President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s recent meeting with members of the Orang Rimba tribe of Sumatra drew fresh attention to their plight, as pulpwood and palm oil companies take over forests they inhabit.
The meeting – the first ever by an Indonesian president – followed an announcement by Jakarta of new housing to be constructed for the tribe, but experts said it was not clear whether this would resolve the existential challenges faced by Orang Rimba.
Orang Rimba, which literally means People of the Jungle, mostly live in the Bukit Tigapuluh and Bukit Duabelas national parks in Jambi and Riau provinces, and number about 3,000 members, according to estimates.
That part of Central Sumatra is among the Indonesian regions worst hit by the peatland fires that have blanketed the entire region with haze in recent weeks and sent Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions soaring.
A semi-nomadic people
Rudy Sjaf, a spokesman for the Sumatra-based conservation organization WARSI, identified three categories of Orang Rimba: those who live in the deep forest; those who live on ancestral lands taken over by corporations; and those who have formed villages at the edge of the forest.
“They are semi-nomadic. But their homeland is important as a marker of their identity and history as a people. At birth, for example, their placenta is buried under a tree, which becomes a symbol of the person’s survival,” Rudy said.
“If the tree survives, the person lives well. But now the trees, valleys and rivers of this area have changed into lands for industrial and palm oil plantations.”
WARSI says that a company whose palm oil plantation covered 40 thousand hectares rejected giving 114 hectares claimed by the indigenous people.
“The housing offer will help the third group. But the ones who most need help are the second group – those who are struggling to survive without their ancestral lands,” Rudy said.
“The solution for the indigenous people who live in the forest is for the government to issue policies that favor the indigenous people. Like when the Gus Dur revoked the Industrial Plantation Area of Bukit Duabelas and turned it into a national park,” Rudy said, referring to former President Abdurrahman Wahid.
‘Part of our identity’
Speaking to reporters in Jakarta recently, Minister of Social Affairs Khofifah Indarparawansa said local officials in Merangin Regency of Jambi had agreed to set aside 1,000 hectares (2,472 acres) for the tribe. The land is planned to be a settlement of 500 houses where each family will have two hectares (five acres) to cultivate.
But anthropologist Adi Prasetyo said such settlements would not solve long-term issues faced by Orang Rimba.
The government approach is “to build settlements, to create villages, to tell them to choose a religion. In other words to ‘normalize’ them,” he said.
Such a solution could lead to conflict between Orang Rimba and people outside their group, he said.
Having lost their livelihoods, Orang Rimba are often accused of stealing, or disturbing the palm oil plantations. They know almost nothing about how to make a living except as hunter gatherers, Adi added.
“In the long run they will have nothing, become jobless, and turn into beggars,” Adi said.
He noted that these issues are not unique to the Orang Rimba, but also affect other indigenous people in Indonesia.
Communities of Sakai and Talang Mamak tribes in Sumatra and Orang Punan in Kalimantan, according to Adi, are examples of indigenous people who are threatened by encroaching development.
“They are losing their identity, while actually their identity is part of our identity as a nation. So the nation has to protect it,” Adi said.