Monday, July 20, 2009

When They Were Headhunters

When they were headhunters, many of the people of Borneo lived in “long houses” that were built on stilts 10 to 20 feet off the ground. Measuring up to 1/8th of a mile in length, the long houses were single structures that were home to an entire clan. Between 600 to 700 people could reside in one structure. These unique buildings were crafted because the various tribes were often at war with each other, and a single homestead afforded the greatest protection.

Less than 50 years ago, the Iban people, the island’s most ferocious tribe, hunted heads not only for ceremonial and spiritual purposes - but for sheer glory. Women would not consider a suitor unless he had separated an enemy’s head from the rest of his body. Distinctive tattoos adorned the bodies of those men who had shown valor on the battlefield. The severed heads were hung in a special place of honor because the spirits captured within provided protection to the inhabitants of the longhouse. And there they hung, for seven generations, until a burial ceremony was performed that - at long last -released the spirits.

The Iban, Kayan, Kanyen, and all the other tribal people of Borneo are disappearing rapidly, as are their ways of life – good and bad. Only the old men and women have memories of the old ways. To me, this loss seems rather tragic. But when I asked the 89-year-old Iban chief pictured above what he missed most from the past, he smiled mischievously and said, “Life is good. Before, old men had to work in the fields until the end. But I don’t have to do that. I get to relax.”

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Tale of Two Volcanos

Considered one of the top ten locations in Indonesia, Mt. Bromo is as impressive at sunrise as all the guidebooks claim. Actually a live volcano, Mt. Bromo is one of three peaks that formed within the caldron of an even larger, more ancient volcano. In the pre-dawn hours, with drowsiness urging one back to sleep, the landscape is surreal – more reminiscent of a beautifully rendered canvas than a living, smoking presence. As can be expected with any sight that required time and skill to reach, the local people imbue the mountain with all manner of spiritual significance. Their perspective is easy to appreciate as the rising sun paints the sky soft shades of pink and blue, slowly revealing the fog-shrouded mountain peaks below.

As compelling as Mt. Bromo was for its dreamlike qualities, it was another, unexpected, volcano that captured our attention – a volcano of mud. A few hours drive from Mt. Bromo lies what used to be the town of Sidoarjo. While drilling for oil, PT Lapindo Brantas, a local company owned by a leading Indonesian politician, struck not crude but an untapped geyser of mud. The earthen sludge shot out of the ground over three years ago, yet it continues to discharge 150,000 cubic meters of mud every day – enough to fill forty Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to an April 2008 study.

Within weeks of the initial eruption, entire villages – home to more than 40,000 people - were completely submerged, as was the highway and the railroad track leading to Eastern Java. The pollutant ran into a nearby river, a primary source of water for the people of Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, turning it unusable. Much of the population is now forced to drink bottled water. Pictures of the early days are unbelievable.

Recriminations abound. Local people, and a number of engineers, claimed that in their rush for cheap access to oil, Lapindo Brantas had failed to use established drilling practices, resulting in a preventable tragedy. The company counter-claimed, blaming the disaster on a earthquake that had occurred days earlier about 260 kilometers (160 miles) away. Regardless, the politician, who owns Lapindo Brantas, promised to compensate the people who had been divested of their homes and livelihoods.

Years have passed, a dike has been built to push the mud flow back into a contained area, which is filling up like a lake. The people who were displaced are trying to re-establish their lives, but instead of their previous homes, they are now forced to live in shacks. Work is scarce to non-existent. Neither the government nor Lapindo Brantas ever made reparations to the people.

In a few days, Indonesia will have a presidential election. Candidates from all three parties are promising to pay attention to Sidoarjo. But the people there don’t believe it. So far, they have received nothing but promises. And it is unlikely that a man of political strength will ever be held accountable in a country where cronyism and corruption are part of the political landscape.