Asia, economics, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Indonesia

Encountering the #Indigenous people of #Riau proved cause for wider reflection

My interest in the rights of Indigenous people dates back many years. As an Australian, of European descent, I acknowledge the prior ownership and customary land rights of Australia’s Indigenous nations. This is an interest that I’ve revealed elsewhere on this blog and one that was well expressed by our former Prime Minister, Paul Keating.

I’ve included this as a reflection on the Australian context, part of the wider reflection that writing this post has prompted.  If your interest is principally Riau, read on and watch this later.

European Parliament Resolution

On 9 March 2017, the European Union passed a motion on palm oil and deforestation of rainforests.

The motion, “Calls on the Commission to adopt binding regulations on agricultural commodity importers’ supply chains, in order to ensure a fully sustainable palm oil supply chain by 2020”, citing many areas of concern rendering palm oil without RSPO certification unsustainable. It notes that:

  • the deforestation of rainforests is destroying the natural habitats of more than half of the world’s animal species and more than two-thirds of its plant species and endangering their survival;
  • multiple investigations reveal widespread abuses of basic human rights during the establishment and operation of palm oil plantations in many countries, including forced evictions, armed violence, child labour, debt bondage or discrimination against indigenous communities;
  • a substantial part of global palm oil production is in breach of fundamental human rights and adequate social standards,
  • child labour is frequently being exploited, and
  • there are many land conflicts between local and indigenous communities and palm oil concession holders;

What stood out for me was “forced evictions, armed violence, child labour, debt bondage or discrimination against indigenous communities” and “conflicts between local and indigenous communities and palm oil concession holders”. It stood out because I knew so little about the specifics. Apart from the Dayak peoples and the forest dwellers of the Mentawai Islands, I hadn’t realised that there were many indigenous people in Sumatra. It’s ironic because from where I live, Sumatra is clearly visible.

Investigation the status of Indigenous people

When I began investigating this subject I soon discovered that, like Australia where many Indigenous people were labelled with the one label Aboriginal, in Riau the generic term was Siak. Writing in the Jurnal Antropologi: Isu-Isu Sosial Budaya in Desember 2017, Takamasa Osawa observes that “The eastern coasts of Sumatra, Indonesia, are low and marshy lands, which are divided by numerous brackish rivers, and covered by vast mangrove forests. This region was a largely unpopulated area where some orang asli (‘indigenous’) groups and a few Malay people lived before the colonial era.”[1]

Figure 1: Sumatran peatlands

While there is some nipa palm swamp and mangrove on the margins, most of these low and marshy lands are swampy peatlands that originally supported closed canopy rainforests. They also stabilised the Pleistocene coastline of East Sumatra.

Osawa continues observing that “The Suku Asli are Austronesian speakers living on the coasts of eastern Sumatra in Riau province, who were recorded as the Utan (Orang Utan; forest people) in past records.

As this name implies, they were semi-nomadic (coastal) forest dwellers who engaged in hunting, gathering and fishing in the forest, distant from the political centre of the state. Before the nineteenth century, this region was characterised by low population density, such that the Suku Asli moved freely from place to place in this low and marshy region using canoes, and lived on the banks along channels and brackish rivers that run complexly between and within the islands. Therefore, their settlements have been scattered over the islands and coasts of a vast area around the estuary of the Siak and Kampar Rivers until the present.”[2]

Encountering Riau’s Orang Asli

On my first visit to Sungai Tohor, on Tebing Tinggi island in the Meranti group. I remember my friend Yi Han explaining the dangers of fire on peatlands. We stood along a rough track cut through land that had been burned two years before. The fire started in the concession of NSP, a sago plantation and spread through the drained timber concession.

Suddenly the sound of a motorbike reminded us we were on what passed as a local road. Moments later our small group was forced to part, opening the way as a solitary man on a step-through Honda moved between us. I wrote about this earlier. It 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.”

This simple encounter prompted my interest.

