JAKARTA, Indonesia (Landscape News) – Self-funded, volunteer-run indigenous schools (sekolah adat) in Indonesia are reintroducing cultural concepts of participatory conservation, now contextualized to address global interests in local cultural and natural resources.
These schools are empowering indigenous communities to transform their ancestral knowledge into relevant contemporary instruments for protecting natural landscapes and the cultural livelihoods dependent on them.
Currently, 31 independent indigenous school networks are registered by the Indigenous Peoples’ Education Foundation (YPMAN), the educational branch of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN). YPMAN’s commitment to the sekolah adat movement started in 2015, although some Indonesian indigenous school networks such as the Sokola Institute were founded as early as 1998.
With over 17 million Indonesians self-identifying as customs practicing indigenous people through individual membership in AMAN, and rising global awareness of the significance of indigenous peoples on the forefront of forest conservation, some indigenous university graduates are taking charge of cultural education in their villages by returning home to start their own community schools.
While no two indigenous schools are the same, most curricula focus on teaching languages and spiritual culture, and on educating about environmental threats that jeopardize indigenous livelihoods. Indigenous schools emphasize the relevance of environmental consciousness through farming, crafts, storytelling, music, dance, martial arts and forest excursions.
Among YPMAN’s notable indigenous school networks are Sekolah Adat (SA) Samabue in Menjalin, in the province of West Kalimantan, founded in 2016 and Rumah Belajar (RB) Sianjur Mulamula in Sianjur Mulamula in the province of North Sumatra, established in 2015.
Despite being called “school,” they function as afternoon learning clubs catering to indigenous children who attend state-run primary schools in the morning. Teachers are indigenous volunteers, and include local elders who possess treasured cultural skills and historical knowledge of the local natural landscapes. In the interest of keeping cultural education independent, these indigenous schools are currently not seeking government or private institutional funding.
“Academic schools lack indigenous perspective and tend to instil shame in the mother tongue,” said Modesta Wisa, founder of SA Samabue and member of the Dayak Kanayatn tribe, ahead of U.N. World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development on May 21. “History lessons (in state-run schools) cover pre-Indonesian kingdoms in faraway islands, but not real life developments that got our people to where we are today,” she added, referring to the ongoing oil palm rush in the Dayak Kanayatn homeland since the mid-2000s—an aftermath of Indonesia’s post-Reformasi decentralization policies.
Over the past 20 years, indigenous communities throughout Indonesia have faced massive commercial encroachments on their eco-cultural landscapes due to drastic budget cuts from the central government, which have led to decentralized post-Reformasi provincial governments welcoming investors, according to Craig Thorburn, coordinator of the International Development and Environmental Analysis stream of the sustainability program at Australia’s Monash University.
Pressure on provincial governments to earn revenues led to accelerated extraction activities in local rainforests, terrestrial and marine resources leading to loss of cultural practices and livelihoods due to encroachment on their eco-cultural landscapes, Thorburn says. Such communities are prone to poverty and exploitation.
YPMAN’s indigenous schools help students contextualize their academic education through cultural knowledge and practices. These cultural practices —such as agricultural rituals, craftmaking and storytelling— have often been difficult to continue due to encroachment.
Nagoes Sinaga, founder of RB Sianjur Mulamula and a member of the Batak Toba tribe, said that the current “globalized generation” tends to know Batak rituals only through festive occasions, but not in daily real life.
“Today, the intergenerational transfer of knowledge requires intentional effort. Establishing this rumah belajar (house of learning) is a statement of that intention,” said Sinaga.
The government is not involved in running or setting agendas for RB Sianjur Mulamula and SA Samabue. Both founders said that these indigenous schools were initiated to encourage students to care about cultural survival issues
The Dayak Kanayatn of Menjalin traditionally practiced swidden agriculture in the flatlands near Samabue hills, a three-hour drive north of West Kalimantan capital Pontianak. Although some conservationists’ consider the system in which land is burned before replanting as a cause of land degradation, swidden agriculture makes use of organic material naturally available in the swathes of burned forests, according to the World Agroforestry Centre. Post-harvest soil recovery includes planting legumes in abandoned fields and fallowing them for up to 10 years to allow natural reforestation.
