Janum bin Lamat, Chief of Jerieng Tribe, leads the Taber Gunung ritual at Bukit penyambung, Desa Pelangas.

The Jerieng Tribe’s Efforts to Preserve Their Land and Tradition

For the past few years, there has been a rapid growth of palm and industry plantations in the Bangka Belitung Islands that threatens the culture and tradition of the native Jerieng Tribe. These indigenous people have been tirelessly fighting to keep their land and preserve their way of life.

Forest areas in the Bangka Belitung Islands keep decreasing, while palm oil plantations keep growing. The significant environmental changes in the area force the locals to change their way of life, including the people of the Jerieng Tribe.

Rotini (42), a descendant of the Jerieng Tribe, still remembers her happy childhood when every need was abundant. When she was a child, her house was surrounded by many kinds of plants that serve various purposes, medical as well as sustenance. Her family also planted rice to fulfil their needs. 

Rotini was born and raised in Berang Village, Teritip District. She still lives there today. Throughout her life, she has witnessed how the environment where she lives gradually deteriorates.

“Everything is difficult now,” Rotini says.

Rotini stands in her garden, squeezed between large-scale palm oil plantations.
Rotini stands in her garden, squeezed between large-scale palm oil plantations. Photo by Nopri Ismi.

The significant environmental changes started when the areas around the Jerieng Tribe became subject to land clearing, both for palm oil and industry plantations. “It makes it difficult to grow our plants. The environment and the air quality also get dirtier and dirtier,” Rotini says.

Although it is now more difficult to cultivate their land, Rotini and her family keep on planting rice. Nugal, or rice planting activity, has been an important part of the tradition of the Jerieng Tribe. Nugal is their way to honour their ancestors, as well as to show the harmonious relationship between nature and the people of the Jerieng Tribe. Nugal also saved Rotini’s family when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the village.

“We plant rice to help the family’s economy so that we no longer have to buy rice […]. Although we only harvest rice once a year, it is still enough to keep our bellies full,” she said.

Jemaun, one of the farmers from the Jerieng Tribe, says that besides nugal, the Jerieng Tribe also has another signature tradition which is besaoh or helping each other. Rotini and her husband, Dudang (47), always help their neighbours to plant the paddy.

“[If we cultivate our land] it can be inherited by our children and grandchildren. Besides, the earnings from farming are actually more competitive compared to being palm oil workers,” Rotini says.

The people of the Jerieng Tribe work on their land, now suffocated by the massive growth of palm oil plantations.
The people of the Jerieng Tribe work on their land, now suffocated by the massive growth of palm oil plantations. Photo by Nopri Ismi.

However, Rotini is worried that one day the tradition to plant rice is no longer feasible to do. Even though the area is already saturated with corporations aiming to extort more profit from the land, new companies keep coming with high hopes to get their slice. The Jerieng Tribe have been busy filing their refusals to these corporations. Rotini joined the protest in 2018 against the industry plantation concessions among the Jerieng Tribe areas.

“The forest (Penyabung Hill) is our only source of livelihood,” she says.

Bangka Belitung Islands Provincial Administration recorded 75,734 hectares of palm oil plantations in their area. Forest coverage in Bangka Belitung has drastically reduced from 657,380 hectares (2014) to only 235,586 hectares (2015). The number decreased even further to 204,974 (2021).

A Change in Land Function Eliminates Tradition

The Jerieng Tribe is a community of Malay ethnicity. They are categorised as indigenous as well as the oldest tribe on Bangka Island. Members of the tribe rely heavily on nature as their source of livelihood.

Fitri Ramdhani Harahap, a sociologist from Bangka Belitung University, explains that the Jerieng Tribe inherited cultural capital from their ancestors. The cultural capital is a part of their identity and is regulated by customary laws and institutions. Those infrastructures regulate social life, people’s relationship to their land and customary areas, traditional systems of values and knowledge, as well as rules of social conduct.

