“Think about the trees. They did not create themselves, they don’t know how to talk. God (Balei Ngebutun, the creative spirit) created them. The earth, too, is created by God and doesn’t know how to communicate with humans. The animals are like that, too; they can talk to each other, but we don’t understand their speech. When a tree falls or is torn down by a bulldozer, its outflowing resin is its blood. The earth is like our mother, our father. If you from the government gives orders to the companies to invade our land, you might as well cut off our heads and our parents’ heads too. When the bulldozers tear open the earth, you can see her blood and her bones even though she can’t speak. Some company employees have fractured skulls and broken bones. Don’t you understand? It is the earth crying: ‘I don’t want to be killed.’”
-Along Sega Penan elder
“The Bird of Paradise, it seemed, had beckoned us on and led us in, to stand here in this place high in the land of volcanoes. It was here in Bali, after returning from the Toraja Star Children, that I first recognized what they meant by us all being born half of heaven and half of earth. And after the mounted warsports of Sumba it was in Balinese ritual that I saw with new eyes the battle for balance between light and darkness. And after Borneo, returning to the sacred Banyan tree and its simian custodians, I had felt that all great trees, what’s left of them, do indeed link heaven and earth in a single forest of life.”
-Lawrence Blair, "Ring of Fire: An Indonesia Odyssey"
“If this is not done, future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations.”
-Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913)
Indonesia. The greatest archipelago on earth with 14,000 islands. The largest Muslim nation on earth with 270 million strong. The third largest rainforest on earth, parts of which we witnessed burning as far back as 1998. Second only to Brazil in mammal diversity with more than 500 species. Fifth in the world in bird diversity with more than 1,500 species. In plant life it is the fifth most biodiverse. In reptile diversity it ranks fourth with more than 500 species. It is only 1.3 percent of the world’s land surface with 17 percent of its biodiversity. How much of this overwhelming profusion of life that so astonished the co-discover of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace, will remain in a generation’s time?
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Each island is a custodian of a singular magic, each harboring its own evolution, its own character, biome and life forms. It is fantastic beyond reckoning and it is fast changing. In Bali, where many make their first stop before journeying further afield, many foreigners, some would say too many, have altered the landscape and tenor of this Hindu island where the pace of life itself feels like a rare refuge from the outside world. The last Balinese tiger, considered an evil spirit by the locals, died out in the late 1930s and was hunted as a nuisance or for sport by the Dutch who first arrived in Bali more than 300 years ago. The day we arrived we received news of turmoil on the eastern island of Lombok, where Muslims had gone on an anti-Christian rampage setting churches ablaze. Thousands had died in the eastern part of the archipelago in the last few months when we were there, a generation ago. But Bali had somehow been spared this violence.
Since the beginning of the 20th century foreigners have clamored here looking for an alternative to the mechanical diseases and ravages of the modern world. One such writer was a gentleman from Manhattan looking for a respite from the towering mayhem of the city and the West, called Hickman Powell, who wrote of Bali, “And this I knew is the white man’s burden: that he shall dream dreams and they shall mock him, that he shall seek what he cannot find, that in him there is lusting turbulence and for him there is no Nirvana.” There is an inner vision here that permeates the land, like a psychic undercurrent that runs through its volcanoes, temples, and rice terraces. The local’s flawless poise hint at gods that are alive and well as Hickman described, “Where the individual may mean nothing, may be a mere cell in a social organism who lives as he pleases and in his anonymity blends his soul with art.” Harvests in the rice fields of Tirtagganga sparkled like elysian fields.
Three harvests were being made here, not the usual two. Because the Javanese government was replacing the rice the Balinese had cultivated for centuries with a “superior” faster growing variety. All over the world, the very quality and long term survival of the soil was being challenged as never before by industrial agriculture. Huge international corporations were urging people to change thousands of years of living sustainably on the land. One wondered, when glancing at the brilliant green of Bali’s terraces, how the modern world’s addiction to industrial agriculture, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, endangering insect populations the world over would change this landscape, probably forever. Would the biotech solution really solve the so called hunger problem? Filipino and Indian farmers used to grow thousands of types of rice. Now they grow only two and a few more respectively. Mexico had lost for all time 80 percent of its maize varieties. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization we have already lost 70 percent of humanity's original crop diversity.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Would eliminating the diversity of the food chain really help humanity in the long run? Were the corporations making terminator genes that died after being harvested really interested in helping people or in making extravagant profits? In Bali, the time normally taken off from harvesting rice would be used for traditional purposes — dancing, weaving, painting, ancestor worship. Everything that defines us as humans. What would suffer in the process of satisfying government quotas, was ritual time, ceremonial time, time spent with family and with the deities. A whole fabric of being so exquisitely woven into the carpet of tradition was slowly being eroded to satisfy the modern economy. The economy which long ago was meant to take care of the home, and the local environment, was now being directed to serve a few special interest groups. Globally, an ecological disaster was in the making and it was quite evident in the jewels of Asia’s rice fields.
