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.
‘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.
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.
“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.
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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