A CASE STUDY IN NUAULU ATTITUDES TO CONSERVATION AND DEFORESTATION Roy Ellen
Such beliefs persist, in the minds of neo-pagans in Highgate, amongst
ordinary thinking folk, in the Academy as well as outside it. Why
this should be the case is a question addressed in other contributions
to this volume; and whether or not the protagonists themselves have
such beliefs and whether those beliefs have regulatory consequences
is now the subject of a burgeoning literature [e.g. Brightman 1987,
Callicot 1982, Hames 1987, Hughes 1983, Martin, 1978]. In an earlier
piece [Ellen, 1986] I have tried briefly to explain why it should
be that the myth of primitive environmental wisdom should have such
tenacity. I concluded that it does so because some peoples certainly
do have ideologies and cosmologies which stress environmental harmony,
because at particular times anthropologists and others have appeared
to describe populations which have something approaching an ecologically
self-sustaining economy, and because many find it attractive to use
the concept of adaptation to explain why societies should have achieved
such an apparently favourable accommodation. None of this makes sense,
however, except in relation to the recognition that such
In this paper I examine Nuaulu attitudes to a rainforest environment as these are reflected in their use of it over a 25 year period, and especially in their reactions to commercial logging and changes wrought by Indonesian government transmigration policy in the nineteen-eighties. My main focus is on how the Nuaulu reconcile a new ecological and political order which happens to work for the present to their advantage, or at least to the advantage of some of them, with a 'traditional' set of beliefs which are underpinned by an entirely different set of cultural assumptions. Existing shared knowledge of how nature works , of how in different contexts it interacts with and contrasts with that shared abstraction which we call 'culture', presently co-exist with views which challenge this consensus, views brought about and sustained by wholesale transformation of the rainforest and the apparent possibility that humans can extract from the environment at levels previously non-comprehendable. The rhetoric of which I speak in the title is in the form of public and semi-public utterances and pronouncements which address directly or indirectly the changes, adjustments and values implicit in Nuaulu representations and utilisation of nature. The practices refer to both the routine daily patterns of subsistence and social interaction, and the incentive to those changes in their environment which they perceive - or are persuaded to believe - offer new opportunities.
I begin by stating briefly the history of Nuaulu settlement between 1850 and 1970, and summarising the position on land tenure as it existed between 1970 and 1980. I go on to examine the consequences of logging, local spontaneous immigration, government-controlled transmigration and new patterns of Nuaulu extraction in the Ruatan valley to which these led. I conclude by noting the effects of recent changes on forest extraction, in the light of Nuaulu conceptualisation of forest and in relation to theories of the degradation of the commons.
[MAP 1 ABOUT HERE]
I mention these details now, not as mere background, but because they feature in significant ways in the narrative which subsequently unfolds.
In 1970 the Nuaulu inhabited four hamlets, grouped into three administrative units within the desa of Sepa. Subsistence, then as now, was obtained largely through the extraction of palm sago, swiddening, hunting and gathering. By 1981 the population had grown to 747, and by 1990 to about 1256 (table 1)1.
Table 1. Nuaulu population growth in relation sub-district population, 1971-1990
Census Rohua Total Total Sepa Total Amahai
Year Nuaulu (desa) (kecamatan)
1971 180 496 2667 18538
1973 196 544
1975 207 575
1978 2507 22477
1981 269 747 31023
1983 3307 35306
1986 268+ 744 5976
1990 452 1256
Note For the basis of figures listed in columns 2 and 3 see footnote 1. The Sepa figure for 1971 (based on 1970 data) was provided by the Kantor Sensus dan Statistik, Dati II, Maluku Tengah, Masohi. The remaining sources are: Amahai 1971 [Kantor Sensus dan Statistik Propinsi Maluku, 1972]; Amahai 1978, Sepa 1978 [Kantor Sensus dan Statistik propinsi Maluku, 1980]; Amahai 1979, 1981, 1983, Sepa 1983 [Kantor Kecamatan Amahai,1983]; Amahai 1980 [Angka Sensus Propinsi Maluku, 1980]; Sepa 1986, 1988 [unpublished figures in Kantor Camat, Amahai, 1990].
Until the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the Nuaulu were
located in highland settlements, though with a long history of intermittent
relations with Sepa and other coastal domains [Ellen 1988:118]. Nuaulu
society comprised geographically and politically autonomous patriclans,
associated mythologically with a place of origin [see Ellen 1978:
14, map 3]. Swiddens, sago resources, groves of useful trees and hunting
areas of the same clan were together, not separated by the resources
of other clans, or even the land of other hamlets or cultural groups.
