“I hope the forest stays forever,” Wahyu said, his trademark grin fading from his face in a rare serious moment. The dense foliage parted where we sat, allowing us to look out over steep hills coated in green. What we were seeing was living history; untouched primary forest that had eluded the human grasp for thousands of years. We sat in a reverent silence, tracking hornbills soaring along the steep ridges and listening for the faint call of gibbons amongst the trees. I realized I was looking at one of the last unexplored places on Earth.
The trance was broken by a playful shove to my shoulder, and I turned to see Wahyu’s smile had returned. “Look how sweaty you are. I told you, just don’t drink water, then you won’t sweat so much.”
Wahyu was a Forest Guardian, a member of his Dayak village in Borneo that protected the community’s traditional forest from illegal loggers and poachers. While the tribe had been guaranteed rights to the forest’s management, patrolling the area’s 38,000 hectares, a portion of which was near-impenetrable, was a challenge for the few who chose to become its guardians.
My job was to help establish a community-run sustainable tourism program to support the conservation effort. The profits from tourism would fuel the expansion of the forest’s protection while making it a valuable asset to the village. Part of my work included training some of the forest guardians to be guides. I gave English lessons, helped them maintain facilities, and marked trails.
Wahyu was the program’s most enthusiastic participant, and secretly my favorite of the forest guardians. A poster boy for one of those late-night infomercials, Wahyu’s scrawny frame had been chiseled into that of a fitness model over the course of a year thanks to pull-ups, which he did constantly on anything he could find, from doorframes to tree branches. Thanks to this, he carried himself with an indisputable confidence, but it was the earnestness he hid underneath that made me like him.
Popular amongst the guests for his willingness to share knowledge and stories, his best feature for me was his sense of humor. He could never stay serious for too long, and his smile encompassed his entire face, revealing two crooked front teeth that reminded me of a cartoon character. The image was strengthened by his uncontrollable, hyena-like laughter, which often came at my expense.
Wahyu was my most devoted English student, and he quickly comprised the role of my Indonesian teacher. Much of our progress was made not in our nightly classes but out on the trails or in the kitchen, where we would exchange words, laughing at each other’s mistakes. We whispered “leaf” and “sky” while searching the trees for orangutans; and yelled “tomato” and “carrot” over the Linkin Park Wahyu loved to blast as we cooked.
Wahyu was representative of his community’s struggle, a living collision of the past and present. He was one of the few of his generation that desperately clung to their connection to the forest, something instilled in him by his grandfather’s stories of mythical spirits. Now, most people in the village had never even seen the forest; much of the surrounding area had been cleared by palm oil production, logging, and mining. Where it had once been at their doorstep, it was now over a two-hour drive away.
Never experiencing the forest the way Wahyu and I had day sitting atop the viewpoint that day made it difficult for people to see the value in its protection. So, when the chief of the village decided to shut down the program, amidst rumors he was accepting money from a mining company, there were not enough people to give the forest a voice.
When I said goodbye to Wahyu, he was still smiling; but this time something was missing. I think as we left, a bit of hope he had for his forest did too.