Turdin: Finding a Way Out of the Fire Ban Dilemma

After the government issued a ban on burning land in the forest, Turdin, who used to be a traditional farmer following an age-old tradition of slash-and-burn agriculture, has now turned to alternative jobs, such as beekeeping and growing cassava and sugar cane, to provide for his family in Kubu Village, Kotawaringin Barat, Central Kalimantan. However, not all villagers are as fortunate as Turdin. Many parents are wrestling with the possibility of not being able to send their children to school after quitting traditional farming which reduces their income.

At the age of 54, Turdin still has a lot of energy to do various activities in his daily life. He grows cassava and sugar cane, raises honeybees, and runs a warung (food stall) at his house in Kubu Village, Kumai, Kotawaringin Barat Regency, Central Kalimantan.

Turdin used to grow crops as a traditional farmer who practiced the slash-and-burn system, an ancient tradition of Dayak people. This tradition had to end, however, when the government issued a ban on burning land in the forest following the catastrophic forest and land fires in 2015.

The slash-and-burn tradition was not supposed to be practiced carelessly, Turdin explained. Farmers wanting to clear land by fire needed to clear scrub, resulting in a one-meter-wide border around the target land, which would be moistened with water to prevent the fire from escaping into the forest nearby.

“That was what we had practiced for a long time, by my grandfather and father,” explained Turdin. “There would have never been a fire if it was carried out properly by responsible cultivators.”

Nevertheless, traditional farmers in Kubu Village still obeyed the law, ending their swidden practices for fear of punishment.

In the early weeks when the burning ban came into effect, some residents were struggling to adapt to the new reality. Turdin even gave some of his cassava harvests from his garden to his neighbors in need for a couple of days. “They were not fully prepared to find another job,” he explained.

Many residents still find it hard to support their families, especially regarding their children’s education. What’s more, the villagers have large familages. On average, each family has more than four children.

Turdin is one of the lucky ones. Although he has ten children, he still can provide for his family. Turdin and his family start to grow various crops and open various businesses outside of agriculture, such as beekeeping and running a food stall at their home. However, baffled villagers still don’t know how to earn enough income after they have to give up the slash-and-burn practice. They aren’t adequately equipped with other knowledge or skills.

“We never grow crops without burning,” said Turdin. “And until now, there has been no assistance from the government to help us even though traditional farmers have stopped burning the land.”

Lack of knowledge and skills leaves Kubu villagers with few livelihood options, such as fishing in the nearby river or grow vegetables in small gardens where there are few or no grasses. Unfortunately, local residents are still unable to make the most of these oppotunities. For example, residents who want to go fishing and need to make fishing nets might not have sufficient equipment and skills.

“And now people start to complain that grass has started growing on their fields,” said Turdin.

The people of Kubu Village would prefer a a profitable planting option, like rice. However, the village is located on a hilly area with a lot of slopes, which is unsuitable for paddy fileds. To level the field surface, local residents attempted to get heavy equipment assistance from the government. However, they have yet to receive the equipment.

In addition, the villagers also plan to carry out food diversification by increasing the variety of productive plants in their forests. The plan is for the residents to plant coffee, eggplant, jengkol (dogfruit), and fruits, such as pineapple and avocado. This food diversification program is in line with the village community’s long-term plan to shift from traditional agriculture, namely the slash-and-burn system, to permaculture.

Farmers in Kubu Village are farmers assisted by Yayasan Inobu and the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN). Kubu Village aims to slowly shift to a paddy-field farming system and then become an ecotourism village with the scenery of the terraced rice paddies as a tourist attraction.

“The hope is that the development of this ecotourism village can be felt and enjoyed by the children and grandchildren later,” said Turdin.

The future might seem so far away. But that is the path that Kubu Village needs to take if they want local people to progress and develop independently. For now, Turdin and other former traditional farmers only have a simple hope.

“The government should help us prepare for transitioning to new livelihoods by providing training,” said Turdin.