Thursday, January 18, 2007

Shooting Diary - Notes from the Oil Palm

Tsunami-like devastation in the palm oil, surprisingly convincing acting from security guards, apocalyptic floods, and turtle rescues...

Shooting for the conflict-mitigation training film necessitated the inclusion of a re-enactment of palm oil workers following the correct procedure having encountered an orangutan entering the plantation boundaries. We arranged to film this re-enactment at a plantation about 7 hours' west of Palangkaraya, near the city of Sampit. The plantation in question was in the process of being established - and the land was being rapidly deforested, drained, bulldozed, and planted. This was previously prime orangutan habitat, and the BOS-F rescue team have made countless orangutan rescues from the small forest islands yet to be cleared in the vast new plantation. The small patches which remain are full of endangered species, competing for increasingly scarce resources and all slowly dying from starvation. An extract from our shooting diary…

Filming Deforestation No.2

“Unable to find a 4WD to hire, Pram and his friend Udin tracked down a fairly battered Kijang for the trip. We arrived at the plantation late at night, hoping to be able to find a couple of rooms in the workers' accommodation in which to stay. The plantation’s Indian-Malay manager was in town watching a World Cup match, but fortunately the satpam (security guard) let us use the room next to his (wooden slat floor for a mattress, hot and full of mosquitoes, but better than a night in the car).


The grey dirty water in the mandi next door was surprisingly effective at refreshing our already sweating and aching bodies at sunrise next day. We were up early to meet with the plantation staff manager, Pak Hari – a Sumatran with a love of Country and Western music and line dancing. Our tour of the clear-felled plantation in Pak Hari’s spotless and aircon-cooled pick-up was made more surreal by the in-car soundtrack of “Country Road” (interpreted by the famed Indonesian singer Tantowi Yahya). We arranged to film the reconstruction at daybreak next morning, and then set off in the Kijang in order to get some documentary evidence of the devastation wrought on the plantation.

The Horror

Forest clearance at this plantation was happening so rapidly and on such an extensive scale that Pram likened it to the 2004 Tsunami. Mile-upon-mile of fallen trees has replaced one of the most bio-diverse areas of the planet. Workers live under makeshift plastic shelters near the plantation’s edge, where the forest topsoil, not quite destroyed yet, has turned into a tar-like inky mud.

Fishing Hell's Creek No.3

They do have plantation accommodation, but the plantation is so vast that this would add a 14 mile hike to their daily grind, and as they work from sunrise to sundown, navigating the treacherous paths in the dark is no fun. There’s no shade and I had to shamefacedly revert to walking around with an umbrella, neo-colonial style, to hide from the blazing equatorial sun.

Road to Hell No.2

Although the Kijang had done well at navigating the extensively potholed road to Sampit, the thick mud of the plantation tracks proved too much for it and we almost immediately got stuck for several sunburnt hours.

Documenting Devastation No.2

After various attempts to free the car ourselves we were joined by a young plantation worker. Originally from Jakarta, he had left his job at a textile factory in the capital to come and find work in Kalimantan. Eventually it transpired that the plantation employed him as an “orangutan guard”. From 5am till 7pm it is his job to patrol a 3-mile section of the plantation perimeter keeping an eye out for desperately hungry orangutans damaging the palm oil saplings in search of food. According to him, the managers had recently ordered 300 snares to be set within the small patch of forest under his guard, in order to capture any orangutans remaining within it. We filmed an interview with him, Pram acting as interpreter. This snared forest patch and this guard were part of a much larger team operating along the plantation boundaries.


At sunrise next morning, fortified by a paper bag full of deep-fried tofu sold to us by an ancient old man on an equally ancient pushbike, we set off to film the re-enactment. There were some early glitches – when our “actors” started shouting “Let’s kill it!” at the imaginary orangutan they were trying to scare back into the forest, we had to have a bit of a chat with them and shoot the scene again. Pak Johannes, the security guard, turned out to be a surprisingly competent and confident thespian, although his overly cautious motorbike driving (despite us leaning out of the window of the Kijang shouting “lebih cepat pak!” at him) meant that we were left worried about how to convey an appropriate sense of urgency in the scene.

Security Reports Orangutan Sighting

During our three days spent working and filming on the plantation, we heard countless stories of the suffering endured by the remaining wildlife that used to live in this forest. Workers responsible for forest clearance around the edges of the forest islands saw orangutans entering the plantation in search of food everyday. We found a captured gibbon, one of many caught and held captive on the plantation by workers, destined to be sold into the pet trade in Sampit and sent downriver on a logging boat to Jakarta.

Filming Illegally Caught Gibbon

Unfortunately we were powerless to release this gibbon… neither could we blame the guard. This was his job, and his salary could be traced back through management to the parent company and some big well-known investors and buyers. On the edge of the clearing the gibbon’s mate (gibbons are one of the rare pair-bonded primates) was screaming for its imprisoned partner. It was a disturbing scene.

Gibbon No.5

On the return journey, the trusty Kijang was again put through its paces. Extensive deforestation along the banks of the Kasongan River has made it prone to bursting its banks during heavy rain, and the road from Sampit to Palangkaraya travels alongside the riverbank for extended distances. The flooding on our return journey was severe – waist-height in certain places – and without a 4WD we shouldn’t really have been attempting to get through it. In typical opportunistic fashion, local villagers were spear-fishing in the dark with flashlights where river had replaced road – quite helpful for us as they marked the boundaries of the tarmac. Water was at times coming in through the doors of the car and the exhaust pipe was fully submerged. Pram gunned the engine in first gear for almost an hour, at times Udin ran in front of the car to keep us on track – the slightest deviation off the raised road and we would be washed away. It was a nerve-wracking return journey for all of us except our unexpected reptilian passenger - a turtle found belly-up in the middle of the road earlier in the day, fallen from the back of a smuggling truck ahead of us – which we later released into the swampy land near to Palangkaraya.

This was a depressing return to the palm oil plantations of Central Kalimantan. Despite the successes of the UK palm oil campaign in the previous 12 months, positive change is not happening quickly enough in the Armageddon-landscape of Borneo. One small positive result was that Pram was able to return to the plantation with the BOSF rescue teams and the captive gibbon we found was released – one can only hope her haunting song has brought her mate back to her. Pram is now field-coordinator for Cockroach Indonesia and we’re very pleased and privileged to have him on our team.