Indonesian Indigenous Studies

The Forest is Our Home: Revisiting the Modernization Project of Suku Anak Dalam in Jambi

Musdodi Manalu

A government program called Program Sejuta Rumah (Million Houses Program) was carried out in 2021 by the Ministry of Public Works and Housing (PUPR) to build livable houses for Suku Anak Dalam (SAD), an indigenous community who live in the inland rainforests of Jambi. SAD is one of the communities that has received special attention from the government, especially the Ministry of PUPR. However, is this program suitable for the SAD community? Will the SAD leave the forest for a “modern” house?

Rina Astarika (2016) explains that since the 1950s, the government has paid attention to the build homes in a village for the SAD to improve the quality of life and the economy in society. During that time, infrastructure development commenced in the Old Order era. The government perceived modernizing the SAD as a challenge to be solved. This type of development was called growth, modernization, and progress. Nonetheless, the government program failed because the constructed villages were not occupied by the SAD who preferred to go back and live in the forest.

The government’s failure shows that their approach, even today, is still top-down and not based on the addressed community like the SAD. In this manner, evicting the SAD of the forest to mingle with the larger society is arguably a resemblance to the colonialization model of indigenous peoples. As Mohamad Miqdad (2017) argues, since the independence declaration, the government has forced traditional indigenous groups to learn to be modern. This is a form of the top-down coercive mode of colonialism.

In the case of the SAD, the government hopes that the Million Houses Program can change the SAD’s mindset and affect their prosperity by getting equal rights to the general public in terms of health, education, finance, and so on. However, after 2021, there has been no progress in this development project. The main problem here is that the government focuses only on physical construction by building houses outside the SAD’s original neighborhood, without any discussion with the community in order to understand their needs. Hence, this paper argues that the SAD paradigm that perceives the forest as their home needs to be well understood rather than trying to “modernize” them, as their citizenship status and rights need to be fulfilled.

Forest as Home in the SAD’s Eco-Religious Paradigm

The SAD has a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of humans and nature. In the SAD cosmology, it is believed that nature they dwell, especially the forest, is not only given to humans. The whole cosmos and everything in it should be shared by all living creatures. The SAD’s habit of moving from one forest to another for survival has resulted in a deep love and understanding of all types of forest conditions and an excellent adaptive spirit.

The SAD has a belief that Badewo (mbah Dewa) lives in the adat (indigenous) forest considered sacred called Tano Badewo and Tano Suban/Tano Tempelanai. They believe that they have received power from Badewo to preserve and maintain life in the forest. The SAD has also made some forest areas into religio-adat spaces, where they perform rituals to honor Badewo for giving them life. The SAD even divides and names 15 forest areas within the territory such as Jungut Teperuang forest, Bento Benuaron, and Tanoh Prana’on to make borders that enable them to identify and deal with any damage that occurs. This demonstrates the SAD’s knowledge and understanding of their environment. They preserve nature and maintain the balance of ecosystems in the forest with their indigenous wisdom.

Religion certainly has a central role in the SAD’s paradigm and life practices. Protecting the environment is part of their religious responsibility. They should not destroy nature because the damage can affect them since all cosmological inhabitants are interconnected. This understanding of the forest is rooted in an intersubjective experience between humans and nature. Considering the interrelatedness, humans have no right to determine nature as an object that can be freely exploited.

The SAD’s relationality with nature as manifested in their protection, care, and attachment to the forest as their home reflects their religious commitment and practices. In the indigenous religion paradigm, being religious means being responsible, ethical, and reciprocal to other subjects including non-human beings. The type of relationship that does not practice these principles is considered not religious. People who are only concerned with their well-being and ignore others, including nature, are not religious. Thus, it can be concluded that SAD is an indigenous community that lives based on an eco-religious worldview. They do not live only for themselves but also to maintain the continuity of the entire ecosystem of the forest.

SAD also understands that forests have an important role in maintaining the environmental balance, including supplying oxygen to urban communities as the breath of the world. In this regard, the existence of SAD as a religious community can make a positive contribution to environmental sustainability and a balanced ecosystem. As Carolyn Merchant (1980) insists in The Death of Nature, all parts of the world are created to benefit and support each other. As the forest guardian, the SAD plays a crucial role in preserving “the lungs of the planet.” The impact of forest sustainability is felt throughout the entire planetary community, not only around the Jambi Forest.

Therefore, these people who are often perceived as primitive and isolated from the outside world, actually contribute greatly to contemporary global environmental issues. Hence, instead of modernizing them, the so-called “modern” civilization should learn from the SAD, whose home, the forest, is part of the hope of all creatures on Earth.

The SAD as Subject of Citizenship

Recognizing the eco-religious paradigm of the SAD implies the significance to rethink the more appropriate development agenda of the government. In this regard, the modernizing paradigm must be revisited. Borrowing Bruno Latour’s idea (1993) on modernism, the constitution of modernization is just an effort to control the world. The word modernization does not accurately describes what happens in reality and it cannot be practiced in all situations and conditions.

In the case of SAD, physical construction, a means of modernizing, is not an effective approach because they do not recognize the concept of modernity as constructed and lived by the dominant society. Rather, the modernization implemented by the government will worsen the condition of the SAD because it disconnects them from the forest. The domino effect of this action will lead to the gradual destruction of the forest caused by exploitation by certain parties.

Among the necessary steps for the government regarding the SAD is to take a more communicative approach in order to get a better understanding of the community’s needs and lifeways. The communication in question is dialogical, not top-down from the government which tends to force its views on the community. To do so, SAD itself must first be perceived as an equal citizen subject, not an object that needs to be “helped” or modernized. They are the subject from whom we (and the State) need to learn much, especially in terms of forest conservation.

In the end, the government’s approach to improving the lives of the SAD must respect their existence, including their worldview and practices, particularly those related to forests. If the government program aims to empower them, accordingly, their citizenship rights such as access to education and other public services should be fulfilled. An open dialogue between the government and the community may also lead to programs beneficial for the sustainability of the SAD’s environment and the community itself. For example, the government could provide assistance and support in efforts to maintain the health conditions of the SAD community and their environment, which are undoubtedly interconnected, using an approach that takes into account the SAD’s worldview seriously. As a result, the SAD becomes recognized as an integral part of Indonesia’s diverse society with its valuable and preserved indigenous knowledge.

Musdodi Manalu is a graduate student in the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), Graduate School, Universitas Gadjah Mada

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