How rattan farmers in Borneo are saving the forest and orangutans

Today, only around half of Borneo’s original rainforest cover remains. Indigenous Dayak communities could hold the key to its survival, with traditional rattan production a lifeline for local people, the forest and wildlife. In Katingan District in Central Kalimantan, WWF and IKEA are working with them for people and planet.

Into the wild

Reaching the Kamipang water catchments area is a proper jungle journey into the heart of the peat swamp forest. Its final leg relies on narrow two-person canoes whose small smoky motors fizz and pop, protesting their load as they grind through shallow peaty canals at midnight. Headtorch beams penetrate the black, startling frogs and water skaters, and then surrender to flickering low voltage light, smiling faces and a broad dry deck.

“We chose this place because it’s some of the last remaining peat swamp forest in Central Kalimantan,” says Ibu Rosenda Chandra Kasih, WWF Programme Manager in Central Kalimantan. “It’s prime habitat for orangutans and a lot of other endangered wildlife.”

Starting off as a field and community officer, Sendy, as she’s known to her team, is an indigenous Dayak and has worked with WWF in Central Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo for twenty years. The place is half a million hectares, recovering from historic illegal loggingv but its also home to around 6.000 orangutans.

Jungle ballet

Sometime before 5am the next day, just a short canoe ride from Kamipang water catchments area, dawn begins to break. Marlenda is waking up and preparing to leave her nest in search of food. With her are five-year old Martinus, and Martis, an infant who still clings to her mother’s back. Tracked 24 hours a day by local researchers from Kamipang the family is relatively safe.

Orangutans, whose name means ‘person of the forest’, are our closest living relative, and Dayak legends tell of how they once were human. Yet to witness them slow dance through the rainforest canopy is to encounter the essence of wild.

Reaching and swinging, then hanging, watching and grazing, they flex and meld their limbs with those of the trees in a jungle ballet. Playing with gravity, balance and counter-balance, at times bustling, at others gliding, they freestyle through the upper branches in a way that would put any free-climber to shame, a feat full of freedom and grace as impossible for mere mortals as walking on clouds.

Keeping the landscape connected

A century ago, orangutans lived in forests across south-east Asia but today they are critically endangered, only found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. And outside parks, where most orangutans live, they are threatened – by hunting, logging and land clearance for palm oil production and mining.

Central Kalimantan has suffered particularly badly, its rolling terrain cut open by rutted logging roads or left bare as the moon by opencast gold mining. And as the orangutans’ forests have disappeared, their numbers have reduced, cut in half in the last 60 years with over 100,000 lost in Borneo between 1999 and 2015 alone.

“We want to promote the protection and well management of the remaining rainforest in Katingan Corridor,” says Sendy. “The plan is to secure a ‘wildlife corridor’ which enables orangutans and other wildlife to travel freely between different areas of forest, helping maintain genetic diversity.”

About 200 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide, the existing corridor is vulnerable, surrounded by palm oil plantations and containing a number of areas currently earmarked for logging.

Orangutans can survive in logged forests if fruit trees remain intact but further loss and fragmentation of the forest risks isolating separate groups, making habitat protection outside the parks essential.

Working in partnership with local Dayak communities, as well as the government and the private sector, WWF and IKEA’s ambitious plan is to ensure the corridor survives, continuing to provide access to food, water and mating partners for orangutans and other wildlife. By helping communities develop sustainable local enterprise that benefits them, the partnership is also helping to keep the forest standing.

“Our focus is on sustainable rattan production,” says Sendy. “It’s the main source of income for nearly 50 villages in the Katingan district. Because it needs trees to grow, it’s an incentive for local people to protect the forest. In partnership with IKEA, and everyone in the landscape, we’re working to use the forest sustainably and protect wildlife.”

Some of the oldest and most diverse on the planet, Bornean rainforests are also home to other threatened species such as clouded leopard and pygmy elephants, as well as millions of people. The survival of all of them depends on that of the forest.

Changing hearts and minds

Pak Superlala Kusen is a 31-year old rattan farmer from Kuluk Leleng, a village on the Katingan river which runs through the Katingan district. Three or four times a month, he goes into the forest to harvest rattan, a climbing, vine-like palm.

A tough, flexible material, widely used in Dayak handicrafts, furniture and buildings, rattan has an important place in local culture and economies and also supports a global industry worth $4 billion a year with Indonesia producing 82% of world supply.

“We’ve been farming rattan for a long time,” says Super. “Rattan is sacred to the Dayaks. We use it in rites and ceremonies and for our everyday needs, like storing and transporting things. It has skin and a middle part, and both are useful.”

Identifying which canes are ready for harvest, drawing them from the canopy while simultaneously stripping their vicious thorn-covered skins with a hand-wrought ‘parang’ knife, cutting lengths that buyers require, and binding and hauling them from the forest, is skilled, demanding work.

Like thousands of Dayak farmers, Super depends on the forest and the trees on which he can grow rattan for a living but many are also attracted by the promise of more lucrative though less sustainable opportunities.

