A Story from Natarmage: Our Land and Struggle
By Fransiskus Mado and Apriadi Gunawan
“Tanah amin moret Amin.” It's an expression to show that our land is our lives. It also represents the principle of the Indigenous community of Natarmage in eastern part of Flores Island, Sikka Regency, East Nusa Tenggara. This is where I, Fransiskus Mado, was born and raised.
Our customary territory includes a number of villages, namely Natarmage Village, Tanarawa Village, Tuabao Village, Talibura Village, Ilin Medo Village, and Nangahale Village. These villages are located in Talibura and Waiblama Districts. I myself live in Waiblama District.
Our land stretches from the north of the Flores Sea waters in Talibura District to the hinterland filled with hills and mountains, and then to the south in parts of Waiblama District.
I and other members of the Indigenous community of Natarmage still rely on the traditional lifestyle inherited from our ancestors. We have faith in our ancestors and the universe. Even so, we have always tried to adapt to the changing times.
During the dry season, we would clean up the land where we grow our only-hope commodity: cashew. Usually, towards the end of the rainy season, we begin to prepare the land for planting rice, corn, and tubers.
We have always had the habit of working in the garden in groups. We move from one garden to another. During the group work, we would talk about the village and the customs of our ancestors. This habit of ours is similar to mutual cooperation and, thus, it lightens the burden of working as dryland farmers.
The Indigenous community of Natarmage’s land for planting crops.
The Origins of Natarmage Village
One time, I visited the house of Tana Puan, one of the Indigenous functionaries with the highest rank in the village. We discussed the history of our hometown. Tana Puan enthusiastically told the origins of Natarmage Village. It was like a fairy tale depicting the life of a group of people in building their traditional community together.
We started throwing questions about the story of the birth of Natarmage. As it turned out, our village was built by a group of people led by Sugi Sao who came from Siam Sina Malacca by boat. Siam Sina Malacca referred to outsiders coming to Indonesia through the Malacca Strait.
Upon their arrival, Sugi Sao observed this place and found nobody. Sugi Sao and his family then began to inhabit the village while establishing a tribe called Soge, which still exists today.
Tana Puan continued the story. While Sugi Sao was resting under a shady tamarind tree during his hunting time, he heard the chirping of a kuau bird which sounded like “oakauk nararmage”. Sugi Sao finally named our village Natarmage.
The map of the Indigenous community of Natarmage’s territory
Our predecessors performed rituals to worship our ancestors along with the universe. We have followed suit and, thus, all our works are always preceded by a ritual. When we open a new garden or build a house, we perform specific rituals.
We uphold the trinity of “God, Earth, and Sky”. “Ina Nian Tana Wawa Aman Lero Wulan Reta” describes our belief which can simply be interpreted as Mother Earth, Father Sky. We have been preserving this belief until now. We reckon that the earth and the sky are held by the Almighty named Amapu (God), or as we call it Amapu Tana Wulan, meaning the Lord of the Land and Sky.
The Right to Cultivate (HGU) Permit’s Conflict
A long time ago, our predecessors experienced interference from white people (the term for the Dutch colonizers). They came and took our customary territory in the coastal area of Pedan Beach in 1912, named Nangahale. Our ancestors did not realize that the land seizure also occurred in a neighboring area named Patiahu, which belonged to the Goban Tribe.
Both lands, Nangahale and Patiahu, are only separated by customary boundaries. Despite that, we have maintained a very close relationship as the two tribes have long lived side by side.
Our problems apparently began when the Dutch arrived in our ancestral lands. Ironically, even though the Dutch have left the country, colonialism still exists and is maintained by the locals today.
I have defended our customary land since 2014, along with other members of the Indigenous community of Natarmage. I remember well on Aug. 9, 2014, around 700 families occupied the former HGU-certified Nangahale. Many parties have now known about the case, yet it still comes adrift.
Based on the information I have gathered from the elders, I know that the land of Nangahale Patiahu was confiscated by a Dutch company in 1912, namely Amsterdam Soenda Company based in Amsterdam. Over time, the land was passed into the hands of the Apostolic Vicariate of Archdiocese of Ende along with the HGU permit.
