BEST OF 2012: Supernatural powers play key role in forest use

A strictly secular approach to forest management may be at odds with local attitudes.

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Bainings Fire Dance, Papua New Guinea. Taro Taylor.

Bainings Fire Dance, Papua New Guinea. Taro Taylor.

BOGOR, Indonesia (11 January, 2012)_The power of supernatural beliefs to influence sustainable forest use in indigenous communities should be considered in  land management strategies, says a recent study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Center for International Research in Agronomy and Development (CIRAD).

“The fact is that for many communities, supernatural agencies are realities,” said CIFOR post-doc research fellow Masatoshi Sasaoka who, together with CIRAD scientist Yves Laumonier, studied the belief system of indigenous peoples in the Seram Island forest in eastern Indonesia and how it related to their use of natural resources.

“Many indigenous resource management practices are closely related to their view of the supernatural world. If this is overlooked in new management strategies, and the role of the local people’s belief in the supernatural is under-evaluated, then the self-direction of local people in resource management can be depressed, and local institutions which could contribute to sustainable and socially equitable resource use can be lost.”

The CIFOR study highlights how forest management and supernatural beliefs are linked in an upland forest community of around 320 people in central Seram, where cuscus (a tree marsupial), wild boar and timor deer make up 90 percent of the wild animal food resources consumed by villagers for protein.

The villagers have subsistence livelihoods and depend on sago for up to 70 percent of their total energy needs. Sago is rich in carbohydrates, but contains little protein, so game resources are indispensable.

The villagers have divided the primary forest into more than 250 forest lots for hunting. When the number of animals decreases in a lot, the owners impose a temporary prohibition on hunting there, seli kaitahu, asking the forest spirits and ancestors to restore the game population.

The only enforcement of seli kaitahu is the underlying belief that violation of the prohibition brings misfortune upon a violator and their family from forest spirits and ancestors. Infringements on seli kaitahu are rare, showing that people’s ideas about supernatural agencies and their powers still strongly influence the forest resource use mechanisms set in place.

And because belief helps the people give supernatural explanations to misfortunes that befall them, the power of supernatural agents to keep these forest management laws is repeatedly reinforced.

In the course of the study, many villagers told Sasaoka the story of a man who violated seli kaitahu as proof that the spirits punish those who break forest law:

“One day in 1986, A. Li and Z. A. went hunting in a forest owned by the clan to which Z.A. belonged. After hunting, they went into another forest owned by the clan to spear cuscus. But seli kaitahu had been imposed on that forest.

“When A. Li found cuscus hiding in a deep tree hollow, he cut down the tree to catch it. But arboreal vines were twined around that tree as well as the next, so as the tree fell, the next tree was pulled over. A. Li was crushed to death under it. If the men had asked for the seli kaitahu to be removed, the accident would never have happened.”

‘Supernatural enforcement mechanisms’, of which seli kaitahu is a prime example, also help prevent discord among villagers, since no person directly accuses or punishes the violator. These characteristics are especially important in central Seram where people avoid confrontation at all costs.

The mountain villagers of central Seram are not alone in effectively linking supernatural beliefs with sustainable forest resource management. According to a 2004 study co-authored by CIFOR scientist Carol Colfer, the Iban people of West Kalimantan, Indonesia also hold certain forest patches as sacred. These are important refuges for wildlife, and as a result, important sources of game.

Nor are these cases limited to Indonesia. About 60 million indigenous people worldwide are almost entirely dependent on forests, and there are examples of the links between traditional religious beliefs, forest conservation and rural livelihoods in many countries around the world.

“Despite the evidence of their importance,” says Sasaoka, ”supernatural beliefs of indigenous peoples continue to be regarded as ‘unscientific’ and ignored by agencies like NGOs and governments who seek to develop ‘self-directed’ indigenous resource management strategies with communities.”

Sasaoka acknowledges that while further research is still needed, his findings already point to some important lessons.

“To truly promote self-directed indigenous resource management for people who coexist with supernatural agencies, we need a new model for resource management that is compatible with indigenous beliefs.

“Outside agencies like NGOs and governments need to consider this in the way they intervene for conservation and management of forest resources, to protect both the culture of the people and the forest they rely on.”

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