A man on his laptop at a longhouse in Sungai Utik

A man on his laptop at a longhouse in Sungai Utik in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Photo: Maria Monica Wihardja)

Liberation Technology? The Digital Era and Indigenous Survival in West Kalimantan

Published

The survival of the Sungai Utik people and their customary forest needs deliberate imagining in this digital era. The community must think carefully about the future they want for themselves and their forest and seize opportunities to use digital technologies to their advantage.

On a regular evening, after bathing and playing in the river, the children of Sungai Utik flock into their new longhouse. The building’s design follows the traditional Dayak Iban homes that accommodate multiple families, but this one has been built to host cultural activities. They wait for electricity, which this remote village in West Kalimantan receives at around 6 pm. During the hours that electricity flows, the community enjoys free wi-fi. Children use their parents’ mobile phones to check social media and chat on messaging apps, while others make video calls to friends outside their small village. Since the arrival of wi-fi in 2021, digital technology has infiltrated the village, predominantly through expanding social connectivity.   

The community installed wi-fi technology in the new longhouse after a participatory decision-making process led by multiple generations and involving all members, including women and youth. Many deliberations took place in their old longhouse. The resulting consensus reflects a willingness to embrace rather than shy away from digital technology. Going forward, though, there are calls to balance traditional and modern life in Sungai Utik and the jury is still out on what will transpire. Will digital technology preserve or destroy their society and ecology? 

Indigenous peoples have been and will continue to be central to the world’s fight against climate change. Communities like the Dayak Iban in Sungai Utik protect the forest when entrusted to do so through rights or concessions. Forest preservation stores huge amounts of carbon, helping to mitigate climate change. Since 1973, Borneo Island has lost about half of its forest. However, the people of Sungai Utik have been fighting furiously to protect their pristine forest, resisting pressures from mostly government-backed loggers, pulp-and-paper companies, and palm oil plantations. They have protected an estimated 1.31 million metric tonnes of forest-based carbon.    

In 2019, Sungai Utik won the UNDP Equator Prize in recognition of the community’s innovative nature-based solutions for preserving biodiversity and tackling climate change. After a decades-long fight, in 2020 they finally received a legal concession of 9,480 hectares of customary forest from the government. Today, their forest is one of the world’s precious virgin rainforests that have been disappearing at breakneck speed elsewhere. 

Digital technology gives the community greater access to information and the outside world. It can also expose them, especially their children, to the internet’s perils and ills, including child trafficking and pornography. As new challenges emerge, old challenges intensify: How will indigenous children lead their lives? Will more leave the community behind and migrate to the bright lights of the big cities? Currently, many already do so, for example, by becoming carpenters or construction workers in the neighbouring Malaysian province of Sarawak. 

Moreover, land grabbers, interested to gain access to the forest, will come not only with machetes and tree-cutting machines, but also with digital technologies. It is common for such parties to mark out territory targeted for deforestation using aerial images produced by satellite and drone technologies. Remotely operated cameras are also often used to take photos of indigenous communities and their forests to justify the land grabbers’ actions.         

The survival of the Sungai Utik people and their customary forest needs deliberate imagining in this digital era. The community must think carefully about the future they want for themselves and their forest. There are many opportunities to use digital technology to their advantage. Drones, satellites, blockchain, and artificial intelligence have been used to map forest boundaries, monitor illegal logging and poaching, identify areas suitable for ecological tourism, document native plants and near-extinct animals, and save Indigenous languages. This could be just the beginning. 

…land grabbers, interested to gain access to the forest, will come not only with machetes and tree-cutting machines, but also with digital technologies.

A more visionary approach can expand the horizons of digital technology for the survival and flourishing of the Sungai Utik people and their forest. The Dayak Iban community has a rich culture and fusing it with technology and science could spawn ingenious art and even new frontier technologies. This fusion could channel trustworthy information grounded in science and created by communities connected to nature to the wider world. 

How might the indigenous Dayak Iban be empowered to leverage digital technology for their social and environmental benefit, and even for the global community? 

First, the Dayak Iban could be helped to ‘indigenise’ education, adjusting it to the local context by giving the community a say in the content of the curriculum. Dayak Iban schools could have stronger science and biology curricula and teachers could use the forest as a living laboratory. Children could also attend schools teaching indigenous culture, knowledge and skills. Materials collected for and taught in the indigenised Dayak Iban schools could even be made digitally accessible to children worldwide.

Second, the Dayak Iban could utilise technology in more purposeful and effective ways. Although the community can now access broadband, their lagging digital literacy must first be addressed. Beyond this basic step, the community, in collaboration with technologists and civil society, could also use technology for the protection of its forest and culture. For example, they could collaborate with drone engineers to learn how to make their own drones to help them monitor illegal land grabbing activities. Dayak Iban children could also use high-precision sound recorders to crowdsource the calls of near-extinct rainforest canopy birds, which they could then sell as non-fungible tokens or to digital birdsong apps. Earnings from these activities could be channelled toward forest preservation or the community’s needs.   

Third, the Dayak Iban could tell their stories to a global audience via digital platforms using augmented or virtual reality. Kynan Tegar, a 17-year-old Dayak Iban descendant and filmmaker from Sungai Utik, exemplifies the possibilities. Kynan has gained international acclaim for his short movies about his community. His movie The Fight for Recognition, about the community’s 50-year fight to win back ownership of their customary forest, has been screened internationally. He was invited to a United Nations panel on climate change with renowned activist Greta Thunberg. Kynan’s films epitomise the art of storytelling. Connecting the community to the world beyond through creative arts could bring the world on their side in the Dayak Iban’s quest for survival and recognition.

The Dayak Iban of Sungai Utik have won their fight for legal recognition of their customary forest. However, the community must negotiate a precarious balance in the next generation’s battle for survival in this technology-savvy modern world. Turning technology to their advantage would assure their future.

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Irendra Radjawali is a Political ecologist and data scientist at Kemitraan.


Maria Monica Wihardja is an Economist and Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme and the Regional Economic Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.