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Deforestation threatens Acehnese tradition

Jakarta Post - September 18, 2009

Hotli Simanjuntak, Banda Aceh – Widespread deforestation in the Islamic province of Aceh is threatening some of its rich traditions, including one ancient custom practiced to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan.

Muslims in Aceh have been preparing Ie Bu Peudah porridge during Ramadan for generations as a way of bringing the community together during the fasting month, but a lack of spices as a result of deforestation is threaten the annual tradition.

"Long ago, almost all the villages in Aceh prepared the Ie Bu peudah porridge, but now less and less people carry out this traditional custom," Sukran, a resident of the Bung Bak Jok village in the Aceh Besar regency, said recently.

"Every member of the community is usually involved in the process of cooking the porridge, but due to the large number of younger people in the village, the elderly are normally not involved," said Sukran.

The village head of Bung Bak Jok, Abdul Muthalib, said the tradition of preparing the porridge and sitting down together to eat is unique to Ramadan. With everybody taking part in the cooking process, and coming together to break the fast in the evening, ties between the community are strengthened.

"Every member of the community is involved in some aspect of the process, from collecting the herbs and spices, to preparing the ingredients, to eating the final product," said Muthalib.

The porridge is handed out to villagers a few moments before the fast is broken, and children come with containers to take some porridge home to those who cannot make it themselves.

"Traditionally, the porridge would have been eaten to break the fast together at the village mosque. But now people have their own personal activities, so they take the porridge back to their own homes," Muthalib said.

Ie Bu Peudah literally means hot or spicy porridge. Its basic ingredients are rice and an assortment of spices believed to be capable of curing illnesses and assisting those carrying out their fasts.

"One of our beliefs from the days of our ancestors that breaking the fast with the porridge can revive the lost stamina during the fast," Sukran told The Jakarta Post.

The vast array of spices necessary for the recipe are sourced from around the forest areas around the villages.

Long before the arrival of Ramadan, villagers seek out the herbs and spices required for the recipe and allocate a particular plot in the local rice fields for the grain required for the porridge.

"Our village has a special rice field set aside so there is not shortage of rice for the porridge Ramadan. That way residents do not have to pay for rice during the holy month," said Muthalib.

However, Muthalib said he was concerned about the tradition surviving in the future, as several key spices required for the dish have become scarce in the region due to widespread logging, deforestation and unethical clearing practices.

Muthalib said his parents recipe for the porridge, which has been handed down for generations, required 44 varieties of plants to make a truly authentic Ie Bu Peudah porridge.

Of these herbs, today only a handful can be found in the jungle areas around the village. Muthalib said the plants were scarce or even extinct as a result of deforestation and the conversion of forest land for commercial purposes.

"Each plant has a specific purpose. They are believed to contain ingredients to cure various illnesses. Each plant has a different function for curing disease," said Muthalib.

Although no comprehensive studies on the properties of these herbs has been carried out, Muthalib said he had no doubts that the porridge was greatly beneficial to his health. If he misses the traditional meal in the evening, he said, something feels amiss.

"We will still have the Ie Bu Peudah porridge every Ramadan, but it will never be the same as that prepared by our ancestors long ago," said Muthalib.