Dayak Culture and Farming: A Visit to Borneo

Just take a look at the map of Borneo today, and you will find green patches in Dayak settlements. This serves as evidence that they are stewards and guardians, dedicated to preserving the forests that are an integral part of their lives and the Borneo ecosystem. Currently, the Dayak people are facing significant challenges and are engaged in a struggle against “post-truth” claims that allege farming practices are detrimental to the environment and contribute to deforestation in Borneo. 

Visiting Borneo without witnessing and understanding the farming systems of the Dayak tribe feels incomplete.

The Dayak people have a deep-rooted connection to farming, viewing it as much more than just a means of cultivating rice; it’s a process intertwined with traditional techniques for dryland rice cultivation. For the Dayak, farming represents not only the cultivation of rice but also a ritualistic and essential part of their livelihoods.

Unfortunately, the Dayak people have been unfairly accused of environmental damage due to slash-and-burn farming practices to obtain fuel and fertile soil.

In truth, their ancestral wisdom has guided them in managing their environment and natural resources. The environmental degradation often attributed to them is not representative of the Dayak-style farming but is more aligned with the actions of illegal loggers and timber companies.

Before initiating field burns, the Dayak people take precautions to prevent fires from spreading to neighboring lands or forests, a practice known as “traditional wisdom.” They do not harm the forest through farming; instead, they treat it with respect and care.

Currently, the Dayak people are facing significant challenges and are engaged in a struggle against “post-truth” claims that allege farming practices are detrimental to the environment and contribute to deforestation in Borneo.

Farming has been practiced for thousands of years by the Dayak ethnic group, and the reality is that Borneo remains lush and green in areas inhabited by the Dayak people.

Just take a look at the map of Borneo today, and you will find green patches in Dayak settlements. This serves as evidence that they are stewards and guardians, dedicated to preserving the forests that are an integral part of their lives and the Borneo ecosystem.

Farming holds a central place in the lives of all people, especially the Dayak. It encompasses various types of fields such as rice, corn, sugar cane, and oil fields. In fact, work is often referred to as “the fields” because it yields results just like harvesting crops. The phrase “Ampus huma ka boh!” is commonly heard when someone is heading to work, signifying the intention to go to work or ensure job security.

Illegal logging and the destruction of forests stem from activities unrelated to Dayak shifting agriculture. Timber logs are harvested from upstream mountain regions and transported downstream through rivers like Mengkiang, Sekayam, Kapuas, Melawi, and Landak. This practice, along with large-scale plantations, must be halted, as Borneo Island is a crucial global ecosystem reserve.

Everyone worldwide should be concerned about protecting Borneo’s ecosystem. Personally, I have engaged in reforestation efforts by converting approximately 3.5 hectares of grassland into rubber plantations, as rubber cultivation is less damaging to the soil compared to palm oil plantations. Who is willing to support this initiative?

The term “field” can carry both positive and negative connotations. On the positive side, it represents the land where people earn their livelihoods and sow hope for the future. However, it can also be associated with negative events like field massacres, as seen in history.

My background is in rubber plantation farming, transforming previously grassy lands into productive fields. For Dayak people, these fields are sacred and integral to their lives.

The Dayak Farming Return Cycle
The Dayak people practice wise and sustainable farming, maintaining a balance between forest and arable land. After 15-20 years of farming, when the original land has enough topsoil and mature trees, they return to cultivate it again. This philosophy aims to preserve the harmony between the forest and arable land, preventing natural disasters caused by environmental disharmony.

Borneo’s population used to live in harmony with nature and maintain their traditional farming practices until the 1980s. However, the arrival of logging companies, plantations, gold miners, and stone collectors has led to the degradation of vast areas of equatorial land.

According to David Jenkins, in observations from 1978, a Dayak family’s farming area averages 16 hectares per year, producing less than 900 kilograms of rice per hectare. In ancient times, Dayak wealth was measured not by gold, diamonds, or jewels, but by the amount of grain stored in their barns. Dayak families would consume rice stored in barns from two or three years prior, demonstrating their foresight in food preparation.

The tradition of storing rice in barns held deep philosophical meaning. Similar to modern savings in banks or credit unions, storing rice was seen as a form of wealth preservation. The granary was equivalent to a bank or savings account, encouraging Dayak people to think ahead about food security.

It’s essential to clarify that the environmental damage attributed to the Dayak people is a misconception. Their farming practices align with natural laws and are handed down through generations, emphasizing sustainability and maintaining harmony with nature. Anyone who violates these customs faces consequences within the community.

Therefore, accusations that the Dayak people are responsible for forest fires are unfounded. These fires typically occur from July to October, coinciding with the Dayak’s field-burning season, but this practice has not historically caused problems. The Dayak have strict customary laws in place to prevent fires from spreading to neighboring lands.

The real culprits behind Borneo’s forest destruction are not the indigenous Dayak population, who have lived in harmony with their environment for centuries, but rather the settlers and urban businesses, including plantation owners and logging companies. These outsiders are the ones causing harm to the land and its fragile ecosystem.

Western anthropologists and researchers have lauded the Dayak farming culture, often referring to rice as the “staff of life” among the Dayaks. They have noted the sustainable practices and the importance of maintaining soil fertility over time. While population growth has increased pressure on the land, the Dayak people’s wisdom in rice cultivation remains evident.

Fruit Rhymes and Cultural Significance
Dayak culture finds expression through rhymes and traditional wisdom. Rhymes contain cultural and philosophical elements, serving as a mirror of Dayak society. They reflect not only social structure but also character refinement and communication. Rhymes offer a medium to express emotions, communicate, and convey deep meanings.

These rhymes showcase the Dayak way of life, serving as a treasure trove of cultural knowledge and wisdom. Rhymes often revolve around central themes, and the term “fields” frequently appears in them. This reflects the vital role of fields in Dayak culture, as they are central to their lives and rituals.

Gawai as the Culmination of Farming Festivals
The Gawai Dayak, or farming feast, is a significant expression of gratitude to the divine and the spirits for the bounties of the land. Rooted in centuries of tradition, this ritual involves connecting with the spirit world, ancestral worship, and communal feasting. It’s a time for friends and family to come together as a community.

The Gawai Dayak is not just a ceremony but also a form of worship and social communication. During this festival, people dance and sing kondan, a form of rhyme with a love element, but also an educational dimension. Rhyming is a skill that requires intellectual acumen and creativity, and it serves as a means of expression and communication.

Rhymes are also used to convey historical events and meanings, making them a valuable part of Dayak culture. They offer insights into the society’s atmosphere, social structure, and communication.

The spiritual significance of the Gawai Dayak goes beyond the physical celebrations. It represents a momentary glimpse of heavenly glory, reminding participants of their spiritual dimension.

Ultimately, this spiritual dimension leads to another ceremony, Tiwah, marking the return of human bodies to their Creator.

The future of Dayak culture depends on the Dayak community itself. In the face of ongoing global changes, Dayak culture has always evolved without losing its core identity and essence.

The transformation of Dayak culture will be shaped by the choices and actions of the Dayak people, both individually and collectively. *)
Sources for the narrative illustration: Tanto Yakobus and the author’s documentation.

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