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Fenced in by Sulawesi national park, Indigenous women make forestry breakout

Mongabay - March 18, 2024

Sarjan Lahay, South Kulawi, Indonesia – In a forested valley in the interior of Sulawesi Island, Elisabet Heta gathers up a clutch of farming tools used by the Moa Indigenous people and leaves home.

"I want to go to the pampa," Elisabet told Mongabay Indonesia, before the mother of four set out for the fields here in Sigi district, Central Sulawesi province.

Echoing the protocol of several Indigenous societies in the world's largest archipelagic nation, the Moa of Indonesia include matrilineal traditions that confer greater agency on women like Elisabet than in many male-dominated households.

Central Sulawesi's Moa women are their community's farmers-in-chief, with domain over the customary land where food is grown.

Every family here retains a 300-square-meter (3,200-square-foot) pampa, or smallholding dedicated for the Moa women, Elisabet said. The role of the pampa fields is to provide every household with vegetables, tubers, nuts, corn and chili, the latter commonly known in this part of Sulawesi as rica.

Supply and demand for seedlings in the community is regulated among families informally via barter.

"Because the harvest is only to meet the family's food needs, it means selection of seed types is always balanced to the needs of each family," Elisabet said.

Women are the primary stakeholders for food, but an adjacent cash economy is run by men growing cacao and coffee for sale in nearby supply chains.

For centuries the Moa have practiced subsistence farming and harvesting of nontimber forest products. Over time, new plants were gradually introduced to the vegetables growing in the pampa fields.

Subjugation by the Dutch colonial government brought cultivation of coffee trees, reflecting high prices at the time. Market forces also introduced cocoa production following Indonesia's declaration of independence in 1945.

"Every women's working group in the Moa village is different based on the neighborhood," Elisabet said. "In each group, there are usually 20-23 people."

Agustin Mpadjama, the village matriarch, said pampa farming had long been woven into the community's spiritual constitution, a system of handed-down customary rules and beliefs known in Indonesia as adat.

Under Moa adat doctrine, pampa as a source of the people's food is preeminent in the local agriculture. Secondary fields called bonea are typically sown with corn or rice crops, but women will not tend to the bonea fields until the pampa is in order.

Under the adat principle of mome ala pale, the work is carried out on the basis of cooperation and community. Adat rules conscript all women to the field to contribute to the pampa, with exceptions made if someone calls in sick or has an unbreakable family commitment.

Agustin told Mongabay Indonesia that the pampa and bonea were two of about 15 classifications of forest zone in Moa adat. That had remained broadly unchanged for generations. However, shifts in Indonesia's political economy in recent decades have forced a kind of change on the Moa community.

Pampa and circumstance

The Moa live just a few kilometers from the Pokekea megaliths, an intricate archaeological configuration of stone burial chambers cut by an earlier society around a millennium ago.

Long before Indonesia was founded as a state in 1945, the Moa people administered their own society based on customary rules and norms.

"Pampa is an integral part of this philosophy," Agustin said.

The Moa follow a framework in which the hintuwu strand of thought determines nuance of interpersonal relationships, katuwan regulates human interaction with the environment, and petukua governs the role of people under their creator, Tope Hoi.

Prior to planting new land, a ceremony is conducted in which elder women are believed to access a direct line to Tope Hoi.

"The purpose of the traditional ceremony is to ask Tope Hoi to provide fertility to the land, to avoid pests destroying plants, and to ask for protection and safety for everyone working on the pampa," Moa elder Agustin told Mongabay Indonesia.

This spiritual link cements the pampa system into the identity of Moa women. Through ceremony and emphasis on the collective, pampa farming functions as an economic doctrine, a political institution and a structure around which daily lives coalesce.

The practice of pampa farming comes with various taboos, or palia. The presence of rain when clearing a pampa field in the morning is considered a bad omen. If a breeze intensifies to a gust, custom dictates the women must put down their tools until the air stills.

The prominence of these adat traditions has faced challenges from the introduction of Protestantism in Sulawesi, locals say. Elders have become representatives of the local Salvation Army church in addition to carrying out their roles as custodians of Moa adat.

However, perhaps the greatest challenge to the pampa system came with the creation of Lore Lindu National Park by the government of then-president Suharto in the early 1990s.

Pampa oneself

Lore Lindu was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the 1970s. The zone extends from lowland ecosystems up to near-alpine forests well over 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) in altitude. Lore Lindu is home to animals such as the Sulawesi bear cuscus (Ailurops ursinus) and the Tonkean black macaque (Tonkean macaque), both of which are now considered threatened due to habitat loss.

When the boundaries of Lore Lindu National Park were drawn up, they included around 85% of the Moa customary forest, introducing legal jeopardy for the community.

"Our living space was squeezed due to limited access to land," said Helni Gopi, an elder among the Indigenous women.

Helni said people could no longer harvest coffee and cacao because the trees grew within the borders of the park, where human activity is heavily restricted on conservation grounds. Many of the crop trees planted long ago were simply cut down by park rangers, she said.

"If we were to fight against the felling of coffee and cacao trees, we would be considered obstructive and labeled destroyers of the forest," Helni said.

In response, the community applied in 2017 to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry for recognition of 7,738 hectares (19,121 acres) of customary forest under Indonesia's community forestry scheme.

This ambitious forestry plan by the government seeks to eventually release more than 13 million hectares (32 million acres) – more than 10% of Indonesia's total forest estate – for management by rural villages and Indigenous societies.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry said a total of more than 6.3 million hectares (15.6 million acres) had been devolved to communities by end-2023. That figure includes 1,484 hectares (3,667 acres) released to the Moa people in September 2021, four years after their application.

The community was disappointed by the size of the area allocated, Helni said. The reduction in the land available to the Moa prompted changes to their pampa farming practices. New fruit and nut trees were planted in existing vegetable patches in a bid to extract greater productivity from the smaller land bank.

Research has shown that agroforestry, the deliberate combination of crops and trees in this way, can offer an array of benefits to both people and landscape, spanning improved nutrient cycling to greater sequestration of planet-warming carbon.

Syukur Umar, a professor of forestry economics at Central Sulawesi's Tadulako University and author of the book Pampa Agroforestry, found that the Moa community's adoption of agroforestry techniques had helped regenerate the land.

In the Moa women's pampa lands, Syukur found trees, shrubs, seasonal plants and grasses that, in combination, resembled a healthy forest.

"The pampa agroforestry created by Moa Indigenous women is a traditional technology that has been passed down from generation to generation, and it is independent of the intervention of scientists and technocrats," Syukur said. "This is what made me interested in writing about the Pampa agroforest."

Syukur added that the Moa's configuration of crops and trees acts as a superior buffer zone between the national park and contiguous settlements. Crucially, the system has the buy-in of the local community, and sustains with families with nutritious food.

"Moa Indigenous women's pampa agroforestry is a safety net for every household," Syukur told Mongabay Indonesia.

In the pampa fields today, women like Elisabet and Agustin can be seen exchanging knowledge and socializing, removed from the hierarchies that often confine women to a role in the home.

"Pampa is also a place where women actualize themselves," Agustin said. "And we form our own identity as strong and independent figures."

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2024/03/fenced-in-by-sulawesi-national-park-indigenous-women-make-forestry-breakout