River Stories

A beautiful morning on the Sebangau River

A beautiful morning on the Sebangau River

It is noon and we are stuck in the middle of the river. The boat driver and park guard strain against the boat, but it doesn’t budge. Everything is silent, except for the choir of insects that keep trying to gain entrance into our ears. A macaque sneers at us from the forest and lopes off, leaving us to our fate.

Every year during the summer, the pandanus grass that grows on the banks of the Sebangau river break free and become large floating islands that block the river. Fishermen usually hack small paths through the islands, but the vegetation is death for a speedboat’s motor, like the one we’re on.

 Our speedboat stuck fast in the Pandanus grass!


Our speedboat stuck fast in the Pandanus grass!

“It’s the dragon!” the driver says, with a laugh. There is a local legend that the grass islands are actually bits of a dragon that lives in the river. Every time he flexes, the islands move and block the river. The ‘head’ of the dragon is a few miles ahead and is draped with bits of yellow cloth, a symbol of propitiation by the local Kaharingan adherents. Help arrives shortly in the form of a band of fishermen from a nearby village who manage to push our boat off its pandanus trap. Before long, we are back on our way to the village of Bandanan where World Wildlife Fund (WWF) staff will be talking to the residents about a new community outreach programme, called PandaClick!

The Sebangau river is very special. Apart from being the lifeline of one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in Indonesia, it is a ‘blackwater ecosystem’ – the only one in the country. A glass full of Sebangau water is pale yellow and a river full of the water is like obsidian. On a still day, it is a mirror. All around, one can only see the deep green and brown of the forest. Occasionally there is a dab of white as a bird takes flight.

The sky reflected in the Sebangau River

The sky reflected in the Sebangau River

Sebangau is one of the last remaining peatlands in the country. The rest were destroyed during massive logging and agriculture operations in the 70s through the 90s. Peatlands are crucial to fighting climate change. They act as natural carbon sinks and can hold millions of tons of carbon. But that is only when they are in their natural, wet state. Several decades ago, illegal loggers built canals into Sebangau to transport logs. Without water, the peat dried up, releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide. Additionally, dry peat is extremely flammable resulting in terrible forest fires that burn underground and rage on for days, devastating this part of the country.

As we pass by the forest, you can still spot the scars of old forest fires. Black, rotting tree stumps stick out like crooked teeth in a field of new grass. The forest is slowly recovering. This is due, in a large part to conservation programmes by organisations like WWF. Starting in 2004, WWF, with the help of the local communities has built over 400 dams to block the canals and reforested several hundred hectares of land.

The remains of a 2007/2008 forest fire

The remains of a 2007/2008 forest fire

As evening falls, I’m told that one can spot crocodiles. Eventually I spot one, with its snout above the river surface. My colleagues gently point out that the ‘crocodile’ looks remarkably like a tree branch but I know what I saw and I’m sticking to my tale. We are near our camp for the night, so we abandon the speedboat and get into a klotok (a traditional canoe), to head up the narrow creeks. Night falls swiftly. The sky is a deep velvety blue-grey and is simply lousy with stars. The milky way shines above like a great celestial arch to welcome us into the forest. There is not a single light, the forest is black, the water is still and black with stars reflected, except when our boat breaks the surface into silvery ripples. As we come closer to our destination, suddenly the water is covered in white foam, like little icebergs floating in a pool of ink. I later found out that the water foams at the dam due to naturally occurring chemicals in the water. The forest is silent except for the crickets. Occasionally, we hear the flop of a fish. A few hours later, the moon rises, obscuring the stars and the spell is broken.

The first dam built by WWF at the Sebangau National Park

The first dam built by WWF at the Sebangau National Park

The next morning, I wake up early to take a short walk through the forest. A pack of gibbons yammer away, somewhere deep in the forest. Yellow breasted birds chase each other. Even the cobwebs look like jewelled nets. This divine land is a restored forest– after 10 years of hard work by WWF and its associates. Pictures of the place from ten years ago look terrible: decades of logging had turned this forest into a dun, barren hellscape. While the progress made is remarkable, it will still take several years for the forest to be restored to its original condition. Untouched forest is much better in forest cover, biodiversity and soil quality.

Forests like these are a very good example of why we shouldn’t listen to the glib words of politicians and companies who want to bulldoze entire ecosystems. Just saying “We’ll plant a zillion trees on a piece of land double the size!” does not mean the forest will affably oblige us by regenerating itself. Orangutans have completely disappeared from this area and, with them, so have several species of flora and fauna that depended on them for propagation. For many forests, restoring the original mix of biodiversity that made it so unique is impossible. The local communities live in constant fear of forest fires.

On our journey back to Palangkaraya, I cannot not help but think about the state of India’s forests– also known for their rich biodiversity. Our esteemed government gives permission for an average of 31.43 square kilometres of forest land to be destroyed every month. In the last 2-3 months, the new government has systematically weakened forest and wildlife protections in the name of ‘development’. Forest clearance requirements have been relaxed for highway projects (which happen to be one of the biggest reasons for deforestation in the country) and efforts are underway to enfeeble the National Green Tribunal (which is a special environmental court established recently, and has already delivered several groundbreaking judgments).

If Sebangau is anything to go by, every single inch of this land could take a minimum of 20 years of dedicated reforestation efforts and millions of dollars to return it to its original state– and even then, there’s no telling whether such efforts will be successful.

As we enter the river port, I say a quick prayer to the river dragon to let me return to Kalimantan some day to glimpse its virgin forests– if they still remain.

Path through the restored forest

Path through the restored forest

Srilekha Sridhar is an MPP student from the class of 2013. She undertook her summer project in Palangkaraya, Indonesia with WWF.

All images: Srilekha Sridhar

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