Dayak activist Emmanuela Shinta: ‘We want to be heroes, not victims.’

Why an enterprising spirit is required to tackle peatland challenges on a local level

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Stark and competing demands characterize peatlands use management today. While peatlands are important carbon sinks and stocks, millions of farmers also derive their livelihoods from these ecosystems. Now, peatland communities are facing the conundrum of developing new ways to profit from their native landscapes while ensuring their sustainability.

The opening plenary of the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter thematic event in Jakarta on May 18th brought together a chorus of voices from local communities living in Indonesia’s peatlands.

The Forum gathered 425 stakeholders from the government, private sector, science and civil society to accelerate positive action in the management of global peatlands.

In sharing their firsthand experiences, challenges and aspirations, the plenary speakers provided a vital lifeline to on-the-ground experiences and realities.

Among them was Emmanuela Shinta, a 24-year-old Dayak activist, filmmaker and founder of the Ranu Welum Foundation. Shinta sat down with Forests News’ Editor-in-Chief Leona Liu to discuss why she sees media as the ultimate tool in achieving social transformation in her community in Kalimantan, and beyond. 

*Read the full transcript of the TV interview below

Tell me about your work. What is your foundation’s mission and what do you hope to achieve through it?

At first, I really didn’t mean to create the Ranu Welum Foundation. But it comes from the movement and the heart of young people who cannot just stay and do nothing. It looks at social issues, human rights and environmental issues that happen around us in Kalimantan.

So this foundation was founded last year in 2016 and actually on May 16th, it’s the one-year anniversary of the Ranu Welum Foundation. Its name comes from the word of the Dayak language, my mother tongue, which means ‘living water’.

The idea is to use the media as a tool for social transformation, whether it is to educate people, do advocacy work, and bring up stories and voices from the ground to be heard around the world.

Why did you feel the need for these stories to be heard? Did you feel they lacked a platform?

I love that question. So I mentioned onstage previously, when I go out from Kalimantan, people will [usually] ask me two questions: 1) Do Dayak people still eat human meat? 2) Do Dayak people wear bark cloth and [run around] naked?

So many people outside Kalimantan have the thought that we are still very primitive because Kalimantan is very famous for its forests and they think that we live in forests like orangutans. I realized that this is because of a lack of information provided about us.

You address social issues and indigenous rights issues through your media activism. Do you also address environmental issues?

As the Dayak people, we live very close to the forest and the environment. So when you talk about indigenous groups, you cannot separate it from environmental issues. Because the natives are the guardians of the forest, the guardians of the water and the guardians of soil. We really know how to treat it because we have already lived hundreds, even thousands of years, on this island.

So looking at the situation in Kalimantan, which is very famous now for its peat fires and forests fires and toxic haze issues, environmental issues have become one of our focuses. We are striving to bring voices from the ground related to this issue. It’s not just about the environment itself, it’s also about the life, identity and culture of the Dayak people.

Have you observed a change in the environment yourself?

It’s not by research; it’s really by [my own] experience. First, I mentioned the smell. In 2015, when the big peatlands fires happened, it was very traumatic for us. It was very easy for us to smell that there is something burning somewhere in the peatlands. This is the smell of 2015. It’s really the opposite of what I remember as a kid.

I liked to go on adventures [as a kid], going to the peatland areas and picking the wild fruit there. I realized that the taste [of the wild fruits] is different now. It’s bitter. And I remember these fruits were very sweet, so why is it bitter now? It grows in the same peatland. But I realize the peatlands have changed.

Now that you’ve seen these changes, what are some of your concerns? What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for you and your community?

Previously, we didn’t realize anything about this when the peatland fires happened. We thought it was a natural thing that happened because [the fires] started already since 1997. So including this year, it will be 20 years.

What became our concern is that this peatland, when it burns, results in small particles – 2.5 microbes [PM2.5] that cannot be filtered by your lungs. If it enters your lungs, it will dissolve into your blood and when it goes into your blood and brain, it can cause a stroke, or a heart attack. It’s different than the particles produced by pollution. They are produced by peatland fires.

We have been breathing this into our body for 20 years. So it’s a very essential issue for me. It’s really related- the destruction of the peatlands, the fire and the health of the people. So peatlands matter, people matter. We cannot separate them.

You lived through the fire and haze crisis in 2015. You were referencing some of the things you saw that were quite traumatic. Can you recount how that affected your community and sparked something in you?

The thing is, it’s so painful when you lose someone you love. It’s so painful, and I saw that in the eyes of the people that I met. I went to the villages to bring medicine to them. They didn’t have any access to medicine. We recorded stories about those who lost their loved ones. And they cried. It’s really painful for us, you know? It’s different if you only know, “Ok, some people died there because of haze and fire”. But when you listen to their stories, when you [witness things firsthand], you can’t stop.

It’s very difficult for me because I’m not the outsider who comes to help the people. I’m the one who lives there. And I experienced that. It’s very difficult for us to survive in that kind of situation. We live in the city and we have masks at least, compared to those who live in the villages. They have nothing to protect themselves.

We started doing small things. I started to talk to my friends and my community about what we could do to help [the situation]. We are not the ones who can change the policy, we don’t have a lot of money to evacuate these people out of Kalimantan, or to bring tanks of oxygen to each house to help their children to live and breathe. We couldn’t do that.

So what could we do?

We started with cooking. We cooked for the local firefighters. When you have a very good intention and the determination to do good things and help others by sacrificing yourself, then the way will open. And that’s what we experienced. We gave ourselves, we rode motorbikes for hours to bring supplies to the villagers, and from that point, we brought the stories, we made them heard. [Then] people started saying, “We never knew [about the situation]. Now that we know, we want to help you.”

So media is very important for social transformation. It changes us, not only in our minds, but also in our hearts. And even though sometimes it’s very challenging to do this, we have a choice. We can choose if we want to be victims. But no, we want to be heroes. We want to be the ones who stand for our people. And that’s why we keep doing this.

*This is part of a series of video interviews from the 2017 Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter thematic event in Jakarta, Indonesia

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Topic(s) :   Peatlands