Tana Olen, Forbidden Forest of the Dayak People

The Borneo rainforest is certainly the largest, and the most important, forested land-area in Asia. The forest itself is estimated to be, extraordinarily, around 130 million years old, and is presumably older than the Amazon rainforest. So for millions of years, Borneo had been this divine tropical paradise with dense, uninterrupted expanses of rainforests covering the whole of its territory and hosting thousands of living creatures.


No surprise then that this ancient eco-system attracts us like a magnet, and draws us totally in. Local tribes have lived in harmony with nature for many thousands of years – they know how to tend to the land and look after their precious rainforests.One excellent example of that is a tribe called Oma’lung, which is part of the Dayak Kenyah tribe.

The Oma’lung live in Setulang Village, in the north-eastern part of Borneo. The tribe leader tells us that each family within the tribe is allocated 10 plots for a rice paddy. Every year only one plot is used for growing rice. They cut down some trees on this land and then burn them – they believe this enriches the soil with nutrients.

During the second year another plot of land is cleared. And this cycle goes on for 10 years, after which the family returns to its first original plot for rice growing. And there is also “the forbidden area” – where it is strictly forbidden to log the forest for any purpose. This area is called Tana Olen.


The tribe leader says that the village people understand the agreement of their great grandparents. There is a designated area for a paddy field, an area for gathering housing and construction wood, and an area that is Tana Olen (“forbidden forest”) – where no one is allowed to damage or log trees.

They believe all of the trees in Tana Olen keep Setulang River’s water clean. They always check that the trees in Tana Olen have not been illegally logged. And they understand that if the trees are cut, the river will eventually stagnate.

The traditional law of Setulang Village states that anyone who will cut down trees in Tana Olen will be punished. Driven by an ancient Dayak code restricting access to the forest and its resources, the Oma’lung use centuries-old indigenous knowledge to manage their natural landscapes sustainably (with practices like shifting cultivation and agro-forestry) so that both humans and nature benefit. Today, the Oma’lung rely on income from farming, particularly organic rice, and from forest products such as game, fibers and poles. Importantly, forestlands are never deliberately destroyed for farming.


For many indigenous communities around the world, there are powerful economic incentives to sacrifice trees for timber and large-scale agricultural crops to feed the world’s insatiable appetite for economic development. However, as the 21st century intrudes on their territory, the Oma’lung are adopting an unlikely modern tool to protect their forest: the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) programme.

REDD employs “market incentives” to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Essentially, it is a scheme that pays forest owners like the Oma’lung not to chop down their trees. Trees that are saved, and the emissions prevented, are calculated and converted into “REDD credits” —  that can be bought and sold on a central market exchange (like the Chicago Climate Exchange) by buyers like big polluting companies wishing to offset their total carbon emissions.

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