Indonesian Indigenous Studies

The Rights of Nature and the Non-Human Dignity: Reviving the Right to Life in the Minangkabau Traditional Paradigm

Luthfiah Trivani Zebua

Growing up in a small town in West Sumatra, I was surrounded by a hill that became a symbol of our community. This hill, made of white limestone, stands resolutely like a convex mirror, resembling a gorilla’s head. According to our ancestors, the hill originated from a gorilla that guarded the village, home to more than six different species of natural primates, including sacred white tigers, crocodiles, and wild boar. Tradition regards these creatures as integral parts of nature, emphasizing the need to safeguard and preserve their right to existence alongside humans. The well-known Minangkabau phrase “Adat Basandi Syarak, Syarak Basandi Kitabullah” serves as the cornerstone of our community’s way of life. This phrase underlines the importance of aligning tradition with Islamic teachings.

However, contemporary complexities have led to the erosion of traditional values, impacting relationships, fostering exploitation, and contributing to excessive hunting, as well as global environmental challenges. Economic pursuits often lead people to surrender customary lands, weakening the positive economic component of our customs. Despite our strong social norms, the conversion of vast lands to agriculture and the drying up of rivers have severed our relational bond with nature, a connection lost to recent memory.

Organizations like PorBi (Swine Hunting Association) highlight the ongoing hunting of older tigers for market demand, turning this practice into a concerning new cultural trend. The essay delves into the repercussions of these shifts, exploring how local traditions and culture are losing their ability to connect with nature. This decline, possibly influenced by the global religious paradigm, particularly in the realm of justice among species, raises questions about the role of indigenous religions.

Quoting Samsul Maarif from an Indigenous Religion class, the religiosity of the indigenous people is deeply rooted in the elements of the earth, trees, mountains, and more. As customary lands disappear, Adat loses its vitality, leaving only symbolic remnants of its culture and relationship with nature. This essay aims to unravel the intricacies of these changes and their impact on the interaction between humans, animals, and the environment. In doing so, it addresses the Minangkabau people’s slogans, which embody a philosophy of life that grapples with the complex dynamics between humans and their natural surroundings.

The Death of Adat also the Death of the ‘Guardian’

It was anticipated that the conclusion of the Padri War in 1838 would bring an end to the tensions between indigenous and religious communities in Minangkabau, leading to the establishment of adat basandi syarak, syarak basandi Kitabullah. However, the politicization of government regulations has resulted in the separation of adat and religion. From the Minang Kabau perspective, adat embodies the essence of religion. The question arises: What happens when religion adopts the values of the global religious paradigm, dismissing traditional rituals as non-religious? This shift weakens customary power, rendering it ineffective in addressing environmental crises, and exacerbates exploitation, leaving no sacred spaces for the community. The remaining ordinary spaces and lands are gradually succumbing to modernization, requiring the utilization of all cultural potential. As a consequence, formal events that unite communities now occur at least once a year, serving as foundational events. This loss emphasizes how important it is to maintain traditions as a privilege, much like the dissolution of a relationship. 

Governor Irwan Prayitno of West Sumatra laments the erosion of culture and customs due to globalization. However, I assume that there are lax local laws regarding cultural heritage, which has led to the marginalization of many aspects of customs and even the labeling of them as mystical. Animism unintentionally merges with restricted customs, raising questions about the definition of religion and the perspective used to define it. The subsequent intervention of abrahamic religions further shapes the definition of religion, aligning it with the world religion paradigm and establishing hierarchical relations between the concepts of divinity and servitude. In this paradigm, ‘nature’ becomes the ultimate stratum, created for humans.

Re-evaluating the human-nature relationship, the argument is made that the ‘over-dominance’ of humans over nature is akin to exploitation. This perspective, rooted in anthropocentric thinking, fails to acknowledge the rights of indigenous peoples. Simultaneously, ecocentrism, a defining characteristic of indigenous peoples, struggles to establish interdependence. Consequently, the decline of adat coincides with the loss of its supporting elements.

Reinstating Indigenous Harmony

The philosophy embedded in custom presents a compelling alternative for ensuring and promoting equal rights for every entity within the customary realm. In Aotearoa-New Zealand, Christine J. Winter’s groundbreaking efforts to recognize Maunga Taranaki, a mountain, in environmental law involved personifying it and granting it the right to ‘vote’ for the same protection as a person. Winter’s perspective opens up a revolutionary model that holds promise. She emphasizes, “Legal personhood for nonhumans is a step toward genuine democratic pluralism. It may also provide a path to decolonization and methods for establishing ‘environments’ as democratic actors”.

Drawing a parallel, the revitalization of adat through intersectoral initiatives can similarly yield positive environmental impacts. Acknowledging nature’s right to be protected from further exploitation and granting it the same rights as a legal person aligns with the concept of Ecological Citizenship, borrowing Alfian’s term. This personification extends to hills, rivers, and animals, encompassing their existence, well-being, intrinsic value, integrity, and other interests as “one right”. While the term ‘legal person’ is fitting for mountains, forests, and rivers, flexibility in language may be essential. In reinforcing traditional life and cultural sustainability within the Minangkabau context, an intersectoral approach involving Alim Ulama, Panghulu, and Cadiak Pandai—the three major adat components—must be mobilized.

Furthermore, integrating the mysticism of adat and adopting a religious, animistic approach, as described by Samsul Ma’arif in the religious pattern of the Ammatoa community, can revive the essence of adat. This can be achieved through limited cultural festivals and by infusing customary mysticism into religious rituals, thereby bridging the gap between the two. Cultural events like harvest rituals expressed through dances, become avenues for expressing gratitude. Ultimately, custom evolves into a comprehensive system offering doctrine and potential solutions to contemporary issues related to rights and nature. However, giving voice to adat goes beyond mere recognition; it entails embracing a paradigm that shapes our understanding of existence itself.

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

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