Traveling Thousands of Miles, Breaking Down Barriers for a Better Future

The words in the above title may resonate with fans of musician Iwan Fals, the "Bob Dylan of Indonesia". Fals's 1988 song Ibu tells of how a mother struggles to survive and fight for her child, inspiring those around her.

Across a thousand miles you traveled

Facing down barriers, for me, your son

My dearest mother, still you walk

Leaving footprints marked with blood

The lyrics to Ibu – Indonesian for mother – capture the courage of Iis Marwati, a formidable mother of four fighting hardships and leading local communities in the struggle to protect their forests and natural resources.

Originally from Mawu Village on the island of Sumbawa,  "Aunty Iis" moved to Labanan Jaya Village in the Berau Regency of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, where she enrolled in the regency's Prosperity SIGAP Warrior Program, a community mentoring and empowerment initiative. Iis graduated as a "Prosperity Warrior", trained in helping communities to become independent and self-sufficient and to help support sustainability in Berau's natural environment.

Photo Caption Iis Marwati, Berau, Prosperity Warrior. From facilitator to village secretary, "Aunty" Iis is known for her tenacious spirit. © YKAN


Iis gained her mentoring skills through the PSS's consortium of partners, including the Berau Village Community Empowerment Service, Yayasan Konservasi Alam Nusantara (YKAN), the Darma Bhakti Berau Coal Foundation and the program's manager, Gajah Mada University.

Since graduating, Iis has been actively involved in SIGAP – Community-Inspired Action for Change (Aksi Inspiratif Warga untuk Perubahan), a community-driven approach to protecting and saving forests that emphasizes the village's critical role in managing natural resources. Implemented by YKAN, SIGAP focuses on strengthening village governance, empowering communities in managing natural resources, and developing sustainable livelihood strategies for villagers.

Being a trained facilitator working with local communities has its challenges, as Iis quickly realized during her first assignment as a PSS warrior in Muara Lesan Village in Berau. In her role, lis worked with community members to prepare Muara Lesan's Medium-Term Development Plans and Government Work Plans, develop village and sub-district profiles, complete village government financial reports, and prepare the Development Village Index.

Initially, Muara Lesan's villagers were reluctant to receive advice from an outsider and pushed back against Iiis. But just like the Ibu in Iwan Fals's song, Iis found a way around such barriers. Through her enthusiastic and engaging approach, Iis eventually won the village's full support to continue her advisory role.    

Iis also mentored villagers in natural resource management. Using her facilitating skills, Iis got the broader community actively engaged in planning village land use, building capacity among the village's cocoa farmers and collecting village data.

Before completing her two-year posting to Muara Lesan, Iis helped revitalize the community's ailing BUMkan, a government program supporting village-owned enterprises. Waning local interest in BUMkan almost led to its official closure. But drawing on her "Ibu-spirit", Aunty Iis rallied the villager's enthusiasm, prompting the village government to resuscitate BUMkan and develop a business selling bottled water from the local spring.      

Caption Photo Iis Marwati, the "Sigap Prosperity Warrior" in Muara Lesan Village, facilitating discussions for BUMkan, the government program supporting village-owned enterprises. 2019. © YKAN

The next stop on Iis's thousand-mile journey facing down barriers was Labanan Jaya Village. This assignment was a double joy. Not only could she continue pursuing her passion for facilitating, but also she would be reunited with her husband and children. A short time later, Iis was appointed to participate in the regency's SOTK program and was elected as secretary for Mapulu Village in Bareu's Kelay District.

New assignments always come with unique challenges. But Iis's enthusiasm has always remained strong. The woman who started her journey as an educator is dedicated to seeing the village develop and progress. At the time, Mapulu Village was built from scratch and, per Berau District Government policy, moved from the Merabu Village area to a new village downstream of Panaan Village, Kelay District.

Speaking of her experience, Iis quickly acknowledges the skills and knowledge SIGAP provided her.

"My thanks go to the SIGAP Program, which has taught me many things, ensuring I do not hesitate to get directly involved in village government. I will always try to be alert and ready to apply my SIGAP knowledge," Iis says.

"My contribution is just a small part of the overall spirit of the parties trying to train me, to encourage me to empower the village community to empower itself."

Iis believes if the village fulfills every step of empowerment carried out by those who care about and participate in the empowerment process, the community will achieve self-sufficiency, independence and self-determination.

Photo Caption With the Prosperous SIGAP Warriors while attending SIGAP training in Labanan, Teluk Bayur District, Berau, East Kalimantan in 2020. © YKAN

The dedication of a warrior

Many people take their hats off and salute Aunty Iis. She also gets enormous support from her husband, Julkaidah, who is also a PSS member. The resilience of this mother of four has been apparent since her first assignment to Muara Lesan Village.

At that time, Iis was pregnant with her third child. Jumping on a motorbike with her other two children sitting pillion behind her, she would ride 100 miles from home in Labanan Village to Muara Lesan. A three-hour journey every two weeks along roads notoriously slippery when it rains and blindingly dusty when it doesn't. Some trips back to Labanan were more fun than others, especially when she could join up with Julkaidah as he returned home from his PSS work in Merapun village.      

After giving birth to her third child, Iis only took one month off before jumping back on her scooter and returning to Muara Lesan. Again, with her first two children wrapped up behind her, but this time with her newborn bub strapped in a sarong to her chest.

Photo Caption She was pregnant with her third child and attended the first SIGAP training in Tanjung Batu, Berau, East Kalimantan, in 2019. © YKAN

One story that often makes people gasp is when she gave birth to her fourth child. With only one month before she was due to give birth, Iis was in Muara Lesan, finishing some work and preparing to take maternity leave. But before she could depart, severe contractions woke her up at dawn. The midwives in neighboring Merapun could not help, with the river connecting the two villages running too high for safe travel.

But as she had done with all barriers in her life, Iis carried on. She calmly gave birth to her baby and had the satisfaction of seeing Julkaidah cut the umbilical cord and clean the baby. Even when pregnant with her fourth child, Iis the warrior remained faithful to her duties, empowering and encouraging the villagers at Muara Lesan.

But there are moments when warriors need someone to empower and encourage them. Such a moment happened one day while traveling to Muara Lesan. With rain falling and the road slippery, Iis suddenly felt the wheels of her scooter slipping and crashing. She and her four (three?) children ended up in a tangle on the ground.  

One day, on the way to Muara Lesan, the rain was pouring, and the road was slippery. Iis suddenly felt her scooter sliding out of control. She and her children crashed to the ground in a tangle of legs and arms.

Without realizing it, she was crying tears. Her son looked at her and said, "Mum, don't cry. We are okay".

Her son's words were a lightning bolt, galvanizing Iis's spirit. Like a chanted prayer, filling her with strength, inspiring her to get up and get on with life.

Iis, the tireless warrior, venturing thousands of kilometers, meeting adversity head-on, for family, community and nature.