In the short term land was identified with the living individuals
and domestic groups who used it; and, simultaneously, in the longer
term was deemed to belong to
In the early seventies sale of land was still a relatively new concept. During 20 months of fieldwork in 1970-71 and in 1973, I recorded only one transaction in the entire Nuaulu area, to a person from Sepa. No one could remember a Nuaulu ever having acquired land from Sepa since the first gift of land made by raja Kamari Kaihatu Tihurua around 1870, which established the physical villages of Watane, Aihisuru, Bunara and Hahuwalan; and only one other instance of sale of land in Rohua could be recalled. However, in 1968 Merpati Sonawe of Watane had bought some garden land from Sepa for 9000 Indonesian rupiahs, and during February 1970, Utapina Kamama of Bunara bought some land from Sepa as a means of obtaining some level ground for a coconut grove. But despite the rarity of actual sale, the concept was well-established by 1970, as was the possibility of land becoming a truly exchangeable commodity. Alienation of land to non-Nuaulu obviously limits the amount of land available, and particularly threatens that which is more valuable. Land transferred within the sphere of interclan prestations is never entirely lost, as access to land may come through women marrying into the clan. Land sold to outsiders is lost forever from the pool of Nuaulu land resources; finally and irrevocably transformed into a commodity. But sale of land is not merely a material loss, it is also a denial of the value of traditional exchanges: a complete negation of the continuity and context of social relationships.
Then there is market individualism. As the Nuaulu experience it, the
Thus, land tenure up until 1980 was a product of internal structural changes (the emergence of the principle of locality, and the fragmentation of clan land), and the partial assimilation of an external ideology of land relations already present on the coast. When I published my first account of Nuaulu land tenure in 1977 the interpretation assumed a modernist, 'progressivist' movement from mountain to coast, traditional to modern, resource to commodity. It was difficult to think of such shifts as anything but inevitable, permanent and ineluctable; perhaps in much the same way as many modelled post-war social democracy or the demise of capitalism. Few of us could imagine a situation in which history might appear to 'unwind' or 'run in reverse'. But by the early nineteen-eighties the situation in south Seram, and Indonesian government policy at several levels, was providing the conditions by which this became possible. In particular, logging and other forms of commercial forest extraction increased in the Amahai sub-district, there was an influx of migrants into the Sepa area, and the Nua-Ruatan valley was opened-up to transmigrants. The consequences of all of this for the Nuaulu were, paradoxically, both to vindicate their enduring identity and rights with respect to a large geographical area and at the same time to radically undermine their conception of forest.
In recent years new technology, particularly the chainsaw, has had
a decisive impact on forest clearance. Large trees which were once
left standing are now cut, while the efficiency of clearance has increased
immeasurably. It has also brought with it logging for export on a
quite unprecedented scale. Between 1969-70 and 1978-79 it expanded
dramatically [Ellen, 1985], averaging around one million cubic meters
a year for the Moluccas as a whole, and representing overall a ninefold
increase during the seventies. All of this has brought only marginal
benefits to the Nuaulu: a little short-term employment as labourers
and guides and access to some new technology. The Nuaulu can now take
advantage of discarded cut
The long-term reality is that this itself threatens to destroy the very fauna on which the Nuaulu depend. The damage done by mechanized logging is well-documented from elsewhere, and although Moluccan timber extraction is only 3-4 percent of total Indonesian production its ecological and sociological impact is disproportionate given the small size of the forest areas involved. Extensive logging, combined with increased clearance through swiddening, transmigration, government plantations and road-building, seems likely to destroy much of the lowland rainforest of Seram. In contrast to former patterns of timber extraction, typified by a gradual denudation of primary forest and the selective (but not exhaustive) extraction of a variety of species to cater for a wide range of essentially local uses, modern methods involve either the selective extraction of just a few species to exhaustion, or the total destruction of forest in a short period to cater for a narrow range of non-local uses. Additionally (and crucially), the control of the system is becoming increasingly remote. Decisions regarding the location and level of extraction are made by agencies of central government (sometimes pursuing contradictory aims and interests), and within them by individuals and committees at the highest echelons. None of this makes for sensitive responses to changing conditions on the ground.
We must now turn to immigration. The littoral of southern Seram between
Elpaputih Bay and the eastern boundary of the Amahai sub-district
is not new to incomers [Collins,1980; Collins, 1984]. But apart from
the movements of the Nuaulu themselves in the latter part of the nineteenth
century, the population situation appears to have remained fairly
stable between 1700 and 1960. There has been the immigration of a
few Chinese and Buginese traders, but these have hardly amounted to
much; and some re-settlement from Ambon-Lease, internal relocations
(Yalahatan, Rutah), and of course some growth at the administrative
post at Amahai. From 1960 onwards there was a steady influx of Butonese
from southeast Sulawesi, and with the extension of the road from Amahai,
there was a dramatic increase in Butonese settlers in particular.
