The Unfinished Story of ‘Indonesian Avatar’ Aleta Baun

By webadmin on 07:33 am Mar 24, 2012
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Fidelis E Satriastanti

If Americans have Erin Brockovich and Africans have Wangari Maathai, then I am very proud to say that Indonesia has Aleta Baun, better known as Mama Aleta.

These three women are passionate and determined, and have fought for a better environment while also struggling with their own lives. Erin Brockovich’s name emerged in 2000 when Julia Roberts played the feisty legal clerk who discovered contaminated drinking water in Hinkley, Southern California.

Wangari Maathai is known for establishing the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. She became the first African woman to receive Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to democracy, peace and women’s rights.

Mama Aleta has not had her life made into a movie or earned a Nobel Peace Prize (yet), but her spirit and determination in defending the environment may someday bring a greater good.

To be honest, I had not heard of Mama Aleta’s struggles until the story of the Molo tribe in East Nusa Tenggara was made popular at the South to South Film Festival in Jakarta last month.

The Molo tribe’s fight against the invasions of marble mining companies was neatly set up as comic strips at Goethe Institute in Central Jakarta recently. “The [festival organizers] were pretty smart to put up [the story of Molo] as comics. I don’t think most people even know where our village is,” Aleta said. 

Aleta initiated an environmental movement with the help of three other people in 1996, when two marble mining companies came to the village and began to explore Bukit Naususu, the area’s most sacred mountain. Her subtle but persuasive movements garnered support from the tribe’s elderly council. The movement that started with only four people has grown to more than 100 members over the years.

And how did they get rid of the companies? They made use of the one thing that the tribe knows best: Weaving.  

Indeed, the tribe did not engage in common protesting tactics, such as holding up banners and occupying company offices. “We just stayed quiet and weaved. We never talked back to them,” she said. Hundreds of the other Molo’s sat in the center of the mining site and weaved, and Aleta said they would stay for a month, two months or even a year, and live in the forest just to startle the companies away. 

It worked. In 2007, all mining companies in East Nusa Tenggara packed their bags and left the region, never to return.

But Aleta’s endeavor was not without its effects. Living in the forest for six months took Aleta away from her husband and children, and  moving from village to village became routine. Eventually, she was forced to flee her house with her three young children as intimidation toward her and her tribe escalated. Even escaping from assassination attempts was not unusual anymore; a scar on her left leg from an attacker’s machete serves as a reminder. 

“What kept you going?” I asked.

“The support from the elders,” she said calmly. “That got me through it.”

Dubbed as the “Indonesian Avatar” by the country’s environmental activists,  Aleta’s life vision is not about of acquiring acknowledgement; it’s to protect her people and their land. “The [sacred] stones are our life. We have names from the stones. If they dig up [the stones], it will affect our water, our livelihood,” she said.

The Molo tribe holds dearly to their sacred mountain with the sayings: Trees as hair and skin; water as blood; stone as bones; soil as flesh. “You destroy them, you kill us,” she added.

One of the toughest questions with regards to mining is: You use and wear mined products, so how can you be against mining?  

I myself cannot answer such question, but Aleta has an interesting take: “We don’t know what marble is for, but it brings no benefit for the people here. We can only sell what we can make and we must not sell what we can’t create. We cannot sell you the mountains, the rivers, the trees, because we cannot make them. But we can sell you clothes, corns, milk. Those we can produce.”

Fair enough. Besides, Aleta and the Molo people have been living without mining for decades, and have been doing just fine.

To prove their words, the Molo, along with the neighboring tribes of the Amanuban and Amanatun, have established an annual cultural festival called Ningkam Haumeni since 2010 to celebrate their victory against the mining companies (the festival is named after the famous beeswax and sandalwood found in Timor). This year, the festival will be held at the end of May. 

I’m sure they can show people a thing or two on how to live mining-less yet full of life.