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In Indonesia, tribes who are victims of deforestation are turning to Islam

Dressed in a loincloth and armed with guns, nomads hunt among oil palm trees on the island of Sumatra. These lean-skinned men are desperately looking for the game in a tropical forest devastated by the woodcuts that ruin tribal existence in Indonesia.

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, an industry that encourages deforestation and is increasingly weighing on the traditional way of life of nomads.

So two hours away from this hunting ground, about 200 nomads out of the 3,500 of the “Orang Rimba” tribe have just changed their life: they have settled down … and converted to Islam, the majority religion in these Countries of South-East Asia.

These nomads had been approached by an Islamic NGO and representatives of the Indonesian authorities who encouraged tribal members to settle down in order to facilitate assistance and enumeration. However, to obtain an identity card entitling to public aid in Indonesia, any person must declare a religion. This, in the most populous Muslim country in the world, largely explains the conversion to Islam of the indigenous peoples, almost all initially animistic.

Since January, these 200 “Orang Rimba” live in the district of Batang Hari, located in the province of Jambi. Sitting in a hut on stilts, children wearing Muslim caps and hijabs recite the Koran.

“Thank God, the state now pays attention to us, whereas before our conversion, it ignored us,” says Muhammad Yusuf, a leader of this community who now receives food and clothing.

A desperate choice

The initiative of the “Orang Rimba” – which means “inhabitants of the jungle” – is, in fact, a desperate choice highlighting the failure of the government to defend the nomads, say advocates of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Indigenous rights advocates regretted that even tribal groups that had managed to remain nomadic so far were now tempted to abandon their lifestyles because of the difficulty of surviving in nature.

“It is the failure of the State that does not know how to protect them,” says AFP Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary general of the AMAN indigenous peoples protection organisation, in reference to deforestation.

As a result, nomads “turn to preachers or the church in some areas, because they offer them protection,” she said.

The tribes: 70 million people

In Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands and islets with one of the largest tropical forests on the planet, the tribes represent about 70 million people out of a total population of 255 million.

Among the best-known tribes are the Dayaks of Borneo Island, tattooed from head to foot, and the Mentawai, who sharpen their teeth to look more beautiful. But the “Orang Rimba” are one of the few nomadic groups living permanently in the jungle.

Yusuf stressed that it was becoming more and more difficult to find food in the forest and that conflicts between members of his tribe and representatives of societies coveting their land multiplied.

Today, some 200 “Orang Rimba” who have renounced nomadism have changed their life and appearance.

They exchanged their traditional fabrics for clothing offered by the state and NGOs.

“It’s better to be in a village like this, we live better,” Yusuf said. He adopted this Islamic name after becoming a Muslim. Previously, his name was Nguyup.

Superstitious Beliefs

All the “Orang Rimba” are however not ready to take the plunge. Other members of the tribe still live in the jungle. They shelter under plastic sheeting attached to wooden stems and hunt the few animals they find in oil palm plantations.

They change places on average three times a month to find the new game and every time a member of the tribe dies, as their customs require. Despite harsh living conditions and malnutrition, they remain resolutely opposed to any conversion to Islam and a sedentary lifestyle.

“According to our traditions, conversion is not allowed,” AFP Mail, the leader of the group, told AFP. “We are afraid of being captured by tigers if we fail our oath,” he said, referring to superstitious beliefs.

Other nomads in the country had already converted to sedentarism and Islam, but never so much at one time. To the satisfaction of the authorities who encourage life in society.

Since his conversion to Islam, Yusuf says he feels a certain “tranquillity”.

But he admits that adaptation took some time. And his family is still waiting to receive the papers promised.(AFP reported)