Juli 13, 2014

Jungle School for Life

CHANGE SURROUNDING the Bukit Dua Belas forest—the habitat of the Orang Rimba—was unavoidable.

Gradually, their ecology and social environment could not support their life any longer. The outside world oppresses and marginalises the Orang Rimba in many ways.

The term “Orang Rimba” means forest people (people of the jungle). This indicates the living space of the community. Also known as “Suku Anak Dalam” or “Kubu”, the ethnic community lives in Bukit Dua Belas low land rain forest, in the central of Jambi province, Sumatra Island. The Orang Rimba sustain their life by hunting and gathering food. Some of them cultivate dry fields. For them, the forest is not only a source of living but also a place where their norms, values and philosophy of life related to their myths, taboos and beliefs are actualised within existence of the forest.

Being lean on the existence of the forest, the Orang Rimba certainly needs a minimal ideal space for maintaining their life and actualising their culture. Nowadays the ideal space condition, however, is more and more threatened with extinction by several factors. The real threats that have decreased quality of their forest are illegal logging and land conversion for transmigration programmes, big scale plantation, land cultivation and also the increasing population around the forest. The transmigration programme in Jambi started in 1979 and had resettled about 30,000 families. The land has been cleared for big scale plantation of palm oil.

To conserve the rain forest, the 60.5 hectare of the forest has been legalised as National Park by Indonesian government since 2000. But the number only indicates the area of the National Park, not the remaining forest. The traditional boundary of the Orang Rimba used to be wider than the National Park.

In the National Park of Bukit Dua Belas, there are about 2,000 Orang Rimba in eleven groups, each group led by a “Tumenggung”, a community leader.

The structure of leadership in Orang Rimba is related with the power under the Kingdom of Jambi in the past. It was created as a system to deal with natural resources from the forest. There’s no exact number of the population. Based on a survey in 2004 by a local NGO, there are 1,524 Orang Rimba. But this number is not official as it has also been reported that this figure did not include other three Orang Rimba groups in the National Park.

Almost half of them live around Makekal Hulu, a river basin that flows to Tabir River, in the western side of Bukit Dua Belas forest. It’s one of the habitats of the Orang Rimba, as wide as 8,000 hectares, with hundreds of streams flowing through it. Its land contour is dominated by lowland forest and hills. In this site, Sokola established a school programme for the Orang Rimba and built a school house that also functions as a community centre.

The National Park forest is surrounded by 22 traditional Malay villages whose population has intensive interaction with the forest as loggers or cultivators of the land. There are also some transmigration villages whose population are Javanese. The Orang Rimba usually call the villagers “Orang Terang”, meaning people who get more sunlight than the Orang Rimba who live under the canopy of the forest.

Stereotyping the Orang Rimba

Relations with outsiders are often built around stereotypes about the Orang Rimba. The arrogance of the outside world offers only a single interpretation of life’s standards and appropriateness. According to the perspective of this outside world, the Orang Rimba are “uncivilised”. Addressing them as “Kubu”, which has now become an international name for the Orang Rimba, is an external marginalisation of the Orang Rimba that carry the connotation of a people who is “dirty, untidy, smelly, infidel, stupid and have no religion”: in other words, they are not “normal” human beings.

The Orang Rimba are considered pagan because Indonesian citizens have the right to choose one out of only six religions recognised by the government. Therefore, for the Orang Rimba, marginalisation occurs not only ecologically when the forest, their habitat, is so degraded, but also when they are challenged by external arrogance about their standard and way of life.

Marginalisation and discriminative treatment by the external world is a common phenomenon in interaction with indigenous peoples. Cheating in trading transactions or land disputes, and insulting the dignity of these peoples are not exceptions.

Conservation for Whom?

There are different meanings of forest “conservation” between the habitants of the forest and the government.

In the effort to conserve the National Park, a new problem arises. The Management Planning of Bukit Dua Belas National Park has started to regulate and manage the lay-out of the Bukit Dua Belas forest into zones based on the comprehension of the institution that manages the National Park.

Based on the zoning regulations, the Orang Rimba who have lived there for generations would be relocated and concentrated in a specified zone located at the edge and outside of the forest. This regulation certainly affects the continuity of their lives and culture dramatically because they are forbidden to enter the forest, which is their habitat and means of cultural actualisation.

Up to now the forest conservation management is located very far away from the community, because the meaning of “conservation” for the government is a “sterile” area away from the people.

