Empowering indigenous youth in Kalimantan, Indonesia - In conversation with Sumarni Laman

Empowering indigenous youth in Kalimantan, Indonesia - In conversation with Sumarni Laman

the Netherlands - 10 May, 2022
Koen KustersKoen Kusters

“We want to inspire young people to become restoration warriors,” says Sumarni Laman. She works with an NGO in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, to build awareness about the need for restoration among indigenous youth. Here she talks with Koen Kusters about the importance of her work, as well as the challenges she has encountered.

What are the main activities of the people in the villages where you work?

They are mostly smallholders, cultivating cassava and rubber, among other crops. Some people fish, or work with community-based forestry enterprises. A small number work for commercial logging and mining companies that are active in the territory. We see that many young people are leaving the villages, looking for employment in the city. In some villages there are no young people left anymore. You have to understand that the indigenous Dayak people have always had a strong connection to the forest. However, when Kalimantan became part of Indonesia, their tenure rights were not recognized, and their traditional territories were given to big companies. The Dayak people lost access to their food, their medicines, their construction material. And, there are very few alternative possibilities to make a living, because these villages are very remote, without good roads and without good education possibilities.

Do you talk with young people about their own wishes and aspirations for the future?

Many young people are looking for another lifestyle, but there are not many opportunities. Most would like to study in the city. However, interestingly, many of them would like to come back to the village again. They hope to work in their own community as civil servant, teacher, or nurse. They don’t want to be farmers. Their parents are smallholders, and their incomes are too small.

Artboard 18@2x.pngAre there differences between boys and girls?

Boys are expected to be the breadwinners. They prioritize finding a job. The sad reality is that most girls are looking to get married, even when they are still very young. I was really upset when I first learned this, but after spending a lot of time in the village I began to understand that this is related to the economy. Girls don’t want to burden their families financially, so they look for a man to support them.

What types of activities do you undertake with indigenous youth?

The areas surrounding the villages are degraded due to logging, mining and forest fires. We therefore conduct restoration training with young people, where we combine indigenous knowledge with modern knowledge. We also organize exchange trips, bringing young people from the village to the city, to connect them with young people there.

What is the use of organizing such exchange trips, when young people are leaving for the cities anyway?

Most young people end up looking for employment in smaller provincial towns, but we bring them to Palangkaraya, which is the provincial capital. This is a very diverse place, and it has a university. We want to open their minds. We want them to talk to other young people who are studying in university, to have a conversation about the future. We want them to see the world outside the village, and spark enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm about what?

Enthusiasm for higher education, and also enthusiasm for the environment in their indigenous territory. It is not that we want to inspire them to migrate to the city, but we want them to learn from meeting people with different perspectives. Ultimately, we want them to learn about the importance of maintaining their own environment, and the risks associated with logging and mining. We want to inspire young people to become restoration warriors. Restoration is not just about planting trees. It is about much more, and it needs dedication.

Has this been successful?

There are some success stories. I remember one boy, he was still in senior high school. He did not want to pursue further education. He just wanted to start working as soon as possible. We invited him to a two-week exchange trip to the city where he met with students and researchers, and he joined a forest fire training course. When he came back to the village, he told his parents he wanted to study forestry, to protect the forest. The trip changed his outlook of life.

What are the main challenges you encounter?


We can provide young people with ideas and influence the way they think, but it is more difficult to change someone’s behaviour. Most of these young people have felt helpless for so long. We aim to create a spark, but that is not always strong enough to change practices.

You can discourage young people to work for a logging or mining company, but what alternatives are there?

That is the big question, and we are working on the answer. We are now looking into agroforestry systems with pineapple, banana, and cassava. This could also be used to restore degraded lands, while providing alternative income to the community.

Can that be competitive?

Working for a logging or mining company will probably give more income, but it is hard for villagers to get such a job because these companies prefer to get their workers from other provinces. I believe that, in the long run, agroforestry can provide a good alternative, supporting local food security and helping to protect their ancient forests. The problem with agroforestry is that it involves a lot of work, and people don’t immediately see the benefits. But village elders have a lot of valuable knowledge about the best ways to practice agroforestry, so we are stimulating young people to learn from them.

Are young people open to learning from the elders?

Definitely. Young people in the villages still respect the elders. But young people’s capabilities are often underestimated. Even when given the opportunity to speak, young people are not actually listened to. That is something we need to work on.

What is the key lesson you have learned from working with young people in indigenous communities?

Most of all, I learned to listen. I learned to be humble. I am from the city, and finished university, so I used to go to these villages pretending to know everything. Now I know that the people there have so much knowledge that I don’t have. I have learned to listen so we can learn from each other.

Sumarni Laman photo.jpgSumarni Laman works for the Ranu Welum Foundation, promoting environmental justice and empowering indigenous youth in central Kalimantan, Indonesia. A lot of her work focusses on restoration. In 2020, she became a restoration steward under a joint programme of the Youth in Landscapes Initiative and the Global Landscapes Forum, which supports and highlights the work of six young restoration practitioners and their teams.


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