Jambi’s Orang Rimba: Where Losing the Forest Means Losing Your Home


Dewi Kurniawati | December 23, 2009

Sarolangun, Jambi. Driving the beat-up motorcycle that he bought five years ago, Tumenggung Tarib stretched out an arm to point out columns of palm oil trees on the side of the paved road leading to his house in the Air Hitam area. As he spoke, his voice was tinged with disappointment.

“All of this plantation area used to be our home when I was a kid,” the 60-year-old says.

Thinking back to those days, when the tribe he calls “Orang Rimba” (Jungle People) freely roamed the forests here without running into anyone, especially outsiders, makes him sad. “In those days, the forests were truly a place we called home,” Tarib said.

The Orang Rimba are the indigenous, semi-nomadic tribe of Jambi, in central Sumatra. Their people number around 3,000, spread among the forests of Bukit Duabelas and Bukit Tigapuluh, two national parks.

Such tribes were once common throughout what became Indonesia. Nationhood and modern development means that these scattered “Isolated Customary Communities,” as the government calls them, are fast disappearing.

With forests being cleared for industrial plantations and transmigration settlements, the original inhabitants are being squeezed out of their traditional homes. Some say they’re also losing their cultural identity.

“In the name of industrialization, people have to move, but when the forest is gone, this tribe is gone. Their whole life and mythology is in the forest,” said Rakhmat Hidayat, executive director of Warung Komunikasi (Warsi), a local nongovernmental organization that’s been working with the Orang Rimba since 1995 on education, legal rights and health care programs.

“Everyone is encroaching into their forests, and all they can do is keep going deeper in … but the forest is not big enough for all of them. There aren’t enough resources to support them,” Rakhmat said, noting that the problem was exacerbated by the tribe’s tradition of avoiding confrontation.

“Unlike the Dayak in Kalimantan or tribes in Papua, the Orang Rimba will not fight. When pushed, they will go deeper into the forest,” he said.

The first real incursion into Jambi’s forests came in the 1970s during the Suharto government’s controversial transmigration program, which moved landless people from Java, Bali and Madura to underdeveloped areas. By the end of the 1980s, millions of Javanese had become new landowners in Sumatra and Borneo.

Tarib was only 7 years old when workers first cleared the outer boundaries of the forest, which had literally been a playground in which he would pick fruit and hunt for wild boars, porcupines and other animals — the tribe’s main food sources. “Those workers said they were under orders from the president,” Tarib said.

Backed by soldiers and police officers, the workers scoffed at the Orang Rimba and told them to go complain to Suharto. “We didn’t know where the president lived. How could we ask why our home was being destroyed?” Tarib said, shaking his head.

Housing developments for transmigrant families were soon erected on the cleared land. Each new family was granted a two-hectare plot.

Even as the plots kept growing, the forest people didn’t lose much sleep over their new neighbors. As Tarib described it: “The Orang Rimba didn’t want to stress about it. As long as we could still find food to eat, it was OK for us.”

They would soon be hit by a bigger wave. Palm oil plantations, established in the 1980s with the blessings of the government, were followed by more land conversions to make way for plantations devoted to pulp and paper factories in the 1990s.

In 1999, Jambi’s forests made up 42 percent of the province’s total land area, or about 2.17 million hectares. A decree issued by the governor’s office at the time set aside almost half of that, about 870,000 hectares, as a protected area. Nonetheless, Jambi is currently losing around 1,500 hectares of that protected area every year due to illegal logging, land clearing and development. The same pattern of deforestation is occurring across the country. The Ministry of Forestry concedes that from 2003 to 2006, more than 1.17 million hectares of forest were cleared, with Sumatra losing the most.

A Way of Life in the Forest
The Orang Rimba’s simple life has changed significantly as a result of deforestation.

They are easily recognized by their features and dress, with their long, ruffled hair and loincloths. The women mostly go topless, though those who have embraced a bit of modernity cover themselves with a bra or a piece of cloth. Most Rimba men are exposed to the outside world; women remain hidden in their huts.

Their ancient attire, nomadic lifestyle and supposed lack of hygiene is mocked by outsiders as backward.

