Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Jambi's Nomads: Indonesia Forest Dwellers Fighting to Survive the Crush of Modernity

December 22, 2009 The Jakarta Globe

Indonesia’s future is all about expansion. More power plants, toll roads, coal mines and palm oil plantations bring business, jobs and higher living standards, while contributing to the drive for modernization.

All of that is fine, unless you’re left out — or in the case of a small group of forest dwellers in central Sumatra, fighting a losing battle to prevent your culture from disappearing.

Such is the plight of the Orang Rimba , an indigenous, semi-nomadic tribe in Jambi. Their people number about 3,000, but with rapid conversion of land and rampant deforestation occurring, tribal leaders say they’re being squeezed out of their traditional home and losing their identity.

With the modern ways of the outside world thrust upon them, the Orang Rimba have created a two-faced identity to survive. The Jakarta Globe visited the tribe in its homeland and chronicled its members’ daily battle for food, clean water, proper health care and education for their children — all while trying to maintain ancient traditions.

Orang Rimba are easily recognized by their features and dress, with their long, ruffled hair and loincloths. The women mostly go topless. This ancient attire, nomadic life and lack of hygiene is mocked by outsiders as backward, earning slurs from non-indigenous villagers and transmigrants.

Though fed up with their treatment, the Orang Rimba still try to adjust to the modern world in some ways. Some wear T-shirts and pants, ride motorcycles and own cellphones.

However, more and more of tribe’s younger generation are being drawn toward modern life, even renouncing their animist beliefs and converting to Islam.

“We can’t avoid this, and it’s very likely we will lose this battle,” laments Tumenggung Tarib, a tribal leader.