A tree tale of local heroism in Indonesia

Posted on by Victoria Price
Around the world, high in forested hills and deep within humid jungles live a few individuals who devote their lives to protecting ancient tree species. These men and women have become part of local folklore, esteemed for their commitment to their trees and forests. With the support of Fauna & Flora International (FFI), they continue to protect and foster the some of the world’s most threatened species. Here, FFI’s Aseng Tan profiles a local legend.

Under the great, green canopy of Borneo’s rainforest hides Sebadak Raya village, a quiet settlement of the Dayak tribe. Gibbon calls echo through a small patch of forest that belongs to Siswanto’s mother. Here she gathers all she needs, including small amounts of resin tapped from the enormous trees. She could sell them for their timber for a huge sum, but instead has unconditionally protected them from outsiders. “Take care of the forest and the forest will take care of you,” is her watchword, and she has instilled this belief in her son.

Community facilitator, Siswanto, with seedlings of his favourite tree, the Ketatai

Community facilitator, Siswanto, in the Global Trees Campaign nursery.

A local hero

Siswanto is most often found in the Global Trees Campaign nursery, under a shaded canopy. Each day he waters trembling seedlings that will grow into ironwood trees, the mightiest species in the forest. Dayaks have always had a close affinity with the natural world and have conserved the forest for generations, but their way of life is becoming as endangered as the trees they protect. So FFI helped Siswanto and his fellow villagers to claim legal community ownership of their forest home.

Six years ago, an oil palm plantation established an ominous presence near the village; palms spread across the fertile land, shrugging off the native plants and animals. The plantation owners made constant approaches to the local people, trying to encourage them to release their land.

The resistance effort
A Bornean ironwood seedling being cared for on a farm in Ketapang.

A Bornean ironwood seedling being cared for on a farm in Indonesia.

The temptation divided the villagers, who wrangled with each other, challenging Siswanto’s ideals on managing their forest traditionally. However, the majority of the village stood strong, especially its village chief. The plantation did not anticipate such resistance, but the community’s knowledge of its rights and determination to keep its land are unsurpassed.

Siswanto continues to tend to the precious saplings in the nursery, gifting them to villagers to plant in their tree plots. He has also begun to cultivate other species that are important to his people. However, tree conservation is only a part of the puzzle in Siswanto’s mind. His dream is to maintain his magnificent forest home and to ensure an adequate income for his whole village, through traditional means.

The Tree That Sinks; Eusideroxylon zwageri
One of the few timbers dense enough to sink in water, ironwood is – according to local legend – so strong that it terrifies dangerous jungle beasts, and therefore its existence explains why there are no tigers or elephants in Borneo.
Revered for its powerful influence in the forest, the ironwood is seen as a protectress, a gift from the creator to the people. Its local name is synonymous with the words for midwife and shaman (healer).
The power of the tree is reflected in ritual and its importance to the local people. Described as a ‘cultural keystone’ it is a central species in Dayak life and vocabulary. Ironwood is used in a night-time healing ritual to cure the sick, and most Dayak carvings and amulets are made from its wood. The charcoal of the tree is used as ink in Dayak tattoos and it is also used in burial rituals.
Ironwood is vulnerable to extinction and Dayak elders are concerned that its increasing scarcity is putting traditional practices under threat. The Global Trees Campaign is helping villagers to cultivate threatened species, including culturally significant trees like Bornean ironwood.


This article is an excerpt from an article entitled ‘Tree stories – Inspiring tales of local heroism’ which was  published in Fauna & Flora magazine in June 2015. Click here for information on how subscribe.

Written by Victoria Price

Victoria works as a Programme Officer at Fauna & Flora International. In her role she provides support to the Global Trees Campaign and is responsible for the delivery of several field projects including Central Asia & Madagascar.


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