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Fighting to survive

Fighting to survive
Published: Mar 11, 2012

A small community in Southeast Sulawesi is engaged in an ongoing quest for recognition of its right to live on its ancestral land

Linda McRae and Dirk Tomsa

The school in Hukaea-Laea
Linda McRae

In the heart of the Indonesian province of Southeast Sulawesi lies the Rawa Aopa Watumohai National Park. Boasting a broad range of natural habitats including mangroves, savannah, peat swamps, lowland tropical rainforests and sub-montane forests, it is home to hundreds of animal and plant species, including many of Sulawesi’s endemic birds and mammals. The park’s extensive lake and swamp systems were recently declared wetlands of international importance due to their significance as resting points for migratory waterbirds. But what the government failed to recognise was that this pristine natural habitat is not only of importance to animals and plants. A small community of people also lives within the boundaries of the national park.

Following the park’s establishment in 1989, the government tried repeatedly to remove the Moronene people from their ancestral land. Mediation by a group of sympathetic NGO activists eventually helped broker a solution, which granted the Moronene people the right to remain in their homes. But the community still faces a number of challenges. Politically, the Moronene are still waiting for their village of Hukaea-Laea to be formally recognised as a fully-fledged administrative entity. Economically, limited knowledge of modern farming and heavy reliance on diesel generators for electricity keeps them dependant on traditional forest products and externally available food sources.

Fighting for their home

The Moronene people have lived in the area that is now the national park for at least six generations, cultivating small plots of land in rotation on the edge of the savannah, harvesting mostly seasonal crops like corn and rice and collecting edible forest products. In this time, their way of life has barely changed. Even today, community members rarely venture out of their familiar surroundings, as the nearest road is still several kilometres away. If they do, it is to visit the market in a nearby town to see woven baskets and mats and to buy rice, seasonings and clothes.

But this image of idyllic rural village life is deceptive. The community has been in conflict with the central government since the 1970s, when a bird park – the predecessor of the present national park – was established in the area. When government representatives declared that no human settlements were allowed inside the boundaries of the new protected area, the community was asked to choose where they would like to settle. However they were given no compensation to support themselves in this new life, so they eventually returned home. Over the years, the villagers were repeatedly forced to leave Hukaea-Laea, but each time they were unable to resist the urge to return.

The intensity of the conflict increased in the late 1990s, when the government accused the Moronene people of being responsible for pushing a native deer species close to extinction. The villagers denied this, claiming that they only occasionally killed deer for traditional events or if an animal strayed too close to the village. Instead they believed that the greatest threat to the deer population was from outsiders hunting within the park. Unimpressed with this explanation, the government sent in police to evict the villagers, destroy traditional stilt houses and fell ancient village trees. Police charged a dozen or so community leaders with refusing a request to move and jailed them for a year. Once the conflict had settled down, the community moved back to Hukaea-Laea, only soon again to embroil themselves in confrontation with the state.

People live here too

As the conflict continued, local NGOs began to question why the government was so disrespectful towards the Moronene people. Aware of a similar case in another Indonesian province, an organisation called SULUH decided to represent the people of Hukaea-Laea in their struggle against the government. One of SULUH’s main premises was that the Indonesian government should recognise that the ecosystem in the national park contained not only plants and animals, but also people. After protracted consultations, the government eventually accepted this argument and acknowledged that the villagers had a profound relationship with the land. At long last, the Moronene were allowed to stay.

Hukaea-Laea is now officially recognised as belonging both in the national park and the Bombana district. But along with this long-coveted recognition came new problems. In Southeast Sulawesi, the devolution of power to the local level under Indonesia’s decentralisation program resulted in the creation of numerous new districts, sub-districts and villages. Also, as administrative borders were redrawn, different sections of Rawa Aopa Watumohai National Park were allocated to different districts. By late 2011, the park straddled no less than four: Kolaka, Konawe, Konawe Selatan and Bombana. Hukaea-Laea is located in the Bombana district, but the local government there is yet to recognise the community. The Moronene now have the right to stay on their ancestral lands, but they still have no right to basic government services such as schooling or healthcare.

And so the struggle continues. Community leaders and NGO activists are waiting for the village to be formally recognised as a part of Bombana’s administrative structure and one of the district’s 22 sub-districts. They hope that formal village status will improve access to educational and health facilities, but increased interaction with the outside world is also likely to bring new challenges. In recent years, numerous villagers have opted to abandon their traditional lifestyle and try their luck in one of the small towns nearby or in the provincial capital Kendari, some 150 km away. This trend is unlikely to stop as long as overall living standards in the village remain low. Indeed, the community’s main challenge, apart from their political struggle, is to find ways to lift basic living standards without surrendering too much of their traditional lifestyle.

The way forward

Improving educational opportunities will be a crucial part of this endeavour and it is indeed anticipated that the new school’s curriculum will include what in Indonesia is often referred to as ‘local wisdom’, i.e. locally based knowledge of environmental and social issues. Villagers will also need to explore new ways of engaging with the outside world. Members of the local NGO community are hoping that the Moronene people will find work in a variety of sectors including agriculture, tourism and wildlife conservation. This would not only increase their current income but also improve their way of life without sacrificing their cultural identity.

But to tackle these challenges, the community will need to demonstrate that it is not only remarkably tenacious, but also able to adapt to a rapidly changing socio-political and socio-economic environment. In particular, the aggressive expansion of the mining industry in Southeast Sulawesi, which is actively supported by the provincial government, is likely to have a major impact on the Moronene in the near future. Such expansion has already threatened many of the province’s other small communities. Yet, given their location within the protected boundaries of a national park, the Moronene might be better placed than others to resist this mining juggernaut, especially if they can work with state authorities to develop revenue-producing activities such as cultural integration tourism or eco-tourism. To achieve that, however, the state will first have to fully recognise the community. Only with such recognition will a sustainable future be possible for both the national park and the people who live within its boundaries.

Dirk Tomsa ( is a lecturer in Politics and Asian Studies at La Trobe University. Linda McRae worked as a volunteer with a local NGO in Kendari, South East Sulawesi. Well-known for her passionate interest in environmental and social justice issues, she made a difference to many people in Indonesia and Australia. Linda died in Bali on 27 January 2012, aged 26.

Inside Indonesia 107: Jan-Mar 2012

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