For the forest-dwelling Dayak, swidden agricultural traditions are accompanied by an inseparable spiritual dimension which presents traditional knowledge in the form of rituals. In the mid 1990s, a young Wisa watched her elders identify the direction from which migratory birdsongs originate to determine whether to plant wet or dry rice in the coming planting season. Local seeds were farmed organically as part of spiritual rites embedded with the knowledge of responding to nature’s cues.
Today, rice cultivation rituals are fading as Dayak Kanayatn grow oil palm for corporations instead—earning less than half of West Kalimantan’s legal minimum wage per month, according to Wisa. This situation arises because Dayak oil palm growers typically sell copra at wholesale prices, rather than work for corporations as waged laborers.
“By teaching children critical thinking and awareness of the impacts of oil palm, we address what it does to their parents, our health, and our culture. When we lose our forests, children lose their playground, people lose livelihoods, and forest-based cultures stop,” said Wisa.
Remaining rice farmers mostly plant commercial improved varieties which they refer to as “government rice.” In Menjalin, these include Cibogo, Inpari, and Mekongga rice. Introduced through government aid in the 2000s, government rice attracted Dayak farmers due to higher yields and pest resistance, according to the West Kalimantan Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Litbang).
However, the apparent benefit of higher yields is cancelled out by government rice’s short shelf life, according to Wisa. “When we grew local rice, 40 sacks (about 2 tons) of harvest was plenty to feed our village for a year. Today, even 100 sacks are not enough because the rice goes bad after three months,” said Wisa. This forces farmers to sell their rice and restart planting in seasons traditionally meant for soil recovery, she added.
Part of SA Samabue’s curriculum includes reintroducing Dayak Kanayatn children to local rice varieties and traditional cultivation rituals, discussing the impacts of government rice, experimenting with organic cultivation of local rice to undo land degradation caused by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and excursions that introduce children to the importance of forest conservation.
Rice cultivation offerings to ancestral spirits are also important to Batak Toba culture. Previously, elders often discouraged children’s participation in rituals, said Sinaga. Today, RB Sianjur Mulamula makes rituals inclusive for children, while teaching them environmental consciousness from a Batak perspective.
Indigenous-identifying Batak communities around North Sumatra’s Lake Toba have suffered from an alarming rate of deforestation at the hands of logging and pulp companies. Today only 12 percent of Toba’s original forest cover remains, jeopardizing indigenous livelihoods such as forest-based frankincense cultivation, and putting indigenous farmers at risk of landslides and floods.
Batak Toba agricutural traditions rely heavily on water conservation, which RB Sianjur Mulamula uses as opportunities to introduce children to native trees such as jajabi and hariara.
Traditional skills such as wicker weaving and indigenous medicine often require sourcing materials from local forests. By positioning elders as teachers in a child-friendly setting, SA Samabue gives Dayak Kanayatn children a headstart in forest knowledge and conservation awareness.
The SA Samabue network currently runs eight schools in eight villages, all of which run different programs customized to each village’s ecological circumstances and availability of teachers of particular traditional skills.
“One village may still have weavers due to its proximity to forests,” explained Wisa. “Others may have rice fields instead of forests, and others may be surrounded by oil palm.”
The eight Samabue schools support each other through exchange programs. The teachers’ exchange allows the surviving cultural knowledge of one village to be shared with neighbors who had previously lost it. The students’ exchange allows children to experience their culture in different current environmental circumstances. Villages may also exchange seeds of culturally important endemic plants.
Wisa also works with the women’s chapter of AMAN to map indigenous territory claims, monitor business interests in the forest, and advocate for forest conservation with the help of indigenous leaders. She says she hopes SA Samabue will raise a future generation of culturally fluent Dayak Kanayatn who will continue her advocacy work for indigenous land rights and forest conservation.