In Java, we learned that hunger was mainly the fault of the government’s decision to export vast rice harvests to pay off international debts and loans. A gargantuan web of post colonial colonialism was in the final stages of strangling the hapless peoples of the planet. Did hundreds of thousands of acres of Borneo’s rainforests have to be destroyed for palm oil to make way for shampoo, to make sure that candy was chewy, and gummy? What would happen to its original peoples the Dayak who can barely live off the land? And the old man of the forest, Asia’s great ape the Orang Utan? Or the Orang pendek supposedly discovered in Sumatra, who walks on its hind legs, first chronicled by Marco Polo in 1292? This little man of the forest, barely five feet tall. The alleged sightings near Mt Tujuh and Mt Kerinci, if verified on film, could salvage this wonderful jungle fast being felled. What was happening to Indonesia’s waters where 40 percent of the world’s fish reside? Where fishermen were dynamiting fish from the coral bedrock to feed an exploding populace? Everywhere one turned in Indonesia, it seemed the land and water ecosystems were being turned upside down to make way for the shredder of the 21st century. Even the capital Jakarta, which was sinking, was slated to be moved to Borneo, perhaps the very island with the greatest loss of forest on Earth.
On Komodo, we have the great privilege of meeting the world’s largest lizards. The tracks of their claws and the dragging marks of their tails scar the land like the ageless glyphs of a primeval carnivore: they announce that dragons, ten feet long, still roam the earth. The hypnotic journey of this island reminds one that long before the killer ape called man emerged, there were those who ruled the Earth without the vainglory of war. If the Indonesians with their ever expanding numbers do not destroy the Komodo dragons, we can only hope the dragons will outlive us. For now authorities recognize the treasure these beings represent and have decided to limit the number of tourists visiting the island, especially after smugglers stole 41 of these remarkable reptiles and sold them for $35,000 apiece.
Bombs exploded on Kuta beach in Bali a few years after we left. A unique part of the world has lost its innocence forever. Friends only a stone’s throw away started filming the local people’s reactions. Some say that already too many foreigners had come on an island once lost in time. The energies on the island had been corrupted. Too many resorts. Too much land bought by outsiders. The deities were angry. Now Bali had permanently joined the rest of an embattled archipelago and planet. When we left the equator so many years ago, the forests burning on Sumatra and Borneo were sending large plumes wafting over southeast Asia, bleeding from the horrors of hundreds of thousands of acres of rainforest decimated to satisfy palm oil manufacturers and lumber syndicates around the world — an industrial crime which has resulted in the loss of about 150,000 orangutan since 1999. Now the future of the forests implicates each and every one of us in every corner of the world.
The evisceration of the great forests of Southeast Asia concerned a Swiss environmental activist so much that he decided to live with and become one of the Penan hunter gatherers of Borneo from 1984 to 1990. His mission to save the Penan was just made into a feature film called “Paradise War: the Story of Bruno Manser.” Battling the Indonesian government, trying desperately to have the World Wildlife Fund set up the area of the Penan as a biosphere reserve, Bruno only lived to see the government run renegade through ageless towering trees and forests reduced to pulp. Yes, the Penan now have access to modern amenities, but their souls have been vanquished.
Bruno’s legacy will live on as that of a visionary willing to risk his life for an irreplaceable world, a unique warrior who encouraged each and every one of us to follow his or her “inner voice against all obstacles from the outside.” He saw into the mind and soul of some of the last hunters on earth. The Penan suffused his very being as a human, as his heart itself became part of the forest in a way few Westerners will ever be able to duplicate. That place of elysian ‘escape' amidst people living in a sanctuary worthy of Genesis is something the painter Gaughin lived in the 19th century, but that is no longer possible in the 21st. Bruno was last seen in May of 2000.
We left Indonesia having just glimpsed beyond the veil of its princesses and dragons and volcanoes and magician seers that so engaged Lawrence and Lorne Blair whose book and film “The Ring of Fire” is the most mystifying portrait yet on the imponderable vastness of the great archipelago of Indonesia. The rupiah was collapsing from 3000 to 15,000 to the dollar. The tyranny of the modern economic system was overwhelming the country. Was Indonesia’s modernization synonymous with its military regime? What would be left of its biodiversity and first peoples in even 20 years time? Indonesia, one of the central litmus tests for Asia, and the future of the planet has to listen to the climate crisis and respond to its people, forests and inimitable wildlife accordingly. Moving her sinking capital, Jakarta, due to the drainage of aquifers, to higher ground in East Kalimantan, is one of the great ironies of that country’s tumultuous history. The orangutans will have more company on their magical, increasingly fragile island.
Humanity must come to terms with what is priceless, before the economic tyranny of the marketplace ruins what is left of Indonesia. Phosphine gas, a possible sign of life detected on Venus, should galvanize humanity to save what remains for our earthly species. We have spent billions to search for microbes on other planets. Can humanity not salvage the last 400 tigers in Sumatra who are so desperate for forest and prey that they are hunting humans for food? We have to get our priorities straight as a species. Indonesia, the great constellation of terrestrial life here on Earth is a great place to start.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
“We are tired of hearing bulldozers which are penetrating our land. Our land is no larger than the black edge of a finger nail. We have no other land. Come quickly! Come and see for yourselves. Be of strong heart. Success means preserving part of a primeval forest.”
-Saya Megut Penan
“In former times, one could hear the sound of the hornbills’ wings. Nowadays, you might as will forget about catching prey with the blowpipe or hearing your dogs rouse a deer or enjoying yourself in the clear of the river. Do we even have to tell you this? Can’t you see it yourself from the airplane? In the old days, the mountains were green, not red like now.”
Ayat Lirong Penan
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.