Rollin’ on the Mahakam River

“…She is from California, America.  Her mother is Japanese, her father is Irish, and they live in America now.  She does not have children yet,” Raini explained to the group of lounging fishers.  They all nodded, as if to say, “Ah, good, that explains so much!”

It was the end of our first day gathering preliminary information about villages in part of the Mahakam River, Kalimantan Timur (southeastern Borneo), Indonesia.  This was during my week or so there in November, my second time to this site (I’d joined Dr. Danielle Kreb’s Irrawaddy dolphin survey there last year).  We were talking to village heads (kepala desa) and whatever groups of fishers we came across.  Raini, my research assistant/interpreter from local conservation NGO Y.K. RASI, had learned to anticipate the questions that inevitably arose about me, my Asian-esque appearance, and my offspring.  He finally just decided to incorporate the information into his introduction of me and my research to potential informants.

As in other sites where I’ve worked, the presence of a foreigner (bule) excited much curiosity.  I don’t mind the questions or the unapologetic stares (as awkward as they make me feel), as I know the motive behind them is just a sincere desire to learn more about people from other places.  That same motive was why I was there in the first place – I wanted to get some background information on the people and their livelihoods so I could better plan my 2-month field season here in 2012.

The Mahakam River is home to another critically endangered population of Irrawaddy dolphins, called pesut here.  Compared to relatively placid Malampaya Sound, the Mahakam River seems overwhelmed with a dizzying array of human impacts.  There are the small fishing and passenger boats zipping around (really interesting shape – looks like they fly over the water), and then the hulking, indomitable cargo ships hauling coal, fertilizer for palm oil plantations, lumber, and gravel.

Boat alongside coal barge, Mahakam

The noise must seem tremendous for the dolphins, who are threatened by bycatch in fishing gear and ship strikes.  The denuded banks of the river are not what one pictures when one thinks of “Borneo”.  I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say that the environment is being pillaged and plundered.  Sadly, this has been happening in much of Borneo, and every time I visit that island of legends, my heart gets a little heavier.

The focus of this trip was  to get information on the villages near Kota Bangun, in a part of the river that’s been proposed as a dolphin protected area.  I wanted to get estimates of the population of each village, the numbers of fishers and the types of gear used, and the major problems for the villages and for fishers.  I also asked about their impressions of dolphin population trends, changes in where they see the dolphins, and if they thought it was important to protect them.  All of this was pretty loosely structured, and included some other questions thrown in depending on how the conversation took shape.

What struck me was how the village heads responded to the question, “What are the problems that your village faces related to poverty, education, health, and development?”  Most responded that everything was just fine – they had access to high schools and medical care, they had electricity.  This is in stark contrast to Malampaya Sound, where that question usually elicits lengthy and detailed responses.  The Mahakam villages that I visited clearly had more developed infrastructure, but I would certainly not call them well-off.  Perhaps there’s something different in how the word “problem” is perceived in these areas.  Perhaps village officials here are less willing to highlight negative issues.

But complaints that did arise include: a significant decrease in fish; illegal fishing in one of the connected lakes; pollution from the palm oil plantations; sedimentation caused by deforestation (often for palm oil plantations); and the boat traffic.  Interestingly, some said that they thought pesut had increased in numbers or stayed the same over the past 20 or so years, while others noted a remarkable decrease.  Of course, perceptions vary among people, and I had a tiny sample size from this short trip, but it’s also possible that the dolphins are shifting where they go over time, such that fishers in one part of the river would notice a decrease while others would notice an increase.  I’ll have to keep those and various other possibilities in mind when doing more in-depth work next year.

My mission also included just absorbing everything that I saw – taking photos of fishing gear, observing the infrastructure in the villages, noting various human activities.  This kind of direct observation can help provide some context for my research.  I particularly enjoyed just walking along the village boardwalks, as well as observing the insides of the homes where we often do these interviews.   As in the Philippines, we were often offered excessively sugary caffeinated hot beverages, though here they favor tea over coffee.  Instead of the colorful large Christianity-themed posters tacked up on the walls in the Philippines, several of the homes here had stirringly beautiful pictures of Mecca.  I particularly enjoyed one house, which was large and airy and spacious, with austere furniture, solemn Islam-related pictures, and a bright Sponge Bob Squarepants rug.

So, before next year, I need to develop a more focused plan.  I will probably combine my socioeconomic surveys in the downstream part of the river near Kota Bangun with interviews about local ecological knowledge and bycatch in the more upstream portions of the river.  If I had more time allotted for this field site, it would be fascinating to do socioeconomic work all along the river to see how the more remote villages compare with those closer to major population centers.  I have a lot of thinking to do.  I definitely want to look at what local ecological knowledge (LEK) I can collect from people living all along the dolphin’s range in the river.

Terima kasih banyak to Dr. Danielle Kreb and Raini for their help with this work (and also to Raini for his patience with my as-yet extemely rudimentary Bahasa Indonesia).  And warm thanks also to the family of Pak Alul in the village of Pela, who were my lovely hosts (despite a considerable language barrier) for six days.

More photos here.