Long story short, we have realized that the lands actually belong to our ancestors. We also recognize that our ancestors must have been driven out by the Dutch from where they lived. This understanding has prompted us to regain our customary territory, especially considering that all of our traditional rituals are still conducted on the land.
The Indigenous community of Natarmage’s traditional clothes
The Indigenous community of Natarmage and our neighbor, the Indigenous community of Runut, see eye to eye that Nangahale Patiahu lands are a unity, and thus, we are committed to reclaiming them.
We witnessed how the lands were transferred from PT DIAG under the Archdiocese of Ende to PT KRISRAMA under the Archdiocese of Maumere. The transition was stipulated in National Land Agency Head’s decree No. 4/HGU/89 issued on Jan. 5, 1989. The decree stipulated that the HGU was granted for PT DIAG for 25 years until Dec. 31, 2013.
According to our predecessors, the land dispute was mediated by the Sikka local administration in 2005. The involved parties agreed to continue the conversation as the contract ended on Dec. 31, 2013. However, the administration happened to dismiss the agreement. So, on Aug. 9, 2014, we occupied the Nangahale Patiahu lands.
Meanwhile, the company still continues to manage the lands despite the fact that the permit expired in 2013.
The big family of Soge Tribe and its followers we call Sukun Pulu Wot Lima Aken Rua Plewong Telu always carry out their rituals together, including those related to humans, universe, and nature.
The rituals now face various threats. Annually, we perform the traditional Balatan Tanah and Gren Nuba rituals. Balatan Tanah is a ceremony to “cool” the ground, while Gren Nuba is held to ask for blessings, strength, or health. The rituals are usually performed at the mouth of the river named Nuba Nanga.
Unfortunately, Nuba Nanga is in danger as a result of some companies’ operations. An elder said that parts of our Nuba Nanga still existed, but some had been dismantled and burned down. He continued his story, saying that our group once called people in the location to guard the holy sites. Some were kind enough to donate money while we performed rituals in Nuba Nanga, but some others tried to eliminate the sites for their own benefit.
A ritual tree in the coastal area of Nangahale that was cut down by the company.
After hearing the story, I took the time to attend a village meeting where we discussed the way to reorganize and maintain the existing Nuba Nanga to perform rituals.
Our customary territory in Natarmage is quite extensive, stretching from the shores of Nangahale to the mountains. Even though we live separately, we remain obedient to our customs and perform the rituals when the time comes.
Some of our family who live on the coast still look for fish in a traditional way; catching fish when the tide is low. Some also catch fish using archery, while some others go fishing with small boats. Usually, the caught fish are taken home, sold on the roadside, or grilled on the beach to be eaten while enjoying the sunset.
The habit has started to vanish following the appearance of various companies, including pearl companies. Moreover, the administration announced that it would develop a fish canning factory for tourism purposes. It would be included in their assets.
We were annoyed by the news and immediately rejected the plan. Our leader, Tana Puan, and our tribal chiefs have insisted that we should defend our lands and stay there. We have asked our ancestors and the universe to protect us.
We often hold customary meetings in Blefak, a traditional house to accommodate such a gathering. There, together with the Indigenous community of Runut, we search for solutions to all the existing threats.
We realized that the threat would cost us our customary lands, so we conducted meetings with Tana Puan and tribal chiefs more often. Tana Puan is the highest ruler of a customary area, while a tribal chief is the highest ruler of a tribe.
During the meetings, Tana Puan emphasized that the threats we were experiencing had been going on since 1969. I did my own research as soon as I heard about it.
Tana Puan said the Goban Tribe in Runut had also encountered a similar problem with the Soge Tribe in Natarmage.
According to Tana Puan’s story, in 1969, he and some villagers were forced by a priest, a foreigner, to dismantle and bury Mahe. The Goban Tribe held their rituals in Mahe. Tana Puan said if they refused to do so, all the villagers would be considered members of the banned-Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), so they gave up and allowed it to perish until now.
