The Omen Birds Still Sing in Sungai Utik

June 07, 2023 Nia Tero Season 3 Episode 5
The Omen Birds Still Sing in Sungai Utik
Show Notes Transcript

“The land is our mother. The forest is our father. And the river is our blood.” 

Today we share a story of an Indigenous people who fought for their forest – and won. Sungai Utik is a village in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, where people treat nature “as if it is our own bodies.” Since the 1970s, companies have tried to take trees and land, but the village has successfully defended their forest. In this special episode, 18-yr old Kynan Tegar, a Dayak Iban filmmaker from Sungai Utik, shares excerpts from his upcoming film, which he describes as a “love letter” to the forest and river he grew up with. In these clips, hear village elders explain how they heeded the warnings of the omen birds to ward off those who would endanger their forests and way of life. 

Thank you to Dayak Iban elders Apai Janggut, Apai Gadja, and Apai Kudi, whose voices and stories are included in Kynan’s film, as well as this episode. 

Deep gratitude to Kynan Tegar and his filmmaking partners, Muhammed ‘Aldi’ Khatami and Yogi Armada, for sharing audio from their film, which is being made in partnership with the Wayfinders Circle. Wayfinders Circle is a global network of Indigenous communities, including Sungai Utik, and is dedicated to unleashing the transformative potential of Indigenous lifeways, inspiring all people to reimagine development, conservation, and the way they relate to each other and to Mother Earth. The conveners of the Wayfinders Circle are the Pawanka Fund, the World Union of Indigenous Spiritual Practitioners and Nia Tero.

Special thanks to our Nia Tero colleagues Joel Cerda and David Rothschild for kind guidance and generous introductions that made this episode possible. 

Host: Jessica Ramirez. Producer and Audio Mix: Jenny Asarnow. Story Editor: Nils Cowan. 

Learn more: 

More Wayfinders Circle Collaborations:

Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

Enjoy the Seedcast podcast on the Nia Tero website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast platforms.

Keep up with Seedcast on Instagram and use the hashtag #Seedcast.

Sungai Utik
Seedcast Season 3 Episode 5
June 7, 2023

[theme music begins to play softly in the background]

[00:00:00] Jessica Ramirez: Hi, I’m Jessica Ramirez. You know, we hear a lot of heartbreaking stories about forests being destroyed. But today we're going to visit a forest where the birds still speak, and every day, people celebrate their relationship with this beautiful place. They fought to preserve it, and they won.  

This is Seedcast.

Theme song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling, we are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can't tear us down, we’re here to stay… 

[00:00:50] Jessica: Most of the Indigenous peoples in the world live in Asia. Today we're headed to Indonesia, to the island of Borneo, and the village of Sungai Utik. About 300 people live there together in a huge longhouse next to the Utik River, surrounded by rice paddies and towering ironwood trees. 

[theme music fades]

[sounds of bugs, birds, and forest]

[00:01:22] Kynan Tegar: This is our forest, almost 10,000 hectares of pure protected forest that has been passed down from elder to elder to my parents, and now to me. My name is Kynan Tegar. I come from the Dayak Iban Tribe of the Village of Sungai Utik in Indonesia. I've been making films since I was 13, and I'm now 18—18 years old. 

[00:02:08] Jessica: Kynan is working on a film about his home. And he's going to share that film with us today. 

[00:02:14] Kynan: It's sort of like my own personal love letter to the forest, the place where I grew up climbing the trees, swimming the currents, and I wanted to tell it in the most personal and intimate way possible.

The stories of what the forest means to us, to our community, to our people—and to me specifically—in the fight that we had to go through, to protect it. 

[00:02:55] Jessica: In the 1970s, illegal loggers tried to cut down this forest, but the people kept them out and they have resisted land grabs and corporate greed ever since.

[00:03:08] Kynan: “The land is our mother. The forest is our father. And the river is our blood.” It's a saying that I've heard so many times growing up, and even now my grandpa still says it all the time. That is the way we, the Iban people, live and how we perceive nature—as something that's part of ourselves.

[00:03:40] Jessica: And that's what's reflected in his film. In it, we hear the voices of two elders from Sungai Utik, along with the sounds and the images from their surroundings. 

[00:03:52] Kynan: I just hope that this film can reach people—people that can make a difference so that they can stop looking at the forest as a commodity, and really treat it as if it is our own bodies.

[tranquil piano music begins]

[00:04:13] Jessica: For me, the sounds of Kynan's film are calm and powerful, like a meditation. So here it is, along with him doing the interpretation. 

[piano music continues over the sounds of bugs, birds, and forest and fades while forest sounds continue] 

[Apai Janggut speaks in Iban] 

[00:04:43] Kynan: [translating] The land is our mother. For generations, it has been our everything. 

