Starting a new chapter of the Heartland Project to protect the treasure of the land


An indigenous youth helping germinate tree seedlings in Talekoi village

I’d like to share the story of how we began the journey of the Heartland Project this year. The Heartland Project is a restoration movement that I’m leading to raise awareness of forest fires in the Kalimantan peatland ecosystem.

In early February this year, during the rainy season, we went to our project area, Talekoi village, to begin our sungkai tree (Peronema canescens) and tawudien or ironwood tree (Eusideroxylon zwagerior) seedling process. This season is the best period to germinate the seed. Our team took the COVID-19 swab test before we departed to the village to minimize the risk of transmission of the virus. Talekoi Village is a six-hour car ride away from the city of Palangkaraya. It was a long journey with many bumpy roads, but as we got closer to the remote area, the varied scenery of the landscape kept us entertained, from the green lush forest to yellow rice paddy fields and red kalakai (Stenochlaena palutris) or fern fields that grow in the previously burned, degraded peatland along the road.

After we arrived in the village, we gave our greetings to the village officials, elders, and villagers to seek permission to stay with the community and show our respect for the people and the land. We also shared our idea to potentially start the Heartland Project in the village and engage the community to take an active part in the program. We worked with elders to design the live-in experience that the program will offer and recruited them as program mentors to share their indigenous Dayak knowledge and wisdom in biodiversity conservation. We also encouraged the local youth to participate in the live-in experience, in order to enrich their knowledge and skill-sets and become ‘green warriors’ developing grassroots restoration solutions and leading the climate action movement on Kalimantan Island.

The villagers were very keen to join our local tree nursery. “I am happy that I can take part in protecting the valuable local tree species so that the next generations will still see and know the local trees,” said Peresto, the field seedling coordinator in the nursery program. Peresto is a Dayak Ma’anyan elder and a tree seedling expert, who has 12 years of experience working with various prominent companies and organizations.

Paresto making a Tawudien or Ironwood tree (Eusideroxylon zwagerior) seedling

Many native tree species in Kalimantan are under threat because of forest fire and logging. In 2015, Talekoi village experienced devastating forest fires that burned a vast area of peatland. It was one of the biggest ecological disasters to occur in the area, and it destroyed countless ancient local trees. I, personally, was heartbroken to see the trees that had turned to ashes, when the villagers invited me to visit the burned area. 

“Every tree has a special meaning for Dayak communities,” explained Peresto. For them, it is not merely a plant. When the Dayak people source wood from the forest, they carry out rituals to ask permission to cut down a tree. They also replant a tree in its place to ensure the ongoing availability of the resource. For them, trees have a deep, meaningful value associated with their ability to provide water, food, wood, and traditional medicine. The trees also have cultural and economic value. For instance, tawudien tree, a Dayak Ma’anyan language for ironwood tree, is regarded by some Dayak communities as a spiritual protector that can guard their Indigenous territory against wild animals and evil spirits. “We use tawudien trees to build traditional betang houses and to carve indigenous wooden statues for ceremonies. It is also the main material to make sandung, a small home for the bones of the deceased that were taken from the cemeteries and purified in a secondary burial ritual called the tiwah ceremony,” explained Paresto.

A sandung – a small house that is used to store the bones of a deceased person. The main material for building sandung is tawudien tree

Nowadays, it is hard to find a tawudien tree in the forest, but I was lucky to be able to see a 200-year-old specimen in the middle of the village. The tree is magnificent, with a tall trunk and giant branches that create a lush canopy. If logged, the tree would generate enough cash to buy a luxury car, but the heir of the tree said that they will never sell it.
“This tawudien tree is our precious inheritance. My family for generations has been protecting this tree,” said Dema Triko, the fourth-generation owner of the tree. “Our ancestors used to live in Murtuwu, East Barito. The conflicts and food scarcity in the 17th century forced them to leave their village and find a new place that was more safe and fertile. They choose to settle in their previous ‘ladang’ (farm) that was located in South Barito. The journey was very tough as they had to walk for one full week through the wild jungle. As soon as they reached their destination, they planted various trees – including this tawudien – as a symbol of starting a new life in the village” explained Dema Triko.

Dema Triko standing beside his 200-years old tawudien tree

I was impressed by the history of this tawudien tree and its value for the Talekoi community. Listening to the stories of community members such as Peresto and Dema Triko helped me to gain a better understanding of the importance of Dayak wisdom in protecting biodiversity. If people understand the meaning and value of a tree, it will encourage them to do more to protect it both for the sake of biodiversity and for the community’s historic heritage. 

Nowadays, tawudien is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a vulnerable species. Understanding its ecological importance to the peatland ecosystem, and inspired by the historical connection and values of the tree for the Dayak community, we decided to build a tawudien tree seedling nursery in the village. We are also creating a nursery for the sungkai tree, a native to Kalimantan Island that has been used for traditional medicine. We want to promote and conserve native tree species such as tawudien and sungkai as part of our restoration efforts.  

Peresto germinating sungkai (Peronema canescens) seedlings using the cutting technique

We started a new chapter of the Heartland Project this year by germinating the local tree, which is the heart of the land, with the indigenous community of Talekoi Village. We wish to do more for our peatland ecosystems, and the people who live in and around them, by cultivating  Indigenous youth as the Green Warriors generation. 

To find out more about the Heartland Project and support our movement, please visit our website  and find us on Instagram @youth_actkalimantan.

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