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Byron Shire
September 18, 2021

Culture and dance provides a platform for youth activism in Kalimantan

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Youth activist Emmanuela Shinta visited Mullumbimby during her Australian tour recently. Photo Jeff Dawson.

In 2014 Emmanuela Shinta had started working for a local NGO as a translator; watching a training video on human rights in South East Asian that looked at indigenous communities using film and video to highlight issues for their communities she realised ‘it’s happening in my place, in Kalimantan’. Emmanuela decided to return home and look at ways young people from her indigenous Dayak community could use film to tell their own stories.

It was during the dangerous forest fires that were burning in Kalimantan in 2015 that Emmanuela came to prominence as a youth activist. The fires were on the news and the impacts were being felt in Singapore and China but there was nothing about the impact of the fires in Kalimantan.

‘There was no news in the media about Kalimantan while we were living in the middle of the haze with fires all around us.’

Emmanuela started talking to schools, universities and the government campaigning to stop the fires and eventually led a protest to the governor’s house.

The forest fires were, in part, a result of a failed government mega-dam project that had cleared and dug into the peat soils of the region and then left them to dry, as well as the impacts of clearing for palm-oil plantations and mining.

‘They just left the dam project unfinished. It was very dry at the time and as the peat dried out it became a place where fires started burning,’ said Emmanuela.

‘The air pollution (on the air quality index) was at 3,000; 300 is a death risk. The type of particulate from forest fires can’t be filtered by the lungs. It can lead to heart attacks, strokes and lung failure.’

Toxic pollution

The Indonesian government supplied some masks but they couldn’t filter the fine particles (PM2.5) from the forest fires.

‘It affects your ability to breathe and people were being affected by smoke inhalation on the street. One young child died riding home from school owing to the level of pollution. Thousands of people were hospitalised. In Singapore they closed down a school because the reading was at 100,’ Emmanuela explained.

Solution driven

Big Red Button from Singapore and UNICEF then helped Emmanuela develop a prototype safe room or haze shelter; a concrete building with a two-stage filter system.

‘We don’t just want to complain about the problems,’ pointed out Emmanuela, ‘we want to look for solutions.’

‘We are trying to make the safe room a pilot project with the government but they seem to feel that it is not urgent enough to take on.’

Cultural platform

‘In Indonesia indigenous people don’t get the space to speak for our rights and justice,’ points out Emmanuela.

In 2016 she founded the Ranu Welum Foundation and she has trained more than 100 young indigenous people to be able to use the camera to speak about their causes.

‘For young people it can be empowering. But activism is a dangerous word and not interesting for young people often.’

When engaging young people in making films and developing their stories on social media they initially have a range of ‘conversations and discussions around palm oil, mining, how our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters uncles, aunties and cousins have a difficult life,’ said Emmanuela.

‘We talk about how this is your home, your people. You are Dayak – what do you want to tell the world about you, your people – what’s important to you? It is not just about bringing the cause; it is about empowering ourselves,’ she said with an infectious smile.

Land theft

‘People talk about the beauty of Kalimantan and the dance and culture but no one talks about the indigenous issues and that people are being displaced.

‘The land is taken from villagers and handed over to companies; this has been taking place since 1997. There are hundreds of different companies (palm oil and mining) and they lie and say locals will be able to work in the plantation or receive compensation. For one group it has taken ten years to receive their compensation.

‘The company who had that site are now banned but when the villagers protested the police and army were brought in to suppress them. The police shot some people and some people they sent to jail for two to three years. This type of thing happens a lot.’

Australian visit

Emmanuela recently attended the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators conference on the Gold Coast to speak about the issues facing the Dayaks in Kalimantan and to launch her latest book Me, Modernism and My Indigenous Roots. The book is about her life in the midst of environmental destruction and industrialisation.

‘Kalimantan is a rich island so there is a lot of corruption. We are trying to work with the UN and international groups to reach our government to raise indigenous issues so that they can support us.’


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