'Mama Aleta' defends Indonesia's natural habitat

After successfully defeating miners, Aleta Baun is heading into the regional parliament to continue her campaign to protect the environment in western Timor, part of Indonesia.

By , Correspondent

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    Aleta Baun received threats to her life when she sought to protect the natural habitat of western Timor, a part of Indonesia. 'I had to leave my house for a year,' she says.
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Pointing to the blue, purple, and yellow scarf wrapped ornately around her forehead and temples, Aleta Baun says that her vivid garb will be a regular sight inside the East Nusa Tenggara regional parliament in eastern Indonesia. The first-time lawmaker won a seat in elections last April.

“I will be adhering to the mandate of the indigenous communities who have asked me to represent them in parliament. And part of that means showing that the indigenous culture is important to us,” explains the woman known popularly as “Mama Aleta.”

After more than a decade of unyielding and sometimes perilous protesting against marble mining in her eastern region of Indonesia, this flag-bearer for the rights of the Mollo people will try to weave her way through the formalities of the country's 16-year-old democratic system – often described as the freest in Southeast Asia – to protect the land and culture of the place she calls home.

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Weaving is nothing new to Aleta Baun, as hinted at by her insistence on wearing the brightly patterned Mollo textiles, fashioned from materials garnered from the local habitat. That habitat was damaged, she says, by marble mining companies that operated in the region until 2010.

In response, Aleta Baun and other women protesters spent a year doing little else but weaving – as part of their Gandhi-style defiance of the miners. She and more than 100 other women sat and weaved Mollo scarves and sarongs at one of the mines in a a silent, defiant blockade with a practical twist – they were, after all, making clothes to be worn or sold.

The campaign eventually worked – but not before her life was threatened.

“I had to leave my house for a year,” she says, pointing to a machete wound on her leg and recalling that she was “beaten up in front of court” discussing a protest that turned dangerous. “The companies hired preman [an Indonesian word that can mean "thug" or "gangster"] to do the job,” she says of the failed assassination attempt.

Aleta Baun concedes that not all Mollo supported her at first, with some saying that they needed the jobs being offered at the mines. Others argued that her attachment to Mollo heritage was passé and could inhibit economic development.

“In the beginning there were two factions, people who got a job and people who rejected the mine,” she says. "I told them it's true you have money now, but you should remember that your name came from the rocks, from the tree.”

In Mollo culture, water, rocks, and trees are venerated, with people's names often derived from them. They all were affected by the mines: water polluted, rocks broken open, and forests cut down.

The breaching of taboos helped Aleta Baun win the messaging war among her own people. “Once the money is over, your name will be over too,” she says she told the pro-mining Mollo faction.

The Mollo live on the western half of the island of Timor, the part that remained in Indonesia after Timor-Leste, the eastern half, seceded in 1999. The island, or the half of it that is in Indonesia, is one of 500 that make up the East Nusa Tenggara region, or NTT, to use the Indonesian acronym. One of those islands is well-known: Komodo, home of the Komodo dragon, the world's biggest lizard.

Overall, NTT is home to more than 5 million people, mostly Christian, out of Indonesia's roughly 250 million population, which is mostly Muslim. Indonesia is a huge archipelago of between 12,000 and 17,000 islands, depending on the classification used and whose numbers you read.

Indonesia was a dictatorship from the 1960s up to 1998, after which the country made a rapid transition to electoral democracy. The latest round of elections were held this year.

But corruption and land grabs have been a feature of the post-dictatorship era in an economy still reliant on a wealth of natural resources.

Those voters who backed Aleta Baun's election might well be on to a winner, if she can bring the doughty and dignified style of her campaigning to the legislature.

Before she took a seat in the local parliament, she won her campaign against the mines. The four companies that had cut forests and polluted water near her home pulled out in 2010, after more than a decade of defiance.

But that does not mean she has become complacent. She will have to steel herself for more fights in the months and years to come, inside parliament and outside if necessary.

“For the time being there are no mining activities near our village," she says, her delivery all matter-of-fact, forgoing triumphalism. In a region rich in resources there will be businesses interested in digging up the rocks and chopping the trees so precious to the Mollo and to other minorities in NTT. Her people, she says, “will have to struggle against those companies in the future.”

Aleta Baun was speaking at the “Summit on Women and Climate,” organized by the Global Greengrants Fund, which supports small organizations in remote areas to help protect local environments. She was not the only person at the conclave with a similar story: Women from Kalimantan, or Borneo, in Indonesia and from Jharkand in India described various menaces they faced while trying to protect forests and local habitats.

“Women activists are being intimidated and criminalized, and we have to defend their rights so they can defend their lands,” says Artemisa Castro, one of the meeting organizers, speaking at the bamboo- and rattan-covered amphitheater that played host to the summit on Bali.

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