“One of the ancient heritage still preserved by the Jerieng Tribe is the traditional rituals held at Penyabung Hill. The rituals are the manifestation of gratitude for what has been given by the Creator,” she says.

It is also the reason why Rotini and her fellow Jerieng Tribe members keep trying to hold on to their land, including the areas in Penyabung Hill, despite the drastic changes the area has undergone.

Chief of The Malay Customary Institution (Lembaga Adat Melayu, LAM) of West Bangka, Dato Sardi (49), says that the shift of the land function within the Jerieng Tribe’s living spaces has started since the New Order, and reached its peak around 1993-1995. At that time, palm oil corporations started entering the area by authoritarian means.

The expansion of palm oil plantations within the Jerieng Tribe area has become one of the biggest threats to the Jerieng Tribe's forests and agricultural land.
The expansion of palm oil plantations within the Jerieng Tribe area has become one of the biggest threats to the Jerieng Tribe’s forests and agricultural land. Photos by Nopri Ismi.

The shift in land function does not only affect the Jerieng Tribe’s living space, but also eliminates a number of traditions that have existed for hundreds of years. One of those traditions is behume, an activity where the people clear a small land of less than one hectare to cultivate. The majority of the Jerieng Tribe members used to live off farming and agriculture, but since the land available to cultivate has become more and more scarce, the traditions as well as the traditional professions have started to disappear.

“The people who used to do behume now are forced to be daily labourers, or work at private-owned mines, which is often known as Unconventional Mine (TI),” says Dato Sardi.

Another profession that faces difficulties due to this situation is the tribe’s healer since it is now more difficult to get medicinal herbs. Miya (58), who is known to be the healer of the Jerieng Tribe, usually brews her medicines from leaves, barks, or roots of several plants that grow in the wilderness of Penyabung Hills. Miya treats members of the tribe who fall ill so they do not have to visit doctors or modern health facilities.

Miya mentions some plants she uses as medicine, such as medang sang leaves (for stomachache), cepenak roots (for malaria), and jenitri berries (for blood flow). “After I gather the herbs, I usually take them home to process, but some also can be consumed directly,” she explains. 

Arman Moehammad, a representative from Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of Nusantara (Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara, AMAN) says that the shift in indigenous people’s professions happens not only in Bangka Island but also in other places such as Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Sumatera, and Java.

“Traditional professions are seeing a decline due to the changing facade of indigenous lands, the consequence of land conversion due to the entry of big corporations. For them, losing land means losing everything,” Arman says.

Arman Moehammad also mentions that one of the roots of the problem is the government’s absence from protecting the indigenous people’s rights, including the rights for their lands. Indonesia has not yet passed Indigenous Peoples Bill, although there have been many urges from civil society

New Naratif has tried to contact a representative at Bangka Belitung Islands Regional Legislative Council (DPRD), Adet Mansur, regarding this matter, but he declined to respond.

Observing a Jerieng Tribe Ritual

My photographer and I walked to the house of the tribe chief, escorted by Masliadi (38), a member of the Jerieng Tribe, to witness a series of rituals conducted by the Jerieng Tribe. The first ritual is Mandi Gong, or the gong bathing ritual. It is an intermediary to communicate with all living beings, seen or unseen, and the universe itself.

“You guys are lucky. This is the first time the ritual is conducted again after three years,” Masliadi told us.

When we arrived at the house of the chief, Atuk Janum, I saw many people gathering in the house’s yard. There were guests from many different places, although most of them were descendants of the Jerieng Tribe.

We were welcomed to enter the house and eat. There were many trinkets for the rituals, including food collected in potluck by the members of the tribe. That night, the main course consisted of red rice, salted fish (kepitek), fried tempe, stir-fried bamboo shoots, shrimp paste chilli sauce (sambal belacan), and jengkol (jerieng). Jengkol or jerieng is an important aspect of the ritual—it is where the Jerieng Tribe got its name from.

