Making a difference: Research as an advocacy tool in the Kayan Mentarang conservation area
WWF-Indonesia’s new book, Communities and Conservation: 50 Inspiring Stories from WWF to Indonesia, is a celebration of WWF-Indonesia’s 50-year long journey as a conservation organization.
Emerging strongly from that long journey and all the stories in the book is the lesson that communities are on the front line of conservation and need to be key partners in conservation. Conservation is a key factor in sustainable development, and indigenous and local peoples need to be made part of the process as key partners and beneficiaries.
Eighteen of the fifty stories are from the Heart of Borneo, but all the stories show the effectiveness of conservation when indigenous peoples, their knowledge and practices, are involved in the decision making process. This is also well illustrated by the following story on the Kayan Mentarang conservation area, which in 2002, became the first national park in Indonesia to implement community-based collaborative management.
Making a difference: Research as an advocacy tool in the Kayan Mentarang conservation areaResearch has often been regarded as a rather expensive and intellectual endeavor, with often little concrete benefits for those ‘studied’. This was not the case however in the Kayan Mentarang National Park area in the Heart of Borneo where research contributed to a key policy change in favor of a stronger role of local communities in conservation management. The results of the research program, “Culture and Conservation’ became a decisive factor in support of the change of status of the Kayan Mentarang conservation area from strict Nature Reserve to National Park in 1996.
The Kayan Mentarang conservation area, in the far interior of East Kalimantan, is the largest protected area of rainforest in Borneo and one of the largest in Southeast Asia. The area is considered to be one of the world’s ten biodiversity hotspots, with disproportionately high levels of species diversity in a relatively small area. However, what is unique and special about the Kayan Mentarang area is the history of the natural landscape that is deeply intertwined with the history of its people. Extensive archaeological remains in the area are witness to a long history of human settlement.
Nowadays, about 21,000 Dayak people live in or near the conservation area, depending on swidden agriculture, wet rice farming, hunting, fishing, collecting and trading of forest products to fulfill their subsistence and other needs.
The C&C research program
A research program that lasted seven years in the interior of Indonesian Borneo, from 1991 to 1997, Culture and Conservation (C&C) was born of the collaboration between the Ford Foundation and WWF-Indonesia in order to: “document and support traditional rights of tenure and local resource management ... and contribute to the cultural history and the forest ecology of the region.”
The program based its methodological approach on social science research, Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) techniques, and the fieldwork experience of the anthropological tradition.
Over thirty researchers including experts and students from Kalimantan, Indonesia and international researchers shared their expertise, skills and disciplinary knowledge to produce a multi-perspective and comprehensive study of both present and past patterns of resource use and people-forest interactions in changing social, economic, and environmental circumstances of the interior of Borneo over time.
The historical contextualization was expected to shed light on circumstances and events that might have important impact on future decisions for the management of the conservation area and the social and economic development of the surrounding region. It was also under this program that the first experiments with community maps took place, which later developed into the community mapping program, an innovative and successful approach allowing the documentation of local people's knowledge and decisions about land and resource use, as well as their claims to those resources.
It was these conditions that made its status as strict nature reserve (since 1980) as unsuitable, unjust and also potentially unsustainable. The C&C program set out to look at the possibility that the success of nature conservation could be dependent upon the preservation of indigenous cultures and, mostly, the maintenance of traditional practices of land tenure and natural resource management.
The research results first established that the communities in the national park area were still "customary communities" (masyarakat adat), largely regulated by customary law in the conduct of their daily affairs and the management of natural resources. This was an essential point with regard to the long-term management goal of the area and the need to involve local communities in conservation.
The extensive documentation on land tenure systems and regulations for the exploitation of forest resources helped bring the issue of customary rights to the attention of government officials and justified the efforts to seek official recognition for communities’ communal claims. The research also showed that the role of traditional institutions, presently reflected in institutions, like the customary council (lembaga adat) and the customary chief (kepala adat), was key to understanding the communities' views of rights and the way they deliberate on issues of forest management as well as social responsibilities.
Several researchers described aspects of what is usually referred to as an "indigenous management system," or the ability of local people to use, alter, regulate, and restore land and other natural resources in their environment. The outcome of their research provided important evidence that local people's agricultural practices are not intrinsically destructive of the environment but rather draw on knowledge and deep understanding of its micro-dynamics. The wide range of forest plants and crop varieties used by local communities also suggests a high degree of biodiversity that has been managed and intentionally maintained for centuries. The research program has shown that only community participation and inclusion can ensure the sustainability of the Kayan Mentarang National Park and help reduce land encroachment by companies and outsiders.
The overall outcome of the research program represented a powerful rationale for the government to designate Kayan Mentarang National Park as the first national park in Indonesia to implement community-based collaborative management in 2002. It was also a strong recognition of the role of customary communities and practices in the sustainable and equitable management of natural resources for conservation and the wellbeing of local right holders. (By Cristina Eghenter)