/ ©: WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles

Forests for Fridges

For much of the world, electricity is something to be taken for granted – the switch on the wall produces light, the refrigerator keeps our food safe, the television keeps us informed and entertained.

Yet 1.4 billion people have no access to reliable electricity. This affects their health, education, earning potential and ability to participate fully in society.

Some of these 1.4 billion people live in remote enclaves like Long Pahangai, Indonesia. Long Pahangai is actually a sub-district capital, so its 766 residents benefit from a clinic and a secondary school. But half the population has no electricity. For these 383 people, when the sun goes down at 18:00, it’s ‘lights out.’

The relatively better-off half of Long Pahangai cranks up their diesel generators at 18:00, cutting the quiet of this community tucked deep in the Heart of Borneo.  

The Dayak people of Long Pahangai live much the way their ancestors did, with close ties to the land. “In this area, we still have good forests because people know their lives depend on the forests. When we want to eat, we come to the river or to the forest,” says Iskander Idris, secretary of the village.

Considering that more than half of lowland tropical rainforests in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) were cut down between 1985 and 2001 to supply global timber demand, Pak Iskander is right to be proud of his community’s commitment to preserving its forests.

Nature provides power to the people

Now it turns out that Long Pahangai’s forest conservation may have benefits in addition to protecting good hunting grounds. The intact forest has protected the tributary that flows through it on its way to the mighty Mahakam River. And this little stream will power a micro-hydropower plant that will bring electricity to Long Pahangai.

“When the hydro project is working, expenses for fuel will decrease and everyone will have access to electricity,” says Iskander, who also heads up the 11-member community micro-hydro committee. WWF has been instrumental in setting up the committee, which will collect payments, maintain the turbine and ensure the forest catchment area remains protected.

“This project is a partnership between the provincial government, the local government, the community and WWF,” says Data Kusuma, WWF’s project leader in Kutai Barat. “Originally, the provincial government proposed installing the micro-hydro turbine in another community. But WWF showed them that the forest was too degraded – the land was eroding and the river was so silted it didn’t even run all year. That community would be very disappointed to have a system that didn’t work properly.


 

A river, and a blue pipe, run through it

 / ©: WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles
The project’s blue pipeline might be an odd sight amid the lush green foliage, but everything has been done to minimize its impact on the surrounding forest.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles
Wash day: Much labor in Long Pahangai is done by hand, without the benefit of electricity. The micro-hydro project should improve efficiency and free time for other livelihood activities.
© WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles
 / ©: WWF
Long Pahangai
© WWF
In Long Pahangai, the river can support the micro-hydro turbine. This can be a model for other communities; if they rehabilitate and reforest their catchment areas, micro-hydro could work for them, too,” says Kusuma.

Head of the sub-district, Tigang Himang, is also optimistic about the opportunities that reliable electricity would bring. “The villages in this sub-district have rejected offers from palm oil companies. They depend on nature and live in harmony with their environment,” he says. “But we need economic development, too. Here, everything is done by human power. With electricity, we can be more productive and benefit from technology.”

In Long Pahangai, it is the oldest and most venerated traditions of wise use of natural resources that hold the key to the modern world – and possibly a new refrigerator or two.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles
A good life: The people of Long Pahangai aren’t clamoring for radical change. They want the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations – a future in which their community and nature thrive.
© WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles

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