Today, our Nuba Nanga faces a similar problem. It has been grabbed by and burned down for the benefit of the companies. Threats have also come from priests who have interests in the companies.
The Natarmage customary area is in the coastal area of Pedan Nangahale, an area that we have been fighting for since long ago. We reckon there are hidden efforts from other parties to seize our customary territory.
Tana Puan said our land was confiscated by the Dutch and now we are dealing with a company owned by the Catholic Church.
Two Church-owned companies that have operated on our land are PT DIAG of the Archdiocese of Ende and PT KRISRAMA of the Archdiocese of Maumere.
The permit to cultivate on our land expired in December 2013. We, the Indigenous communities of the two tribes have conducted face-to-face meetings with representatives of the Sikka Administration to consult about the land ownership, but to no avail. The company still manages the lands today.
Now that we have occupied the land, we were uneasy every time company workers entered our territory without permission and picked coconuts around our residence. The coconut leaves they cut fell to the ground and littered our yard. It felt like an insult to us. There was an impression that they did such a thing as ordered by certain parties to make us uncomfortable and force us to leave our land behind.
We still stick to our fundamental principle, Tanah Amin Moret Amin. Hence, we will never step an inch out of our land because we are no strangers to that place. We will carry on with what we have inherited from our ancestors.
Trail of Resistance
We fondly called him Anton Toni, a member of the Indigenous community of Natarmage. Toni said that the struggle to defend our customary land could be traced back to 1812 when the Dutch came to build the Amsterdam-based Soenda Company. Meanwhile, our ancestors already inhabited Pedan Nanghale Village in the 1800s.
The company initially grew cotton. At that time, there was resistance from our predecessors who eventually burned all the cotton harvested by the company. When the Dutch found out, they shot our parents to death. They were then buried in Wairhek Cemetery near Pedan Beach.
Despite that, the struggle continued from one year to another, until the company was handed to a foreign missionary in 1965-1969. During that time, the Cross Planting movement was carried out, leaving our sacred things like Ai Pua, Sope, and Mahe, buried in the ground.
Ai Pua was a sacred tree planted in the middle of a garden to perform rituals for the success of the garden. Sope was a container to store objects for holding rituals, while Mahe was a sacred place to worship the Creator. It was located in the middle of a protected forest.
Two other members of the Indigenous community, Moan Jeng and Moan Aris, said there was a traditional leader named Moan Lewor Goban who started organizing the Indigenous communities of Utan Wair and Likong Gete to fight for their land in Tana Ai. Moan Lewor Goban held demonstrations against the government. The struggle lasted years until 2009.
We continue the fight today by occupying Nangahale Patiahu lands. One thing we always do is perform traditional rituals before conducting any activities in our lands.
Residents gathered near a hut while occupying the former HGU-certified Nangahale-Patiahu lands.
We have always followed the political development in Sikka Regency. We once nominated our young representative to run as a member of Sikka’s Regional People’s Representative Council (DPRD), yet he failed. We hope that one day one of our representatives could be sent to the DPRD, so that he could defend the interests of our people.
By far, the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) has guided us in preparing Sikka’s regional regulation draft (Ranperda) on Indigenous Peoples. We have held consultations four times, and in 2019 we submitted the result to Sikka Regent and DPRD through the Regional Regulation Formation Agency. The proposed document, however, had never been discussed again until this article was written.
Together with traditional leaders and activists, we have frequently approached the Sikka Regional Administration, DPRD, the State Land Agency, even the President, but to no avail.
Pandemic as the New Threat
When we were struggling to defend our customary territory, a new threat emerged in the form of the Covid-19 outbreak. The outbreak has haunted our lands, so we must follow the government rules and hold traditional ceremonies to curb the virus transmission.
The threat is very serious as it has limited our activities. We could no longer visit our families because some security officers patrolled around and stayed on guard to ensure that we stayed at home.
We could only send messages to arrange a meeting for our elders. They agreed to hold the Lepe Likong ritual that we believe could ward off the virus. I attended that ritual, which is believed to be able to fortify our land spiritually in hopes to avoid the spread of Covid-19.