This regulation implies that the management and application of conservation areas are generally centralistic and denies the “participation” of communities who have a long history as inhabitants and original owners of the living habitat. In this case, the Orang Rimba is neglected in the decision making process of their land and there is a lack of information on what is happening around them.

Significance of Education

The decrease in the extent and quality of the forest, pressure from the people around the forest, open access to the forest of the Orang Rimba and zoning regulations due to efforts to conserve the National Park resulted in further marginalisation of the Orang Rimba. There is a tendency for the Orang Rimba to be more and more intensely in contact with outsiders, whose way of life and perspectives are entirely different from theirs.

Interaction and contact with the outside world is unavoidable, so are the changes and threats, which never subside. These new problems, which are related to the outside world, are not regulated by their traditional laws. To deal with these changes, the orang rimba needs more information that can empower them to make this relationship and interaction equal.

The orang rimba faces challenges in its relationship with others, who are not from their community, due to:

- Their limited ability and knowledge about outside norms, values and legal aspect, which place them in a very disadvantaged position with less bargaining power;

- Orang Rimba’s inability to read, write and count, open them to cheating (for example in trade transactions) by those outside the forest;

- Internal weaknesses in their organisation and community, and lack of representation to struggle for their rights.

Education is one of the efforts to equip them with various knowledge and abilities to have equal bargaining power when they deal with people outside the forest. Their belief, value system, tradition and way of daily life have maintained their cultural identity and preserveed their natural resources, but have prevented them from participating in basic education curriculum decided by government through formal institution.

“Why do we have to go to school every day in the morning, at a time when we’re checking traps or taking our harvest into the sunlight?” This is only one example of how they question formal school education.

School for the Orang Rimba

The local government had built an elementary school for children of Orang Rimba. It lies in the southern edge of Bukit Dua Belas forest. Since it is based on the national curriculum, however, it could not accommodate the tradition and daily schedule of the Orang Rimba. What they learn from there is also not applicable to their everyday life. The national language, Indonesian, used in schools makes learning difficult for the Orang Rimba. Currently, only villagers’ children go to this school and no Orang Rimba.

The curriculum of the “Jungle School”, established by Sokola, starts with literacy programmes. The reading, writing and counting are at the elementary level so that these skills will help them in trading or signing agreements with villagers, and they will be less likely to be cheated. The school activities are in Orang Rimba language and the teaching method is adaptable to their tradition. For examples, the school schedule is arranged based on their time off from their daily routine and this may vary according to each pupil. To make this activity possible, our volunteers live in the jungle and adapt to the Orang Rimba way of life.

From Literacy to Advocacy

At the end of 2005, the government issued a regulation to relocate the Orang Rimba from the deep forest to the edge of the forest. They were threatened and were not allowed to have access to their forest anymore. Unfortunately, not every Orang Rimba understood the consequences of this action.

In Makekal Hulu, Sokola tries to raise the awareness of the Orang Rimba in Bukit Dua Belas forest. It was organised together with the youth, known as “Sokola cadres”, who were the first generation of Orang Rimba with literacy skills.

One day, these cadres found and read by accident a book found on Management Planing of Bukit Dua Belas National Park. In the book they found a regulation, which they did not agree on. They raised this issue in the leaders’ meeting in the jungle. They decided that they would not accept the regulation because it was against their traditional way of life.

Apart from literacy programmes, advocates from other NGOs were invited to teach about law and human rights and assist the community in advocacy in order to create community organisations called “Kelompok Makekal Bersatu”, which would bring their issues to the national level: for example, the Indonesian Parliament, Minister of Forestry (informal), National Commission of Human Rights and mass media, to ask for the revision of the regulation.

In did not work so well in the beginning until the National Commission of Human Rights responded by forming a team to investigate the case and went to the deep forest for verification. The investigation revealed 12 points of abuse. This report was then sent to the local and national governmental authorities—Ministry of Forestry and the Local and National Office of Conservation and Natural Resources—who are the policy makers of the National Park, and the mass media and other stakeholders related to this case.

In mid 2007, through the Local Office of Conservation and Natural Resources, the government agreed to revise the regulation and invite the community to participate in its decision making process.

The first meeting between all stakeholders in June last year became the only meeting to discuss the revision of the National Park Regulation. Although it shows goodwill of the government, there has been no progress in the revision since then.

For the Orang Rimba, there is a long way to go in struggle for their rights to live peacefully in their own habitat.[]


Aditya Dipta Anindita, “Jungle School for Life”, Asian Human Rights Defender: Newsletter of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, 4, 1, (2008): 22-25.

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