For forest communities in Sumatra, loss of nature means loss of culture


  • Environmental damage in the Ogan Komering Ilir region of southern Sumatra is causing social change and threatening indigenous cultural traditions.
  • At the Panggung Kecil festival in Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra, musicians Fikri MS and Silo Siswanto presented new works exploring the cultural impact of environmental destruction.
  • The musical tradition of tembangan in the original region of Shiloh is in danger of being lost, but similar genres continue to thrive among indigenous communities living in untouched rainforests.

PALEMBANG, Indonesia – Silo Siswanto chooses a rejuvenate melody on a fretboard under the lights of the stage of the Teater Potlot in the city of Palembang, evoking the fragility of the remaining forests of the Indonesian province of South Sumatra.

“Before, when I was little, you could still experience the clear water in the bog,” Silo said on the sidelines of the Panggung Kecil festival, which was sponsored by Mongabay Indonesia and Sriwijaya Cultural Park and has took place in September and October. .

Silo traces his ancestors over 13 generations to the Rawang community in Tulung Selapan, a bog community in the Ogan Komering Ilir district of South Sumatra, about 350 kilometers (220 miles) northwest of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

But since the 1980s or so, the community has found itself increasingly overrun with fish farms and oil palm plantations.

Silo Siswanto, right, performs at the Panggung Kecil Festival. Image courtesy of Yudi Semai.

South Sumatra lost nearly a quarter of its old growth forest between 2002 and 2020, according to Global Forest Watch, a satellite monitoring service, as the oil palm and paper industries drove sweeping changes in the land use in peatland strips across Sumatra.

However, Silo’s home district, Ogan Komering Ilir, exceeded the provincial average, losing 36% of its rainforests over the same period. This transformation caused complex social changes and a migration away from Tulung Selapan, he said.

“You used to come across freshwater fish all the time: snakehead fish, catfish, mystus,” he said. “These are just memories now.”

Silo attributes the collapse of the forests around Tulung Selapan to endangering unique cultural traditions, a ripple effect in environmental damage that is often overlooked.

“Our culture has changed,” he said. “Many traditional arts like tambogan are disappearing.

Tembangan is a musical tradition of Tulung Selapan where a melody is accompanied by lyrics, typically lyrical scenes of customary tradition, faith and humanity’s relationship with the environment.

In addition to performing as a musician, Silo does musical research at Persatuan Guru Republik Indonesia (PGRI) University in Palembang.

When Silo began to look into music in the communities of southern Sumatra, he found a rich equivalent to the tembangan that extended in the forests around the Bukit Barisan mountains, south of Tulung Selapan, which are home to the indigenous communities. Semende and Pasemah.

Artist Fikri MS giving a visceral presentation of the destruction of forests in South Sumatra. Image courtesy of Yudi Semai.

Rejung music originates from the Semende, a Sumatran society where the assets are inherited from the female line.

“Because nature has remained untouched in Semende, rejung can also continue to thrive,” said Silo.

The music reminded him that his late mother took care of him when he was still a young boy in Tulung Selapan, before the environment changed as he grew up.

In the matrilineal societies of Semende, it is mothers and daughters who own the fields and farms according to the tradition of tunggu tubang, because of the belief that women are wiser stewards of nature and material goods.

To the Semende people, the word umak means both mother and nature.

The rejung music consists of two parts, in which “mother” is a calm and reliable rhythm, while “child” is a frenzied melody played in the upper octaves.

“The ayunan umak [mother strand] is played by the bass, which tends to be monotonous, ”said Silo. “While the ayunan anak [child strand] is played at a high pitch with creativity and the freedom to shape a melody.

Silo performed the rejung piece on classical guitar, supported by visuals by multimedia artist Dyan Junecia.

Other pieces from the Panggung Kecil Festival included a dance recital by Sonia Anisah Utami and spoken word works by Fadil Semende, while artist Fikri MS presented a more visceral presentation of forest destruction in South Sumatra.

Fikri’s performance, titled “Artmosf,” used a theremin, an instrument using varying light and shadow, to modulate a dark composition of chainsaws, excavators, falling trees, and animal cries.

Sonia Anisah Utami expresses through dance the memories of mothers who lived on the banks of the Musi river. Image courtesy of Yudi Semai.

“I hope this work can make the auditor aware of the protection or preservation of the forest,” said Fikri.

For Silo, the conservation of much of the diversity of the rural cultures of South Sumatra depends on safeguarding the landscape in which these traditions were formed, just as ayunan umak and ayunan anak depend on each other. .

“Rejung is an enduring portrait of nature,” said Silo. “If the nature of Semende is damaged, the rejung can also be lost, just like the tembangan of Tulung Selapan.”

This story was reported by the Indonesian Mongabay team and first published here on our Indonesian site October 20, 2021.

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Culture, Deforestation, Environment, Environmental philosophy, Forestry, Forests, Indigenous cultures, Indigenous peoples, Tropical forests, Traditional knowledge, Traditional peoples, Tropical forests


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