- The Balik and Paser Indigenous communities worry that traditions risk becoming supplanted by Indonesia’s new capital city on the east coast of Borneo.
- More than half of the new capital estate could be considered customary territory, according to the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago.
- Indigenous elders said that if rituals are to be conserved, then the customary territories must be maintained, while the local government says it is working on programs to uphold local culture.
NORTH PENAJAM PASER, Indonesia — When an expectant mother is around three days from entering labor, the Suku Balik prepare a container out of coconut palm containing fruit, tobacco and cash, then send the vessel downriver for good fortune.
“You could call this a habit or custom because the ritual is mandatory,” Jubain, the customary head of the Balik tribe in Pemaluan village, told Mongabay Indonesia. “When it isn’t implemented, the mother gets sick and the child is trouble.”
Like many Indigenous elders living alongside Indonesia’s giant new capital city, Jubain worries construction of the multibillion-dollar project risks upending his people’s spiritual traditions, known as bersoyong, that have endured over generations.
In 2019, President Joko Widodo announced plans to move Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to a new site in East Kalimantan province, where Jubain’s Balik community calls home. The government says the project will catalyze development away from the main island of Java.
When pemangku adat, Indigenous elders, come together to carry out bersoyong rites for a pregnant mother, the materials are gathered from the nearby forest.
“If bersoyong is to be conserved, and the necessary material has to come from customary forests, it follows that the customary territories have to be maintained,” Jubain said.
Typically the preparation for bersoyong involves allocation of an auspicious day and a visit to the land to see if conditions meet requirements for the rite. Wood taken from the forest known as krembulu is charred, producing an aroma like incense.
Bersoyong rituals are also carried out whenever land is ready for planting. The landowner must be present as prayers and mantras to ancestors are conveyed in Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia (the national language spoken by almost all Indonesians) and the local Balik language.
The goal of the bersoyong rites is simple: to appeal for providence for the child and the land.
“Our ancestors conducted this ritual to prevent a disaster happening on our environment,” said Syarak, the customary elder in Bumi Harapan, a village whose name means Land of Hope.
For Syarak, construction of the new capital has already come at some personal cost. The house that Syarak built and lives in falls within the city’s development zone.
“Maybe I will be moving from here soon because I’m within those coordinates,” he said.
Syarak has asked officials for clarity on how he will relocate and whether he will be allocated any land as a replacement. However, he has received no response so far, only an offer of cash for the 2 hectares (5 acres) of land he called home.
Both the Paser and Balik Indigenous peoples have lived here for generations without binding recognition of their claims. A map compiled by Forest Watch Indonesia, a advocacy group, indicates almost half of the capital site could be considered customary territory. The Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago, a national advocacy group representing more than 2,000 communities, notes there are 21 communities with claims inside the capital estate.
“What we want from the government is that our traditional settlements must be organized, so that our people are looked after,” Jubain said. “In our view, the important things are education and health.”
Asmin, a customary elder from the Balik tribe in Pemaluan hamlet, worries the unveiling of the new capital will erode traditions and restrict the land available for the Balik people.
“All of a sudden we saw this was a reservation for the presidential palace,” Asmin said.
Sri Murlianti, a sociologist at the University of Mulawarman, said bersoyong was performed less frequently as a contemporary ritual, perhaps owing to Islamic influences, internal migration and increasing scarcity of materials in the forest.
“It’s not like in the past, when the companies had not cleared their gardens and fields and turned them into monoculture forests,” Sri said. “In the past, plants used for ritual equipment were easily available and not far from the residential areas.”
Sri said the local government had yet to enact adequate policy to protect and empower Balik culture.
“There must be revival of old ritual knowledge, which is actually local wisdom, of the way of life that coexists with nature,” she said. “This is a worthy ritual to have pride in.”
Christian NS, who runs the culture desk at the North Penajam Paser government, said the district had initiated cultural programs, but the plans were in early stages on the ground.
“We are revitalizing, to preserve the Paser culture,” Christian said.
President Joko Widodo has emphasized the importance of inclusion of local Indigenous peoples in the capital blueprint, Christian said, and that in the future the issue may be discussed with the national agency overseeing the capital project.
“We can clearly feel feelings of frustration and anger, but also fear and helplessness,” said Mulawarman University’s Sri. “Because as a minority, their agency is weak — they are outsiders on their own ancestral land.”
Despite the adversities they face, Balik and Paser Indigenous elders remain determined to foster and strengthen their traditions as their community and the country change around them.
“If the government preserves our bersoyong culture,” Syarak said, “how happy the community here will be.”
Banner image: When they start losing their forests, the Balik people rely on their rice fields and plants in their gardens. Image by Yovanda/Mongabay Indonesia.
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