The Heartland Project: A restoration effort to reconnect youth to their roots


The earth without forests is like our body without any bones. However, many forests are destroyed. The earth is dredged, making many impecunious. When we lost our tradition, we also lost our future” 

– Mardiana, woman Dayak leader

Our homeland, Kalimantan Island, is a nature-rich region and home to the third-largest remaining tropical rainforest on Earth. It offers important solutions to the biggest issue currently facing humanity – the climate crisis. Our people, the Dayaks, are native to Borneo and we depend heavily on the forest. However, this forest faces complex problems in terms of landscape management, due to overlapping interests in development, which often leads to rampant deforestation.

Every dry season since 1997, forest fires have been one of the top drivers of deforestation in the region. According to a report by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, fires have torched two million hectares of forest and land in Kalimantan Island between 2015 and 2020 – equal to four times the area of Bali Island. This has impacted our population and environment for too long now, and we cannot just keep watching. We, the Kalimantan youth, the guardians of our land, are ready to stand up and take action. 

Photo: Devastating forest fire in Central Kalimantan in 2019

In 2019, we united youth from various places in Kalimantan Island to take action against deforestation through a restoration movement called The Heartland Project. The project raised awareness on the issues of forest fires, mining, and violations of Indigenous rights. In just two years, The Heartland Project has grown into a nationwide tree-planting movement. It which is driven by youth and Indigenous people actively taking leadership roles and mobilizing their communities. The movement has engaged more than 3,500 youth from 49 communities across Indonesia, and planted around 8,000 trees.

Why is it important to connect to our roots?

“I was born in an Indigenous village in Central Kalimantan that lives tightly connected to the forest. I have many beautiful memories of how I played in the jungle, sourced food, and learned about the importance of forests with elders. However, when I was little, my family moved to the city, and I never returned to the village for 20 years.

Living in a town with a very contrasting lifestyle made me feel disconnected from nature. Fortunately, last year I can experience nature and connect to the elders again by staying in Talekoi Village.

This experience helped me to get a better understanding of the importance of Indigenous Dayak knowledge and wisdom in biodiversity conservation. It also inspired our team to develop a live-in program to equip Indigenous youth with a skill-set to develop grassroots restoration solutions. Therefore, we hope The Heartland Project can be a platform for the youth to reconnect to nature and grow their leadership to lead a climate action movement.”

Sumarni Laman, the 24-year-old Dayak woman who coordinated the Heartland Project.

This year, working together with the Youth in Landscapes Initiative (YIL) and the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) as Restoration Stewards in the Peatland Ecosystem, we aim to restore areas burned by forest fires and to teach Indigenous youth about our significant peatland ecosystems in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. We will focus on two project areas: Tumbang Nusa Village and Talekoi Village.

Tumbang Nusa Village is a degraded peat dome that has been a forest fire ‘hotspot’ site for the past 23 years. While Talekoi Village is one of the oldest Dayak settlements in Central Kalimantan. We aim to run activities that contribute to global restoration efforts by integrating Indigenous Dayak wisdom with scientific advances.

We plan to operate three main activities: 

1.    Eco tour

We will bring students from Palangka Raya city on a full-day tour of the local conservation project ‘Re-peat’ in Tumbang Nusa Village. Activities will include tree-planting in a burned forest, a research center visit to enhance students’ understanding of the peatland ecosystem, and a discussion with researchers about Indonesia’s restoration strategy (rewetting, revegetating, and revitalization). However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, we can only include 25 students in each tour, during which we aim to plant around 500 trees. We plan to organize and implement six ecotours over the course of  one year.

Photo: Burned Peatland in Tumbang Nusa Village

2. Live-in experience program, ‘Youth with a Mission’

In this program, we will invite young people from different regencies and villages who study in Palangka Raya city to stay in Talekoi Village. They will learn about the Dayak living system and become empowered as restoration leaders. In the village, the participants will accomplish a wide range of missions, including exploring nature, learning the names of plants, connecting and working with the villagers, planting trees, listening to the elders’ wisdom, and proposing an initiative to contribute towards forest protection and restoration efforts in their own localities. The program includes a year of mentoring to support participants to implement these initiatives in their villages and communities. 

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Photo: Forest in Talekoi Village

3. Tree-planting day

Protecting the earth is everyone’s responsibility. As we already have strong social media engagement, we will mobilize youth across Indonesia to plant trees in their communities on a particular day. We aim to organize two tree-planting days each year, with a target of 2,500 youth participants for each event.

The Heartland Project advocates for education on the importance of restoring land while encouraging a personal connection to nature and forests. Therefore, our project is designed to nurture future Indigenous youth leaders’ knowledge and skills in conservation and climate advocacy. Only by doing so can we create a ripple effect in local communities which are at the ‘heart’ of this land. We believe that investing in people is just as valuable as investing in the landscape itself. We hope that this project will inspire young people to take action for their villages and communities.

Visit our website and social media to learn more about The Heartland Project.

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