Jan 17, 2018 Last Updated 3:31 AM, Jan 6, 2018

The disappearing forest

Blair Palmer

‘Before the nggang bird flies, the branch hasn’t fallen
before the elephant passes by, the grass isn’t broken!’

Orang Rimba proverb

Beso’al is a member of a small group of Orang Rimba, or forest people. There are about 2700 Orang Rimba, also known as Kubu or Anak Dalam, living in the province of Jambi, in Sumatra. Many of them, including Beso’al’s group, live in Bukit Duabelas National Park. The Orang Rimba are an indigenous people living primarily from hunting and gathering in the forest, but that forest is being cut down around them, both through logging concessions and through illegal logging. They cannot gain land title over their forest habitat because Indonesian law does not recognise traditional land ownership for mobile groups.

When I met Beso’al, he was accusing a group of loggers of cutting down one of their petai trees. He used the proverb above to illustrate that since the loggers from a nearby village were the ones working with chainsaws in this area, they must have cut down the tree.

Beso’al and the other members of his group were bringing this accusation to bear in a trial of sorts, seeking compensation for the tree. According to custom, a tree belongs to whoever makes machete marks on the trunk, and clears the brush around the base of it; in this case, the wife of one of the members of Beso’al’s group. The trial, which took place in April 2001, expressed the will of the Orang Rimba to fight against the loss of their forest, and demonstrated the possibility of solving such problems using customary law. It was held in the forest, near where the tree was felled.

The forest is what we like

Beso’al’s group consists of 13 families. The group’s leader — called a dipati — explained how the Orang Rimba survive in the forest by digging up various wild tubers, fishing in the rivers, hunting pigs, porcupines, wild fowl and snakes, and trapping pigs and mouse deer. They engage in some swidden agriculture, and tapping of rubber trees. They also trade forest products with the nearby villagers, and some Orang Rimba work for the villagers for cash.

Occasionally Orang Rimba go to live in nearby towns, becoming Muslim and leaving their forest ways behind. One such man, Sidik, is the dipati’s brother-in-law. Even though he accepts Sidik’s decision to live as a sedentary villager, he does not feel that he himself could take that path. ‘If our forest is cleared completely, better you cut my throat so I can’t feel the regret anymore,’ he said.

But although the Orang Rimba usually avoid contact with outsiders, they have long engaged in trade with specific villages. Some people from that village have special significance for the Orang Rimba. They take on a role of jenang, which combines elements of leader, trusted ally, business manager, mediator, and owner. Several of these jenang were present at the trial. Without their powerful support, the trial might not have happened in the first place.

Our heads spin

The trial is about more than just one tree. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the Orang Rimba to maintain their lifestyle because there is less and less forest to live in. Oil palm plantations and transmigration sites have been established on the perimeter of the forest, and transmigrants are clearing gardens within the forest. The dipati wants the government to stop tree clearing before what is left of the forest is gone. ‘Our heads spin with the noise of chainsaws,’ he complained. But the loggers continue to cut down trees.

The trial is a rare opportunity for the Orang Rimba to protest against this devastation. But the loggers who are being charged feel unjustly targeted, since the jenang also carry out logging in the forest.

Beso’al explains that the group is ining them the same amount they would fine anyone, even their own brother, for the same offence. In the end, the loggers admit their guilt, and agree to pay a fine of 20 pieces of cloth, within 10 days. Orang Rimba culture dictates that fines be paid in pieces of cloth, although in this case money will be substituted, at a rate of Rp15,000 per piece — a total of Rp 300,000 (or about A$50).

The fine serves as an important reminder of the rights of the Orang Rimba over this forest. But this small victory does not alter the grim fate of those Orang Rimba who want to retain their forest lifestyle. For them, it seems only a matter of time before they are swallowed up by the ‘development’ going on around them.

Blair Palmer (Blair.Palmer@anu.edu.au) is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University. He was the consultant anthropologist for the film ‘Struggle for the Forest’.

Inside Indonesia 80: Oct - Dec 2004

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