The event was followed by a series of performances, including dances and songs in the Jerieng Tribe’s native language. The songs told stories of romance and the greatness of their ancestors. Afterwards, Atuk Anum took over the event, led prayers, and read the wisdom of the ancestors. In front of the audience, Atuk Janum also said that the ancestors believe nature should be taken care of.

Atuk Janum also said the gong is the legacy of the ancestors and should be kept and taken care of for future generations. Reverence for the gong is shown by bathing it with seven kinds of flowers and fragrant oil. 

Near midnight, the gong bathing ritual started. Afterwards, the 90-cm-wide gong was hit to summon all members of the Jerieng Tribe, including the supernatural, as a sign that the ritual is taking place.

The gong’s bath water was then given to the members of the tribe. They believe the water can be used to heal illness, repel bad luck, and attract romantic partners. The ritual is also a form of prayer to keep away disasters, including crop failures.

Janum bin Lamat, Chief of the Jerieng Tribe, leads the way to Penyabung Hill at Pelangas Village.
Janum bin Lamat, Chief of the Jerieng Tribe, leads the way to Penyabung Hill at Pelangas Village. Photo by Nopri Ismi.

The next day, we walked all the way to Penyabung Hill to do the Taber Gunung, or mountain offering, ritual. “Taber” or “offering” was given as a form of gratitude to the Almighty, the ancestors, and the universe that had given harvests and crops for a full year. 

“During the ritual, the people of the Jerieng Tribe are prohibited from doing anything that shed animal blood. It means we must not go hunting or kill animals, and we are even advised to not tend their garden (behume) or go to work (begawe),” Atuk Janum told us.

Atuk Janum also mentioned that there was once a person who violated that code by slaughtering a game and shedding its blood. “The person died on the spot,” said Atuk Janum. 

In Penyabung Hill, everyone must take off their footwear to respect the land of their ancestors. They prepared the offering. Around noon, Atuk Janum asked two people to come forward and start the ritual by saying their prayers.

The offering, consisting of food made of sticky rice, symbolises the importance of the forests and gardens as the source of life for the Jerieng Tribe.
The offering, consisting of food made of sticky rice, symbolises the importance of the forests and gardens as the source of life for the Jerieng Tribe. Photo by Nopri Ismi.

Prayers were said and solemn silence settled in the air. Honey, jasmine, and rice grains were spread throughout the hill. Afterwards, a performance of pencak silat martial arts serenaded by gong and gendang Melayu music as well as songs in the Jerieng language concluded the series of rituals. 

“The entire series of rituals, from Mandi Gong to Taber Gunung, is our way to plead to the Almighty so that the people (of the Jerieng Tribe) are protected from all kinds of illness, and so that all of our efforts in life could be done nicely,” Atuk Janum said after the ritual.

According to Atuk Janum, Jerieng Tribe takes the relationship with nature as a matter of utmost importance. That way of thinking keeps them from being greedy. Efforts to preserve nature are always prioritised, as it is integral to the Jerieng Tribe’s values and traditions.

Several traditions observed to this day by the Jerieng Tribe are Taber Gunung, Mandi Gong, Ngerabun Pusaka, and Sedekah Kampong, among others, which are done in several points of the Jerieng Tribe’s areas at Kundi Village, Rajek Belar, Simpang Tige, and Pelangas.

“Although now we are moving into Islamisation, the customs we inherited from our ancestors should still be kept and preserved,” he emphasised.

What’s Next?

  • Support NGOs that focus on mitigating environmental damage such as Bangka Belitung Islands Walhi, Center of Animal Conservation (PPS) Alobi Foundation Bangka Belitung, and Foundation of Endemic Fish in Bangka Belitung “The Tanggokers”.
  • Support customary institutions in Bangka Belitung such as Jerieng Tribe Malay Customary Institution and Mapur Customary Institution.
  • Help Indonesian indigenous peoples to be legally protected through a petition which urges the passing of the Indigenous Peoples Bill. 
  • Share this article with friends and family and discuss your concerns with them.
  • Join New Naratif to find out more about the environmental crisis with us, and enjoy content in the form of articles, podcasts, comics, and videos.

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