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Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Journey of Matthew Minarchek

Between 15 August and 25 August 2008, I visited the Iban community of Sungai Pelaik located on the periphery of Danau Sentarum National Park in West Kalimantan and development in Indonesia. What follows is a brief sketch of the community.

I traveled from the coastal city of Pontianak via overnight bus to Sintang, about twelve hours up the Kapuas River. In Sintang, I stopped by the Danau Sentarum National Park headquarters to gain entry permits for the park and discuss the research with park staff. The following morning I took a local minibus for seven hours to Semitau located near Danau Sentarum National Park. From Semitau, I entered the park by speedboat, passing through numerous Melayu villages and eventually arrived at the Sungai Pelaik longhouse.

The Iban longhouse is located on the Pelaik River just upstream from the lakes region, about two hours by speedboat from the Melayu village of Laboyan, depending on water leveis. Sungai Pelaik is a 9-door longhouse with 43 residents, and one family of four lives in a neighboring house. The longhouse was constructed at the current location in 2002 and is situated just a few kilometers from the old site. The residents use Iban adat and the annual gawai is still practiced every July. Most commonly the men of Sungai Pelaik leave the village upon marriage and join the household of the wife and the opposite is true of the women, but one of the male residents had stayed after marrying and his wife moved to Pelaik. At the time of my visit, ten residents were working wage labor jobs in Malaysia and a few of the children were in Lanjak for school. It is common in this community for whole families to travel to Sarawak for work and oftentimes families will move there for up to ten months.

I arrived during the dry season and fishing was the main activity for the residents throughout my stay. Villagers woved fishing traps (bubu ikan), fishing nets (nyala ikan), baskets for carrying the fish, and carved pronged fishing spears (jerpak ikan). Throughout the days, both men and women traveled downstream to the lake to check the fish traps or take dugout canoes out for net fishing, and then returned back to the longhouse to clean their catch for drying or to prepare for dinner. To take advantage of the low waters during the dry season, the community partnered with the Melayu village of Nanga Telatap for jakat. Jakat may be described as the following activity. In the early morning, the villagers of Pelaik loaded fishing nets, food, and drinks into their dugouts and paddled out into the lake to meet the residents of Nanga Telatap. All the canoes then moved into a circle formation around a large pole sticking 15 feet out of the water. After the dugouts were in place and the signal had been given, cheers quickly erupted and everyone paddled their canoe as quickly as possible towards the center pole and then cast their nets into the water. The movement of the watercrafts and pounding of the paddles into the lake caused the fish to flood toward the pole in the middle and all the fisher folks' nets emerged out of the water full of fish. After a few more casts, the nets were emptied into the hull of the dugouts and then the boats slowly dispersed. The Pelaik longhouse residents made their way back to the longhouse and the freshly caught fish were sorted by species and then cleaned for drying and cooking. Delicious fish was then grilled over a small fire in celebration of the catch and eaten with rice and a homemade sambal was another of the main activities within the longhouse and women wove traditional textiles such as pua' and tanun, fabrics used in ceremonies or for clothing. Plant material was collected from the surrounding forest to make dyes for the cotton string that would soon be woven on the wooden loom. Rattan was also harvested and used to make floor mats and baskets for use in the longhouse. Some of the floor mats, weavings, and baskets were being sold to buyers in West Kalimantan and Java for supplemental income.

Due to the remote location of the Sungai Pelaik longhouse, electricity from a central grid network is inaccessible. Two of the apartments own diesel generators and produce electricity in the evenings for a few hours when fuel is available. In 2007, a micro-hydro electricity scheme was built on the Pelaik River just upstream from the longhouse. The project produced electricity for all the apartments of the longhouse for nearly a year. However, at the time of this study, the small-scale hydro project had encountered a few problems and the two operators were working to get the system running again. The operators were two residents of the longhouse who were trained to maintain the system throughout the development process. The project was facilitated by the Center for International Forestry Research and Riak Bumi, a Pontianak- based nongovernmental organization. CIFOR initiated an adaptive collaborative management approach and both organizations continue to work with the local people to repair the project. The alternative energy system provided a renewable electricity source for the community and allowed every apartment within the longhouse access to electricity. At the time of writing the micro-hydro system is producing electricity for the longhouse again and it appears the dry season and the low water levels may have affected the project.

Note: This preliminary survey was funded by a Luce Grant from the Center for International Studies at Ohio University.

Matthew Minarchek

Master's Candidate, Ohio University

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