is expected if the community can avoid deforestation.

What Punan Adiu has achieved in the long run is a representation of how civil society could utilize modern technology with local wisdom and persistently leverages their strength to challenge power dynamics and influence its equilibrium. The process takes time, but the result has eventually been transformative.

“A land reform by leverage, on the other hand, takes time. This is a reform by which peasants, in organizations they have formed and manage, bargain with overlords or government from strength they have already achieved. … Only through reforms by leverage does the peasant acquire, in the long run, an equitable distribution of welfare and adequate political representation.” (Powelson, John P and Richard Stock. The peasant betrayed: agriculture and land reform in the third world. Cato Institute. Washington, D.C. 1987).

Why I make this story?

Reality is subjective. In a land where democracy is still a fragile concept, the dominant power defines the narrative between which one is real and unreal. With history of colonialism, military regime and oligarchy power, Indonesia and other global south countries, share similar story in inequality and authoritarianism. Those who hold the power control the information, technology and narratives to maintain its status quo.

The indigenous people, as a part of civil society, have been neglected in many important discourses that have direct impact to their life. Since the Dutch colonialism in 19th century to Soeharto dictatorship power and until today, the indigenous people in Indonesia have been living in the margin of society. The ancestral forests have been exploited and it left them suffered with environment and socioeconomic impact such as pollution, disaster, poverty and food insecurity.

But thanks to civil society collaboration and open access to technology that has enabled the indigenous people to learn new approach and strategy to protect their forest. After three decades of his draconian power, Soeharto stepped down when economic crisis hit Asia in 1998 and trigger people power that led him to resigned. This tipping point brought new freedom to Indonesian where civil society regains freedom and started to open new discussion toward land reform discourse.

Within a new reformation atmosphere, civil society groups consolidate their networks and conduct new initiatives to influence the state in instituting agrarian reform into legal law. Indigenous people communities started to conduct participative mapping and persistently seek legal recognition to protect and manage their ancestral land.

The Punan Adiu story is an example of how an accessible technology and collective collaboration are an integral part in democratic movement. What once made by elitist agents (military, government, corporations among others), the new inclusive ecosystem of technology could support communities to strengthen their voice into public discourse and reform.

If a story can influence our thinking and rewriting our reality and power, then this project want to show how communities can consolidate their collective strength and utilize new approach for the sake of common good in society. With knowledge, technology, ethics and perseverance, the civil society could leverage their bargaining position and influence the equilibrium of power in our fragile democracy.

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  • Piyang and Lukas pose for a portrait in front of a Benggeris tree (Koompassia excelsa) during their forest patrol. The tree grows higher than the average canopy tree and its branch is home for giant honeybees (Apis dorsata). Protected by smoke, local climbers harvest the honey for additional income. With its economic and cultural value, native taboo forbids people cutting the tree down. To protect the forest, the Punan Adiu conduct patrols in their customary forest area. 2020.

  • A truck transport coals to Malinau, where the coal is stocked and shipped to Indonesia and global market. Many of customary forest in Punan Adiu and neighbor villages around North Kalimantan Province are under concession to timber, pulp and paper, coal mining and palm oil plantations. The exploitations have been started since 1968 during Soeharto regime and still continue until today. 2020.

  • After obtaining legal authority from the Malinau District Government in 2017, the Punan Adiu community submitted an application for national legalization and recognition to the President of Indonesia.

  • Rainforest in Malinau, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia. 2020

  • A boy swims in the An River. Punan Adiu customary forest. 2020.

  • Jamur Kuping (Wood ear / Auricularia auricula-judae). This edible fungus grows upon dead or living wood and can be consumed as food. Punan Adiu customary forest. 2020.

  • The Pythonidae snake is one of the protein sources for the Punan Adiu community. As a hunter-gatherer community, the Punan rely to forest as sources for food. Aren River, North Kalimantan, Indonesia. 2020.

  • Children take a bath by the Malinau River, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia, 2020.

  • A farmer rests at lunch. Adapting sedentary farming, the Punan use shifting cultivation as their agricultural system. After several years of cultivation, a plot of farmland (jakau) is abandoned for a long time to restore its natural vegetation, nutrients and fertility. After several years of recovery, the fallow land will be slashed, cleared and planted in crops again. Punan Adiu Village, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia, 2020.

  • Rain water. With increased pollution due to coal mining tailing in Malinau River, the Punan Adiu community no longer consumes its water. They conserve water from the nearest hill and also collect rainwater to fulfill their needs. 2020.

  • Lukas, a member of Punan Adiu forest patrol. When he is not on duty, he maintains his farmland and hunts in the forest. Locals consider him as one of the seniors who has the deepest knowledge about the forest. 2020.

  • Ura takes a rest during her farming work. She complains that rats have destroyed her harvest in 2020. Previously in 2019, a long drought destroyed her crops. Climate change brings direct impact to the Punan and their food insecurity. 2020.

  • A group of Punan Aidu have breakfast together in Adiu River before starting their collective work (senguyun). Living in a collective community requires people to reciprocally help each other and get involved in senguyun. In senguyun culture, someone exchanges his/her services to mutual benefit. Instead of being paid by money, the workers can request the employers and friends to work in their future project or work. Punan Adiu Village, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia, 2020.

  • Part of the Punan Adiu customary forest. The Punan believe that a mystical tiger protect the ‘Bukit Bintang’, a sacred ridge in their customary forest (the highest ridge in the background of the photo). No one have courage to go there, even the Punan. “One time, me and my friends camped out near the Bukit Bintang. We heard a tiger’s roar nearby but couldn’t see it physically”, Piyang said. Punan Adiu, 2020.

  • A boy goes fishing. Punan Adiu Village, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia, 2020

  • Awang Tangga, one of the elders in Punan Adiu Community, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia. 2020.

  • Ilin Markus with his daughter. Ilin is the current chief of Punan Adiu Village. Punan Adiu, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia, 2020.

  • A boy carries his puppy. Dog is Punan's best friends. The Punan always accompanied by their dogs when hunting in the forest. Punan Adiu Village, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia. 2020.

  • Markus, chief of customary affair, show a holy bible during Sunday Mass in Punan Adiu. 2020. The history of Catholicism in Punan Adiu was started in 1976 when Italian missionaries and catechists came to Malinau Region. With their education programs, the Punan Adiu and other tribes in the area have gained education and knowledge that would help them in empowering their own community. Many of the students become local leaders.

  • Ansel uses cast net when goes fishing in Malinau River. With increase pollution from upstream coal mining, the fish has decreased in Malinau River. Local needs to go to the intact forest to find clean fresh water and catch more fish. Desperate with the result, Ansel moves to Adiu River to find more fish. Malinau River, North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia. 2020.