Climate Change and the Adat Rituals of the Meratus Dayak community

Down to Earth No. 76-77 May 2008

This report is based on information from a field visit by DTE staff to Meratus in 2008, and from the South Kalimantan based NGO, LPMA

For indigenous peoples like the Meratus Dayak of South Kalimantan, farming is not only a means to obtain food, but also forms part of the customary (adat) rituals that have been passed down the generations. Climate change is causing changes to planting cycles and bringing change too, to the cycle of adat ritual.

Each year there are at least five adat ceremonies directly related to the Meratus Dayak agricultural system. The cycle starts with the batumban kayu ceremony, for clearing land; followed by manyalukut, for burning; manugal, for planting padi; aruh mahanyari, an expression of gratitude for the padi harvest, and finally, aruh ganal, a large ceremony to offer thanks to God for protecting the community for a whole year, from planting to harvest time.

The Meratus rice-growing cycle starts with land clearing in May, planting in August to September, and harvesting from the end of March to mid-May. Apart from using the calendar for timing, the Meratus Dayaks also use astronomy. When a constellation called 'karantika' appears at the same time as a constellation which resembles a pig's jaw appears in the east at exactly eight o'clock in the evening, then it is time to manugal.1

Nature always used to be on the side of the communities and enabled them to make a living, but that no longer seems to be the case. Sometimes, the natural signs are misleading: it looks as if the dry season has arrived, but the rains come instead.

This happened in March when it rained heavily even though the rice fields were turning yellow and in some places were ready to harvest. Eventually, the dry season came and it was possible to harvest. But after the rice was spread out to dry prior to milling, it rained again. This made it hard for people to dry their crop as they have no drying equipment and only rely on the sun.

Not being able to count on these seasons anymore has made people uncertain about when is best to plant. They have to plant the rice, but the results are often poor, and some of the plants have not produced any rice.

If the weather continues to be unpredictable and disrupt the coming planting season too, at worst the community won't be able to plant rice and will have to buy it in from outside instead. Worse still, the community won't be able to perform the adat rituals which form part of their religious worship.


The threat of mining

In February, Government Regulation (PP) No.2/2008 on non-tax revenues on forest use was issued (see also mining news in brief). The move was strongly opposed by environmental activists, who accused the government of selling Indonesia's forests for Rp300 per square metre - less than the price of a piece of fried banana at Rp500. This regulation directly threatens the Meratus community.

The regulation follows on from Government Regulation in Lieu of a Law (Perpu) No. 1/2004 issued by the Megawati government, which licensed 13 mining companies to resume open-pit mining operations in protected forest areas covering 927,648 hectares.2 (For the full list of companies see mining news in brief.) Two of these companies have mining concessions in the Meratus area: Australia's PT Pelsart Tambang Kencana (gold)3 and Indonesia's PT Interex Sacra Raya (coal).

PP 2/2008 goes against the wishes of the Meratus Dayaks, most of whom want to retain their rights over the forests. These people's resistance made a strong imprint in 1999, when South Kalimantan government wanted to change the status of the forest from protected to production forest.

Less than ten years after the rejection of this move, the government of president SBY (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) is permitting these two companies to sweep aside the customary rights of the indigenous Meratus Dayaks. The regulation transfers state authority over natural resources, governed by the interests of the majority - in this case the Dayak community - to mining companies. The income the state receives in return for renting out the protected forest is derisory.

1. LPMA. 1999. Hasil dokumentasi revitalisasi adat balai Kiyo.

2. See DTE 61 for background.

3. The Australian parent company, Pelsart Resources NL, has been suspended from Australia's stock exchange since 1999. The company stated in an April 2008 update that the Timburu gold project development would depend on finding a joint venture partner, or other funding arrangements. Canada's Placer Dome, opted not to enter a joint venture following exploration between 2001 and 2003. (Source: Pelsart Resources NL update April 10, 2008 via Australian Stock Exchange website: