Forest people's welfare in decline due to deforestation

Two long-haired boys wearing loincloths walk along the side of a busy highway, running around and waving their hands at passing vehicles.

It was not a scene from The Gods Must Be Crazy movie. It is actually a common scene for people passing the highway of Bangko, a town in Jambi province on Sumatra island.

These boys are the indigenous people in the area. Locals call them Kubu tribe, meaning uncivilized or barbaric, referring to their way of life.

In fact, the Kubu people are civilized in their own way. The indigenous people may have an unusual way of life since live a nomadic life and wear only loincloths for the male or cloths for the female. However, they refuse to be called Kubu and prefer to call themselves orang rimba (jungle people).

Indeed, the title orang rimba is more suitable for them because they depend fully on the forests inside the Bukit Dua Belas National Park (TNBD).

Orang rimba are not barbaric. They believe in spirits and pray to the gods of monkey, elephant and boar, the god of evil and many more gods.

There are reportedly less than 1,200 them left today.

"We might only use loincloths, but we don't kill people," Tumenggung Tarib told The Jakarta Post recently.

Tumenggung is a title of the chief of a group of orang rimba. In the TNBD, there are more than 20 groups, each consisting between 20 and 40 members.

Accompanied by some of his family members, Tumenggung Tarib takes care of the group's farm where they grow cassava, their favorite staple food. They also hunt and gather food from forest, just like ancient people did.

Tumenggung disclosed that orang rimba have social rules they must observe, just like the orang terang (bright people, referring to villagers) do. Each orang rimba is bound to the traditional rules.

The rules carry sanctions, which vary from paying compensation or being expelled from the group. For several violations which are considered tolerable, the violators will only have to pay a fine in the form of cloths. The heavier the violation, the more cloths they have to pay.

Usually, these cloths are given to the family which is mostly affected by the violation.

The number of cloths owned by orang rimba reveals the person's wealth. It is common for a family to have hundreds of cloths, but orang rimba always wear the same cloth until it becomes worn. They only change their daily cloths with new ones for a wedding celebration.

Orang rimba usually marry young.

The would-be groom must pay a number of cloths to the would-be bride's family. He and the family, with assistance from the girl's family members, are also obliged to build a structure in the forest for the celebration within a day.

Should they fail to do it, they must rebuild a new one in the next day. The would-be bride family gives three chances for the groom to do the task, otherwise, the engagement is canceled.

Just like their houses, the so-called structure is actually a makeshift wooden hut.

Tumenggung Tarib said that the obligation is a measure to prove the would-be groom's seriousness in marrying the lady.

Orang rimba respect life very much. It is reflected in their custom. A woman must give birth to her baby in a certain location in the forest, which is blessed by the gods.

The selection of the location is made by the group' shaman, who is also responsible to lead any ritual held by orang rimba.

Orang terang are prohibited from attending any of the rituals, Tumenggung Tarib said.

"Orang terang smell good and they eat livestock (that would make) the gods go away and it means we wouldn't get their blessings," he said, adding that orang rimba are banned from using soap or fragrance.

Livestock is also banned for orang rimba because they consider it a betrayal to slaughter livestock -- which grows and is a part of people's lives.

Orang rimba, to some extent, are more democratic than common people here. Children's expression is very respected in the tribe while parents are banned from hitting their children.

Should one of the family members die, the group will melangun , or move to other locations in the forest. The more important the social position of the deceased, the farther they move.

Unfortunately, they cannot continue to live the nomadic lifestyle and move as far away as they need. Deforestation has decreased the 60,500 hectares of the TNBT size significantly. The TNBT reportedly has lost 30 percent of its areas.

According to anthropologist Robert Aritonang of Warsi, a non-governmental organization (NGO) managing forests and its indigenous people, deforestation in the area started in the 1980s.

At the time, the government cleared thousands of hectares of forests within months for transmigration sites.

"It was like judgment day for them. They cried and ran here and there upon witnessing bulldozers clear their homes within months," Robert said, recalling Tumenggung Tarib's story.

Robert explained that the Kubu people had never seen a bulldozer before and that the machine had never been part of their knowledge.

"One of them later asked an officer who was clearing their forests, but the officer said the clearing was an order of the president. Orang rimba considered a president or public official as rajo (king), who are highly respected by them," he said.

Orang rimba, who are basically fun loving people, chose to go farther inside the forest although they were disappointed by the reduction of their homeland.

But, the deforestation did not stop here. Currently, it is illegal logging which continuously reduces their forests.

"I don't like them (illegal loggers), they are greedy," said Tumenggung Tarib, adding that orang rimba could sell other forest products but logs.

In a bid to stop illegal logging, orang rimba have cultivated rubber trees bordering the forests with the villages. The tree -- introduced by Warsi -- is called hompongan.

Hompongan is also one of Warsi's programs.

"Besides providing borders for the forests, we expect orang rimba to use the rubber plants as a source of livelihood in the future," Robert said.

It does not mean that orang rimba are not sociable. They occasional go to nearby villages to sell rattan or to buy cigarettes, coffee, sugar, biscuits or cloths.

But, Tumenggung Tarib said that their live was much better in the past.

"Orang trans brought influenza and cough here. I never experienced it in the past,"" he said, referring to the transmigrants living nearby the forest.

Deforestation has also forced monkeys to wander into their farms.

"While I was little, no there were monkeys or boars to disturb our farms. Perhaps they do that because of decreasing food available from them," he said.

Warsi is currently conducting a program to prepare orang rimba to live like common people.

""We give them education and provide them with health services,"" Robert said.

Education is the main program, particularly for the children, because orang rimba are often cheated while doing business with villagers.

Warsi provides orang rimba with alternative education, which was developed by the institution.

Orang rimba are actually smart and fast learners. They could identify hundreds of kinds of plants and animals and know how to hunt wild animals. And they are humorous. They are just too plain.

Robert asserted that orang rimba must be prepared to start a new way of life because of the alarming level of deforestation in the national park.

The World Bank has predicted that forests in Sumatra island will vanish by 2005.

"We can't just force them to live like common people instantly because there would be a big culture shock," Robert said.

He referred to the government, which forced orang rimba to live like common people simply by developing houses and schools nearby the forests.

"The facilities are now useless," Robert said.

Despite knowing that their forests will possibly be gone in a near future, orang rimba still expect to continue to live in their own way.

Orang rimba, who have made continuous contacts with villagers, prefer to live in the forests.

"I know how orang terang live. Villages are too noisy and I am unable to breathe. The forest is my home. Here, it is quiet and I can breathe fresh air," said Tumenggung Tarib, who had visited Jakarta to receive an award from Kehati, an NGO on environment.

Orang rimba, who have been sidelined for years by the government, have voiced their simple yet important hope: keep their forests green.

They are a minority but they do not deserved to be forgotten.

-- Muninggar Sri Saraswati and Tiarma Siboro

*Published by The Jakarta Post in November 2002