Perspectives on Conservation in Borneo: A Role-Playing Lesson Plan

By F.E. “Jack” Putz, University of Florida §


The exercise described below is based on an essay entitled “Fates of Forests in Borneo: A 40-Year Retrospective.” In the essay I describe what I witnessed in Indonesian Borneo at roughly decadal intervals over the past 40 years. I try to convey a realistic perspective on the context in which a series of conservation interventions were attempted and mostly failed. After reading the essay and reviewing the brief background information provided below, participants assume their assigned roles (described below) and negotiate the fates of a forest over which titles are to be returned to its traditional owners. 

Scenario: Due to a recent ruling by the Indonesian Supreme Court, titles to the 100,000 ha of land in this forestry concession are to be returned to its traditional owners, indigenous people known collectively as “Dayaks.” For centuries prior to 1975 when the Indonesian Federal government unilaterally and without compensation demarcated this area as a forest concession, it was occupied by five Dayak villages. The people in those riverside villages practiced subsistence agriculture, hunted, and fished, but also participated in the market economy through collection and sale of non-timber forest products such as dammar (tree resin used as incense and varnish) and rattan canes (stems of climbing palms used for furniture). Although referred to collectively as Dayaks, they spoke one of two languages and were otherwise culturally distinctive. These differences were disregarded by the concessionaire when all 500 people from the five villages were relocated to a settlement on the edge of the forest near the main logging camp. In that settlement they were provided housing and access to a school and medical clinic. They were also offered employment with the logging concession. The government endorsed this relocation program in the name of development and as a way to integrate the Dayaks into Indonesian society.

In addition to subsidizing the settlement the concessionaire also pays each Dayak head-of-household a royalty of $3/m3 of timber harvested from their former village land. Those harvests are selective; after building access roads and skid trails, only 5-10 trees are removed from each hectare, which leaves much of the forest standing. Those access roads are much-used by the Dayaks to reach their former village areas, mostly to harvest fruit from trees that they and their ancestors planted and tended. Note that travel by road is much faster than by boat on rivers that are often impassible due to rapids.

It is also important to recognize that Indonesia is a huge archipelago country with more than 13,000 islands that stretch nearly 5000 km from end to end. Its human population of about 260 million, the 4th highest in the world, is concentrated on the islands of Java and Madura, where most people are Muslims. To alleviate population pressure on those islands, the Indonesian government instituted what was called a “transmigration” program in which families of farmers were relocated to the “Outer Islands” of Borneo (of which the Indonesian portion is called Kalimantan), Papua, and Sumatra, which were sparsely populated by mostly non-Muslim. After the official transmigration programs ended in the 1990s, people from Java and elsewhere continued to migrate to Kalimantan where they could find work in timber concessions, oil palm plantations, and open-pit coal mines, as well as in the growing cities.


Challenge: The land rights of the Dayaks are to be restored, but it is less clear how that land can be, should be, and will be used. More fundamentally, although they are to be restored their land tenure, tenure is a “bundle of rights” of which it is not clear which are to be included. For example, it remains to be determined whether the Dayaks be legally permitted to sell land to outsiders. Your challenge is assume one of the following roles and then negotiate the fate of this forest with the other stakeholders.

Design of the exercise (based on a 50-minute session (but easily extended, if time is available): Before class, students read the “fates of forests” essay (about 3000 words) and perhaps the background information provided below, which includes brief descriptions of eight stakeholders with shared interests in the fate of this forest. During class, each student assumes one of the eight roles and meets for 10 minutes with the other holders of that role to explore the perspective and discuss strategies. After developing their arguments, one representative of each of the stakeholders assembles in a group of 8 for 30 minutes of negotiation. One stakeholder should be assigned to start off the negotiation session (e.g., the representative of the regional government). During the last 10 minutes of the class, someone from each group presents their solution, or at least where they ended up in their negotiation, with other members of the group are allowed to provide alternative views.


Principal Role of the Instructor: To prompt students to actively and reasonably represent the position of their stakeholder. For example, if the person in the role of international environmentalist is sitting quietly while the forest is being allocated for oil palm plantations, they might be encouraged to participate by the threat of losing their well-paid job if the forest is negotiated away.