[Apai Janggut continues speaking in Iban] 

Kynan: [translating] The forest that is our sanctuary is our father. 

[Apai Janggut continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] And the river that we cherish and protect symbolizes the flow of our lives. 

[Apai Janggut continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] The river is our blood. 

[Apai Gadja speaks in Iban] 

Kynan: [translating] Since the age of our elders, it had always been an uphill battle protecting this forest.

[sounds of the forest fade] 

Kynan: In our island there's still a lot of extractive activities happening.  

[sounds of gas-powered equipment fire up] 

Gold mines that are like, visible from the streets. Palm oil plantations that just spread. Places that's been deforested and you can just hear in the distance—chainsaws, excavators—working to tear through the earth, taking whatever is there.

[sounds of gas-powered equipment running full blast continues] 

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] This is the forest of our ancestors, and we will protect it.

[sounds of gas-powered equipment running full blast continues, then fades]

[Apai Gadja continues speaking]

[sounds of Sungai Utik river, bugs, birds, and forest resume]

Kynan: [translating] In the forest, every single movement and sound has its own meaning. 

Kynan: When you're in the forest, you can look up at the canopy, and to me it's one of the most beautiful sights. The green just enveloping you all around, and the calls of the birds echoing through.

[sounds of birds calling]

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] When we first came to being on this earth, they were humans too—not birds, just the same as us. These omen birds are so essential to our beliefs.  

[sound of a person whistling and bird responding] 

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] Through them, we hear the warnings and messages of our ancestors. 

[sound of a person whistling and birds calling in the background] 

[00:08:37] Kynan: So the first one that we heard in the interviews was Apai Janggut. He is the Tuai Rumah of our village, the leader of the longhouse, and he's been the leader of a longhouse for I think more than 40 or 50 years now. We – we’re not even sure how old he is. On his passport it says that he's around 70, but he remembers growing up before the Indonesian independence, so probably more around 90 years old now. And he was the one who led our community during illegal loggers wanting to come into our village. He was the one who led us through that.  

And then the second one that we heard from was Apai Gadja, one of our elders, and he is usually the one who's leading our rituals. He's one of the most knowledgeable persons when it comes to stories of our ancestors, the Iban origin stories. He's one of the few that still remembers those.

[sound of a rooster and a child speaking, then the voice of Apai Kudi speaking Iban] 

The next person we will hear from is Apai Kudi. He is one of the elders of the village, and he was also there when they first discovered the logging companies encroaching upon our territory.  

[Apai Kudi speaks Iban] 

[00:10:37] Kynan: Apai Kudi tells us a story. He says here, the forest is lush and the hornbills roam freely. 

[Apai Kudi continues speaking in Iban] 

[the sounds of bugs and forest play in the background] 

Kynan: [translating] In our forest, the birds flourish in the vast, untouched forest.  

[Apai Kudi continues speaking]

Kynan: [translating] But in places that's been deforested, they struggle to live.  

[Apai Kudi continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] Few remain, scattered in the remnants of a once great forest. 

[tranquil piano music begins] 

[Apai Kudi continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] We were on a hunt, following the trail of a boar. We heard a strange sound, so we stopped.

[Apai Kudi continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] It was the sounds of an excavator tearing through our territory.  

[Apai Kudi continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] Seeing this triggered our emotions. We brought spears and we brought blow pipes. 

[Apai Kudi continues speaking]

Kynan: [translating] The army and the police were there, but we were not afraid because we were defending our forests.  

[Apai Kudi continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] They trespassed into our territory, and we sent them home.

[Apai Janggut speaks in Iban] 

Kynan: This is Apai Janggut, and he said that this land is ours. We drove them away. We protested. 

[Apai Gadja speaks in Iban] 

Kynan: And that’s Apai Gadja again, and he said since our age, it had always been an uphill battle protecting this forest. 

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] Machetes had to come out, not far from here. We bore spears, we fought for our rights.  

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] They wanted to rob us of our rights, and there was no way we were letting that happen. This is the forest of our ancestors.

[sounds of children and people talking are heard through the music of the piano] 

[00:14:15] Kynan: In Sungai Utik since the 1970s, there had been companies after companies that had wanted to come into our territory, that wanted to take the trees that were on our land, and replace them with palm oil, replace the rivers with gold mines. And that's what our elders protested. They rejected that. They didn't want our forests, our rivers, our territory to be destroyed. And so they fought for that. Not to the point of bloodshed, but still, it was a very, very difficult time for the people. 

[Apai Junggut speaks Iban] 

Kynan: That was Apai Janggut. They—the loggers, the miners—they were all blinded by greed. 

[Apai Junggut continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] From the borders of Sarawak, up to the edges of our territory, the forest there had been turned into palm oil plantations. 