“That is why when someone doesn’t like to shower or acts stupid, they are called Kubu,” said Rudi Syaf, program manager of Warsi, referring to another name for the Orang Rimba that is often used by Jambi’s non-indigenous residents.

The central government hasn’t done much better, calling the tribe the “Isolated tribe.” Now they are the “Community with Remote Customs,” a term the tribe rejects.

Fed up with labels and slurs, the Orang Rimba try to adjust. To avoid being looked down upon when they wander out of the forests to trade fruit for salt, matches and rice, tribesmen will don shirts and pants. Some ride motorcycles and own cell phones. More and more of the tribe’s younger generation are adapting to modern life. The end is coming. “We can’t avoid this. Very likely we will lose this battle,” Tarib said.

Tarib and his family seem to see the writing on the wall. He dresses as the outsiders do, uses a motorcycle daily and bought a cell phone in 2007. He, his wife and one of their sons also converted to Islam. “My son is married to a village girl whose father is an Islamic cleric. He became a Muslim for that,” Tarib said.

But even if they give in to outside forces, the Orang Rimba find it hard to adjust.

“Outside the forest they are ranked as the lowest caste, subservient to other cultures. Because they are aware of this situation, they force themselves to adjust to modern culture,” said Adi Prasetijo, an anthropologist who wrote his thesis at the University of Indonesia on the Orang Rimba.

“The problem is, although they have adopted some modern ways — for example how they dress — that doesn’t change the perception of the outside world toward the Orang Rimba,” he said.

The internal conflict between modernity and tradition is apparent with Tumenggung Grip, a 54-year-old local chief from Kedundung Muda, which is a three-hour hike deep into the forests of Bukit Duabelas National Park. “Tumenggung” means hierarchical leader, and Grip leads a group of 50 families.

Sitting in a hut usually used as a make-shift school, he explains why he’s dressed the same as his visitors from the Jakarta Globe.

“The perception of the loincloth is that it equals low education, backwardness and a filthy life. I dressed like this to honor you as my guests,” he said.

Beneath his shirt and shorts, however, Grip’s heart and mind are still about the old ways.

As we sat down, he told us a story about how transmigrants once told him that the forests would one day disappear and become a city.

“At that time, I thought it was impossible. I just couldn’t imagine it, but now it’s all come true. We lost most of our forests,” he said.

To Grip, who was born in the forest, it’s all his people have in life. “People don’t seem to understand that this is not just trees, or logs or land … it’s home for us. Our whole life and customs are inside the forests,” he said, adding that true forest people only want to die where they are born.

The ‘Tree Of Life’
With relentless deforestation, there’s less of a homeland for the Orang Rimba to live in and practice their distinct culture. Whenever a baby is born, its umbilical cord is planted under a tree. Such a tree is called a “tree of life,” and is considered sacred because it grows along with the baby.

“ ‘One birth, one tree’ is an ancient concept for the Orang Rimba,” Grip explained.

Unlike loggers from outside, tribespeople immediately recognize a “tree of life” by its bark, the grass around it and other hints.

“Cutting down a ‘tree of life’ is a huge violation for us. It’s as if you kill someone,” Grip said. “Many of our ‘trees of life’ have been cut down by loggers. It’s sad if you can’t visit the marker of your birth.”

When a family member dies, the tribe follows the custom of melangun, in which they abandon their huts and roam the forests looking for a new spot to settle. In the old days, the process could take as long as five years — something they can no longer do.

“We can’t travel that long or that far because there is less forest now for all of us,” Grip said. “In the old days, we would also dig someone’s grave as far as possible from our huts, but with less forest, the graves are closer to our homes now.”

Less forest land also means fewer animals to hunt and fruit to collect, which weighs heavily on the tribe because raising and eating livestock is forbidden. They are allowed to eat fresh fish from local rivers.

However, the children we saw in Kedundung Muda were visibly malnourished. Dozens die each year from diarrhea, which first began appearing within the tribe in 1998. They say it’s caused by local palm oil companies polluting the rivers with waste.

“Our shamans can’t cure diarrhea because we haven’t had this problem before,” Grip said.

