Juli 09, 2014

The Changing Future of Rainforest Peoples: The Case of the Orang Rimba (Jambi, Indonesia)


AT THE end of the 1990s the EU launched a large-scale research program called ‘The Future of Rain Forest Peoples’. The program was aimed at providing an anthropological perspective on the numerous ecological studies on the fate of the rainforest and the social aspects of the efforts to protect this eco-system. The discussion within this program focused very much on the projection of the future of the rainforest peoples on the basis of their recent or more distant past. Relatively little field research was undertaken with the explicit focus on the future of these peoples, and how they were anticipating the future. This gradually made some of the researchers look back on how ideas about the future were formulated and how predictions and projections are actually made.

In this paper we will look back on the past predictions of the future of the Orang Rimba (formerly also called Kubu or Suku Anak Dalam) as made by colonial and Indonesian civil servants, anthropologists, missionaries and development workers. The Orang Rimba in the interior of Sumatra (Jambi Province, Indonesia) were known mainly as hunter-gatherers. Since their ‘discovery’ in the 18th century numerous predictions have been made about their rapid decline. Soon they would either go extinct or be ‘swallowed’ by the rapidly expanding process of civilization. Particularly in the beginning of the 20th century, when road infrastructure was developed and large scale conversion of forest land into plantations started to take off, the forest-dwelling and hunting/gathering Orang Rimba would rapidly disappear. The speed and scope of rainforest conversion would even more increase in the last few decades. Not much of the original forest, the Orang Rimba’s home and source of livelihood, is left apart from some small protected areas.

Surprisingly and contrary to decades of predicting a grim future, the Orang Rimba have not disappeared and they have also not completely assimilated into the dominant Malay society. On the contrary, they have adapted to new conditions in a large variety of ways. They have taken up new sources of livelihood that were always considered beyond possible options for the Orang Rimba. These include cultivation of oil palms and rubber trees. They also use their rubber gardens as a protection fence (hompongon) against intruders of their land. Some Orang Rimba have also become middlemen. One of them, temenggung Tarib, is a very successful example. The Orang Rimba have retained their identity and even developed a sense of pride in being so much different from the ‘ordinary village people’. External support of some government officials and a NGO promoting indigenous peoples’ rights is of great help in this respect.

Using the example of the Orang Rimba, we will also discuss how we should study the future in a more useful manner. The paper is partly based on fieldwork among the Orang Rimba in the 1980s as well on very recent fieldwork (2012-2014).[]


Gerard A. Persoon, Wardani and Tessa Minter, “The Changing Future of Rainforest Peoples: The Case of the Orang Rimba (Jambi, Indonesia)”, paper presented at Futurities Conference, Leiden University, 26-27 June 2014. 

Source: Media.leidenuniv.nl.

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