[Apai Janggut continues speaking]

Kynan: [translating] If we follow their same mindset, cutting down every single tree in sight, and even the trees of their ancestors…

[Apai Janggut continues speaking]

Kynan: [translating] …He said that that's no way to live. That way of living is the same as slowly taking our own lives. 

[the sound of a chainsaw firing up plays then fades] 

[sounds of bugs, birds, and forest plays] 

[00:16:35] Kynan: A lot of the other villages, a small part of their forest had already been taken away. But for ours it is still 100% intact. And that's all thanks to our elders who, you know, really fought hard for what we're able to enjoy today. For the trees and for the rivers. And it’s all thanks to them.  

[Apai Gadja speaks Iban] 

Kynan: This is Apai Gadja speaking, and he said that Sengalang Burung, that is the name of the elder of all the omen birds.  

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] Sengalang Burung had gave an order to his descendants, to Nendak (the white-rumped shama), to Ketupong (the rufous piculet), and the rest of the omen birds… 

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] …So that when the time comes that the human need guidance… 

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] …They will be his messenger—the messenger of omens and warnings.  

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] And that connection with the birds and the spirits has existed since the dawn of our tribe. 

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] If while walking we hear the sound of the Ketupong…

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] …It is a sign that we should turn around, that we should stop. And if we don't heed its warning, disaster will strike.

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] The times have changed. The other villages, they've stopped listening to the sounds of the omen birds.  

[Apai Gadja continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] He says that the elders, they have seen a lot in their lives, and the places that has had their forests ravaged have reaped none of the profits. 

[tranquil piano music plays over the sounds of children playing] 

[00:20:00] Kynan: Growing up, I had always lived between the community and the city. My dad was originally from Sungai Utik, from the village. And he was born and raised there, but then later moved to a city, and that's where I grew up mostly. Pretty much every weekend we would come to the village, stay with our family there. I would play around with the other kids, and it was nice. Around when I was eight or nine is when I started to feel like I had a role in the village. Usually whenever there's guests—tourists, I guess – from the capital, from other countries—they would come to our village and I would be the one helping to translate for them from English to the local language, to Iban. You know, most of them were researchers, scientists, writers, and they wanted to come to our village to learn. So I asked them, what did you want to learn from us? You know, it was a strange concept for me. Why did they want to go to this remote village to learn? And they said that it's because the Indigenous people are the ones that have the most knowledge to offer. We are the ones that know this forest the best, that knows how to manage it the most sustainably. And that's what they wanted to learn. 

[sound of children playing and piano music continue in the background] 

Later on, a bunch of filmmakers, photographers, videographers, came to the village too; and I guess they wanted to tell our story. They wanted to tell our story to the bigger world. So I had a thought—why shouldn't it be us? Why shouldn't we be the ones to tell our own stories? And so when I got my first camera around 13 years of age, that's exactly what I tried to do. By coincidence, a friend of mine asked me, "Kynan, have you made any films?” They were running a film festival. And, so I told them “Yes, yes I have made a film, I recorded this ritual!” And they gave me one month to finish that film with absolutely zero prior knowledge of editing, post-production or anything. That was one of the most fun and stressful months of my 13 years of life at that point. Basically I just stayed up all night watching YouTube tutorials on how to edit, learning all of the basics on a very, very old computer that crashed pretty much every two minutes. But after a month, it was done. It was finished, the film was done, and I got to show it at that film festival, and I still remember seeing people's reaction to it. 

At that moment, I realized I wanted to make films. I wanted to tell our stories. And so from then on I continued making films, some of them going to international film festivals, and some of them going to UN events like COP. And yeah! Now I'm still making films, still trying my best to tell the story of my people. 

[sounds of drums and melodic instruments, and roosters crowing in the background] 

[00:24:45] Kynan: Here, Uchil and Bandara are dancing. We call it the Welcoming Dance, and the movement really mimics the movement of birds floating through the sky with their feathers. This is our traditional dance played to the rhythm of the tabu, and it is the dance that we do whenever a guest arrives, to welcome into the longhouse and to make them part of our family. We would take them through the corridors of our longhouse from one end to the next, and then back again. And we would bring them to our rooms, to our houses. We would bring them drinks. We would bring them food, and that is our culture. 

[Apai Janggut speaks in Iban] 

Kynan: This is Apai Janggut. and he said that all this time, the only one to benefit from all this disruption are the companies. The locals have no other choice but to work for them. 

[Apai Janggut continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] And he said that the locals are the ones to bear the biggest consequence. Consequence from those extractive industries, from the palm oils that destroyed the forest, the mining that has left the river polluted, and the places that's been deforested with no more trees to call home.  

