Riau's Talang Mamak tribe faces ever-shrinking lands
Rampant illegal logging by forest concessionaires and forest clearing activities, such as those for oil exploration in Bengkalis regency, have taken a heavy toll on the lives of the many isolated ethnic tribes in Riau province.
The indigenous Sakai people in Riau province, for example, who used to live in lush green jungles, now have to dwell in nearly barren areas in Bengkalis. Another tribe, the Talang Mamak in Indragiri Hilir, Indragiri Hulu and Jambi, are facing similar situations as their forested surroundings, too, have been cut down for oil palm plantations or have been turned into industrial forests.
Despite their nomadic life, to these people, the earth and forests are part of their lives and something they must care for. They know how to manage their lands and forests, a knowledge that is passed down from their ancestors, which has enabled them to coexist harmoniously with nature and maintain their environs for many generations.
The majority of the Talang Mamak tribe, which comprises only 6,400 or so people, are illiterate. Most of them live in the districts of Seberida, Kelayang and Rengat Barat in Indragiri Hilir, and a small number of them live in Surnai, Bangko Tebo and Bukit 30 National Park, bordering Jambi province.
The Talang Mamak are currently languishing: the presence of forest concessionaires has been detrimental to their way of life and rendered it barely sustainable.
The state schools located far from their villages still remain a luxury for the animist tribespeople and, to make matters worse, many of them refuse to go to school, arguing that conventional, modern education would mean a departure from their long- maintained customs and traditions. They fear modern education will change their beliefs. According to tradition, converts are no longer regarded as members of the tribe.
Quite a few have embraced Christianity, but they still practice their indigenous customs, such as worshiping the animist spirits at sacred places. Others have converted to Islam, after which they become known as "Malay people" among the Talang Mamak.
The Sakai, Bonai, Talang Mamak and Duano tribes are socio- culturally and ethnically Malay, but have not been exposed to the Hindu, Islamic and European cultures. These people were segregated by the Malays for their "unhygienic" way of life.
Most Talang Mamak people are reluctant to become Muslims, because Islamic teachings, according to them, are contrary to their customs and traditions. For example, pork is traditional fare at wedding parties. They still use bark and leaves for clothing.
Being nomadic, they are able to prevent the government from annexing their ancestral lands and still lead a simple way of life, unaffected by external impurities. Their huts, usually measuring 3 meters by 4 meters, are built on stilts and have walls made of bark. It is in these homes that they cook, receive guests and chat. They cultivate the land around the huts -- usually less than 1 square hectare, to grow cassava and sweet potatoes as their staple foods.
"We have planted cassava and sweet potatoes all our lives for many ages," said Mohammad Supermi, 34, village chief of Durian Cacar.
Apart from farming, some of the tribespeople go to the forest to harvest rattan and honey from trees, which they call sialang. They sell the honey at the market or drink it with traditional herbal medicines.
Now, however, the ancestral forests, on which they depend their lives, are about to disappear, with the forests, the Talang Mamak way of life.
-- Haidir Anwar Tanjung