When I began discussing this with my friend Prayoto he was quick to supply me with leads.  Soon I had some key documents on the history and culture of Riau’s Indigenous people.  Since he is cartographically skilled he produced the map in Figure 1. showing the distribution of Riau’s Indigenous groups.

Our encounter with the man on the step-through Honda was in the yellow shaded area.

These classifications are based on generalised Ethnonyms applied to the respective Indigenous groups, first by the Dutch and then assumed by the Republic of Indonesia (RI). They are not the terms used by the people themselves. The process and the misnomers that arise are similar to what has taken place in Australia.  Generally speaking, the names assumed by the people themselves related to the specific biogeographic niches they occupied.  In the riparian systems so dominant in Riau, these names often reflected the particular part of the system they inhabited.

Figure 3: Peatland during the wet season along the Siak Kecil river. The Indigenous people of this system were called Siak by outsiders. (1°.08749, 101°.66885)

The Dutch and then the RI used the simple names as a way of distinguishing between the Indigenous peoples and Malay settlers.

The myth of emptiness

Understanding Indonesia as a country with a densely settled core, Java, Madura and perhaps Bali, and empty spaces beyond that were ripe for resettlement, was an idea that took hold during the period of Dutch colonialism.  While some socialists in Holland advocated a future for Indonesia based on an industrialising centre, a view also adopted by the first Vice President Hatta, what prevailed was an approach to development based on resettlement of these ’empty spaces’. This doctrine of empty spaces was akin to the principle of Terra Nulius adopted by Australia’s European colonisers. Both concepts are based on myths and a failure to recognise prior customary rights to land. A map of Indigenous groups in Australia provides a clear sense of the pre-colonial diversity.

Transmigrasi (Transmigration)

From the end of the 19th century, the Dutch began to implement what was called the ‘Ethical Policy’. It rested on the ideas of ‘irrigation, emigration and education’. Rather than attempting to promote population controls in Java, they saw value in promoting emigration to the ’empty’ periphery.  This also sat conveniently with the chance to exploit the resources of the outer islands.

After Indonesian independence, the doctrine developed as the policy of  Transmigrasi (Transmigration).  Now families were relocated from the ‘overpopulated’ core and sent to the ’empty’ margins on a much larger scale. The approach received an added stimulus with the increased military power following the 1965 coup, which caused great disruption, Irian Jaya now West Papua being a particularly prominent example.

Transmigration is discussed in detail in by Riwanto Tirtosudarmo in his PhD thesis Transmigration and its centre-regional context; the case of Riau and South Kalimantan Provinces, Indonesia (See Google search). He quotes from, Tjondronegoro, S. M. P. 1972 ‘Land Reform or Land Settlement: Shifts in Indonesia’s Land Policy, 1960-1970‘, Land Tenure Centre Paper, No. 81, Madison, University of Wisconsin.

Figure 4: Population distribution by province: Indonesia 2014. Ministry of Internal Affairs

Relocating transmigrants

Commenting on the period 1965 to 1985  Mariel Otten wrote: “Initially, in order to avoid the more populated regions, transmigrant families were predominantly relocated in cleared forest areas. Indonesia has about 140 million has. of tropical forests, constituting 60 % of the total land area. In 1979, however, the clearance of these forests for transmigration purposes was banned by General Suharto who immediately cancelled six proposed projects. At the time, clearing of rainforests was considered to be ecologically unwise and attention shifted to swamp reclamation in the coastal regions of southern Kalimantan and eastern Sumatra and to non-irrigated rainfed land in other provinces of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.” [3]

Subsequently, there was an idea that Indonesia’s swamplands could be developed with resettlement.

I’ve covered much of this in my blog post Competition for land in Riau Province: Pressure from Oil Pal and Wood Pulp Corporations. In that post, I traced the focus brought to bear on swampland, principally peatlands.

