The Orang Rimba, which translated means “jungle people”, are one of the last remaining nomadic tribes in Indonesia to subsist off the land and follow their own ancient ways, but as their hunts for prey in the formerly lush Sumatran rainforest increasingly come up empty, a small percentage of the group now recognizes that they need help from the government just to survive. Converting to Islam was a means to an end.
Nomadic Indonesian tribes are rapidly disappearing due to laws in that country which mandate that people must have a stated religion in order to hold a government-mandated identity card in order to claim government aid. As a result, most of them end up converting to Islam while their rainforest hunting grounds are being destroyed by palm oil plantations and coal mines.
By constitution, Indonesia is a secular state which bases its foundation on “belief in the one and only God”. The government recognizes only six official religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, although data collected by the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP) shows that there are about 245 non-official religions in Indonesia. Still, the law requires that every Indonesian citizen register as one of those six religions.
“Thank God, the government now pays attention to us; before our conversion they didn’t care,” said one covert, now known as Yusuf Muhammad, who has traded in his loin cloth for traditional Muslim garb and a skullcap.
The tribe is now hoping to receive their ID cards from officials, which will entitle them to government-funded benefits, including food, healthcare and education.
Yusuf’s tribe of approximately 200 relinquished its nomadic lifestyle in January in a move that authorities claim is positive, but critics say is just a last-ditch effort to deal with indigenous peoples who have been forced to take desperate measures as a result of the government’s failure to defend their rights against runaway commercial expansion.
Located in the Batang Hari district of Jambi province, the converted Muslims represent just a handful of the approximately 3,500 Orang Rimba in the country. According to the Daily Mail, this particular group chose to convert to Islam after they were approached by an Islamic NGO, and the social welfare ministry has helped with the process.
According to Yusuf, who is a community leader, they had to convert because food was increasingly hard to find and they were constantly fighting with companies on whose lands they hunt.
No longer nomadic, they now live in basic wooden huts on stilts, which Yusuf said is “nicer.”
The rest of the Orang Rimba remain steadfast in their ancient beliefs as they move approximately three times a month in their search for prey.
Claiming that their traditions will not fall by the wayside, Hasbullah Al Banjary, director of indigenous communities at the social affairs ministry, said it’s much easier for authorities to provide for the tribespeople when they live in the same place and stop roaming.
“It’s a creative culture which has local wisdom we need to preserve,” he said.
“I view this as a result of the state failing to protect them,” countered Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary general of leading Indonesia indigenous rights group AMAN. “They turn to clerics or the church in some areas, because they offer protection.”
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