An expedition into the Sabangau Forest with Pak Idrus
After thirty minutes of speeding through reeds and labyrinthine backwaters adjacent to the Sabangau Forest on a canoe-like klotok, we glided onto a loamy riverbank where it met the mouth of an illegal logging canal. Our boat driver and guide for the day was Pak Idrus, a good-humoured Dayak local working as a dam builder and forest patrol for CIMTROP (Centre for International cooperation in sustainable Management of TROpical Peatland).
Trudging our way through the spongy exposed peat drying in the blistering heat of the equatorial sun, we paused for a Q&A session next to the canal. Pak Idrus explained how this 12-kilometre-long ditch was dug by hundreds of local and imported workers without the aid of heavy machinery. Hard to imagine the sheer grit and determination that would have driven these hordes with shovels to cut such a deep wound into the heart of a precious peatland forest. This canal was used to extract invaluable tons of ancient wood, endangering the bio-diverse inhabitants of the forest, and ultimately leaving more than half a million hectares vulnerable to catastrophic fires due to dehydration. These canal diggers were people, just like you and me, that needed to put roofs over their heads, food on their plates, kids in school. Not bad people, not even greedy people necessarily, just humans needing to get by like in so many other places on this planet.
Pak Idrus then explained to us how he was once an illegal logger. Fresh out of high school, motivated by earning his own living and supporting his family, he saw the forest as a place of abundant potential. But about 14 years ago, he was confronted by some fellow Dayak conservationists working for CIMTROP and he started to see the forest differently. “I realized that this forest wasn’t mine and these trees didn’t belong to me. This forest belongs to everyone and all the creatures that live in it.” Now he makes a good living by protecting this forest that is so integrally tied to his Dayak roots.
Over the past decade, Pak Idrus and his colleagues at CIMTROP have built hundreds of wood and earth dams in cooperation with the Borneo Nature Foundation as they work to block 18 illegal canals in this protected peat land forest. And today we have come to commemorate 7 of these dams that have been donated through the generosity of TRI friends and family as well as businesses that have ‘given a dam’ by making bulk orders of our products. So far this year TRI has donated 7 dams at about $400US each.
As a result of the Borneo Nature Foundation and CIMTROP joint effort to restore and protect the Sabangau forest over the past decade, large areas of this highly vulnerable and ancient peat land forest are being protected. This matters not just to a last stand for the world’s largest orangutan population that resides here, but also to millions of people affected by the haze of seasonal fires, and moreover to every living thing on Earth that is affected by climate change when these rich carbon sinks go up in flames.
As we hiked deeper into the dense forest next to the canal, I stepped onto a soft spot of peat and sunk into the wet forest floor up to my mid-thigh. A few meters away I see the first of a series of 26 dams on this canal that Pak Idrus and his CIMTROP comrades have constructed. They are installed every 50 meters to slow and disperse the flow of water contributing to the restoration and rehydration of this vast area. Their hard and persistent efforts are having an impact.
Planting bamboo commemorative signs carved with the names of family and friends who have trusted us with their donations was a moving experience. Aside from a small handful of patrols, humans are unlikely to lay eyes on these markers. But we dream of orangutans, sun bears, clouded leopards, gibbons, langurs and their forest friends repopulating this forest. And perhaps those creatures might just have some inner knowing that humans both local and from the furthest corners of our planet gave a dam for their survival.