The World Bank’s Role

Otten observes that in 1987 the World Bank claimed “A recent survey indicates that Indonesia has some 40 million hectares of coastal lowland or tidal swamps of which some 3.3 million hectares are already occupied. More significantly it is estimated that a further 5.6 million hectares are suitable for agricultural development. This is larger than the total irrigated rice area in Indonesia today. Furthermore, this area has a greater agricultural potential per hectare than most of the remaining upland rain fed areas. If managed properly, lowland swamps can support a wide variety of food and non-food crops and yield a higher income per hectare than can normally be expected under upland food crop conditions. There are substantial technical, managerial and institutional problems to be overcome in tapping this potential, such as defining suitable land and water management practices for peat areas and areas with adverse soil conditions caused by oxidation of acid sulphate soils, applying of appropriate drainage criteria in the light of more diversified agriculture, and ensuring integrated single.”  Such land stretches from West Papua to Aceh.[4]

While the World Bank made this claim it does not seem to have valued or understood the complexity, diversity and interdependence supported by peatland ecosystems, much less their role as carbon sinks and stabilisers of coastlines. This was despite the already published claims by experts such as Tjondronegoro, already claiming that “swamp reclamation will, in the end, be more expensive than settlement on other sites, because of declining soil fertility.”[6]

the World Bank inspired settlements went ahead on the basis that there was a future for swamp reclamation and settlement on tidal areas.

The role of the Five Year Plans (Repelita)

In Repelita IV, Indonesia’s fourth five-year plan (1984/85 – 1988/89), despite projected shortages of trained ‘manpower’ within plantation agriculture priority was given to rubber, oil palm and coconut planting. The Government aimed to plant about 1.4 million ha of these crops on public estates and smallholder schemes, a 150% increase. Tree crop programs were seen to offer substantial benefits offer substantial benefits as export earners, sources of employment and regional development, and therefore deserve priority in the allocation of investible resources. The government envisaged that in the case of oil palms development should be concentrated on new block-planting in areas where new Settlement is warranted. In the plan, new irrigation development on the Outer Islands, including swamp reclamation for transmigration sites were emphasised.

Transmigration continued in subsequent five-year plans. It brought new settlers that were culturally different to the existing Indigenous communities.  When it was associated with new plantation industries this encroached onto the land of Indigenous communities.  Other issues arose over access to resources when Transmigrants had access to health and education while the traditional landholders didn’t.

Riau’s settlement

Most transmigration in Sumatera was focused on Lampung and although Transmigration settlements were established in Ria, there was also significant spontaneous migration, particularly Christian Batak, with the completion of the Trans Sumatra Highway.

In a previous post on Riau, I offered some background on the Indigenous people (Orang Asli) of Riau. Orang Asli were closely connected with the Rokan, Siak, Kampar, and Indragiri rivers and their tributaries. The pressure of settlement and competition for land, driven both by formal and informal population movements, has had adverse consequences on the health of the biophysical environment and for the survival of Riau’s remaining Indigenous people.

While people of the Siak river system were referred to as Orang Sakai, they preferred the term Orang Batin, meaning the followers of batin or the Pebatin system (see below).

Sakai, Batin or Orang Asli settlement

Prayoto offered this insight: The Orang Sakai are a Malay-dialect-speaking forest-dwelling people. They traditionally practise shifting cultivation of cassava as well as trapping, hunting, and gathering food from the forest and nearby rivers. Many Sakai families today cultivate dry rice. They also collected, and still collect, forest products. Although today most Sakai are Muslim, they are recent converts to the faith. Their Sakai forebears were non-Muslim people living on the margins of the Siak kingdom (Kerajaan Siak). Then as now, they lived in the upstream Mandau (Sungai Mandau Hulu), and its branching minor rivers (Sungai Samsam, Sungai Beringin). The Mandau River is a tributary of the Siak River, which flows by the town of Siak Sri Indrapura, the old kingdom’s political centre, connecting the hinterland with the Melaka Straits

Prior to the establishment of the Dutch East Indes, the Malay Siak Sultanate administered the region.