“As Dayak we have the knowledge and know-how to live in harmony with nature but some farmers have sold their land to palm oil companies, or started growing other crops like banana or rubber,” says Sendy. “Illegal gold mining also delivers quick money but it’s extremely hazardous and hugely destructive.”

In response, WWF and IKEA are working with local communities and rattan farmers like Super to improve production standards with the aim of making rattan more profitable and securing community protection for the forest.

“My parents had a rattan plantation when I was young which we really counted on,” says Sendy. “Many Dayak families in this area still believe that if we manage the forest well, rattan will be the backbone of our future.”

As well as harvesting rattan, Super also spends time visiting other local communities to talk to young people about the importance of keeping the forest standing. He encourages them to join community meetings to gain a better understanding and then make conscious choices about the future.

For centuries, Dayak peoples have managed forests sustainably, guided by traditional knowledge and customary law known as ‘adat’, which determines which parts of the forest can be used for hunting, farming or settlement, and which are sacred.

“In every forest there are sacred areas where our ancestors’ spirits stay in the trees but every day our forests are disappearing,” says Super. “Even though I live in the modern world, I still believe the spirits will curse anyone that disturbs sacred places in the forest.”

United we stand

The Katingan Farmers Rattan Group, or P2RK, currently represents more than 350 farmers in Central Kalimantan who are working to improve the rattan they produce.

“Since 2011, we’ve been working with farmers keen to understand how to improve standards, and we’ve helped set up local cooperatives focused on producing a good quality product that will fetch a good price,” says Sendy.

As well as demonstrating the forest has value beyond clearance for timber and palm oil, P2RK has set up a ‘chain of custody’ system to track rattan from the forest to the processing plant, as well as collaborating with the local forest service to store rattan when prices are low, protecting members from unscrupulous middle men ready to exploit unwary farmers. It’s also helping communities pass on traditional skills.

“Rattan has meaning in every stage of life,” says Ibu Sastri Lisa, an elder member of one of P2RK’s thriving local women’s handicraft groups. “It’s easy to make baskets but only the old people understand the traditional designs that communicate our identity. If we come together, it’s easier to share knowledge, learn about what kinds of products will sell in the market, and become a handicraft movement.”

P2RK farmers have also become the first in Indonesia to produce rattan certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), potentially putting them in a stronger position to supply high-value international markets.

Although IKEA uses rattan in more than 100 products, the business doesn’t yet source from Katingan as current supply is insufficient to meet its needs but it does support the project financially.

“We’ve been working with WWF on sustainable rattan production to address issues like tenure rights and traceability,” says Mikhail Tarasov, IKEA’s Global Forestry Manager. “There’s an enormous opportunity to improve how rattan is grown and extracted. And through projects like this, we can improve farmers’ livelihoods and protect the forest.”

Until recently, Dayak communities had no formal records of land ownership. This severely limits their ability to negotiate with developers and investors and shape their own destiny, especially during government planning meetings which take place every year in each village and district. By promoting the need for traceability, the pursuit of certification has helped to rectify this.

“Industry often persuades local people to hand over land with the promise of jobs. But strengthening the community voice means rattan farmers and young people can make themselves heard,” says Sendy. “Most of all, communities need formal recognition of their ownership rights so their forests won’t be subject to extraction without agreement. Right now, the government has given villages the opportunity to obtain customary certificates of ownership. Holding them helps redress the balance of power and means local people can show rattan is a good way to tackle poverty, and that they have their own dream.”

For people and nature

WWF and IKEA plan to grow the sustainable rattan programme across the Katingan landscape, extending FSC certification and strengthening community ownership.

“About 60% of Central Kalimantan has already been developed or is already zoned for palm oil, logging or conservation, leaving 40% open to negotiation,” says Sendy. “We need to protect more of the remaining forest, with at least another 20% for sustainable rattan and conservation.”

Forest protection and restoration are vital if orangutans and other wildlife are to have a future. And that relies on local communities being willing and able to manage forests sustainably. Rattan production is one way of doing this which brings them benefits and helps keep the forest standing.

“Forest landscape restoration is a long journey that we need to make step by step,” says Sendy. “We need local government and other players in the private sector to step up, partner with the co-operatives, and improve standards. Ultimately, good forest management, sustainable supply chains, and community well-being are their responsibility – and rattan farmers need help.”

Governments and business can help by supporting community enterprise, responsible forestry and FSC certification, and by recognising the rights, knowledge and wishes of local communities. And consumers can help by looking for handicraft products that support initiatives like P2RK in Katingan.

It’s also possible to produce palm oil more sustainably without clearing any more pristine forest. Producers can pursue Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification, and manufacturers using palm oil in products can source sustainably.

“I grew up a Dayak and I will die a Dayak. We depend on the forest – it’s our life and identity. If the forest is gone, the Dayak are gone,” says Sendy. “For me, it’s a moral obligation to speak the truth to my people so they understand the risks we face. My dream is that every village has its own forest, and the chance to grow equally with other peoples. I’ll be very happy if that happens.”

Working with rattan-growing communities on the ground in Indonesia is just one way in which WWF and IKEA are working together around the world for people and planet. Find out more about the partnership here.

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