  1. Regional Government Official: A mid-level bureaucrat based in the city of Samarinda. Most of the revenue used for government salaries, roads, clinics, schools, and other public services comes from taxes paid by timber companies and, increasingly, by oil palm plantations. Little revenue for the state is collected from Dayak villages (unless you figure that the land that does yield revenue is rightfully theirs). There is some tourism in the region, but it provides a small proportion of the revenue needed to run the government. The poor road infrastructure is a major impediment to tourism as well as to local development including the provision of schools, clinics, and communication infrastructure.
  2. Forest Concession Owner: A 60-year old Javanese man who resides in Jakarta. He also owns a timber processing facility in Central Java that converts logs into veneer, finger-jointed lumber, and chipboard for export. He bought the concession for an undisclosed amount in 2000 with 35 years remaining on its renewable lease. The infrastructure and equipment he owns in the concession (e.g., bulldozers, road graders, excavators, rock crushers, camp facilities for workers) is worth about $5 million (all monetary values are in US dollars). Each year his crews selectively log about 3,000 ha from which they harvest about 20,000 m3 of timber, which provides the company net profits of about $800,000. The yields are declining every year due to past episodes of over-harvesting and harvesting costs are increasing due to long hauling distances from steep slopes in remote portions of the concession. Few workers in the concession are Dayaks, with the majority being transmigrant Javanese and spontaneous colonists from Sulawesi and other “outer” islands.
  3. Forest Concession Worker: A 35-year old man who was born in Central Java but moved to Kalimantan as an infant with his family of “transmigrants.” Over the past 15 years he worked his way up from laborer to feller’s assistant and then to feller when the man he assisted was killed by a falling tree. After making payments for 3 years, he now owns his own chainsaw with which he earns about $40 on a good day of felling (paid primarily on a volume basis). When not working due to weather or other shutdowns he is paid $2 per day (which is about the effective minimum wage in Kalimantan); his housing is provided gratis by the concession. His wife and four children live about 12 hours away from the concession; he visits them several times per year. He is in the process of buying 10 ha of land from local Dayaks where he plans to live with his family and plant oil palm, but the land acquisition process is slow due to ambiguities about tenure. He is one of 200 workers permanently employed by the concession.
  4. Dayak Man: A 45-year old male born in one of the villages that was incorporated into the concession. He continues to farm at a small scale in his former village area, of which little remains but fruit trees. He also hunts, fishes, and collects and sells fruit (e.g., durian), rattan canes, nestling birds for the pet trade, and other non-timber forest products. He owns a Kawasaki 125 motorcycle. He works occasionally for the timber concession as a laborer, but does not like the regimentation of regular employment. He supplements his meagre cash income by making chainsaw lumber mostly from Bornean ironwood, which only Dayaks are legally allowed to harvest and then only for auto-consumption. Company trucks carry his lumber to a roadside wood depot on the public road where it is sold.
  5. Dayak Woman: A 22-year old female elementary school teacher in the settlement created for displaced Dayak people when the concession was established. Half her salary is paid by the concession, from which she also receives free housing. She was born in the settlement but her family originated in one of the villages in the concession where her father and mother, who live with her, return to farm, harvest fruit, and collect non-timber forest products for home use and sale. She has no interest in adopting an even more rural lifestyle.
  6. Samarinda City Dweller: A 16-year old secondary school student who resides in Samarinda, a moderate sized city on the banks of the Mahakam River, the headwaters of which are in the timber concession. His/her house and school are both on the 100-year floodplain but both have been flooded twice over the past decade. He/she wants to attend a university to study engineering and recognizes that the heavy sediment loads carried by the Mahakam have reduced the watershed’s storage capacity, which has contributed to the increased frequency and depth of flooding. That sediment derives from roads in the logging areas and oil palm plantations, and also from the terraces constructed for the latter on slopes >25% (i.e., 14o). He/she is also aware of the escalating costs of water treatment for his city that result from the sediment loading of the river.
  7. International Environmentalist: A Ph.D.-holding environmental scientist employed by the World Wildlife Fund as Director of the “Heart of Borneo Initiative.” He/she is passionate about tropical forest conservation but somewhat cognizant of the need to balance development and conservation. He/she is interested in market-based conservation incentives but ardently believes that wild nature has intrinsic value.
  8. Oil Palm Mill Owner: With the help of a group of outside investors, this man raised the capital to construct a multi-million dollar palm oil extraction facility in the region that is not yet working at full capacity due to frequent shortages of fruit. He buys from a big company that joined the Roundtable on Responsible Palm Oil (RSPO) that promises to be “deforestation-free,” but also buys fruit from small-holders with no such assurances. He considers that buying fruit from small-holders represents his contributions to social welfare. He pays them less than he does for fruit from large industrial plantations, but small-holder fruit bunches are smaller and oil yields are lower because they do apply enough fertilizer.

This material is part of Engagement’s Environmental Anthropology Curriculum initiative.