Deep in a remote forest in the Indonesian archipelago, the Kajang tribe lives much as it has done for centuries, resisting nearly all the trappings of modern life.
Their lifestyle has drawn comparisons with the Amish in the US, but they live in even more basic conditions, residing in houses on stilts and dressing only in black sarongs and headdresses.
It is in stark contrast to even many rural areas of Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, where the rapid growth of the middle class has led to an explosion in the number of vehicles on the streets and people with smartphones.
However, fears have been growing in recent years that the traditions of the Kajang, who live in a densely forested area called Tana Toa on the central island of Sulawesi, are increasingly vulnerable.
Officials worry there is little protection for the forests considered sacred by the tribe in a country where environmental destruction is rampant and that a sudden influx of technology could overwhelm their way of life.
The local government in Bulukumba District is hoping it can use a recent ruling by the Constitutional Court of Indonesia as a launchpad to grant the Kajang the right to manage their own forests, instead of it being owned by the state.
Tribal rights group AMAN said it would be the first area in Indonesia to use the court ruling to grant an indigenous group such autonomy — a milestone in the fight for the rights of the nation’s approximately 70 million tribespeople.
The attempt to help the Kajang is driven by outsiders and the tribe itself harbors some suspicions about any sort of external interference in their affairs.
However, the ammatoa, or chief, Puto Palasa, said he did not object as long as the effort did not change the tribe’s traditional ways, and recognized the attempts to help his beloved forest.
“Preserving the forest will make this earth last longer,” said Palasa, who has never set foot outside the Kajang’s tribal heartland.
“Leaves invite the rain to fall, roots are home to springs, the forests are the world’s lungs,” he said in his native language called Konjo.
Signs of modernity are undoubtedly creeping into the land of the Kajang, who number about 5,000, with the majority strictly following the tribe’s traditions, a local government official said.
On a recent visit to Tana Toa, journalists saw some of the young Kajang clutching mobile phones while others were wearing sandals — the most ardent followers of tribal tradition prefer to go barefoot.
Nevertheless, much remains as it has done for centuries. Scores of men were seen lifting enormous tree trunks to build a traditional house, while candlenuts, an oily nut which burns for a long time once lit, are the only lights at night.
The Kajang has its own mini-government, made up of 37 “ministers,” including an agriculture minister who tells people when and where to plant their crops by studying the stars.
They dole out punishments — which include fines and caning — for infringements of their rules, such as removing a tree that has fallen naturally or catching shrimps from rivers, activities the tribe believes create imbalances in the ecosystem.
Little is known about the tribe’s origins or how long they have been around, but they claim to be one of the first peoples on Earth and say they are duty-bound to protect their ancestral lands. Their religion is a mix of tribal beliefs and Islam. Their total land covers about 760 hectares, while the area of forest considered “sacred” — the tribe’s heartland — covers about 330 hectares, according to research group the World Agroforestry Center.
Bulukumba officials fear this ancient way of life could be wiped out if the Kajang are not given the right to manage their own lands, a move they believe would encourage the tribe to preserve its traditions.
They hope to use the court ruling passed in May last year as the basis for a local bylaw to give the Kajang this right.
The ruling said that indigenous people owned forest on their ancestral lands. Previously the state claimed ownership of all the country’s forests.
As with many such rulings made centrally in Indonesia, it still needs to be applied locally. Bulukumba officials argue the decision gives the Kajang the right to manage all their densely forested land.