This article is the second in a three-part series reporting from the village of Honitetu in Maluku, Indonesia.

When Sony Parakate sees a set of bamboo poles stood upright in the forest, with one stick dangling from the end of a crosshatch, he knows to steer clear. The distinctive structure indicates a place under customary taboo – and the stick is part of the traditional punishment for breaking it.

‘Sasi’ is the name of a customary resource management technique that enforces rotational harvesting in the province of Maluku, Indonesia. When an area of forest, or even a single tree, is under ‘sasi’, that means it is off-limits for harvesting until the one who set the ban comes to lift it.

The ancient technique ensures a sustainable supply of forest products like cacao, resin, coffee and fruit, by giving trees time to recover from harvest.

“In the old days, the punishment for breaking ‘sasi’ would be one strike with the stick for the first offense, 10 the next time, and 100 after that,” Sony says, with an air of legend.

But in most cases, it would seem, the symbol of the structure itself — along with fines issued by community leaders — is enough to deter people from doing the wrong thing.

   A sign for ‘sasi gereja’ – ‘church sasi’ – guards a cacao tree. CIFOR Photo/Ulet Ifansasti


‘Sasi’ taboos not only draw on the power of local myth and legend, but of organized religion, too. The technique has been adapted to Catholicism as the majority religion in the province of Maluku.

“There are different kinds of ‘sasi’ – ‘customary sasi’, ‘church sasi’,” says Latu Pieter, a former customary ‘King’ of Honitetu.

‘Church sasi’ carries the blessing of the local church and, for believers, the fear of God. To break ‘church sasi’ is to commit a sin, and stories abound of the mysterious misfortunes suffered by perpetrators as a consequence.

The hand-drawn signs carry a warning to stay away, marked with the sign of a crucifix. Sony and his neighbors demonstrate how a wooden sign is colored in with permanent marker, and nailed to a post or tree using a stone as a hammer.

“Those who break the ban are not punished by going to prison or anything like that, but they do receive a fine,” Pieter says.

   Farmer Julyan Yawate taps resin from a tree released from a ‘sasi’. CIFOR Photo/Ulet Ifansasti
   Resin leaks from a tree trunk. CIFOR Photo/Ulet Ifansasti
   The finished product. CIFOR Photo/Ulet Ifansasti


The endurance of the ‘sasi’ tradition in Maluku is a testament to its effectiveness as a resource management technique. Adapting to changing legal conditions, landscapes and beliefs, it has maintained its power in the local imagination, as well as its results for sustainable forest management.

As a decades-long process of tenure reform continues in Indonesia, customary laws – known as adat – are increasingly receiving recognition in national and subnational policymaking.

Research is proving this to bring not only better outcomes for justice and equity, but for sustainability as well.

In Maluku, respect for customary rights – within a framework of good governance and collaborative decision-making – was found to be the preferred scenario for tenure security among local communities.

We want to see if these customary systems can be integrated into formal systems.

Nining Liswanti, scientist

“In Indonesia, Maluku is known for its strong commitment to customary law,” says scientist Nining Liswanti, who is the Indonesia coordinator for a Global Comparative Study on Forest Tenure Reform led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“All of the forest in Maluku has been claimed under customary title and this is recognized, at least in a de facto way, by the provincial, district and local governments.”

With mounting evidence of the local preference for customary management, as well as its effectiveness, communities are now preparing to make the case for legal recognition by the national government.

“We want to see if these customary systems can be integrated into formal systems, if not in terms of land ownership then at least the right for communities to manage and benefit from forests,” Liswanti says.

Produced in collaboration with Aris Sanjaya (video), Ulet Ifansasti (photographs), Aini Naimmah (transcription), Budhy Kristianty (production) and the community of Honitetu village, Maluku, Indonesia.

For more information on this topic, please contact Nining Liswanti at
This research was supported by the European Commission, the Global Environment Facility, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
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