Indonesia’s rainforests, the world’s third largest, are gravely threatened. Worse, it is not just forests that are being decimated by rampant corporate interests, government negligence, corruption and other destructive practices. What stands threatened as well is the very existence of an estimated forty million indigenous peoples who live within the forest, and who are dependent on forest resources for their food, shelter, and livelihood.
In 1999, SAUR MARLINA MANURUNG, a young Indonesian anthropologist, decided to devote her life to protecting and uplifting the lives of Indonesia’s Orang Rimba, the local name for “forest people.” Her life choice was both radical and surprising. Though drawn even as a child to an outdoor life, MANURUNG, known universally as “BUTET,” was raised in the sheltered environment of a middle-class family in Jakarta. With degrees in literature and anthropology, she could easily have chosen a career as a citified academic. But she said: “I’d had enough just playing around with nature. It was time for me to do something and become useful.”
After working as an education facilitator for four years with a forest conservation organization in Sumatra, BUTET formed SOKOLA with four other NGO colleagues, focusing on the education of forest people, starting in the Jambi jungle. Their major program called Sokola Rimba, or “Jungle School” was inspired by BUTET’s direct experience as a nomadic teacher, living with the Orang Rimba and moving with them as they traveled from place to place to hunt or gather forest products. Armed with only a small blackboard, some chalk, a few books and pencils, for eight years BUTET would teach groups of children out in the open, focusing on basic literacy and relevant life skills.
Focused on the Bukit Duabelas National Park in Central Sumatra, where an estimated three thousand five hundred Orang Rimba live in relative isolation. SOKOLA’s volunteer teachers do not follow a fixed template but customize their teaching to the local context in consultation with the Orang Rimba community. SOKOLA emphasizes life-skills rather than academic knowledge, stressing basic literacy for children and practical skills to cope with the changing forest environment. Increasingly, Orang Rimba have to deal with the encroachment of forest-exploiting businesses, government agencies, threatening their basic rights, livelihoods, and community cohesion. Since the Orang Rimba are hunters-and-gatherers, SOKOLA schedules are flexible and teachers must follow them as they move.
BUTET and her volunteer teachers struggle with the challenge of sustaining an organization that relies mainly on donations and volunteerism, the dangers of working in remote locations (caught between illegal loggers and the people they seek to help), and cultural taboos that discourage girls from being schooled. Impressively, BUTET’s leadership has built up SOKOLA into a network of fourteen schools in ten provinces, run by volunteer teachers and trained Orang Rimba youth, benefitting ten thousand children and adults. A cadre of young, newly-literate Orang Rimba are now able to serve their people as tutors and community leaders. Trained in advocacy and empowered to do liaison between their communities and the outside world, these youth represent their elders and “speak to the national government” on policies that impact on the forest people. SOKOLA’s challenges remain formidable, but an undeterred BUTET is confident that SOKOLA’s second generation of volunteer teachers will grow and inspire similar initiatives by others. She herself does not plan to do anything else. “As long as I can still carry my backpack and I can still walk, nothing and no one can stop me,” she quietly asserts.
In electing SAUR MARLINA MANURUNG to receive the 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes her ennobling passion to protect and improve the lives of Indonesia’s forest people, and her energizing leadership of volunteers in SOKOLA’s customized education program that is sensitive to the lifeways of indigenous communities and the development challenges they face.