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In a Papuan district, tribes push to revive a legacy of sustainability

A coast in Nechiebe village of Ravenirara district, Papua province. Photo by Christopel Paino/Mongabay-Indonesia.

  • Two tribes in the foothills of the Cyclops Mountains in eastern Indonesia have ratified a village regulation that aims to formalize their age-old traditions of sustainable forestry, farming and fishing.
  • Though practiced for generations, the traditions have increasingly been abandoned in favor of higher-yield — but destructive — practices such as indiscriminate logging and blast fishing.
  • The new regulation stipulates customary fines on top of those imposed under national legislation, which the tribes say the government must do more to enforce.

JAYAPURA, Indonesia — On a sunny afternoon in early August, two tribal chiefs in northern Papua province, at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, met to formalize the system of sustainable farming, forestry and fishing that their communities had practiced for generations.

There was a sense of urgency to the meeting of the two chiefs, known locally as ondoafi, whose people have for decades depended on the natural resources from the land and sea in their homeland at the foot of the Cyclops Mountains, but whose traditions have begun to flag.

“We must establish this regulation so that no one will carelessly take something from nature, especially the Cyclops Mountains,” said Yafet Ikari, the ondoafi of Ormu Wari village.

Residents of Ormu Wari village discuss the village regulation on sustainable practices. Photo by Ronald Kapisa/Mongabay-Indonesia.

It may have seemed a redundant point to emphasize to the people of Ormu Wari, whose environmentally sustainable way of life was hailed as far back as 1983 by the Indonesian government, which bestowed on them an award for their efforts to conserve nature. The villagers are also known to practice herbal medicine using locally sourced plants, which they incorporate into their traditional rituals and culture.

But it wasn’t until six years later, when a devastating flood hit the region, that it became clear not everyone was abiding by the age-old traditions. The flooding, Yafet said, was exacerbated by reckless clearing of land uphill by parties “who dismissed just like that the rules that had been handed down since the time of our forefathers.”

A similar disregard for convention was also blamed for the overhunting of birds-of-paradise, for which Papua is famous.

With the formalization of these ancient wisdoms in the shape of a village regulation, Yafet hopes to restore the once deeply held respect that the people had for local customs. Under the regulation, violators will be liable to pay a fine in the form of a tomako — a traditional stone axe — and up to 25 million rupiah ($1,750) in cash. This is on top of any punishment stipulated under Indonesia’s natural resources conservation law, which can impose jail sentences of up to five years and fines of up to 100 million rupiah.

The other ondoafi, Gustaf Toto from Nechiebe village, said protecting the Cyclops Mountains — which cover 314 square kilometers (121 square miles) and comprise primary and secondary dryland forests — was a cause that had been passed down through the generations. The village deems the landscape sacred as it was part of their ancestors’ lives.

Tribal elders and local officials at Nechiebe village are backing a village regulation on sustainable management of the natural resources at the foot of Cyclops Mountains, where their homes are located. Photo by Christopel Paino/Mongabay-Indonesia.

“Our customs oblige us to never clear land for a plantation in such a way that it damages the forests,” Gustaf said.

The ban on destructive activities also extends to the region’s Pacific coast, which some of the Nechiebe people ply as fishermen. Here, their customary laws bar them from blast fishing or cyanide fishing, and prohibit the catching of turtles, sea cucumbers and lobsters. The villagers also observe a ritual known as sasi laut, in which fishing activities are suspended for a period to prevent overfishing.

“Nechiebe village has a lot of potential in natural resources from the land, coast and sea,” Gustaf said.

The problem, though, is the lack of support from the local government, he said. He cited an instance when the villagers caught and reported a fisherman for blast fishing, which had damaged the surrounding coral reef. The local authorities, however, took no action against the perpetrator.

“My hope is for this village regulation on the management of natural resources in the Cyclops Mountains to be implemented by all stakeholders — not only the people of this village, but also those living outside,” Gustaf said.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published here, here, and here on our Indonesian site on Aug. 30, Sept. 2 and Oct. 18, 2017.

Banner image: A richly forested beach in Nechiebe village in Ravenirara district, Papua province. Photo for Mongabay-Indonesia.

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