Dec 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

'Development is an extension of colonialism'.

Published: Sep 30, 2007

After years researching his own Dayak culture in Kalimantan (Borneo), Stephanus Djuweng concludes it has nothing to gain and much to lose from 'development'

What threats do the Dayak people face at the moment?

There are three ways by which the Dayak people, and all indigenous peoples of Indonesia, are being destroyed or coopted.

The first is at the verbal level, where school students are taught not to appreciate their own cultural and social heritage. There is some resistance to that. Some students just avoid following instructions from their teachers, for example.

Second is the behavioural level, where indigenous people are 'taught' how to act or behave in a 'modern' way, by wearing shoes or good clothes, for example. There is also some resistance to this, when many simply don't care about these things.

The third level is what I call the performance level, where the capitalistic economy, big plantations or government projects take land from the local people, sometimes by force. When this happens, local society is transformed, because they no longer have land.

Dayak culture is actually wet rice-centered. Once you replace the old padi agricultural system with plantations, the Dayak cultural heritage is completely transformed. In some areas there are now totally new kinds of Dayak communities, where they no longer perform traditional practices. And the cause was land grabbing by development projects, for example palm oil or timber projects.

How do the Dayaks lose their land?

Sometimes force is used. But at other times there is a 'persuasive' approach, so landholders feel they are transferring their land by their own choice. Sometimes money is given, but the most common form is that the traditional chiefs are coopted.

You mean they are offered positions of power?

Not only power, but promises of schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, water supplies - provided they sign the land transfer papers. The papers are then handed to government officials at public ceremonies, witnessed by the people. Of course, people don't want to protest at such big public gatherings, especially because they are attended by officials and military officers.

Who or what do you blame for the loss of the Dayak people's heritage?

Actually I don't blame only the Indonesian government. Because beyond the government there is a global dominant force: development.

If you read Indonesian history, local resistance against land acquisition by those in power has been happening for hundreds of years. Diponegoro led a revolt against the Dutch when they were taking land to build along the northern coast of Java.

The same thing is happening now in Kalimantan and in Irian. Local people are protesting against land acquisition, carried out in the name of development. So I ask myself, what is really the difference between colonialism and development? It's only that the first was done by a colonial government, the second by our so- called independent government. And that's not a significant difference.

If the Dayak people could choose their own kind of development, what would it look like?

For the time being, the Dayak people don't really have a clear position. Development has been such a big force. It has coopted so many of us from the time we were very young. You are told that development is good for you, it will increase your living standards and give you an easy life, and that traditional values and systems are obstacles to modernisation and development.

But there is increasing awareness among Dayak people that, if they had the freedom to choose, they would choose sustainability rather than development. Because development is an extension of colonialism. Development projects in Indonesia, as around the world, only marginalise the local peoples and deprive them of their own land and resources.

Some people might argue that we can make development sustainable. But in my opinion it cannot be sustainable, and cannot bring justice or prosperity to the people. Instead, it has brought two big global crises: an environmental crisis, and a crisis of social justice. In the US, although the GNP has increased, the index of social welfare has declined. People have no leisure, no community life, no extended relationships or friendships. People are just in a hurry to make money.

We can learn from indigenous peoples in my area for instance. In 1970 when I was still a small boy, we had zero population growth and no income per capita. There was no investment or services, but we were very happy. We had good quality food and everything we needed from nature. But with the arrival of development projects, the Dayaks were marginalised, and collective riches were replaced by individual riches.

At present I don't think development can bring a prosperous and just society. There is no sustainable development, it's an absurd notion.

What is your organisation doing to address the impact of development?

We conduct research on the cultural heritage of the Dayaks, because we need to revitalise that heritage. We also try to raise public awareness about the situation of the Dayaks, not only in Indonesia, but globally. We argue that we need to be careful about using the discourse of economic development, that we don't need to follow in the footsteps of the West.

At the local level we have tried to publish books on Dayak history, indigenous wisdom and so on. We try to convince people that indigenous peoples have the right to maintain their own social structure and cultural practices, to control their natural resources and land. Indigenous peoples have been portrayed as primitive, half-human, uncivilised for so long that sometimes they begin to believe it themselves. Overcoming this is part of the function of our organisation.

What support do you seek from overseas groups?

For a start, we would be happy if they called on the Indonesian government to ratify the UN convention on the prevention of racial discrimination, as well as ILO Convention 169. These both recognise and protect the rights of indigenous peoples. More generally, we need all forms of support and solidarity to continue our struggle for the recognition, respect and protection of indigenous peoples' rights in Indonesia.

Stephanus Djuweng works at the Institute of Dayakology, in Pontianak, West Kalimantan.

Inside Indonesia 47: Jul-Sep 1996

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