Can Dayak tradition help save forest?

As a boy, Yohanes Terong was either collecting honey, wild rubber, and rattan with his parents or speeding along after a jungle deer with a pack of dogs and a spear.

If he neared a kramat - a rock or tree that his people regarded as sacred - he would slow and pay his respects. And he never, ever relieved himself against the trunk of a bungkarai tree, believed to harbor spirits of the dead.

"We Dayaks really lived with the forest then," says Mr. Terong, now in his 50s and the head of Laman Satong village on the border of Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesian Borneo. "But by 1968, that way had started to end," he says. That's when Jakarta-backed loggers started to come in and kick the Dayaks off the land.

The culture of the Dayaks - a generic term for Borneo's 200 native tribes - is vanishing, like so many ancient ways. Part of the reason is the massive deforestation of the island, which is shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, and the tiny sultanate of Brunei.

Syaikun Riady, chairman of a Dayak cultural group in Pontianak, Indonesia, says: "If you separate Dayak culture from the forest, Dayak culture dies."

And not just Dayak culture - a growing body of research has drawn connections between biodiversity, language, and culture around the globe. But Terong and a small group of like-minded village leaders hope that by preserving their culture, they can save the forest. Working with a Dayak group called the Biodamar Foundation - named for the damar resin that Dayaks used to collect to light their lamps - Terong helped successfully oppose new timber concessions by persuading local government officials to recognize adat, traditional rights to the forest.

"We've got to fight the logging if we want to keep living here," says Terong. "I'm not confident we'll win, but we've got to give it a try."

Terong cultivates everything from fish to coffee on his land, in the shadow of low limestone peaks still fringed with jungle. Though his lifestyle has changed, the nearby forest still has a profound influence on his income. Why? "Floods and fires," he says. In 1998, fires laid waste to hundreds of square miles of Borneo. They burned hottest in logged forest. "You couldn't see, you couldn't breathe. Next time, it could be worse."

Dayaks do exploit the forest, but over thousands of years, they developed superstitions that preserved the environment. Take the belief about bungkarai, a canopy tree prized by loggers today, but that traditionally was left untouched. "Bees build nests in those trees. If we wanted to have honey, we had to protect those trees," says Terong.

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