For 45-year-old Yondet, weaving mats is not merely an enduring tradition among the women of Talang Mamak, a tribe living in the forests of Central Sumatra. It is also a symbol of resistance against the encroachment of modern life into their forests.
The wife of the customary head of the Ampang Delapan, a Talang Mamak sub-tribe, Yondet and her fellow tribespeople are fighting for legal recognition of their indigenous status and support from the government to conserve the community forest.
The forests in the Ambang Delapan region have been extensively logged since the 1970s, when the government began issuing logging concessions there, said Gundu, the tribe's customary head. Many tribesmen were paid by companies to clear the forests for transmigration sites, oil palm plantations and industrial forest, he explained.
From 2013-2017 the Indragiri Hulu district where the Ampang Delapan lives lost an average of 20 percent of its forest coverage each year, according to spatial data collected by the Riau chapter of the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI). The dwindling forests have not only reduced the habitats of a number of local flora and fauna, but have also caused many rivers to dry up, forcing the tribe to dig deeper and deeper wells.
For Yondet, however, losing the forests means losing her tribe’s identity.
She and the other tribeswomen produce the mats they weave for export and exhibitions, hoping to raise awareness about the existence of the Talang Mamak and muster more support for their cause.
“This is not a matter of the income that we get,” said Yondet. “The more people know about this weaving, the more support we will have.”
Since 2013, the Talang Mamak here have fought for the local government to officially recognize their status as indigenous people and grant them rights to utilize the land within customary forests and national parks. Without legal standing, they fear there will be further encroachment on the forests where they live and thrive.
The demand appears to have fallen on deaf ears. In January 2018, the district chief formed a special committee to conduct verification of the Talang Mamak tribe. But the committee concluded that customary villages or forests do not exist in Indragiri Hulu district, and thus, a national regulation allowing for the recognition and protection of customary peoples does not apply.
With the help of activists and legal aid organizations The Talang Mamak say they will continue to fight for recognition and the right to govern their forests.
You can read the full story in Indonesian at mongabay.co.id.
Banner image: A woman weaving in Indragiri Hulu, where the forest is central to local people's livelihoods and identities.