Fighting for Their Lives

In Bea Nehas, the small plots that homes are built on are in constant jeopardy of being burned to the ground and bulldozed. A sprawling plantation that surrounds the village produces huge volumes of palm oil.

BEA NEHAS, Borneo — Yunta Herlambang, a chief of the Wehea tribe in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province, is preparing to lead a warrior initiation ceremony, known as a Nemlen, the first of its type in 16 years. He slips out of cargo shorts and a blue T-shirt and puts on chest plates adorned with monkey heads and long-bill beaks. Around his waist, he ties a mandau, the traditional and widely feared sword carried by Dayaks. The uninitiated are not permitted to touch a mandau that has taken an enemy head, and Yunta’s is off limits, he tells me.

We’re in Bea Nehas, a tiny village surrounded by miles and miles of palm plantations. The small plots that homes are built on are in constant jeopardy of being burned to the ground and bulldozed, just as the residents’ old village, farther upstream, was razed by land developers 40 years ago.

“In the name of prosperity,” Yunta exclaims. An intensity comes to his reddened eyes, and he drops his voice. “That’s what the government always tells us.”

The sprawling roughly 100,000-acre plantation that surrounds the village is run by DSN, one of Indonesia’s largest producers of palm oil. Here alone, they employ at least 8,000 mostly migrant workers, and say they have brought in experts to help them better understand the local culture and the concerns of surrounding communities.

“In the past, these people were just hunting and doing some things in the forest,” said Kokok Butianto, 50, the head of DSN’s corporate social responsibility team. “But we want to do things to empower the communities, their education, their culture.”

To appease the Wehea, the company promised to allow a parcel of land to remain as virgin forest — the “Wehea forest,” much of it unexplored. I visited the area with a Dayak hunter, and over a couple of days, he navigated through foliage so dense that at times I could barely see a foot in front of me. We slept under towering trees to the sounds of animals that hid beyond the light of our campfire, and we woke up to the screams of chainsaws clearing forest that had grown here, untouched, for 130 million years.

Not once did he look at a compass or map. He navigated instinctively, using the land, the rivers and the trees.

Driving back toward the village, the forest abruptly ends, and new palm plantations replace the dense, fog-covered trees. The winding roads turn into perfect grids, and the hills are smoothed out to make industrial farming easier. It feels like it goes on forever, and for hours, I looked out the window at an unchanging passing landscape, unbroken plumb lines of palm oil trees as far as the eye could see.

I wondered when we’d get back to Bea Nehas, when my Dayak guide — he’d been so confident and composed in the thick virgin forest — suddenly started hitting the steering wheel with both hands in frustration.

“Why does this keep happening?” he shouted.

Amid the neat grid of the palm plantation, we were completely lost.

The ballooning global demand for palm oil isn’t just destroying wildlife and its habitats. Orangutans, one of the most endangered species, are said to have evolved on Borneo, and their name translates from Bahasa Indonesian literally as “people of the forest.” But the Dayaks are also people of the forest, and as the orangutan’s habitat is destroyed, so, too, is the culture of around 400 tribes across the island who have developed their own languages and traditions over thousands of years of living here.

“No one can split our tribe from the forest. If they do that, then they’ve killed us,” said chief Lung Eng, 48, dressed in a long-bill feather headdress and wire-framed glasses.

“The massive expansion of palm oil means the things we need are gone. To hunt, we have to travel far away, and we don’t find big animals,” Lung Eng said. “There are no more fish in the small rivers, and even for this ceremony, it’s been tough to find the bamboo and rattan we need. There’s nothing left.”

A few weeks later, I wanted to see a newly cleared piece of forest next to an unrelated palm plantation on the other side of Borneo; but nothing here is easily accessible. It involved driving 10 hours from the village, taking three planes and then meeting an Indonesian activist at 5 a.m. in Pangkalan Bun in central Borneo.

The potholes in the roads were at least a foot deep, and traffic was largely speeding trucks laden with tons of palm fruit or tankers brimming with crude palm oil. We drove at breakneck speed for eight straight hours. I’m not easily rattled and don’t mind risk, but this seemed crazy.

Emerging from the palm groves, the landscape opened up to a massive plot of splintered tree stumps and deep rifts cut into the ground: peatland that had been cleared the previous week for palm development, apparently in violation of a current Indonesian moratorium against clearing forest and planting new palm on peatland areas.

Beyond the destruction was the world-renowned Tanjung Puting National Park. The men showed me a drainage canal where they’d found a dead orangutan recently, shot six times in the chest, arm and thighs. They’re regarded as pests by palm farmers because they eat the fruit, but their habitat butts up against the groves.

I made a few photographs in the minutes we had and climbed back on the motorbike for the trip home.

At the initiation ceremony back in Bea Nehas, young warriors streamed into the clearing and gathered around a small fire. A village chief chanted as he unwrapped a piece of human skull — the remnant of a long-dead enemy — and for days, they prayed in a circle around a tiny, smoky fire. They sang songs together, harmonizing with boys occasionally blowing into a conch shell. Some of the participants fell into deep trances. They’re possessed by the spirits of the ancestors, I’m told, always in hushed tones. Tropical rainstorms pass through, and during the dancing, the warriors churn up thick red mud around a fluorescent lamp exposing massive beds of natural coal just below the surface. Four nights pass in the wilderness.

“The ritual is to clearly show people that we still exist, and we want to fight for our future not just for one or two generations — but our entire future,” said Martin Juko, a local activist and son-in-law of the Wehea king. The king is the head of the whole Wehea tribe, as opposed to a chief who is charged with one village. “This area is surrounded by modernity, by wealth, but who will continue these traditions if we forget our ancestors? Forget our identity?

Weeping, he added, “We will fight the politicians, the investments, the companies, any other tribe that comes onto our land.”

Martin Juko

Kokok Butianto, DSN’s social responsibility official, said the company was seeking an amicable relationship with tribal communities.

“Different from our competitors, we do a soft approach,” he said. “Our competitors sometimes handle conflicts using an illegal approach, and for sure, a legal approach means using security forces or police. We know Dayak people are very scared of them. So our first approach is dialogue to discuss the problem and find a solution. We want sustainable relationships. The community wants us here, they can work here, they profit from us. Our company grows and the community improves.”

Juko said his people are ready to confront any approach.

“This village has become the front line to defend our culture and tradition,” he cried. “This ritual means we are ready for war.”


Ashley Gilbertson is an Australian photographer whose work has captured the experiences of soldiers in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2004, Gilbertson won the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award from the Overseas Press Club for his work during the Battle for Fallujah. In 2014, Gilbertson’s series of photographs, “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” was published in book form by the University of Chicago Press.

Design and production by David Sleight and Rob Weychert.