11-year-old Bilang has a very old soul. He lives in a small, somewhat remote village on the edge of a pristine forest in North Kalimantan, not so far from the Malaysian border.
I first met Bilang about 18 months ago on one of my visits to this area and I was immediately impressed with his self-confidence and natural way of dealing with both children and adults. I could see that even at his young age this boy has leadership potential and commands the respect of many in the village of nine hundred people, mostly from the Dayak Kenyah tribe.
But it is when Bilang ventures into the nearby forest that he really comes alive and connects with his Dayak spirit. To witness this young man walking in the rivers, hunting under rocks for small crabs and fish with his spear gun and his natural connection with the forest, I could see his father’s and grandparent’s influence.
His father Binyamin worked in Brazil for three years and saw for himself the destruction of the forests and passed on many stories to Bilang and other members of his family of what he saw.
Next year this young man will be attending high school in Malineu, a one hour drive from Setulang and staying with his uncle. “I will miss my family and my friends in Setulang,” Bilang told me, “but mostly I will miss the forests where I go hunting with my dad and the fishing in the rivers.”
“I am very proud of my Dayak culture, but one day I want to travel like my dad and see other places,” Bilang continued.
Perhaps Bilang is typical of a young Dayak boy of his age, at the crossroads as the forest and environment of North Kalimantan comes under threat from palm oil and logging companies. I wonder if in the future Bilang will be forced off the land in a city with no other choice, as the nearby forests are destroyed like so many others in Borneo, or will his children be able to enjoy and connect with the natural environment and his Dayak beliefs, as Bilang does today in a forest fully protected for future generations?