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In rural Indonesia, women spearhead the fight to protect nature

  • This past July, some 50 environmental defenders, most of them women, from across Indonesia’s rural areas gathered for a discussion at an Islamic boarding school in West Java.
  • The event highlighted women’s increasingly leading role in the grassroots movement to protect the country’s indigenous cultures, its natural resources and its long-held, but now threatened, traditional wisdoms and customs that champion sustainable development.
  • Researchers say these women are at the leading edge of a new wave to defend and protect their homeland.

GARUT, Indonesia — It was, at first sight, a typical scene for the Ath-Taariq Islamic boarding school in Indonesia’s West Java province: some 50 people, most of them women, gathered together to sing the national anthem.

But there was a deeper meaning in the air as they sang the anthem’s little-known third stanza, one that offers a prayer — “May thy children be safe from all strife and war / Thy islands, thy seas, too” — and a pledge: “There, I stand / To defend the good mother.”

It was a fitting tribute to these women, most of them mothers and all of them defenders — of the country’s indigenous cultures, its natural resources and its long-held, but now threatened, traditional wisdoms and customs championing sustainable development.

“We’ve been in a socio-ecological crisis for a while because the timber and mining industries have abused our homeland,” Siti Maimunah, a researcher at the Sajogyo Institute, an agrarian NGO, said at the gathering this past July. “Women suffer the most from this overexploitation of our natural resources.”

Aleta Baun led a grassroots resistance in her hometown against mining companies that damaged ancestral sites. Photo courtesy of The Goldman Environmental Prize.

Siti recalled the now-legendary story of one of the speakers at the gathering, Aleta Baun, a member of the indigenous Mollo tribe from Mount Mutis on the island of Timor. Aleta was born to a family of farmers; after her mother died, she was raised by other women and elders in the village, who instilled in her a deep respect for the environment as the source of the community’s spiritual identity and livelihood.

In the late 1980s, two mining companies, PT So’e Indah Marmer and PT Karya Asta Alam, entered the Mollo ancestral territory to clear the forests and carve marble from the mountains. Their activities posed an immediate threat to the tribe’s rights to their land, and thus their survival.

Inspired by the teachings she grew up with, Aleta started a movement against the miners with her fellow indigenous women. They would occupy parts of the mining concessions, sitting on the marble blocks while weaving traditional cloths. The resistance began with a small group, but eventually grew to 150 indigenous women from the village.

But the pushback against Aleta was ominous. One night in 2006, while walking home, she was surrounded by a group of men who threatened to rape and kill her. She managed to escape, but suffered injuries to her legs from machete cuts, and had her money stolen.

After the attack, she was forced to hide in the forest with her 2-month-old daughter for several months. But she wasn’t dissuaded from her mission.

There was also opposition from within her own village, where some accused her of violating cultural traditions for women, and even of being a prostitute because of her nightly excursions to protest against the miners.

After persisting for almost a year, the women finally compelled the two mining companies to end their operations. For her activism, Aleta, who is popularly known as Mama Aleta, received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2013, an annual award acknowledging grassroots green activists.

Some 50 people, mostly women environmental activists, gathered in July at an Islamic boarding school. Photo by Lusia Arumingtyas/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Another notable environmental activist at the West Java gathering was the hostess, Nissa Wargadipura, whose Islamic boarding school, known locally as a pesantren, focuses on the relationship between humans, God and what it calls ecological theology.

“We want to have students who can spread the teachings of the relationship between humans and nature by using the Holy Quran,” Nissa said.

Aleta and Nissa are just two of the countless women living in rural areas across Indonesia who have suffered the immediate impacts and lasting fallout from environmental exploitation — but have chosen to fight back. The discussion also heard from Eva Susanti Hanafi Bande, who was jailed for fighting for farmers’ rights against the palm oil company PT Kurnia Luwuk Sejati in Central Sulawesi province, and Rusmedia Lumban Gaol, who was part of the grassroots movement against timber company PT Toba Pulp Lestari, whose plantation in North Sumatra province encroached on land managed by her community.

In 2015, the Sajogyo Institute carried out studies in 11 locations where women had joined forces to protect their lands from exploitation. “Women have brought a new wave in defending and improving their homeland,” said Noer Fauzi Rachman, an agrarian researcher who now works for the office of the president’s chief of staff.

Gunarti, an activist with the Save Mount Kendeng People’s Alliance from the Sedulur Sikep community, which espouses a sustainable, agrarian way of life, said the responsible management of the Earth’s natural resources depended on both men and women.

“We need remind ourselves of where this comes from,” she said. “We have inherited a homeland and we need to protect everything in it.”

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published here and here on our Indonesian site on July 13 and 23, 2017.

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