There has been some intermarriage with
By 1986 the government had improved access to the lower Ruatan valley by pushing through a semi-metalled road and by building vital bridges, and had provided some housing and schools. The Ruatan now comprises an ethnically diverse ribbon development as far as the Nua, settlements being indicated in terms of the number of kilometers distant from Masohi. Thus Kilo 5 is occupied by Selayor Bugis, while elsewhere there are Javanese, Bandanese, Saparuans; people from Sepa at Kilo 8, Kei-islanders and Tanimbarese at Kilo 9, and now Nuaulu at Kilo 9 and beyond.
From the point of view of the government, the movement of large numbers
of people into the area required clarifying the existing position
There is another sense in which government policy has worked to the
advantage of contemporary Nuaulu. The Nuaulu, along with other interior
Seramese peoples, have for many years been recognised by the government
as 'orang terasing', the original inhabitants of a region. In practice,
definitions of who was and who was not 'terasing' has not always been
obvious, but in the Nuaulu case their religion and the attitudes of
those around them was clearly critical. Elsewhere, location in the
mountains is what is important. But however the classification arose
it is one which has had policy consequences. Generically, 'orang terasing'
are assumed to be
From the time of first settlement at Sepa, Nuaulu retained an interest in the Nua-Ruatan basin, which they regarded as their own. It was an area regularly visited for hunting, contained long-deserted garden plots from which fruits of now mature trees and the naturally propagated successors to such trees could be regularly harvested, and provided ready access to the main source of sago, Somau. It was the location of many Nuaulu sacred sites and of the old hamlets themselves, of ancient and not so ancient clan spirits and ghosts, indeed the spirits of individuals who are still remembered and who feature in genealogies of the living. More recently, Nuaulu interest has been exacerbated by shortages of accessible land in the Sepa area and by conflict with Sepa and Tamilouw over land.
In the early nineteen eighties Nuaulu from the hamlets of Watane and
Aihisuru began to travel to Somau by a new route, to cut sago, clear
land for clove trees and protect their property (particularly sago
palms) against incursions from newly-arriving transmigrants. They
were now able to take advantage of the easy though circuitous route
via Amahai, Masohi and Makariki, upgraded to a metalled road with
regular (though seasonally disturbed) transport. The old overland
walking route to Somau took five hours, the more circuitous journey
by truck (approximately 50 kilometers) takes half the time. Although
many continue to commute backwards and forwards between the Sepa villages
and the new settlements, in 1983 permanent settlers began to arrive.
The site allocated to the Nuaulu was south of the track at Kilo 9,
a settlement which has come to be known officially as Simalouw. By
1990 Simalouw comprised 100 households, government housing and a school.
Of these, 56 were originally Nuaulu, the remainder consisting of
Protestant and Catholic Kei islanders, and Tanimbarese. The Nuaulu
inhabitants have their separate area which now comprises 20 households,
of people who once lived at Watane: the clans Sonawe-ainakahata, Penisa
and Kamama. Only the kapitane Penisa currently remains
in Watane, where he must stay until the suane (ritual
house), the first post of which he planted, comes to the end of its
natural life. As for individual clan ritual houses, those of Penisa
and Kamama were rebuilt at Simalouw between 1985 and 1990. Inhabitants
of Rohua and the other
The population of Aihisuru (Matoke-hanaie and Sonawe-ainakahata) had also first moved to Simalouw, but in 1985 moved to Tahena Ukuna at Kilo 12. The ostensible reason for this was to avoid the severe seasonal flooding which is a problem in lower parts of the Ruatan valley, such as Kilo 9, but it was also to maintain that isolation from non-Nuaulu which these clans feel their ritual requires, and which was effectively maintained at their previous hilltop site at Aihisuru. Moreover, the higher in the mountains they reside, the nearer they are to ancestral settlements - and this also is a matter of some importance.
Those Nuaulu who have re-located in the new settlements seem to derive considerable comfort from having achieved a kind of homecoming, and certainly this is reflected in the satisfaction it is said to have afforded the ancestors. But when all is said and done it has been the material benefits which have been critical: travel time to main sago forests has been dramatically cut, the festering problems over land with Sepa have been eliminated, there is as much easily accessible land at the new sites as they need for the foreseeable future, and hunting returns are greater. Although coconut palms and clove trees are still young, the important thing (as Merpati Sonawe explained to me) is to think about the grandchildren. Those who have remained behind are largely in Hahuwalan, Bunara and Rohua. In Rohua and Hahuwalan, at least, the land issue with Sepa does not appear so critical, they perceive the advantages of being on the coast and there are internal political reasons for not moving permanently to Simalouw.
