Sound of an approaching motor bike broke a long reflection on the devastation caused by fires that have raged across Indonesia’s peatlands in recent years producing suffocating smoke haze across the region. Joining an expedition to explore the causes of the smoke haze was sure to provoke such thoughts. Here on Tebing Tinggi Island, close to Riau Province’s Kampar Peninsula had also drifted to the fire regime in my own country. In my lifetime now a few months shy of three score years and ten the great warming was undeniable. Fire was increasing in incidence and I could only conclude that we were no longer theorising about global warming but dealing directly with it’s consequences.
Our small group parted opening the way as a solitary man on a Honda step-through moved between us. This was a common event in many parts of Indonesia, but the man rode with a small sway-back pig trussed and draped in front of him.
“Strange that he’s carrying a pig. Isn’t everyone here Muslim,” I asked the young man standing beside me.
“He’s from the forest. His people don’t have a religion,” he replied.
“None, at all?”
“No, they believe in forest spirits.”
“Where is he going?”
“Into the forest. His people live there.”
Endangering the primal spirits of the land
The archipelago’s first people understand God as a host of presences in the forests, on the mountains, everywhere throughout Nusantara. Mountains, had the most important status in the spiritual understandings. Early religion frequently involved the worship of mountain deities and a belief that ancestors also dwelt in the mountains. [i]
Forests too were important affording access to a realm crowded with forest spirits.This man no doubt followed such a primal path. In Riau, his people once called themselves Batin. They lived in swidden-clearings often close to rivers trading forest products downstream as Dayak groups did. Some came to be named after their rivers and, like other beings inhabiting the forests, were often forced from their places into areas of swamp forest or secondary re-growth.
Habitat loss and endangered species were well documented, tigers and orang utan the iconic faces of this process. Yet, El Nino’s smoke haze, plaguing Singapore and Indonesia’s cities masked another tragedy the threat to Riau’s Indigenous people. Sadness and disquiet filled me.
The man on the motorbike was travelling into a forested area. It seems that, as with the nearby people of the Kampar peninsula 20kms south on the mainland, he was Indigenous and most likely related. Where forests remain in this part of Riau the Indigenous people use them for hunting, charcoaling, fishing and small-scale farming, while supplementing their incomes with wage labouring for the concessionaires (oil, gas, logging and plantations).
Most of the communities with customary territories on the southern side of the Peninsula were relocated to the northern side of the Kampar river. This isn’t a recent phenomenon in Indonesia. I saw it being applied back in 1988 when visiting the Mentawai Islands. Then people were taken from their Uma on the dendritic branches of rivers and concentrated in camps near the main branches. The same process is evident in Kalimantan.
Despite this enforced relocation Indigenous people, all over Indonesia, still go back to their territories where they farm, hunt, fish, gather herbs, fruits and resins or do a little cash cropping.
Many Indigenous people, in the Riau area will refer to themselves as Melayu at first asking but their roots lie far back in prehistoric times. In historic times they have been ruled by coastal Hindu, Buddhist and Malay kingdoms. Often referred to as Siak by the ruling kingdoms, they adopted the generic name Batin for themselves. They lived in swidden-clearings often close to rivers trading forest products downstream, just as Dayak groups did. Some came to be named after their rivers and, like other beings inhabiting the forests, were often forced from their places into areas of swamp forest or secondary re-growth.
Habitat loss in Riau
Riau has experienced one of the fastest rates of deforestation in Indonesia. When I attended middle school, 50 years ago it was known as an area of equatorial forest and swamp of great diversity but intensive resource extraction (logging, oil and gas) and conversion of forests to oil palm and pulpwood plantations means that today the province has lost over 80% of its original forest cover.
Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact
Just as I began to write this piece I received an email from Emmanuela Shinta. It linked to a new book
HerStory3: Championing Community Land Rights and Indigenous Women’s Leadership in Asia, published by Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact.
Click on the cover to download your copy.
The notes on the publication read
“This book, as a compilation of indigenous women’s “her stories”, is a reflection of the conditions and struggles on the ground of indigenous women. They are the stories of Katima, Jannie, Endena, and 13 other indigenous women who are extraordinary women in their own right. They are in the hearts and minds of other women and villagers because of their suffering, struggles, sacrifices, commitments, dedication and lifetime achievements in advancing the dignity of women and indigenous peoples.
This is now the third volume of her stories to be produced by AIPP to amplify the voices and struggles on indigenous women across Asia. This year we are focussing on indigenous women as land rights defenders, in line with the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights.”
[i] Kempers, B. A. J. Monumental Bali: Introduction to Balinese archaeology and guide to the monuments. Periplus Editions. Singapore. 1991. pp. 4.