Pebatin was an ancient pre-Islamic Malay system of administration, imposed by the Siak Sultanate that ruled modern-day Riau from 1723 to 1946 CE before becoming part of the Republic of Indonesia in 1945.Pebatin applied to the non-Islamic forest peoples living on the margins of its territory. There were other Indigenous forest dwellers as well, see Figure 2. “The pebatin system of administration was based on a group of people living in a certain area following a headman whose position was ratified by the Malay sultan of the kingdom of Siak (East-Coast Sumatra). Each batin headman served as the representative of the forest-dwelling people to the kingdom. Election to the batin post followed matrilineal principles, and a successor was usually the previous batin’s sister’s son.” [7]

Traditionally the Batin lived in swidden-clearings (ladang) and in wooded secondary forest areas (bu’luka’). Their houses were set on poles usually consisting of one main room. Walls were usually made of bark and the roof from kopau palm-leaf thatch.

Clusters of related family dwellings were constructed within walking distance to each other. Beyond the houses were swidden fields and areas of regrowth. Beyond these settlements, closed canopy forest remained. Houses were sometimes built on river banks because of the ease of travel using dugout canoes.

Figure 5: Likely a contemporary Sakai/Batin house set by the Siak Kecil river, during the wet season.

The pebatinan (plural for pebatin) named themselves using the nearest rivers so there were: Pebatin Paoh of river Paoh, Pebatin Penaso of the river Penaso and so forth.

Several observers, including Porath, note that in recent years the Batin have reluctantly accepted the term Sakai though also use the term Orang Asli, to describe themselves.

The other groups

  • The other Indigenous groups. At this stage, I can only rely on Prayoto’s map. He has identified seven Indigenous groups in Riau:
    Akit;
    Bonai;
    Hutan;
    Kuala Petalangan Sakai; and,
    Talang Mamak.
Figure 6: The people of Penyengat Island, Riau are Orang Akit

 

[1] Osawa, T. JURNAL ANTROPOLOGI: Isu-Isu Sosial Budaya. Desember 2017 Vol. 19 (2): 109-123. ISSN 1410-8356

[2] Op cit.

[3] Otten, M. Transmigrasi: Indonesian Resettlement Policy, 1965 – 1985. IWGXA DOCUMENT ISSN 0105-4503. pp.80

[4] Op cit pp81

[5] ibid

[6] Porath, N. The Healer’s Madness and the Forces of Social Change, in Behera, M.C. ‘Interventions, Familiarity and Continuity: Dynamics in tribal Communities. COMMONWEALTH PUBLISHERS PTY. LTD. 2016. ISBN 978-81-311-0573-3

[7] Porath, N. The Healer’s Madness and the Forces of Social Change, in Behera, M.C. ‘Interventions, Familiarity and Continuity: Dynamics in tribal Communities. COMMONWEALTH PUBLISHERS PTY. LTD. 2016. ISBN 978-81-311-0573-3

I’ve had much highly professional assistance with this blog post from Prayoto, I’ve included his CV in recognition. He is a man of principle. Working with him is a privilege.

Asia, Australia, environment, geography, history, Malaysia, Singapore

Where Australia Collides with Asia – by Ian Burnet

Some historical narratives can be difficult to follow when they are punctuated by countless footnotes and bibliographic references, or broken by a frequent need to delve into appendices. Ian Burnet frees his work from these impediments.  By seamlessly embedding his sources he has produced an almost conversational style. The result is an erudite narrative flow, free of distractions.

Where Australia Collides with Asia chronicles the reflections and discoveries of great minds and adventurous spirits. Both Darwin and Wallace who feature read Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equatorial regions of the New Continent. This work introduced the notion of a web of life where no single fact could be considered in isolation. Humboldt created a new genre in writing that eloquently described nature as part of this web of life. Ian’s book is firmly in such a tradition.  It is not just a treatise on Alfred Russell Wallace any more than it is a static account of biogeography. He draws on his extensive knowledge of geology and his long engagement with the Indonesian archipelago to reveal a world shaped by tectonic dynamism producing countless variations and contrasts.

