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Can Indonesia save North Sumatran forests with local Batak wisdom?

Jakarta Post - November 2, 2022

Tonggo Simangunsong, Jakarta – Passed down for generations, some believe that local Batak wisdom is the solution to deforestation.

For some Batak people of Indonesia, the only way at this point to rail against constant mass deforestation is to embrace local wisdom.

In Batak mythology, the creator of the universe, Mulajadi Nabolon, granted the request of the first human ancestor Boru Deak Parujar, who asked to rule the Earth as her world.

Sometime later, the mythological serpent Naga Padohaniaji, who lived in the realm of the gods, fell in love with Boru Deak Parujar because of her beauty. However, Boru Deak Parujar rejected him, as she was already engaged to Raja Odap Odap, who lived in the realm of the gods and was the only man in existence then.

This rejection made Naga Padohaniaji angry, and he took it out on Earth, shaking it. He then pleaded for forgiveness. Mulajadi Nabolon forgave him on one condition: that he would care for the Earth.

With Mulajadi Nabolon's blessing, Boru Deak Parujar married Raja Odap Odap. Their first child, however, was born with no face or limbs. On the instructions of Mulajadi Nabolon, the child was planted on Earth and grew into a tree.

After that, Boru Deak Parujar gave birth to twins, Raja Ihat Manisia and Boru Ihat Manisia. She advised her two children to maintain harmony between humans and nature and to begin each offering with holy water.

In an article published on his blog in June 2007, Monang Naipospos, a Batak culturalist and writer, said that the mythology is the root of Batak's local wisdom in managing the environment, including protecting water sources and maintaining the forests.

"When people cut down trees in the forest, they must plant the replacement. It is said that whoever violates it will receive a curse," Monang told The Jakarta Post.

Respecting the trees

"In the past, in Batak culture, there was the Martondi Hau tradition – the tradition of cutting wood in the forest and replanting trees – followed by rituals," the director of Batakology at the University of HKBP Nommensen Medan, Manguji Nababan, said.

Manguji explained that Martondi Hau does not only cover cutting wood from the forest but also a ritual for when indigenous people require wood to build everything from houses to coffins. Every tree is considered to have a spirit.

The process of cutting trees must also follow specific rules. Trees must be free of vines and animals and have shoots for replacement. Replacement trees must be replanted to ensure that they grow and will not be crushed by large trees. After they are taken down, a prayer ritual and a meal are carried out.

Now, such events are only carried out by a small group of indigenous people, such as those in Sihaporas, Simalungun regency. They still practice their local wisdom to keep water sources from being polluted.

"It can be said that the indigenous people are the last custodians of local wisdom; otherwise, it will be lost forever," Manguji said.

Basic protection

According to data from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK), by 2021, Indonesia had 95.6 million hectares (ha) of forested area, with a deforestation rate of 115.46 thousand ha.

Through Perdirjen No. 6 of 2018, KLHK has carried out a forest restoration program with a social forestry scheme to restore forests with community involvement and targets the restoration of 5.5 million ha of critical land. An area of 177,000 ha of forest, 68 sites throughout Indonesia, has been restored through this scheme, although the implementation still faces many challenges.

According to Masrizal Saraan, a conservationist and executive director of the Pesona Tropis Alam Indonesia Foundation (PETAI), KLHK's partner in restoring forests in the Gunung Leuser National Park area, Langkat, North Sumatra, the state has included elements of local wisdom as one of the elements of local knowledge – a tool in environmental protection efforts. L

aw No. 32 of 2009 Article 2 states that local wisdom is one of the basics for environmental protection and management.

"However, in reality, it is still difficult to implement. Because each area has different local wisdom, and each conservation area has different conditions. As in the Leuser area, formerly, the settlers were immigrants. So, [they have] no local wisdom. Local wisdom should be applied by local people who have lived in the area for a long time," said Masrizal.


Masrizal added that their foundation is still looking for the right local wisdom tools for conservation efforts through social-forestry schemes.

"Perhaps for certain areas, there is local wisdom that can be applied," he continued. "For example, there was once a discourse that couples getting married are required to plant five trees, which may be applicable in certain areas."

Planting five trees for every bride-to-be was campaigned by the KLHK in 2015, but it seems that the idea can be implemented any time soon.

"Indeed, each region has its local wisdom. Some can still be applied. Some cannot. But, I can see from the point of view of social forestry [as the current government is doing] that local wisdom, in my opinion, can still be used as a tool. It just has to be adapted to the region."

Manguji, on the other hand, noted that "the purity of Batak culture began to erode when the Dutch entered the Batak Land in the 1870s". Monang supported this notion, stating that the customary law system began to be shifted by the government system after Dutch colonization.

Both Manguji and Monang believe that the change of system, and the influence of modern lifestyle, become obstacles in applying local wisdom, which was once vital in the community.

"Colonialism has damaged the customary law order. So, we are now like in a dream. On the one hand, there is local wisdom, but it cannot be applied anymore because there are state regulations. [Applying local wisdom] might lead to conflict [with the state]," Monang said, adding that perceptions about customary law and indigenous peoples have also changed since the era of Dutch colonialism.

"Now it is challenging to apply [local wisdom]. Even if possible, it can only be done by a small group of communities. If [local wisdom] is continued, maybe our forests will not be deforested, and there will be no floods and landslides, like in Toba."

Monang explained that local wisdom of cutting down and replanting trees, for instance, is now held in the Sipaha Lima ritual, an annual event for Parmalim. This Batak community follows the local traditions and philosophy.

"Usually, [Sipaha Lima] is held at the end of July. [Parmalim] now practice local wisdom as part of the ritual. We can only apply the local knowledge of cutting wood and planting [trees] on our land. In the past, before the state determined state forests, such local wisdom was carried out in the forest.

"In the past, forests belonged to and were guarded by indigenous peoples. Now, the forest belongs to the state. [If you cut wood in the forest], it will be considered as stealing [wood] from the forest," Monang said.

Source: https://asianews.network/can-indonesia-save-north-sumatran-forests-with-local-batak-wisdom