Kalimantan is the largest of Indonesia’s 14,000 islands with the country’s longest river, the Kapuas, running north-south in the west of the island. The town of Sintang is on this river ten hours by road from Pontinank, the capital of West Kalimantan. It is a wearying trip from Bali to Jakarta and Pontinak by air and then continuing by car. I traveled with Pung and Frog who work with Threads of Life’s sister organization, the YPBB Foundation. They have been working with weavers in Sintang for the past five years.
We stayed overnight in the small village of Ransi Panjangoutside Sintang. I was hoping to see a traditional Dayak Desa longhouse there but unfortunately there is no longer one standing. More than twenty years ago there was a longhouse in Ransi Panjang with thirty households under one long roof. People left the longhouses to make individual houses. The longhouse fell into ruin and now where it once stood is a plantation of rubber trees.
Beside dry rice farming, rubber trees generate the main income stream for the community. One family will have minimally one hectare of land with about a hundred rubber trees. You can imagine the life of these people: the rice they grow is for their own subsistance, while the cash earned from the rubber trees pays for the family’s other needs such as schooling their children. It is amazing that so many rubber tree farmers can afford to send their children to schools in big cities, especially Jakarta!
Our main purpose for this visit was to meet with a small group of the remaining natural dyers who are part of JMM (Jasa Menenun Mandiri), a strong cooperative of Dayak weavers and farmers whose primary focus is to function as a credit union. Over the last five years, the Threads of Life team has watched the quality of the natural dye work amongst traditional Dayak Desa weavers decline.
Most weavers are now using only synthetic dyes, not only because it makes for faster work but because the natural resources to make the natural dyes are increasingly difficult to find or have become locally extinct. The red dye process requires a very complex oiling and mordanting process called Ngaos which requires oil plants only found in the local forests. Over the years we have seen most of the old forests converted into palm oil plantations.
Last year Threads of Life began to focus with this small group of ten women in Ransi Panjang as they have expressed a strong desire to revive the natural dye work for their traditional textiles. This year we created a small 200 square-meter garden together. In this garden we planted Morinda trees for the red dye color and Strobilanthes flaccidifolia, a type of indigo for the blue color.
Gemba and I went in search for one of the necessary oil plants, called Tengka, about one hour from the village. We found only five remaining trees. We collected six fruits so that we can save seeds to replant. Two of the fruits we brought back to Bali for our YPBB dyers to experiment with, so they can better understand the Ngaos oiling process.
Ibu Rupina, one of the weavers in Ransi, was very happy that we brought her Tengka as she has has not been able to find any for her Ngaos oil process for a long time. So this is the beginning of reviving the natural dye process in Ransi Panjang. These ten weavers are committed to bringing back this art form. It will take a big commitment on all of our parts, but we believe it is possible!