[Apai Janggut continues speaking]

Kynan: [translating] And he asked what can still grow on that land? Not even paddy can survive there.  

[Apai Janggut continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] No trees or vegetables can grow there. 

[Apai Janggut continues speaking]

Kynan: If all the trees has been cut and the land devoid of life, what's left? It's just barren empty land, is what Apai Janggut said. 

[00:28:03] Kynan: In Iban culture, the birds have always been important omens. We listen to them. We listen to their calls, to the flaps of their wings, because that's how we interpret the sound of nature. And in the places where there are no trees left, where it's just barren land, you can't hear any of those sounds anymore. The birds have already gone; or if there are still any, there's only one or two of them, and in those places you can't listen to the sounds of nature. You can't understand what nature is saying. 

[Apai Janggut resumes speaking]  

Kynan: Apai Janggut said that they've now overcome many, many challenges. 

[Apai Janggut continues speaking] 

Kynan: He said that we must realize our lives flow through these waters. We are sheltered by this forest, and it protects us. 

[Apai Janggut continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] Our life is only made possible by our mother, Earth. 

[Apai Janggut continues speaking] 

Kynan: He said that for us, the Iban people, every single tree cut and animal killed; there must be a purpose to it.  

[Apai Janggut continues speaking] 

Kynan: [translating] This is the legacy of our ancestors. Their souls rest in this land. 

[Apai Janggut continues speaking]

Kynan: [translating] He said that we must talk about the future that we want, not just for our planet, but also for ourselves. 

[sounds of bugs and forest plays] 

[piano music slowly continues] 

Kynan: I don’t know. I can't imagine a childhood where I wasn't surrounded by trees, where I wasn't swimming around in rivers; and I want a future where that kind of stories isn't just stories, it's still something that you can feel, yourself. And I guess that's what I'm trying to do nowadays, as like, an activist, is to try my very best to protect the remaining forest that we have. I think that's what my role is. You know, our elders, they've already done their part. Now it's our turn as the future generation to continue on the struggle. 

We are making progress. The rates of deforestation has steadily gone down, but it's still far from enough, and we're the only ones to blame as humans for what we've done. And I guess my hope is just for all of us, as a collective, to do better; to respect our mother Earth, to love it, and to appreciate it for what it has given us, our life. 

[sounds of bugs, piano music, and children playing continues in the background] 

[Apai Janggut resumes speaking]  

Kynan: Apai Janggut said that each and every one of us one day will inevitably leave this world.  

[Apai Janggut continues speaking] 

Kynan: He said that only the impacts of our actions will be proof of our existence.  

[Apai Janggut continues speaking] 

[piano music fades away] 

Kynan: He said that after they pass, they want us to remember—to remember them. 

[sounds of birds singing and calling plays in the background] 

[00:33:50] Jessica: Thank you Kynan Tegar for sharing your film with us today. And thanks also to your filmmaking partners, second director of photography, Mohammed ‘Aldi’ Khatami and sound recordist Yogi Armada. The film is being made in partnership with the Wayfinders Circle—it's a joint effort convened by the Pawanka Fund, The Council of Spiritual Elders, and Nia Tero. Wayfinders Circle brings together Indigenous communities from around the world with the goal of inspiring all people to reimagine the way we relate to each other and Mother Earth. 

Kynan recently traveled to Nia Tero's office in Seattle to work on his film, and where we recorded this interview. While he was in the United States, he traveled to Los Angeles with a delegation of international Indigenous filmmakers, then a youth forum with United Nations in New York, and he visited a few universities. He plans to start college as a freshman this fall. 

[sounds of birds singing and calling fades] 

[theme music begins] 

This episode was produced and mixed by Jenny Asarnow, featuring the film and additional sound recordings provided by Kynan Tegar, and story editing by Nils Cowan. Thanks to our colleagues, David Rothschild and Joel Cerda at Nia Tero for their support on this episode.  

Nia Tero is a Seattle-based foundation. We're both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making Earth livable for generations to come.  

Here at Seedcast, our guests represent themselves. They don't necessarily reflect the views of Nia Tero. We honor their honest perspectives and lived experiences. You can learn more about Seedcast and about our, or visit us on Instagram @niatero_seedcast.  

The executive producer of Seedcast is Tracy Rector. The senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Seedcast producers are Julie Keck, Stina Hamlin, and me, Jessica Ramirez, with additional support from Ha'aheo Auwae Dekker. Fact checking by Romin Lee Johnson. Transcripts by Sharon Arnold. Seedcast logo design is by Yen Tan and Graphic Design by Cindy Chischilly. Nia Tero social media is by Nancy Kelsey. The Seedast theme song is Rooted by Mia Kami. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we'll catch you very soon!  

Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay…