A Simple Life, Devoted to Indonesia’s Natural World

A Simple Life, Devoted to Indonesia’s Natural World

By Ade Mardiyati | February 28, 2012

As a young girl, Butet Manurung was fascinated by the images of nature she saw on TV and film. Awed by the sheer greenness and the striking beauty of the forests, Butet told her father that she wanted to live there.

“Of course, he didn’t like the idea,” Butet recalled. “He wouldn’t even let me join the Girl Scouts.”

Being the only daughter of four children, Butet said her father was over-protective.

“He made sure that I didn’t do any outdoor activities,” she said. “He said I could do that only after I finished my studies.”

Butet is now 40. She is an educator, author and a recognized environmental activist. She has worked hard to educate Indonesia’s indigenous people while starting her own nonprofit organization with the same goals.

Butet has been internationally recognized because of the work she’s done in several areas, including Unesco’s Man and Biosphere Award in 2001, Time magazine’s Hero of Asia in 2004, the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006, Asian Young Leader in 2007 and the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader in 2009.

After earning a degree in Indonesian literature and anthropology, Butet was finally able to take on the outdoors and spent nearly nine years climbing mountains with friends. While it fulfilled her hunger for nature, she felt that she should do more with her life.

“I’d had enough just playing around in nature,” she said. “It was time for me to do something for it.”

In 1999, she signed up as a volunteer at Warsi, a local conservation nonprofit organization in Jambi, Sumatra. She got a job teaching the Orang Rimba (People of the Forest), an indigenous community deep within the Bukit Dua Belas rainforest, how to read, write, count and recognize their rights as Indonesian citizens.

But it took several difficult months before Butet was finally trusted as an outsider and befriended by the Orang Rimba. She spent four years living within the community in the forest.

“There was a time when a jealous woman came at me with a spear because she thought I was stealing her husband,” Butet said. “Her husband was the only person who could speak Indonesian at that time and so I found him very helpful in breaking communication barriers.”

Butet learned to speak the Orang Rimba language and gradually immersed herself in the lifestyle. She relied on a music player in lonely times until a local asked why she put so much stake in it.

“He said, ‘It seems to me that you get your happiness from an item, like it cannot come from anywhere else,’ ” Butet said. “I began to think about that.”

Simplicity was one of the most valuable things Butet learned from the Orang Rimba.

“It was their way of thinking and their principles of life that amazed me the most,” she said. “They believe that every thing nature provides should be shared with others.”

Butet said that when it was time for a few members of the Orang Rimba to visit Jakarta, many were confused with the way local citizens went about their lives.

“When they saw a nice car with only one person in it and a crowded bus nearby, it really bothered them,” Butet said. “They knocked on the car’s window and told the person inside to let some people from the bus ride in the car.

“When they saw a car in a garage, they questioned why such an item would have a house. They asked me why I had so many clothes in my closet or dozens of plates stored in the cupboard.”

Those questions left Butet thinking that the Orang Rimba — who believe that life should be made simple — were far more rational than most Jakartans.

When she completed her time with Warsi in 2003, Butet set out to engage other indigenous communities and offer them education opportunities.

“I wanted them to be able to access education within their cultures,” she said. “But what we give them should not change what they have in terms of cultural values. It should be in harmony with them.”

Butet and some friends founded Sokola, a nonprofit group that gives educational opportunities to the indigenous people.

Sokola, derived from the Orang Rimba pronunciation of the word sekolah, or school in Indonesian, teaches basic education including reading, writing and life skills that are tailored to the needs of individual communities.

“For a community that lives near the sea, we taught them how to grow healthier seaweed,” Butet said. “We hired an organic seaweed farming expert to share his knowledge with the community. We also taught them how to sell their harvest in the market without being cheated. We call it the school of life.”

Sokola has offered educational opportunities to 12 indigenous communities across the archipelago, but like many small nonprofit groups, Butet said financial problems often slowed Sokola’s ambitions. Large companies have offered to help, but Sokola has been selective in accepting their aid.

“We won’t take money from companies that can have a negative impact on the communities,” she said. “The amount of money some businesses offered was very tempting because it could have been used to fund schools for the people. But we have our principles and pride.”

Butet’s experience with the Orang Rimba was recorded in scribbles, notes and other writings. The impromptu journal was made into a book titled “Sokola Rimba.”

The English version of the book, called “The Jungle School,” is expected to be launched soon.

“This time we are self-publishing the book, so that all the profits can be used to fund education for the Orang Rimba,” Butet said, adding that the print run would start with about 3,000 copies.

Butet misses her days in the forest and hopes to return when she has time.

“It is the simple life and the people that I miss the most,” she said.

Visit Sokola.org for more information on the project.

As published on The Jakarta Globe  http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/lifeandtimes/a-simple-life-devoted-to-indonesias-natural-world/501213