Notes from Mangroves and Indigenous Peoples Online Discussion

Traditionally, indigenous peoples in the Indonesian archipelago live together with nature. In many places in the coastal region, indigenous peoples and mangrove ecosystems live side by side and support each other. This was illustrated in an online discussion, #NgobrolBarengTimYHB (#ChatWithBFTeam)  conducted by Blue Forests.

#NgobrolBarengTimYHB  is an online discussion series held by Blue Forests during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the series “Mangroves and Indigenous Peoples” held on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, this discussion also presented Paskalis Wakat, a carving artist and traditional community leader from Yepem Village, Asmat, Papua.

From the Blue Forests Team talk with Paskalis Wakat, it revealed the importance of mangrove ecosystems for the Asmat indigenous people. Mangrove ecosystems that are preserved sustainably provide benefits to indigenous peoples. On the other side, indigenous wisdom practices of indigenous people also help to maintain the sustainability of mangrove ecosystems.

The benefits provided by the mangrove ecosystem are felt by indigenous people in social, economic and ecological aspects. This situation is well represented through the phrase conveyed by Paskalis Wakat, namely “mangrove forests are mothers to Asmat people.” The point is that mangroves have done all the actions as a mother does to her child such as take care, feed, preserve, protect, and to support their lives. All of these things were felt by the Asmat indigenous people in their interactions with the mangrove ecosystem on the southern coast of Papua.

From a social aspect, mangrove forests are a pivotal identity for the Asmat indigenous people. Some locations within the mangrove area are sacred or holy to them. In order to protect the area, the Asmat people set bans or restrictions on utilization activities. “We are implementing what is called pisis, tetre, karu, and teser,” Paskalis explained  some of the local wisdoms run by the community to protect the mangrove ecosystems.

Pisis and tetre are traditional conservation actions that are applied in certain locations, for example in the forests that are becoming critical areas. Forests that have been subject to pisis and tetre rituals may not be used for a certain period of time. This restriction is intended to provide an opportunity for nature to grow back or regenerate naturally. The practice of local wisdom is similar to sasi, a custom which is carried out in the Maluku and surrounding areas.

Meanwhile, karu and teser are legal forms in the Asmat indigenous people’s belief system. Sanctions for these two violations of the law are believed to be handed down directly by the ancestors to the offenders. Karu is a violation of the law which is still considered minor. Sanctions can be in the form of reprimand or bad luck, whereas the most serious form of traditional violation is teser. Violation of this law can result in harm or even death. This customary law is very upheld by the Asmat indigenous people, including in managing their natural resources.

Mangrove forests are also a provider of raw materials for the construction of jew traditional houses. Jew is the center of social activity for the Asmat indigenous people. It is also the traditional house in the form of an elongated stage building. Many community activities, ranging from interacting, traditional ritual events, to deliberations on decision-making carried out are held in jew. That is why the Asmat indigenous people protect mangrove forests that much. “If the mangrove (forest) is damaged, where do we want to get materials to build jew from? If it were so, our customs might disappear. Asmat people will definitely disappear too, “said Paskalis.

Sustainable mangrove ecosystems also provide benefits to indigenous peoples from an economic aspect. As we know, healthy mangroves are spawning and foraging for various aquatic biota. The abundant fishery products in the mangrove ecosystem are utilized by indigenous peoples to fulfill their household economies. In Paskalis’ village, for example, most residents work as fishermen who utilize the abundance of natural products around the mangrove ecosystem. Among them are various types of fish, shrimp, shellfish, to karaka or mangrove crabs which are famous as luxury dishes in restaurants in various cities and countries.

The catches of Asmat traditional fishermen are mostly distributed to markets in the district center to meet the food needs of other communities. The proceeds of the sale are used to meet the daily needs, school fees, and children’s tuition. “In our village, there are already quite a lot of children who continue to study out of town because of the mangrove forest’s results,” Paskalis said with a smile.

The indigenous peoples’ economy that is based on natural resource management has proven to be more resilient even in the current Covid-19 pandemic. When the economy was exhausted because of Covid-19, the recession was hardly felt by indigenous peoples in Asmat. Those who still depend on nature to continue working as usual. In addition to coastal activities as mentioned above, the Asmat indigenous people can also still use the forest to till sago and collect other forest products. Some are gardening by growing vegetables, fruits, and tubers.

Indigenous peoples in Asmat form their own social safety nets through sustainable management of natural resources. With that way, nature provides guaranteed availability of livelihoods that continue to exist. It is sufficient and sustainable.

Apart from the social and economic aspects, the ecological benefits of the mangrove ecosystem that are still maintained are also felt by the indigenous people. Mangrove trees that live along with the coast function as a soil binder to reduce the risk of abrasion. The function of the mangrove ecosystem green belt is also felt by indigenous people who live in coastal villages. Mangroves become a kind of natural fortress that protects the village from the storm and big waves.

“At the end of each year, our area faces western winds. At that time the wind and big waves usually threaten us at sea. But because there is a mangrove forest we can live in peace in the village,” Paskalis explained.

Some Threats

Mangrove ecosystems with traditional use activities that run by indigenous peoples are currently threatened with the potential to disrupt sustainability. Besides being pressured by the inclusion of more modern systems, the biggest threat comes from the land conversion process in the mangrove area. The land conversion is intended to open new settlements, office areas and other infrastructure facilities in the development scheme by the government. In addition, large-scale land clearing also occurred with the entry of large-scale monoculture plantation industries such as oil palm as well as mining activities, both legal and illegal.

This has begun to be felt by the neighboring districts of Asmat, such as Mimika, Mappi, Boven Digul, and Merauke. Massively changing the function of indigenous peoples’ territories also meant that the social system was transformed for them. The loss of forest causes the erosion of the cultural identity values of indigenous peoples, which used to hunt and gather traditional uses and are now forced to shift to a more modern economic system. Those who do not have enough stock to face these changes will live in very vulnerable conditions.

In order to anticipate the impact of reaching the Asmat villages, the indigenous people began to make efforts to protect the forest at the village level. With the support of various parties, they conducted an action program to improve community-based management. Activities undertaken include mapping of indigenous peoples’ management territories, the forest guard groups formation that involves youth and traditional leaders, the village regulations preparations that adopt customary law or local wisdom that is still carried out by indigenous peoples, and the sustainable livelihoods development.

Strengthening the community-based forest management system is expected to be a protection when the threat reaches the village. Adopting what has been carried out by indigenous peoples to be adapted into the management system will foster community confidence in managing their territory. When the temptation to change the function of the area came, they already had capital in the awareness form that forests are an important asset for livelihoods. When forests are damaged, life will be threatened.

Some Opportunities

The most powerful keyword in efforts to improve the forest area management system is collaboration. Collaborative management (co-management) in a forest area will gather all the strengths and interests of the parties. Management collaboration will reduce sectoral egos and overlap programs and policies. The stakeholders will complement each other in an effort to encourage improved management of forest areas. This is what is being encouraged to be done in Asmat and several other districts in Papua.

In addition, indigenous peoples with the support of the parties need to welcome policies issued by the government related to the management of customary forests. In 2015 the Constitutional Court determined that Customary Forests had been declared as not State Forests. Moreover, the government has also determined the implementation of the Social Forestry scheme, which includes Customary Forests. This needs to be followed up with an inventory process and the determination of Indigenous Forest areas throughout Indonesia, including in Papua. Determination of Customary Forests is a formal legal effort to secure forest areas that are managed independently by indigenous peoples.

This online discussion can be accessed at YouTube:


Written by: Wahyudin and Sendy de Soysa

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