Environmental activist Aleta Baun, better known as Mama Aleta, is tougher than she looks.
The petite, fragile-featured woman has spent her life protecting her ancestral lands near Kupang, West Timor, from destruction by big mining and forestry companies.
In activist circles, Aleta is known as the “Indonesian Avatar,” a reference to a fantasy film about war waged between indigenous people and an army of outsiders intent on reaping the forest’s wealth. Its a fanciful analogy that rings alarmingly true.
Since the mid-1990s, Aleta has led an effort to expel mining companies from East Nusa Tenggara. With her fellow activists, she has successfully driven away at least three marble interests from her land.
In her bold, clear tone, Aleta matter-of-factly recalls her years of seemingly impossible struggle against mining and timber companies. She’s been called horrible names, beaten up and forced to hide for months in the forest with her three children after her house was attacked and threatened with arson.
“I know nothing about politics or demonstrations. All the protests that we did were for our land,” Aleta said.
Where Aleta is from, it’s unusual for women to have a voice among their peers, let alone lead a tiny faction of protestors against a Goliath. But Aleta is a descendant of local nobility, and the patriarchal elders of her tribe support her cause.
“I’m just a kampung [village] woman, born and bred away from city life,” she said. “My kampung used to have lots of forests and savannah, but they have all been destroyed. Our land is rich in mountains of marble stone.”
Aleta’s village, Fatumnasi, is in Naususu subdistrict, some three hours drive from Kupang, the provincial capital, by car. Despite Fatumnasi’s proximity to Kupang, electricity remains a luxury reserved for those who can’t afford a fuel-powered generator.
“It’s the most beautiful place on earth,” Aleta said proudly of her land on the slopes of Mount Mutis. “You aren’t seeing the real East Nusa Tenggara if you only visit Kupang. The city is dry and barren, but if you come to Molo, you see the real Timor with trees and mountains.”
After graduating from high school, Aleta worked as a housemaid for an American priest based in Kupang. But she was soon offered work at Sanggar Suara Perempuan (Women’s Voice Workshop), a nonprofit that mostly worked on women’s empowerment issues.
In the early 1980s, mining and timber companies were flocking to East Nusa Tenggara. One of them was a Thai-backed marble company that came to Timor in 1982.
“Years after the company operated in our kampung, we began to see land erosion here and there, landslides and long droughts during the dry season that my parents and grandparents had never experienced. But worse, the mining company took away our sacred stones,” Aleta said.
For Aleta’s Molo people, the stones of the land are important identity symbols called batu nama, or name stones. Similarly, there are pohon nama (name trees) and air nama (name water).
“Each stone had a name that families can adapt as their family name,” Aleta said. “But all of these names have disappeared. When the mining companies took away our sacred stones, trees didn’t grow and water didn’t run anymore because the tribe’s base of life, the stones, were gone.”
More companies have since begun to operate in the district, and Bukit Naususu, the area’s most sacred mountain, known as the “mother of all rocks” in local legend, has been claimed and exploited by industry.
Aleta’s involvement in the women’s workshop taught her the power of activism. She saw she could do something to save what was left of her homeland.
She made a clandestine tour of the surrounding villages that had also been affected by mining operations, quietly trying to convince people to follow her cause and join forces against the big companies. The tiny campaign began with four people, with Aleta the only female.
“We left our homes at night and went to people’s houses to talk to them,” she said. “I left my house by jumping out the window when the whole family was fast asleep, because my husband strongly opposed my activity at first.”
Aleta and her nascent team pleaded with local authorities to protect the area’s resources, but their demands fell on deaf ears. The companies had already imposed their narrative, and money, on the local government, she said.
Demonstrating seemed like the only recourse. Authorities reacted violently to the group’s protests, with most ending in ugly battles, she said. Security forces paid by the companies smothered the protests.
Despite the seeming impossibility of her cause, Aleta persisted. In 1995, she gathered dozens of people from her tribe, and they protested for weeks lobbying for rights to their ancestral lands. Aleta’s tribe recognized three types of land: Individual land owned by a family or group of families; mamar, or communal fields used to graze cattle; and hutan larangan , or forbidden forest, which is sacred land off limits to everyone.
The forbidden forest was what the companies were after. But protests led by Aleta eventually drove several of them to shut down their operations and leave.
But it wasn’t over.
“A year later, they came back under different names,” she said. “They got an operation permit from the district government, which did not care if the company operated in our sacred forest.”
Aleta redoubled her efforts. As mining and timber companies continued to squeeze the area, Aleta recruited supporters from neighboring tribes to fight their exploration attempts.
In 2000, her cause received support from environmental groups such as the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), NTT Local Capacity and Institutional Buildings (Pikul) and the National Tribal Community Alliance (Aman).
State-owned forestry company Perhutani claimed to own the 600 some hectares of contentious land, but it eventually returned it to the local people for them to grow crops.
“Our ancestors used to grow vegetables on two or three acres, not hectares. Yet they never felt poor or impoverished,” Aleta said. “It’s greediness and disregard of nature that are the biggest problems we’re dealing with.”
And while Aleta has successfully taken down huge, billion-dollar mining conglomerates with people power, she faces more daunting challenges such as a looming food crisis, lack of proper infrastructure and rising unemployment.
The Molo people and other indigenous tribes have lost their adaptive crops once cultivated by their ancestors. “We’re forced to plant hybrid corn and rice from Java, which can’t stand the weather and land conditions here,” Aleta said.
Now she is struggling to revive her ancestral practices, along with that of the neighboring tribes. “We have great wisdom of how to live in harmony with nature because nature is our ‘mama.’ You wouldn’t ever harm your mother.”
In 2010, Aleta organized Ningkam Haumeni, an annual cultural gathering where three tribes were brought together to share their knowledge in search of solutions for their day-to-day problems. The tribes are now working to replant adaptive crops, seeds of which remain scarce, and develop traditional cloth-weaving as one solution to meet their ends.
“We can only sell what we can make and we must not sell what we can’t create,” Aleta said. And even though she has become a leader of her tribe, the petite “Indonesian Avatar” admitted that her struggles had taken their toll.
“People used to ask me why I never looked sad or shed a tear when I was beaten up or slashed with a machete during one of our rallies,” she said. “But they don’t know that I actually cry a lot and am very angry when I’m by myself. No one deserves such bad treatment.”
Aleta Baun will discuss her history of activism at the South to South Film Festival from Feb. 22-23. For more info www.stosfest.org or tel. 0217941559