Living in the dense jungle regions of Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, Dayak women have been preserving their culture for centuries through the traditional art of Ikat weaving. The recent explosion of the palm oil industry, however, poses a significant threat to their way of life. Together with PRCF, they are fighting back! YL volunteer Nicola caught up with PRCF Director Fernando Potess to find out more.
Operating for just over 15 years now, People Resources and Conservation Foundation (PRCF) is a non-profit, non-government organisation with a TRIPLE mission:
CONSERVING THE ENVIRONMENT
SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
They are doing INCREDIBLE WORK developing programs which achieve all three aims.
Steered by a board of unsalaried directors, each providing technical input in their field of expertise, PRCF works with rural populations in developing countries throughout the Asia Pacific.
The group started out in Indonesia, building a running water system in Nanga Juoi, West Kalimantan. This village was surrounded by logging concessions and was desperately in need of access to running water, but multi-lateral donors behind a large local aid project refused to get involved because it was beyond the scope of their existing project. Frustrated by the multi-lateral’s inflexibility, consultants on the project decided to do it themselves, and thus PRCF was born!
According to PRCF Director, Fernando Potess:
The Nanga Juoi project prompted putting into form and bringing to reality a conservation organization that would help rural communities at the edge of the forest attain self-reliance, using available resources in a wise and sustainable manner while supporting biodiversity conservation.
Since then, PRCF has expanded to include programs in Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and the Philippines as well. Why the South East Asian focus? Potess explains:
The region is very rich in biological and cultural diversity, and thus the opportunity to amalgamate conservation of biodiversity with socio-economic development.
There are also plans to extend operations into Africa and Latin America, though this will depend on organisational capacity and resources, as well as on whether opportunities emerge to work with communities in areas which meet PRCF’s mandate.
Projects currently under way are as varied as researching endangered species, mitigating the effects of climate change, reforestation and local conservation management, facilitating public participation in government planning decisions, and encouraging sustainable production methods in traditional crafts.
PRCF provides training, start-up funds and other assistance to get projects rolling, but they also place a really strong emphasis on COMMUNITY OWNERSHIP of each project, embedding projects in local customs and traditions, building on local knowledge, and enhancing community identity and self-respect.
PRCF help to set up member-based institutions, building up local capacity so that eventually members can run the organisations themselves. Locals are encouraged to be involved in everything from planning and implementation right through to monitoring and evaluating a project’s success.
Meaning to ‘bind’, ‘Ikat’ is a process of tying and then dying threads before weaving them into BEAUTIFUL, ELABORATELY DETAILED cloth patterns. Each cloth produced is unique, and tells the story of its individual Dayak weaver.
PRCF has been helping out through workshops on marketing, sustainable harvesting and the production of natural dyes, as well assisting the women to set up self-help groups such as the Jasa Menenun Mandiri (Weavers Go Independent) Cooperative in Sintang.
Watch a short clip on the weavers and their work:
This tradition is under significant threat from the palm oil industry. As demand for palm oil increases, more and more pristine old growth forests are chopped down to make way for plantations. This can have devastating effects on both wildlife habitats and traditional cultures. Potess explains:
The palm oil industry has claimed most imperata grasslands, and taken remnant forest areas and regenerating lands to convert into palm oil plantations. Although some of these activities bring employment to villagers, the traditional way and quality of life suffer. The variety of habitats in the region is replaced with monoculture plantations with no other option that harvesting of palm oil, and this has brought the main economic drive of villagers becoming laborers in their own lands.
PRCF are helping the Dayak people to counter these effects by encouraging a form of local forestry management which supports traditional ikat weaving and thereby helps provide an alternative income to palm cultivation.
The PRCF has helped local villagers to use and restore imperata grasslands in their village territories, and to claim and maintain tenureship rights on ancestral forestlands, as it is now recognized under Indonesian legislation. We have encouraged local communities to use their neighbouring lands with alternatives to palm oil plantations, and this has included self-owned rubber plantations through agro-forestry measures, enrichment planting of tembawangs, or household forest gardens that include planting natural dyestuffs for traditional ikats, and planning for processing of rights and licenses for traditional forest areas.
Whilst encouraging practices which protect the natural environment, PRCF also work hard to ensure that any changes to the production process do not compromise local culture and tradition. But is it actually possible to have development, conservation and tradition all at once? YOU BET!!!
PRCF’s work proves it!
In the case of the Dayak weavers, encouraging the return to natural dyes not only requires the protection of the plants from which those dyes are derived, it also results in an end-product which will sell for a much higher price. More natural dyes = more authentic weaving = more valuable cloths! Natural dyes are also way more healthy for the environment and for their users.
