Wetenschap - 12 september 2002

Sacred mountain in peril

Sacred mountain in peril

The sacred mountain Bawakaraeng is one of the gems of the Indonesian island Sulawesi. Sadly, MSc student Dede Wiliam discovered that tourists and private companies are threatening the pristine forests found there.

Many people have died on the treacherous slopes of Mt Bawakaraeng, but they keep on coming. "The hikers believe it is a sacred mountain. Its name means 'The land of God'," says Wiliam. In spite of its religious value, the hikers do not show a lot of respect to the natural surroundings, the forestry student discovered. "They leave a lot of waste behind, like plastics and cans. In the long term, this will harm the environment."

Wiliam stayed in a village close to the mountain, interviewing people and examining their way of life. From the villagers she heard that some of the Muslim population used to sacrifice goats, cows and other animals at the feet of the mountain. Apart from stories about rituals, the villagers told Wiliam that many hikers who have gone up the mountain never returned. These tourists come from Indonesian cities but also from Europe, the US and Canada.

"Breaking taboos such as using bad language, cutting trees or picking leaves are believed to be causes of getting lost or killed on the mountain. Unfortunately, throwing plastic waste and cans on the ground is not one of the taboos." From Indonesia herself, Wiliam is worried about the ongoing environmental degradation in her country. She comes from the island Java, where most of the forests are already gone. In Sulawesi, there are still large tracts of forests, pristine rivers and hillsides, but population pressure is slowly making its impact.

During her fieldwork, Wiliam found out that there are more threats to the environment than irresponsible hikers.

"The people living near the foot of Mt Bawakaraeng make a living mainly by growing vegetables. At the moment this is still being done on a small scale, so the forests have been largely left in peace. The problem however is that rich people from cities and private companies have started buying land; some for investment and others for large-scale vegetable production." Wiliam is worried that in the coming years the poor farmers will be pushed out and will have to look for other areas to grow vegetables. Then they will start cutting down the forests.

According to Wiliam, another problem is that there is no clear demarcation between protected forests and community land. Also local villagers have difficulties protecting the forests against outsiders as they often are not well-informed. "Many cannot speak the official Indonesian language, as well as being illiterate and innumerate, so how can they know about new arrangements for land allocation?"

In general the locals are suspicious of outsiders, and probably with reason. Wiliam also experienced some unease upon her arrival, but this disappeared when she began working with the women in the fields. Wiliam learned to appreciate their hard life. "I tried to follow the work of housewife like the one I stayed with. One time we went to collect mushrooms, walking a large distance first, then bringing them home and cook them. This was before sunrise so I had to really be careful about where I walked in the forest. We had to hurry though as food had to be prepared before 8 o'clock for the husband and others. I think I would have been hospitalised for days if I continued with the work."

Hugo Bouter

Photos: Dede Wiliam

Women cleaning rice during the harvest festival. MSc student Dede Wiliam participated in the ceremony during her fieldwork in Sulawesi.

View of Mt Bawakaraeng from the village Lembanna in Sulawesi.

Re:ageer