As with most of the Molo indigenous people, from when she was a little girl Aleta Baun was taught that plants have their own souls and spirits so they should be protected.
“The Molo people have a spiritual connection to the land and believe that everything is connected,” Mama Aleta, as she is known, said.
She added that they symbolized land as flesh, water as blood, rocks as bones and forests as veins and hair.
“If we are separated from any one of these natural elements, or if any of the elements are destroyed, they start to die and lose their identity. So we find it very important to protect the land,” the woman who grew up in a farming family said.
Mama Aleta is one of the winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. She received the 2013 Recipient for Islands and Island Nations. The prize supports individuals struggling to win environmental victories against the odds and inspires ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the environment.
The Goldman Environmental Prize was created in 1989 by civic leaders and philanthropist Richard N. Goldman and his wife, Rhoda H. Goldman.
She received the prize for her efforts in organizing hundreds of local villagers to peacefully occupy marble mining sites in “weaving protests”. Using the strategy, Mama Aleta stopped the destruction of sacred forestland in Molo.
Not many people know Molo. The area is located in the southern part of Mutis Mountain Sanctuary, Timor Tengah Selatan, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). It is a resource-rich area with marble, manganese, gold, oil, gas and many other commodities.
Molo is also different from other parts of NTT that have arid land as the area is highly fertile and thick with heavy primary forest. It also has a prominent role as a water-catchment area with at least three watersheds and 13 rivers flowing from the mountains to irrigate many areas in Timor Tengah Selatan.
The rich resources of Molo have tempted outsiders to come to exploit and this has brought problems to the indigenous people who have protected the area for many generations.
In the 1980s, the district government issued permits to mining companies to cut marble stone from the mountains in Molo territory. Local government officials did so illegally without consulting local villagers, whom they regarded as obstacles to development programs. As deforestation and mining took hold, landslides became commonplace, polluting the waters and bringing great hardship to the villagers living downstream.
Mama Aleta said that in the beginning of 1996, she observed the mining companies clearing trees and rock in their mountains.
“Three years after that, three women and I decided to do something to stop the mining. We felt the only way to get support was to go from house to house and village to village and reach as many people as possible with our message,” she recalled.
It was not easy because the homes and villages were remote and those women walked sometimes six hours between villages. However Mama Aleta persisted in her efforts for the sake of Molo’s forests.
“We convinced people to join us by reminding them of our cultural belief that we cannot survive without all the elements of nature,” Mama Aleta, whose mother died while she was still little, said.
“We also emphasized to women that the forest provides the dyes for our weaving, which is a very important part of our lives. That inspired us to showcase our weaving in the form of a peaceful protest starting in 2006,” she added.
Of course her efforts created more problems. Mama Aleta became a target for the mining interests and local authorities as they put a price on her head. After surviving a particularly close assassination attempt, Mama Aleta went into hiding in the forest with her baby. Several other villagers were repeatedly arrested and badly beaten.
Despite the violent intimidation, Mama Aleta grew the movement to include hundreds of villagers. It culminated in a weaving occupation where 150 women spent a year sitting on the marble rocks at the quarry, quietly weaving their traditional fabrics in protest.
In the Molo culture, women are expected to be homemakers and tend to their families.
“But when we began our protest, women realized that they could do more — take a stand and be heard. Women are also the recognized landowners in the Molo culture, and this reawakened in those women who hadn’t been actively speaking out a desire to protect their land,” Mama Aleta said.
The Molo people also believed it was important to have the women on the frontlines of the protests and to act as the negotiators because they are the ones who use the forest, for food, medicine and dyes, to survive, and therefore were the most passionate about the cause.
“The men were fully supportive of us, but did not position themselves at the forefront of the campaign because they would have likely had clashes or conflicts with the mining companies and been the target of
attacks,” she added.
While the women protested at the quarry, the men provided domestic support at home, cooking, cleaning and caring for the children.
In the face of the villagers’ peaceful and sustained presence, marble quarrying became an increasingly untenable endeavor for the companies involved. Public awareness of the weaving occupation grew, and Indonesian government officials took notice. By 2010, the mining companies, reacting to the pressure, halted work at all four sites within the Molo territories and abandoned their operations.
Mama Aleta is now working with the Molo people and other indigenous communities in the area to map their territory. The goal is to claim their land and ensure it is protected by law, and to conserve and reforest the area that was destroyed by the mining operations.
“We especially want to conserve the upstream region of our territory because it is a watershed for the entire island. We are considering a joint title for our three communities and placing the land under collective ownership of the communities,” she said.
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