The program is playing a significant role in the preservation of tradition. Dayak weaving is rich in cultural symbolism and meaning, and PRCF have been working alongside the Dayak women to record these meanings and help pass them on to younger generations to ensure that the tradition is not lost.
Responses to their program by local women have been very positive, but it’s not just the weavers who benefit. The program has also been an extremely rewarding experience for the PRCF team. Potess tells a great story about their playful introduction to Dayak culture by their hosts:
[T]hree of the longest standing PRCF directors and myself were invited to participate in a traditional Dayak celebration many years back, when the PRCF was just a thought. We were all working in a large project in the middle of West Kalimantan [...] As we worked closely with the Dayak villages in the region, we were often invited to celebrations. On one particular occasion, we were invited by the Traditional Village Leader to their annual Gawai celebration, where treated like royal guests. Villagers wore their traditional costumes, which for women included original weavings of intrinsic meaning, immaculate quality, and unequalled beauty. I still remember how impressed we were by these weavings, and the women who wore them.
And solely men played the music, which was created though the harmonious combination of sound emanating from gongs, flutes, and other local musical instruments. Occasionally, there were solo women singers performing some rather amazing vocalizations, without pairing these to any of the instruments.
The festivity included a number of dances; most of them performed by women, and large amounts of tuak (fermented rice wine) […] At one point during the evening, one of my two colleague directors disappeared, and we just thought he had gone to wash up of or rest after so much tuak.
All of a sudden, the music and all chattering stopped. Out of nowhere came a loud scream out of a Dayak man as he jumped into an empty circle of people who had left and open space in the crowd. The man, wearing a red bandanna on his head adorned with argus pheasant feathers and holding a head-hunting Mandau knife with one hand and a wooden shield of armour on the other, kept moving in a rhythmically energetic and full spirited dance, from one side to another, shouting threats to an imaginary war enemy, as he turn around in a single jump while waving his frightening Mandau up in the air.
It was exciting to witness this most intimidating dance, particularly for us: one coming from Buffalo New York and the other from Bogota Colombia. As the Dayak worrier would jump and in mid-air turned around, this was followed by uproars by the crowd. In one of such turn, the warrior looked at us, and as he moved forward waving his Mandau, we recognized our partner’s face, who without the slightest grin turned around briskly and disappeared within the clapping crowd.
As we surprisingly discovered, the third PRCF Director was proudly portraying the traditional Kancet Papatai dance, or war dance, specific to the cultural occasion and embedded in his Dayak ancestry.
The program has been a HUGE success and is now close to self-sustaining! Potess describes this remarkable growth:
The program started about ten years back with a few weavers and two master weavers, and now includes the participation of more than 900 women weavers from 16 villages […] We consider that with the establishment of the Dayak Weavers Cooperative the program has reached a good level of sustainability, and therefore the PRCF is now focusing on the marketing of weaving products within Indonesia and abroad.
In 2010, this FANTASTIC project became a finalist in the Ashoka Changemakers Women, Tools, Technology: Building Opportunities and Economic Power competition. They’re now looking to replicate the project elsewhere:
The [Dayak weaving program] success has prompted us to look at the replication of these activities in a more isolated and deprived region of West Kalimantan. Likewise, a similar program is under planning for implementation in the Southern Chin Hills of Myanmar, with Chin women revitalizing their ancestral weaving culture. The idea is to now combine cultural arts revitalization objectives with conservation of natural forests at the two new locations.
Now all they need is your help!
PRCF is doing AMAZING work, but they wouldn’t be where they are without the support of people like you. There are heaps of ways you can get involved:
Volunteer through their Youth Ambassador Program! Find out more at http://www.prcfoundation.org/partnerships/youth-ambassador-program/
- Support the weavers directly by buying their products. Ikat weavings, along with a range of other products produced in Kalimantan, are on sale through the website http://tenunikat.blogspot.com/ (NB: the site is in Bahasa Indonesian so you may want to plug it into Google Translate at http://translate.google.com/#)
- Donate to help them keep up the good work at http://www.prcfoundation.org/support/donate/
Check out their website at
- Nominate a project for the Ashoka Changemakers awards at
- At Art for the Animals you can pick up Ikat products AND support the protection of Mueller’s Gibbons. Read more at
- Find out more about the devastating effects of the palm oil industry on Indonesian forests at
Has got a hands-on career in the international development as she envisions to put an end to extreme poverty. Traveler-writer Nicola is also Involved as a general member with Getup! (Australian political advocacy organization), Avaaz (international political advocacy network), Kiva (microfinance sector), and Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC).