Countering the Loss of Knowledge, Practices, and Species on Flores Island, Indonesia

Project Contributor: Jeanine Pfeiffer with the Tado Community, the Waerebo Community and Elizabeth Gish

Credit: Jeanine Pfeiffer

Agustinus Angkol, a traditional Tado elder and herbarium researcher, showing one of the medicinal plants he collected

Tado and Waerebo are Manggarai ethnic communities located on Flores Island in East Nusa Tenggara province, eastern Indonesia. Despite being linguistically, culturally and ecologically rich, East Nusa Tenggara is perhaps the most neglected region of Indonesia. Manggarai traditional knowledge and practices are gradually being eroded due to political, economic, cultural, and ecological pressures. Government support of individualized land ownership certificates (versus communal lands administered by a council of tribal elders) and promotion of industrialized hybrid crop varieties have nearly wiped out the traditional circular lingko fields, and led to localized and regional extinction of upland heirloom rice landraces such as rain-fed rice (mavo). The national government also promotes non-native trees as cash crops (for example, cashew, coffee, eucalyptus) over the maintenance of native tree species.

The biggest obstacles faced in sustaining the natural world, language and culture of Manggarai are: increasing population and the need for wood for new houses which puts stress on the local forests; the increased need for food that is causing land conversion from forests to agriculture; and foreign cultures coming into the community, which bring about change in the local languages and dialects. Further, widespread conversion to Catholicism is leading to the loss of nature-based rituals related to sacred trees and stone monoliths, ignorance about the plant and animal products used in the rituals, and the denial of knowledge of ceremonial practices performed during those rituals. Knowledge of the more formalized, ceremonial (adat) language is in decline. As well, economic reasons are making it more difficult to perform traditional rituals involving animal sacrifices because the price of pigs and oxen increases every year.

Increasing rarity of culturally important flora and fauna that have been over-harvested or lost due to habitat destruction or invasive species is resulting in younger Manggarai generations that lack cognizance of hundreds of species their elders were intimately familiar with. Commercialization of the traditional whip dance (caci) for Indonesian and foreign tourists disassociates a whole suite of rituals from their ancestral cultural meanings. In the past, caci was only performed on auspicious dates or for deep cultural reasons approved by the elders. Other problems contributing to the loss of cultural diversity include shame or lack of interest by younger generations in “old-style” dress, remedies, or foods, as well as the introduction of plastic products resulting in a greater dependency on imported goods. As a result, the knowledge of how to make traditional meals, sing ancestral songs, recount their genealogical lineage, or to prepare and administer herbal medicines is often no longer practiced and nearly lost.

The Ethnobotanical Conservation Organization for Southeast Asia (ECO-SEA, www.ecosea.org) promotes conservation, education, and scientific research related to indigenous biological and cultural diversity. ECO-SEA began collaborative research with the Tado community in 1999, and with the Waerebo community in 2006. The “Tado Cultural Ecology Conservation Program” involves an on-site facility (computer lab, herbarium, insectarium, and resource library) and scientific research program administered by local people. The Tado Community Training and Research Centre (Pusat Penelitian dan Pendidikan Mayasarakat Tado or P3MT) is the base for ongoing research to document native species and local knowledge about them. The program has so far documented and revitalized 600 ethnobiological practices, involving over 200 plant species, 50 animal species, and 20 insect species, and is publishing all related documents in the threatened local Kempo Manggarai language. The Tado have also mapped their ancestral lands using GPS and photo-documentation. A sub-project, the “Tado Upland Rice Conservation Project”, involves ethnographic, molecular, and field research to identify and conserve traditional varieties of mavo grown by the Tado. Quantitative nutritional research is helping to revive traditional dishes, and qualitative anthropological research is reviving traditional stories, songs, and narratives.

Over thirty Tado people and nineteen Waerebo people have been trained as research associates and receive a small stipend for their work. These farmer research associates focus on Manggarai agriculture, folklore and history, traditional food and health systems, cultural ecology, and parataxonomy of plants, fungi, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and insects. Known as staf peneliti (research staff), Tado and Waerebo farmer research associates collectively administer research programs in their own communities by setting up quarterly work plans, peer-reviewing one another’s work, and teleconferencing with ECO-SEA once monthly.

