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Gajah Bertalut as Forest and Village

By Dwiki Ridhwan, Researcher, Wahana Riset Indonesia.

The view of dense forest, cliffs, and the occasional wild boar, monkeys, monitor lizards, and koak birds is common to the left and right of the Subayang River. I think the most beautiful view in Subayang is the sunset.

Photo by Dwiki Ridhwan/WRI Indonesia.

This river is the only way to access a remote village in a forest area called Gajah Bertalut (GB) in Riau, Sumatra, where I usually do fieldwork. Usually, I am in the village almost a week every month. Sometimes, I also go into the forest.

At the Forest

"Wiki, please wait a minute!" said Bang Unyil, who always had trouble saying 'Dwiki'. He wanted to find honey not far from here. He broke through the trees, then out of sight. I waited while leaning against the meranti tree. Not long after, Bang Unyil returned empty-handed. There was no honey. We continued trekking.

This trek was not an ordinary walk, but a field verification of the boundaries of the GB customary territory, and a continuation of participatory mapping activities in the implementation of the One Village Map Initiative (ITUPEDE). The verification team was split into two teams. We agreed to meet again at a cabin in the middle of the forest in the afternoon. I was tasked with geotagging/location marking using GPS and recording one by one the plants that could be used by the community along the boundaries of the area. In addition to guiding, five GB people carried equipment using sacks as backpacks.

Photo by Dwiki Ridhwan/WRI Indonesia.

Just before evening, we met the rest of the team at the lodge.

Photo by Dwiki Ridhwan/WRI Indonesia.

Mr. Ilyas, one of the team members and a traditional elder in GB said, "Wiski, welcome here. If there's a parting, there's a meeting."

From the verification team, two people were fishing by diving and carrying a bow, one was cooking, one kept the fire burning, one was preparing firewood, while I just sat, wondering what I could do to help. I felt like the big boss in this cabin in the woods. I remembered what Kang Muis, the engineer for this participatory mapping activity, said to me before going into the forest.

"Just focus on verification, Ki! You can be a prince in the forest if you are with them. Anyway, they're cool in the woods."

We had dinner at the lodge, around six kilometers (3.7 miles) from the village. The lodge was a kind of small gazebo made of wood. Fire, headlamps, and the moon sometimes lit up the surface of the large river near the lodge. They say various animals drink from the river at night, including the “datuk,” meaning the tiger.

**At the Village*

An interesting memory from this village was when I was asked to read out the names of the hills that form the boundaries of the GB customary territory, during a forum at the village hall. The forum discussed the mutual agreement of forest management rules, a step towards recognizing their territory as customary forest.

"The northern boundary includes Bukik Bungkuak, Bukik Ngingin, Bukik ..." I read, not confident about my pronunciation.

Sometimes the participants laughed at me. But interestingly, they knew all the names of the hills and rivers and their locations in detail. They knew, because that has been their territory for a long time. But legally their territory was still included in the Rimbang Baling Wildlife Reserve. I'm sure the management of Rimbang Baling itself named the hills, rivers, and other natural objects in the reserve based on the names given by the people here.

In the Profile Book

My experiences in the forest and GB village are only a small part of the content of Gajah Bertalut Profile Book that is being compiled by Wira, Astri, and me. The names of trees, hills bordering customary areas, various activities of indigenous peoples in forests, villages, and rivers also fill the pages of this profile book. Other data that is no less important, such as socioeconomics, is also included.

Photo by Dwiki Ridhwan/WRI Indonesia.

The book can provide concrete evidence that indigenous peoples, customary territories, customary laws, and customary institutions exist in this village. These four aspects are prerequisites for the process of recognizing customary forests according to the social forestry scheme of the Indonesian government.

GB can indeed be seen as a village and a forest. Administratively, GB is registered as a village area. On the other hand, GB is fighting through ITUPEDE to become a customary forest area. Based on the participatory mapping, GB has an area of 4,414 hectares. Only 10 hectares is village, and the rest is forest. People spend more time in the forest. They rise early in the morning to go straight to the forest until the afternoon. In the middle of the night, they look for fish in the river. In fact, in certain seasons, such as the honey harvest season, they may stay in the forest for two weeks. If we make an analogy within Indonesia, the forest is like Jakarta for Gajah Bertalut's people, while the village is their city of origin.

So, should this book be called a village or forest profile book? To me, it's not important. This profile book shows how hard it is for the GB community to live in the forest, under pressure from the natural conditions of their territory and from outsiders who are willing to take their territorial rights. With this book, other writers and I want to build confidence in urban communities that people in rural areas are capable of conserving forests, rather than casting the skeptical view that people must be destroyers of forests.

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