By Augusta M. Anandi
As travel restrictions related to COVID-19 relaxed in February 2022, I returned to my PhD fieldwork in Indonesia’s Labian-Leboyan sub-watershed in the regency of Kapuas Hulu, West Kalimantan. However, this time, I brought my family with me, including my 10-month-old daughter Kalila, who quickly became known by the friendly nickname Si Kiting, or Curly Baby, because of the thick black curls of her hair.
I discovered that the experience of conducting fieldwork with a family – especially a baby – could be remarkably rewarding for many reasons.
We stayed with a family in their home in Lanjak, a town with a small market that is the center of community activities. Every morning, my family and I bought breakfast and shopped for the day. Before long, we felt completely at home, meeting local residents as well as farmers and fishers from villages upstream and from the lake who come to the Lanjak market to sell their produce.
Most days, I used a motorbike to reach my study villages for data collection. Access to the two villages located at the upper stream of the sub-watershed, locally known as Labian-Leboyan river, is challenging because of very poor road conditions. Travel is uncomfortable, to say the least, due to the mountainous area with steep hills and gravel roads that are very slippery when wet from rainfall, which I encountered several times.
However, the downstream villages located in the Danau Sentarum wetlands are accessible only by motorboat. In each of the three years of my field research under the COLANDS initiative – 2019, 2020 and 2022 – I tried different methods to reach this area. In August 2019, the wetlands dried up, so I used a motorbike within the main lake area; then, continued with a speedboat to the villages on the riverside. In 2020, during the transition from the rainy to dry seasons, the water was so deep that I traveled by motorboat for up to two hours to reach the villages; I used the same method most recently, between February and July 2022.
My study site is the Labian-Leboyan sub-watershed, which covers three key conservation areas: the Betung Kerihun National Park, the State Forest area and the Danau Sentarum National Park. There are 10 villages along the river. This year, I was at the study site during the paddy harvesting time, which is an annual special event for members of the Dayak tribe, which makes up most of the population in my study area. During the harvest festival season called Gawai, held in June and July, most Dayak villages are very busy with ceremonial rites and celebrations.
Occasionally, my family came with me into the field, and my baby daughter proved to be an amazing ambassador for my research. People who might have been stiff or skeptical of me alone were welcoming and responsive when they saw Kalila. My family joined me during interviews with locals in an upstream village in one of many bilik (house units) of the village longhouse. Immediately, every woman living there came by to see Kalila, making interviews much easier to organize. My baby can gather a women’s group within five minutes!
Through my research, I learned that development projects have improved infrastructure networks, such as reservoirs for water access, and capacity for community environmental governance. More people now understand the importance of environmental governance; for example, integrating the environmental program with village regulations, village funding and seeking support from outside, such as government agencies and civil society organizations (CSOs). Conservation, forest protection and economic improvement for the community is considered by many to be balanced.
However, external funding might slow community independence in landscape governance. Furthermore, increased costs, time, and effort are required of communities to adjust harvesting from traditional towards new methods to meet premium market requirements (usually certification processes).
Fishing and farming are still the main livelihoods in the study area, despite concerns among my contacts in 2020 that COVID-19 put their livelihoods at risk. The pandemic did affect those working abroad in Malaysia as manual laborers, and many returned to farms around the villages. COVID-19 also caused development project delays.
Meanwhile, because the pandemic forced school closures, an improved telecommunication network for children’s online study was needed. I noticed some village leaders at the study site were leveraging knowledge acquired from past initiatives. For instance, one village head used his government contacts to establish a mini-WiFi station for his community and a neighboring village.
I could see that these communities along the Labian-Leboyan sub-watershed had developed good levels of resilience and seemed able to adapt to change. But it was also clear that COVID-19 brought many uncertainties and affected residents’ livelihoods, income and well-being.
Communities continue traditional livelihoods that rely on food and income from nature. Fisheries and crops such as paddy fields are vital for daily sustenance, while the honey harvest and rubber trees provide cash incomes. CSOs and the government are introducing alternative livelihoods related to current activities in the communities, such as fisheries, honey, vegetable farming, developing red ginger products (ready-to-drink red ginger in a sachet), illipe nut products, coconut sugar and eco-tourism. Support is also provided to market-based requirements, including certification processes such as organic assurances and internal control systems to improve harvesting practices and end-product quality to attract more clients and better prices.
Through all of my varied field experience, I learned that although it is challenging to bring a family, especially a baby, to the field, it is also a beautiful experience. It’s also rewarding for my work because I can better focus by feeling secure in knowing my baby is nearby; and people appreciate when she is there.
This article is part of a series of fieldwork diaries from the COLANDS project. Read more:
Augusta M Anandi is a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR) of the University of Amsterdam. She is also affiliated with Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the COLANDS initiative. Her research area is in Indonesia, focusing on customary arrangements, multi-stakeholder platforms and integrated landscape approaches. Augusta holds a Master’s degree in environmental policy and management from the University of Adelaide, South Australia.