Recently a mass conversion to Islam of the nomadic Orang Rimba (a tribe of the Sumatran forests) took place in Indonesia. The BBC reported this weekend that three months ago, the 58 families that make up the Celitai Tribe of Orang Rimba were loaded into buses, transported to the nearest city, and converted to Islam. The Indonesian state does not recognize the nomadic lifestyle practiced by the Oranga Rimba. Recognition, acceptance and peaceful co-existence between faiths has been further strained by intense economic involvement of palm oil plantations. In order for the monoculture plantations to be established, the Orang Rimba have been forced to relocate to housing developments as their forest continues to be felled. However, by law, housing Orang Rima requires each individual to have documentation issued by the state. This documentation must show which (one of six) accepted religions the person identifies with. Because the Orang Rimba’s religion is not an officially recognized religion of the State of Indonesia, in order to participate in modern society they must convert. The BBC has reported that the issue has intensified further as the Islamic Defenders Front a “vigilante group whose leaders are facing charges of inciting religious violence” helped to facilitate the conversion. Additionally, the Islamic Missionary Groups are establishing themselves within the vicinity of Orang Rimba to ensure that the new faith is practiced. Ethnic tensions are beginning to reach a critical mass as Orang Rimba claim they are not only being forced to adapt to modernized ways of life, but that they are simultaneously being systematically squeezed out of a country they call home. The land set aside for plantations is often cleared viciously with fire and the surrounding streams are poisoned with pesticides leaving the tribes with little food sources. The Orang Rimba are quickly becoming one of Indonesia’s most endangered peoples.
The Indonesian government and Islamic leaders seem to see no harm in their approach. The BBC reported that one Islamic Missionary stated “for now we are focusing on the children, they are easier to convert.” He further claimed that “when someone died, they didn’t even bury the dead, they would just leave the body in the forest. Now their lives have purpose, meaning and direction.” However, village leader Muhammed Yasuf (Yuguk by his Rimba name) challenged the statement, saying “we have no choice if we want to move forward, so our children can have the same opportunities as the outsiders, the people of the light, we had to convert to Islam.” The people of light, as reported by the BBC “are outsiders – the people that live in the open areas exposed to the sun.”.Conversely, the outsiders often call Orang Rimba “Kubu” which, as explained by Anthropologist Butet Manuring, means “dirty, garbage, disgusting, as well as primitive, stupid, bad smelling.” He further explained that the name denotes that the Orang Rimba’s evolution is not yet complete. To illustrate the cultural misunderstanding fueling the issue, Mr Zulkarnai (the Ministry of Forestry’s representative and main facilitator of the conversion) admitted that when he was a child, he did not know that the Orang Rimba were human. He believed they were jungle animals.
Indonesia recognizes Islam, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism as official religions: a reflection of their perceived legitimacy and enlightenment. It is these religions which also comprise most of the worlds modernized and city dwelling populations. However, perhaps we are not people of the light but, instead, people of the dark. Perhaps society has failed to recognize the irony in trying to convert the Orang Rimba and other indigenous populations to our modern ways of thinking. For it is us that are the dirty and smelly ones. We are the people who have released so many carbon emissions that we have burnt holes in the ozone layer and single-handedly altered the environment faster than it can adapt. We are the people who, in 2017 alone, killed 1.7 million children under five with air pollution and unsafe water, according to the World Health Organisation. Instead of forcing tribes like the Orang Rimba to convert not only to our ideologies, but way of life, perhaps we should reassess the facts and instead pay more attention to the practices and lifestyles of the nomadic tribes who live harmoniously with their surrounding environments.
According to the BBC approximately 3000 Orang Rimba live in Sumatra and indigenous rights groups are fighting assiduously for recognition of the hundreds of other religions practiced. They claim that “these groups (like the Orang Rimba) were here before the new religions arrived but now they rule us (the tribes) and want to clean us from the country”. The BBC claims that the social tensions came to the fore in the 1980s when President Suharto enticed migrants to leave overpopulated Java to the open jungles of Sumatra where they would receive land packages and incentives. The transition has seen the degradation of almost ½ of the total forest area, and pollution of all streams; the fish, a vital life source, now make local people sick according to the BBC. It is well reported that the Sumatran forest clearing is one of the world’s fastest cases of deforestation. Even though some Orang Rimba have done as the government wished, and converted to Islam, with no work or means of earning an income, they have deserted the provided homes and returned to the small forests they can find. Ultimately this is because the nomads are “at peace in the forests” and don’t want to have to change. Nor should they have to. A peaceful solution is possible, so long as the Orang Rimba are treated as equals in dialogue when trying to find alternative solutions.