Indigenous Peoples to Save the Environment

Friday, 20 May 2022. “Tano Batak will definitely be much better if it is built on the sovereignty of Batak customs,” said Abdon Nababan in his closing statement during a talk with the theme ‘The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Protecting the Environment’ on the second day of the Earth and People Festival held in Huta Ginjang Village, Muara District, North Tapanuli Regency. This closing sentence seemed to summarise the whole discussion about the importance of the role of Indigenous Peoples in protecting the environment, especially the Lake Toba area as one of the tourism destinations predicted by President Joko Widodo’s government.

Abdon Nababan said, “The best forests in the world are those that are still guarded by indigenous peoples, including the forests in the Lake Toba area”. The best forests in Tano Batak can be seen from the role of indigenous peoples in protecting them and indigenous peoples have rules regarding customary spatial planning.

Sovereignty has a broad meaning, including how the indigenous community determines its own future with customary or Batak values in developing the community and the surrounding environment. “Indigenous peoples always maintain relationships with their ancestors, so the distinctive nature of indigenous peoples is respect for ancestral heritage. Therefore, indigenous peoples have extraordinary knowledge about nature,” said Abdon Nababan, who also explained how customary laws have values related to environmental conservation and a very sophisticated land management system.

Abdon Nababan explained a little about the social institutions of the Batak people who highly value the history of their lineage and land area. The social institutions in question include Batak customs that have the Horja system, Bius, and others. This social institution system is of course also directly related to the management of land ownership and management within its customary territory. According to him, Batak people already have a holistic understanding of nature. “If you want to restore nature around Lake Toba, the best way is through indigenous peoples,” he said.

Roki Pasaribu, the moderator of this discussion, mentioned that superstitions or myths related to nature are one example of how indigenous people protect nature. However, people with formal education degrees tend to discredit or obscure these superstitious stories and myths with scientific terms that are difficult for the average person to understand. Stories or taboos that are always remembered by each individual indigenous community are discredited by science that is not contextualised.

Dian Purba, a lecturer at the University of Tarutung State Institute of Christian Religion, as one of the resource persons for the discussion, was critical and asserted that educational institutions and churches should bear moral responsibility in the movement to protect the environment and land for indigenous peoples. “Our theology must be improved so that it does not only pursue heaven, but must also pay more attention to life on earth that exists now,” he said. He went on to describe the struggle of Mr Manullang who had a Batak spirit in his every struggle.

“Tuan Manullang had told the Batak people to work on their land so that it would not be taken by the Dutch as we saw in East Sumatra,” he said. This is very relevant to what is happening now, especially during the tourism regime that will/is being faced by the Batak people. The impact of this regime will be very bad if it is not balanced with the spirit of locality and Batak values which have historically been proven to stem penetration from the outside world.

“The values of locality should not be suppressed by nationalisation, because this locality even builds and maintains a good democracy,” he said when asked about the pessimistic view of the state towards indigenous peoples by one of the Huta Ginjang community, Robinson Siregar. Batak indigenous people have clear values of resistance, from colonial times to the extractive company PT Toba Pulp Lestari.

Abdon Nababan added the importance of organising indigenous communities in facing the challenges of this era. Indigenous peoples are actually dynamic and not rigidly confined by traditional technology in their daily lives. “If the four clans (in Huta Ginjang) are strong in their organisation, it will be very good,” he said. “Indigenous people (who still hold values) will actually be able to control these developments,” he concluded. So far, the government’s top-down development rarely matches the needs and desires of indigenous peoples. The government should be more open to understanding the unique context of indigenous peoples so that its policies are more targeted.

Manogu Simanjuntak, one of the youth of Nagasaribu Onan Harbangan who this year received a decree for customary forest like Huta Ginjang, said that when he reported to the government (forestry/environment) about the problem of natural timber, the government’s response was the opposite, taking evidence and questioning whether the timber belonged to the company’s concession or to the community. “All this time we have assumed that what is inside our customary territory is ours. We don’t know the difference between company concessions and community-owned forests,” he said. Their report was no longer followed up. “We are confused. We are asked to protect nature, but do companies that get concessions have no limits in exploiting the forest?” he asked.

Vindo Tambunan, a representative of the North Tapanuli District Government, said that there are always limits in management by the government or companies, and the government plays a supervisory role over companies. He further urged the community to take part in protecting the environment by disposing of waste in its place.

I think this discussion is very important to emphasise that indigenous peoples play the most important role in preserving the earth, but at the same time, indigenous peoples are often the first to feel the impact of disasters on the earth. Manogu said, “We have rice fields that yield enough for us to eat for a year; if there is no harvest or crop failure, we will not eat. Now the natural destruction caused by the company has affected the waters of our rice paddies; eucalyptus plants are next to our natural waterways”. Manogu’s testimony perfectly illustrates the irony experienced by indigenous peoples. Despite being at the forefront of saving nature and the environment, indigenous peoples are direct victims of natural disasters that occur through no fault of their own. So, it is time for policy makers to pay more attention to indigenous peoples in a broader context, not in a narrow context where indigenous peoples are considered nothing more than superstitions that make no sense.**
(Kalang Buwana Zakaria)

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