In Toba, RB Sianjur Mulamula engages with local communities in village sanitation, creative recycling and reforestation. Sinaga said RB Sianjur Mulamula advocates for the conservation of the old Batak village, surrounded by natural landscapes that perform good environmental services to sustain the culture.
“Participatory conservation can be a challenge when we sometimes encounter local adults who view it as the rumah belajar’s responsibility and not their own,” said Sinaga. “Children, on the other hand, are generally more eager to participate, especially in the creative recycling program.” Creative recycling is a craft-making program based on plastic waste brought from the students’ homes.
With opportunities to earn income being an inevitable incentive for participation, Sinaga says he and his team try to inspire students to recognize this potential in indigenous school lessons. “Recycled crafts can be sold. Dancers can get paid to perform at ceremonies,” he said. “But with our students being children, we focus on the fun of the moment, and hope they grow to love what they learn.”
Wisa said that she has no intention to market sekolah adat as a professional replacement for academic school, and that she believes state-run school remains essential for her community’s children’s education. However, she also refuses to call indigenous school a mere “supplement” for academic education. “Indigenous education should not be an ‘extra’ – it should be part of indigenous peoples’ mainstream education,” she said.
Entering its third year, SA Samabue attracts attention from government officials and other interested stakeholders, many of whom want it to “professionalize” and apply for funding for a “proper building.” Wisa said she resists the urge, as a building would work against the sekolah adat’s goal to go to the students in each of their villages and customize their programs accordingly. Currently, SA Samabue is mostly held outdoors in the backyards of teachers’ homes, or as excursions to local forests and fields.
Having run the first year on a meagre budget of 800,000 Indonesian rupiah ($57) and laptop donations, Wisa said that SA Samabue works best with volunteers willing to cover their own costs for participating and see it as paying forward for the community’s children’s future.
“The volunteers and I pack our own lunches and pay for our own transportation — we are happy to do so knowing that our expenses are providing a cultural education for our community’s children,” Wisa said, adding that guest teachers traveling from neighboring villages often refuse her offers for reimbursement. She explained that being funded by community participation, however meager, maintains the sekolah adat’s independence to set its agenda on its own terms.
Sinaga agrees on the importance of indigenous schools’ autonomy to offer cultural education on the community’s terms, expressed through the school’s efforts to revive indigenous language and cultural knowledge. Catering to students who attend Bahasa Indonesia-immersed, state-run primary schools in the morning, RB Sianjur Mulamula provides the intentional space for Bahasa Batak immersion after academic school hours.
“In 2016, we opened our first rumah belajar with a Batak language ceremony. Many children found it awkward, because at (academic) school, ceremonies are always in Indonesian. It would be helpful if the government could declare a weekly mother tongue day the same way Friday is declared batik day,” said Sinaga, who is prepraring to open five new branches of RB Sianjur Mulamula by the end of this month.
Batik is a traditional technique for dyeing patterned textiles through wax resist, accepted by modern Indonesians as a fashion statement of their national identity. In response to the 2009 recognition of batik as part of Indonesia’s Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the U.N. Cultural Agency UNESCO, the Indonesian government encouraged Indonesians to wear batik to their workplaces every Friday.
Referring to the policy’s success in reviving the relevance of batik in modern Indonesian life, Sinaga said he believes indigenous mother tongues could benefit from similar policies.
Both Sinaga and Wisa agree that reviving the indigenous mother tongue is a crucial first step in decoding a culture’s knowledge of the local biodiversity, the vital ecosystem services they provide, and the indigenous community’s role in protecting the natural landscapes that support human livelihoods.
“We try to offer a variety of activities to keep the children engaged within the two hours of our daily meetings,” said Sinaga “Hopefully these efforts will make indigenous knowledge relevant again for this generation’s future.”