The Art of Survival: Drawing Inspiration from Ancient Wisdom

Often I find myself saying things like “If I want to have a future I have to look to the past”. And asking questions like “How did our ancestors survive and how were their basic needs met”?

This lead me on a trail of common sense discoveries that eventually became the foundation for my 9 Steps to Eradicate Poverty. This quest also lead me to live in the rainforest jungles with the Dayak tribes.

Dayak indians live deep inside the lush rainforests in a region known as Kalimantan, Indonesia on the island of Borneo. Many live in long houses located on the banks of the Kapuas Hulu River. Others live in hard to reach locations where they have coexisted in harmony with their surroundings for thousands of years.

Near the town of Putussibau lives the Ukit-Ukit tribe — a group of Dayaks who are now closely affiliated with WWF Borneo where together they are trying to save their forests from deforestation and the orangutans from being poached.

Access to West Kalimantan and the Denau Sentarum National Park is restricted and tightly regulated. Permits for visiting foreigners must be requested by local entities like WWF Borneo. My team had to carry multiple copies of my passport and permits for the law enforcement officers of each jurisdiction we visited.

In Unit-Ukit I was fortunate to stay at the home of Pak Unja and Ibu Sesilia. Pak Unja is a reformed logger who was enlisted by WWF Borneo. He now protects the forest around his village and instead of logging, he taps rubber trees for a living.

Sadly over 60% of Borneo’s forests have been cut down and only 8% of the island’s virgin forests remain. Now their mandate is to manage their natural landscapes sustainably (with practices like shifting cultivation and agro-forestry) so that both humans and nature benefit.

Today the community of Ukit-Ukit derives their income from rubber tree harvesting, fishing, farming, particularly red organic rice and making handicrafts. More importantly the rainforest is no longer deliberately destroyed for farming or logging. I learned a lot while living in the peaceful village of Ukit-Ukit, a tight knit community that shares responsibilities and is governed by a senate of village elders. Decisions are vetted and consensus based. Even when someone gets married the entire tribe comes together to plan the date, festivities, food preparation, music, wedding apparel and ceremony. Ukit-Ukit consists of 14 families who all have their own unique family crest/badge (see photo below).

Dayaks are resourceful but slowly over time their ancient art of healing has been replaced by costly Western medicine. While in Borneo I ran into an environmental colleague who had just come back from being in the field in Vietnam. I was thrilled to learn from him that in Vietnam medicinal plants are making a come back as they generate more money than timber logging. Tremendous news for the future protection of Borneo’s rainforests and for the overall health wellness of the indigenous groups of Indonesia.

The classes I taught were a huge success and I was eagerly invited back. While this trip primarily focused on repurposing trash and family planning, the mandate for my next trip to Borneo will be to plant a medicinal garden. A unique self serve permaculture garden that will include descriptive signage explaining the medicinal properties of each plant.

The garden and metal signage will be a cinch. Getting the villagers to not cook with MSG and to not put so much sugar in their coffee and tea will be more challenging. Overall their diet is healthy and they get plenty of exercise with their daily chores and harvesting.

WWF Borneo has installed several radio stations around the villages they support. Radio makes it easy to disseminate information and broadcast warnings. Smart move on the part of WWF as indigenous groups the world over today still actively listen to radio. A wonderful boon for me as it will help spread the word about our upcoming medicinal garden project and allow us to invite villagers to share their medicinal knowledge and plants with our community garden.

When teaching abroad I always return with lessons learned from the very people I came to teach. It is a valuable exchange and with each trip I share knowledge and gain knowledge. One of the many lessons learned from this trip is the importance of communal sharing. A gentle reminder of how our ancestors survived.

Today this ancient legacy continues and thrives with the Dayak tribes of Indonesia. And indeed, it takes a village coupled with devoted NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund.

Ukit-Ukit Tribal Art

Written by

Tina Cornely is a long standing humanitarian and environmental activist. She is the former Director of Technology of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the former Director of Operations at the Miami Art Museum in Miami, Florida. Ms. Cornely believes that art is healing and revealing. In her own words, we can express with art what we cannot express with words. When we use art to teach others, we help increase their critical thinking skills exponentially. Art can also be a means to generate a revenue source. And when you make art out of trash, everyone benefits.
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