More recently, ECO-SEA has embarked on an effort to support community-based ecotourism (CBE) initiatives and a community-to-community exchange of knowledge about institutional development. In 2006, ECO-SEA sponsored a CBE training workshop in Tado, which was attended by an interested resident of Waerebo. A two-hour trek from Tado, Waerebo is linked to Tado through inter-marriage and is the only Manggarai community still living in traditional five-storied, thatched-roof, circular multi-family ancestral homes called mbaru niang. Waerebo has more than a decade’s experience with welcoming ecotourists to their village and its residents were excited about the ethnoecological research happening in Tado. Following the workshop, Waerebo residents founded the Waerebo Ecotourism Organization (Lembaga Parawisata Waerebo) to build institutional capacity for existing ecotourism ventures and to initiate their own biocultural diversity research using the Tado model. Waerebo’s new research initiative will benefit from Tado’s significant research experience, while Tado community members can learn much from neighbours in Waerebo about how to conduct successful ecotourism activities. In 2007 the two communities signed a memorandum of understanding to mark their dedication to working together for the long-term to further develop, strengthen, and inter-link these projects.

Following the training workshop, residents of Tado designed a CBE program and began welcoming ecotourists to their village. Ecotourism activities in Tado invite outsiders to learn about Tado indigenous knowledge and honouring of their environment and how to use its resources. Visitors participate in making a variety of crafts, such as woven fibre mats and candlenut oil lamps, preparation of traditional foods and medicines, the use of plants in jungle survival, and a selection of ancient Manggarai rituals. Their efforts were given a significant boost in 2006-8 by a joint Swiss-Australian aid project (WiSATA) to support tourism development in the West Manggarai district. WiSATA featured Tado and Waerebo in their district atlas, promotional literature, and website (www.floreskomodo.com).

Community participation and leadership at every stage in the processes of biocultural research is fundamental to ECO-SEA’s approach. Collaboration between the Tado Community and ECO-SEA follows the tenets of the CBD and the UN-WGIP Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous Peoples regarding the sharing of benefits and responsibilities for the conservation of biocultural diversity. The Tado and Waerebo programs embody the principles of the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE) Code of Ethics. ECO-SEA has brought the ISE Code of Ethics to life in the Tado and Warebo communities. Supporting Tado and Waerebo in the development of community-based ecotourism and local research programs enables ECO-SEA and its associated academic researchers to fulfil all these ethical duties.

The resulting collaboration has had a significant impact in the communities and the lives of individuals working closely with ECO-SEA. Tado and Waerebo community members have transitioned from working as research associates on projects envisioned by visiting researchers to acting as program administrators. This capacity-building approach secures greater continuity for long-term research, better quality and larger quantity of data collected, and genuine community interest and engagement in the documentation and protection of their indigenous/traditional/local cultures and environments. Since community members are now able to direct and coordinate research, ECO-SEA can dedicate more resources to facilitating the newer ecotourism initiatives. Ecotourism will engage and benefit a larger portion of the community, help make the research programs financially self-sufficient, and further boost overall conservation enthusiasm.

The ongoing, steadily increasing community involvement has reaped impressive benefits. Tado and Waerebo community members serving as farmer research associates have been inspired to enact changes in their own households, settlements, and villages including: documenting long-standing land tenure disputes (using a GPS and digital camera) and being persistent about taking the case through to the highest levels of government; initiating, implementing, and maintaining historical restoration and water installation projects (including budgeting, grant writing, mapping, securing in-kind and matching funding, materials procurement, voluntary group labour, and transparently managing the project funds down to the last bundle of palm fibre roofing thatch or pipe fittings); seeking out and attending training courses that interest them (e.g., in avian monitoring, tourism services, or household technology) in district capitals; teaching each other how to use computers and data-entry software; getting themselves elected to village councils and organizing other villagers around important issues, such as channelling government funds for much-needed health centres; building more permanent and sanitary latrines.

Finally, while bolstering and celebrating traditional Manggarai life, ECO-SEA’s involvement in Tado and Waerebo is also helping to inspire changes in conservative gender roles. Priority recruiting and hiring of females and staffing practices create more opportunities and empowerment for women. Both sexes share responsibility for cooking, cleaning and childcare during staff meetings, which enables female staff and research associates to fully participate in meetings and decision-making sessions. Thus, ECO-SEA is facilitating not only conservation of native biocultural diversity, but also socio-cultural change towards greater gender equality.

A Tado community member’s commented about the loss of biodiversity: ‘If there is no collared kingfisher (Halcyon cloris) or if their sounds are not heard, then the farmers will lose their signs of seasonal change. It’s just like a country losing its meteorology and geophysics department.’ When asked what the impact of losing their language would be, a Waerebo respondent had this to say: ‘If one day nobody could speak Manggarai, all of the rituals would come to an end. There is no single traditional ritual could be performed using Indonesian. Forsaking even one ritual will cause itang (bad karma) to befall the whole community, so just imagine what happens if all rituals are forgotten. Itang is the hardest, inevitable punishment in Waerebo. The presence of itang makes the community realise what they should do, and they fear in their heart so that they return to the traditional rituals. It’s clear that the ancestors of Waerebo always watch over the life of the Waerebo people. They will give warnings if the people go astray from their customs.’

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