Returning to Siberut: 30 years later, little has changed on remote Indonesian island

This page in:

Go anywhere after a 30 year break and you expect to see change – and you hope things will be better. Thus my wife Jane and I, together with our four children, were intrigued to see what life was like now on Siberut, the largest and most northerly of the Mentawai Islands off the west coast of Sumatra, when we visited it a few weeks ago. Jane and I had lived in a hut in the middle of the island conducting wildlife research for over two years until 1978. We wanted to see our closest friend there, Potifar Tengatiti Siribetuk, as well as other old friends, our old study area, some of the remaining traditional houses, and as many of Siberut’s four endemic species of primates as we could.

Visiting the island and the provincial capital of Padang also provided an opportunity to observe the impacts of the $1 million of grants which had focused on Siberut under the Phase 1 of the World Bank-implemented Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. These grants had followed on from an Asian Development Bank loan project (pdf) from 1992-2000 which was not a resounding success for a variety of reasons. This had itself followed on from WWF projects.

Some changes we saw were obvious and largely positive:

  • Image
    People on the island now use ‘pepongpong’ outboard boats, which have halved travel time. (More photos)

    People on the island now rarely paddle their dug-out canoes, preferring instead to use the long-shafted ‘pepongpong’ outboards. These have halved the time needed to travel between settlements in the interior and up and down the east coast.

  • A few of the larger inland settlements now had concrete paths within and between them. But elsewhere it was the same old slippery, muddy paths through sago swamps. There is no vehicular traffic on the island except for motor bikes in the sub-district capitals.
  • As with so many other places in the developing world, mobile phones now work in surprisingly remote places and bring all sorts of benefits. Certain Siberut hilltops are well known as places to which signal cover extends.
  • The cash crops have changed. When we lived on Siberut the main source of cash had been from rattan, especially the large-stemmed manau rattan, but the resource had been vastly overexploited. Interestingly, the loss of forest manau has led people to plant it in their gardens and a single person can own 1,000 of the scrambling and mercilessly thorny devils. ‘Clove fever’ had struck during our time on Siberut and everyone cleared land in the hope of selling large amounts of cloves for use in the famous Indonesian kretek cigarettes. The trees sadly suffered a serious disease although not all trees were killed. After we had left the island other ‘fevers’ had swept through the island: for gaharu or agarwood resin whose destructive harvest has caused it to become virtually extinct in the forest; for patchouli oil; but now for cacao, the cash crop of choice. But there doesn’t seem to be much more cash around now, in relative terms, than there had been 30 years ago.
  • Image
    A few settlements now have concrete paths, but elsewhere it is the same old slippery, muddy paths through sago swamps. (More photos)

    And of course both Potifar and I had got older. He had fallen from a tree a few years ago while collecting fruit and broken his back, but he has recovered remarkably well and is able to walk and work well. He had divorced shortly after we had left the island and with his new wife, Kemeriah, had fathered 10 children, seven of whom had survived, including his only son Israel with whom we travelled throughout the trip. At the time we lived on Siberut we had not expected to have children ourselves, and so the late night conversations with Potifar now included our concerns and hopes for our children.

Some of the changes were mixed in their impacts. For example, villages are now generally closer to the coast. This has been a government policy for 30 years and for a period had been linked to rather heavy-handed acculturation by which traditional clothing and decorations were destroyed, the processing and eating of the starch from the much-maligned sago palm discouraged, and the system of clan longhouses and field houses more or less eliminated.

Moving people nearer to the coast was ostensibly to give them better access to government services, but precious few are delivered. Cynics might think that the coastward shift was to enable visiting government staff from the mainland who were not accustomed to such remote places or to eating sago to do their work without having to go inland. Whatever the reason, the upshot of removing people from their traditional productive areas has been a breakdown in clan structure and a shift from people being jacks-of-all-trades towards people becoming specialists – the sago flour producer, the dugout canoe maker, the house builder, the boatman.

What haunts me is the lack of changes in too many aspects of the lives of the islanders. (More photos)

But what haunts me is the lack of changes in too many aspects of the lives of the islanders, and any improvements seem to be despite government intervention not because of it. Health care is still appalling both in quality and accessibility, and without some hope of reduced infant, child and perinatal mortality, there is little hope of progress in family planning.

NGOs such as PASIH, YCM, and the Yayasan Prof. Reimar Schefold are trying to improve the lives of the islanders within a sustainable development context, but such efforts seem woefully small relative to the problems. 

Schools exist in the larger villages but they are very poorly resourced. The teachers are to be admired for doing their level best but their work is pretty disheartening. So much of Indonesia has developed remarkably in the last 30 years and it makes me rather angry to see the manner in which Siberut is being left behind. 

Following posts will look at the impacts of the CEPF grants, the current status of conservation on Siberut, and the mystery of why a wonderful research camp in the north is so underutilized.


Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000