In a somewhat desperate move to ensure their survival, some groups within the Orang Rimba have themselves cleared forest land to plant sugar cane, cassava, rubber trees and other crops.

“It breaks our hearts to cut down even a single tree, but if we don’t do this, we can’t feed our families,” Grip said.

Far away from the peaceful isolation of the forest, less fortunate members of the tribe eke out a living selling snacks and cigarettes from kiosks along the Trans Sumatra Highway. These Orang Rimba were displaced when their forest land was cleared to build the highway.
They frequently have problems with the Javanese transmigrants who also live there, and risk being thrown in jail just for picking up fallen fruit from nearby land owned by palm oil plantations.

Deforestation has also sparked confrontations within the tribe. In December 2008, three people died in a brawl sparked by an argument, the first homicides in the tribe’s history. While the Orang Rimba have their own customs to resolve disputes — giving items of clothing as compensation — the local police intervened because the brawl occurred in public.

Two tribesmen spent two months in prison, which in itself was another insult because technically many Orang Rimba don’t even exist. Most of the tribespeople don’t have state identity cards because they don’t have permanent residences, and are animists, which is not an officially recognized religion.

“I think it’s not fair that they don’t recognize our religion. It shows that they don’t care about us,” Grip said, adding that the same applies to some aid organizations. “Christian and Islamic preachers have come and offered to give us some land for farming and housing — if we convert.”

Some tribes people have attempted to secure their families’ futures by accepting government-built permanent housing and converting to one of the country’s five official religions. But doing so can sometimes mean being expelled from the tribe, something Tumenggung Tarib has seemingly been able to avoid.

Helmy, 55, once known Tumenggung Miring, was a group leader before converting to Islam in 1995. He even went on the Hajj pilgrimage in 2007, his trip paid for by the local district chief.

“At first I was sad to leave the tribe, because I’ve lived most of my life in the forest,” Helmy said. “But it was becoming difficult to live that life. We couldn’t see our future, we didn’t know what would become of us.”

“Then I decided to live in the village and join the transmigrant families.”

Helmy said he waited for his father to pass away before converting to Islam because he didn’t want to break his heart. He said 20 family members have also converted, and that many more Orang Rimba were interested in abandoning their traditional ways.

“Converting to a religion is a way for the Orang Rimba to survive,” Adi, the anthropologist, said. “With less forest land, they are more exposed to outside life, and it’s tough to resist.”

Government Intervention
To Jakarta, the Orang Rimba seem to be another mundane statistic. The Ministry of Social Affairs says there are more than 220,000 families in 30 provinces, identified as “Isolated Customary Communities.” These isolated communities even existed in Java until three years ago, but have now integrated into outside communities, the ministry said.

“We may have been neglecting them all this time — that’s why they are left behind,” said Charles Talimbo, a director at the ministry’s directorate general for social empowerment. “I think there’s been a lack of political will to solve these problems.”

According to Adi, the government has always attempted to address the issue of indigenous tribes, such as the Orang Rimba, in the same way they treat other communities. They are told to take up permanent housing, wear clothes and send their children to state schools for a conventional education, he said.

When asked about the apparent failure of government policies with remote communities, Rusli Wahid, head of the social empowerment directorate, responded angrily, “Do you want them to suffer? Live in trees, naked, while it’s been 64 years since the country’s independence? We don’t live in the Stone Age anymore!”

He blamed the problems on insufficient funds and the policies of other government agencies.

Talimbo said that “other ministries, like forestry and mining, issue concessions to open up the forests and forget about the people living there.”

He said the Social Affairs Ministry endorsed education and health programs for these communities, and asserted it was not contingent on them converting to officially-recognized religions.

Masyhud, a spokesman at the Ministry of Forestry, denied that government policies had led to the demise of forest-dwelling tribes such as the Orang Rimba.

“We should look toward the future, instead of at the wrongdoings of the past,” he said, adding it was a natural consequence of human development that forests were opened up.

“All cities, just like Jakarta, used to be forests too,” Masyhud said, “we can’t go back.”

Neither can the Orang Rimba. But it’s likely that one more unique way of life will be a casualty as another corner of the country encounters the future.

Source: jakarta globe

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