Indonesia's 'Amish' Live Outside Economy

Draped in the beige, hand-woven cloth of his tribe, Diana sits impassive and cross-legged in a hut here in the remote hills of western Java, Indonesia. But his curiosity is palpable, betrayed by his eyes, which dart about, viewing the unfamiliar scene in front of him.

Diana is anticipating the experience of a lifetime. He has come to answer the questions of the handful of Europeans seated opposite him, all keen to quiz him about his unique tribal lifestyle. But it is soon obvious that Diana is just as curious about them, perhaps even more so. He wants to know why these foreigners have come.

"You have houses and cars, why do you want to know about us? We have nothing," Diana says, speaking in his native Sundanese.

Diana is part of the Baduy - a reclusive indigenous tribe that has lived in isolation since the mid-1500s, when its members fled into the hills of the Sunda Highlands south of Jakarta to escape the spread of Islam across Indonesia. Four centuries later, they are still struggling to protect their way of life.

In the world's fourth-most populous country, where nearly 90 percent of the people are Muslim, there is pressure on the Baduy to assimilate into the wider community. There is also a continuing threat to their land from neighboring groups and authorities who wish to access the virgin resources in the 12,300-acre Baduy territory.

The meeting with Diana is held inside a traditional windowless Baduy hut made of bamboo and thatch. The tribe has opened communication with its neighbors and the government. Tribe members hope that by facilitating mutual understanding they will be able to preserve their land and their lifestyle, which is prescribed by their religious beliefs.

Daily life

Sometimes dubbed the Indonesian Amish, the Baduy live much as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

Grounded in the spiritual beliefs of their ancient religion, Sundiwiwitan - said to be a blend of animism and Hinduism - the Baduy philosophy rejects the use of all modern inventions, including everything from money, irrigation, electricity, and cars to nails, soap, and mirrors.

Their huts have no furniture, and their possessions usually extend to a few utensils and minimal clothing, all of which they traditionally make themselves. They grow rice for food, and rely only on rainfall for cultivation. Most Baduy are illiterate because their religion forbids education. Violation of the most serious taboos can lead to permanent exile.

Despite being less than 100 miles away from the capital, Jakarta, the Baduy territory has relatively few signs of the detritus of modern development - the odd candy wrapper, a few scattered cigarette packs, and soda cans. The trash is still only small blemishes on the Baduy villages which remain idylls, a natural extension of the unspoiled forests surrounding them.

The trade effect

But development has had its effects on Baduy culture. The tribe has relaxed many of its ancient taboos relating to their clothing and, more important, the use of money, which Diana says is based on need. "We know money has many functions. We use money to supplement our food supply and for purchasing clothes and medicine," Diana says.

Ukke Rukmini Kosasih, an anthropologist at the University of Indonesia, and one of only two anthropologists in Indonesia studying the Baduy, says trading activities have been a major catalyst for change.

"To meet their daily needs, the Baduy ... have to increase their relationship with their neighbors. In these activities ... they often have to manipulate their ethnic identity as a result of their minority status in the larger community. In other words to gain a better position in bargaining in economic activities they have to break their taboos. Levis and T-shirts are their survival tools in their relationship with the outside community," she says.

The greater threat to Baduy life seems to lie in territorial issues. Don Hasman, a local journalist who has had close ties with the Baduy for 23 years, believes an insufficiency of land has arisen from the steady increase in the size of the tribe, which currently numbers 6,500. This has led many Baduy families to be lured by government offers of resettlement.

This government program offers two acres of land in exchange for an agreement by Baduy families to convert to Islam and to send their children to school.

But Mr. Hasman says the attempt has been spectacularly unsuccessful.

Of the 80 families that have been resettled, only six remain in the program. And he says poverty has been the end result in most cases.

"The government wants to 'civilize' the Baduy, but in fact the Baduy are quite civilized," Hasman says.

Both Hasman and Ms. Kosasih agree that there is a direct threat to Baduy culture springing from the neighboring community, which, in a desire to access the Baduy forests, continually moves the border posts and steals their wood. Trouble erupted a couple of years ago when the Baduy destroyed a dam a neighboring tribe had built on their land.

But even as the Baduy struggle to retain their land and their culture, the experts agree that the future of the tribe is nevertheless secure.

The Baduy religion, Ms. Kosasih says, is the "core of their ethnic identity. The rest is not important.

"As long as the Baduy land is sufficient to meet their daily needs," she adds, "I think the Baduy have a strong social and cultural mechanism for maintaining their ethnic identity."

Diana believes his tribe' s greatest challenge will be to preserve the system of beliefs that has sustained his people over the centuries, a threat which he perceives as coming from within.

"I am only a farmer. If you break my rules and my religion, then I have nothing. When we stop living by our rules, then the system will break down."

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