Plate movements create areas that are distinct yet often close to one another.  Both the Galapagos islands and the Indonesian archipelago display such features. In these places, biogeographic contrasts and transformations are easily observed. We learn that it was the distinct differences in distribution of flora and fauna along the archipelago, abruptly changing between the islands of Bali and Lombok that so intrigued Wallace. Through his research, he established this as a biogeographic boundary between Asia and Australasia.

This work allows us to see the development of Wallace’s research to the point where he summarised all the main principles of Darwin’s ideas on species. When he received Wallace’s ‘Letter from Ternate’, in 1858, Darwin’s surprise was such that he was prompted him to write: ‘I never saw a more striking coincidence, if Wallace had my manuscript sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract.’

Darwin’s fear of challenging the literalist account of creation in Genesis certainly placed a break on this desire to publish.  Wallace’s work pressed him to finally publish in 1859. All of this is and the warm friendship that developed between the two men is well covered, so too is their subsequent collaboration.

The selection of photographs, maps and illustration in this publication not only add graphical power to the work but also display Ian Burnet’s meticulous patient gathering of archival material.

Cold War, Egypt, history, linguistics, religion

Cairo Mon Amour: a review by Russell Darnley

 

Stuart Campbell has crafted a richly faceted novel taking full advantage of Cairo as an ancient centre of cultural and linguistic confluence. He weaves a tale of intrigue and duplicity that, through his descriptive brilliance, takes the reader beyond the façade of material culture into the complex histories and geopolitical realities of the region.

An occasional visitor to Cairo I found his descriptions of the city and its precincts astutely and artistically rendered. Whether in affluent Zamaleck or the City of the Dead he engages us allowing us to walk with his characters entering, as it were, an impressionistic Cairo transformed by the emotions and plight of the players. His work reveals familiar places, at a different time and under different social and political circumstances.

City of the Dead, Cairo Bertramz. CC BY-SA 3.0

Though a sometimes a reluctant reader of fiction Cairo Mon Amour held my attention to the end. It has its heroes and its villains often with a little villainy in the heroes and heroism in the villains. But who are the heroes and the villains? Why has Bellamy been sent to Cairo in the first place? Is his great love really a Soviet spy? Is MI6 the real villain or the Egyptian army or the Israelis? What of the crafty Pierre?

His work makes thorough use of the Cold War back drop. Politically this is not some simple monochromatic rendition of Cold War dynamics but an intriguing and believable story set against the imminent outbreak of hostilities as Egypt prepares to take back control of the Suez canal and the Sinai.

Egyptian soldiers celebrate the successful crossing of the Suez canal during the Ramadan War (1973-1974)

Now when fundamentalism have taken all too prominent a role in the world, his treatment of the Abrahamic religions, their diversity and their consonance, is a timely reminder that those of us who follow such paths all have so much in common.

Obtain your copy from Goodreads, Amazon or the publishers Austin Macauley. Find more information about the book on Facebook.

Also visit the Cairo Mon Amour website.

Asia, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Personal comment, population

#Tigers and orang utan are important but what about the #Indigenous people?

Forest and peat fires in Riau, Indonesia Photo by Julius Lawalata, World Resources Institute.
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 People

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.

 

 

Asia, Australia, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam

#BookLaunch of ‘Seen & Unseen: a century of stories from #Asia & the #Pacific’

 

This is a Chitter Media Production, produced and edited by Adrian Metlenko, camera operators Adrian Metlenko and Evan Darnley-Pentes.

Aboriginal, Asia, Australia, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Indonesia, Malaysia, religion, Singapore, sociology, Thailand, travel, Vietnam

A sampler of ‘Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from #Asia & the #Pacific’

Here is an overview of my book Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia & the Pacific with a selection of images reflecting aspects of the stories that unfold in its pages.

Both paperback and kindle versions of the book are available through Amazon.

Further background on my book is also available on it’s website.