We all had to obey the Lepe Likong rules. On the fourth day of the ritual, all members of our community were not allowed to travel outside the village. Anyone violating the rule would be reprimanded and subject to sanctions. So, when the ritual was carried out, we were all ready to stay in our respective residences within the specified time.
We were grateful that until July 2021, none of our members contracted the virus. In 2020, two of our members who lived outside the village got Covid-19, but they eventually recovered.
All the members of the Indigenous community of Natarmage have remained vigilant as the coronavirus that caused Covid-19 has mutated and evolved into more dangerous variants. We always obey the health protocol issued by the government while also praying to our ancestors and the universe, wishing for protection.
The prayer is in the form of a poem, which was read by traditional leaders from Natarmage when they held the Lepe Likong ritual.
Neni ora Ina Buan, Prawi ora Ama Gaen
Anin Goit warat raat
Bano aun Mula Puan, rema aun Lero Lohor
Lau Nian Lou Bau, wawa tana Lodo man
Anin Goit Warat raat lopa hekor, lopa Hewar,
Lopa Wau Lopa Gon, Nian Mue uru widin, tanah mue tada komak,
Bano Mula Pua man, Rema Lero Lohor Bau,
Bake watu mala Likong, Huga Roun Mala Lepe,
Wair lopa Ba Pout, watu lopa gogo bajang, Gebi beli Gring,
Kape beli edeng, Teri Naha Wiin Blatan, era naha Tebon Bliran,
Tuber naha Blon, Manar naha Hait
It roughly translates to: “We ask our parents and ancestors to keep away the plague of wind-borne diseases as the sun goes down. Please fortify our land, protect our lives. May we always be healthy and have a long life.”
In February 2021, Indigenous women from Natarmage conducted a meeting with the Association of Indigenous Women of the Archipelago (PEREMPUAN AMAN) to create Natamarge’s chapter of PEREMPUAN AMAN.
The meeting was attended by PEREMPUAN AMAN’s chairwoman Devi Anggraini, the chief of Soge Tribe named Ignasius Nasi, and me as a representative of the Indigenous community of Natarmage.
The meeting agreed to appoint Donata Dua as chief of PEREMPUAN AMAN Natarmage. Dunata Dua said PEREMPUAN AMAN Natarmage was AMAN’s wing organization aiming to help the Indigenous community of Natarmage reclaim their customary land. The Indigenous women then began to be involved in various activities to fight for the land.
The women have contributed to farming to help sustain the communities’ livelihood. Some made cookies using local resources, while some others got access to the Indigenous Peoples' food sovereignty program. The program was initiated by AMAN’s Board of Directors and was able to distribute 11 goats for the people.
One of our Indigenous youths named Ruben has always been at the forefront of our fight to defend Indigenous Peoples' rights. Since Aug. 9, 2014, Ruben and his colleagues have mobilized 700 families to occupy their customary territory in Patiahu-Nangahale.
They have experienced intimidation and violence from the military and police officers. Some have even been taken to prison. It, however, does not deter them from reclaiming their rights. The Indigenous Peoples have started to build houses, open gardens, grow rice, and build cooperation with outside parties.
Although an Indigenous Youth Organization had yet to be formed in Natarmage, Ruben said that he and his fellow young generations of the Indigenous community of Natarmage had met and exchanged ideas with the Archipelago Indigenous Youth Front (BPAN) Eastern Flores chapter.
Ruben hoped that a youth organization could soon be formed in his village. He considered it important as the younger generations could learn a lot from it, including about leadership, maintain their customs, and grow their love for the customary area amid globalization and modernization.
The writer is a member of the Indigenous community of Natarmage in eastern part of Flores Island, Sikka Regency, East Nusa Tenggara. This article is part of stories written for Kisah dari Kampung (Stories from Villages) - a book writing movement initiated by AMAN to present profiles from various villages across the archipelago. The stories are written together by AMAN cadres and journalists.