This brings us to the final (and perhaps most significant) consequence
of the opening-up of the Ruatan valley for settlement, namely the
sale of land by Nuaulu on a previously unprecedented scale. This has
taken two forms: the granting of land to the government in exchange
for houses and other facilities, and private sale to independent migrant
settlers. In addition, the opening-up of land along the Ruatan for
their own purposes has allowed Nuaulu to sell land in the more crowded
vicinity of Sepa, most of which has gone to Sepa itself and to incoming
Butonese. Although Nuaulu attitudes to land are being increasingly
molded by a market model, individual transactions involve an customary
element. Thus, in 1990 during my visit to Simalouw, Merpati was engaged
in setting-out the terms of a sale for some new settlers at Kilo 7
for approval by the local District Officer. The asking 'price' on
this occasion was: five piruna hatu (lit. 'stone
On the basis of detailed ecological and ethnobotanical data [Ellen,
1978:81-83, 212-219; Ellen 1985:560-563, 568-577], we can make certain
generalisations about the impact of Nuaulu subsistence practices for
the period up to 1980. In terms of the geography of disturbance, most
interaction during this period took place within a fairly short radius
of each village, in secondary or denuded forest. Only during hunting,
and on expeditions to collect rattan, resin and some other products,
is it necessary to exceed the boundaries of the most distant gardens
on a routine basis [Ellen, 1975; Ellen, 1985:566-67]. Swiddens were,
and continue to be, usually cut from secondary forest (typically bamboo
scrub) within a four kilometer radius of the settlement, and although
the percentage of garden land cut from primary forest is high by comparative
southeast Asian standards, official estimates of forest destroyed
due to traditional swiddening are grossly overstated. Low population
densities have ensured that little land has succeeded to grassland
climax, and fires seldom get out of hand to the extent that they cause
obvious and non-recoverable environmental damage. For the most part,
timber cutting has been intermittent, patchy and economical; some
wood is cut without killing trees, whilst the greatest volume of firewood
continues to come from non-
Since 1980, forest has been transformed on a qualitatively different scale. The continuing growth in the Nuaulu population and the increase in cash-cropping have placed greater demands on resources, and this has been exacerbated by in-migration and un-controlled commercial logging. With the opening-up of the Nua-Ruatan area, Nuaulu can afford to sell land in large quantities without it threatening - in their perception at least - their own subsistence base.
Forest is a complex categorical construction . Although uncut forest is recognised as a single entity (wesie), it contrasts in different ways with other land types depending on context. It may contrast with wasi (owned land, which may sometimes display very mature forest growth), emphasising a jural distinction; with nisi (garden land), emphasising human physical interference; or with niane (village), emphasising landforms: empty as opposed to well-timbered space, inhabited (dwelt) as opposed to uninhabited space, untamed as opposed to tamed space, all with various symbolic associations and practical consequences for Nuaulu consumers. Although there are no Nuaulu words for either 'nature' or 'culture', it is in the various and aggregated senses of wesie that the Nuaulu come closest to having such a term, and from which the existence of an abstract covert notion of 'nature' can reasonably be inferred [see e.g. Valeri 1990].
Forest is not homogeneous . Wesie is a complex category in another sense. Despite the generic label it is anything but uniform or empty in the way the Nuaulu perceive, understand and respond to it. It is more like a mosaic of resources, and a dense network of particular places each having different material values. In this first sense it is much like the modern scientific modelling of rainforest as a continuous aggregation of different biotopes and patches, varying according to stages in growth cycles, underlying geology, altitude, geography and natural contingency: old village sites, sago swamp, Agathis patches, bamboo scrub, hills, riverbeds, neglected swiddens, caves and so on. 78 percent of the 272 forest trees named by Nuaulu have particular human uses, and it is through their uses that they are apprehended.
There is an inner connection between history, identity and forest.
The values with which Nuaulu invest forest are multi-faceted and differential,
simultaneously materially useful and culturally meaningful. And in
the same way that the material uses to which forest is put must be
understood in specific and local terms, so too the social implications.
While our conception of environment is something which is 'opposed'
to people, or some kind of medium in which we dwell, and which is
therefore bounded, the Nuaulu conception of environment is not as
a space in which they hang, but much more like a series of fixed points
to which particular clans and individuals are connected. These points
are objects in an unbounded landscape linked to their appearance in
myths; use of land is at every turn
Forest is a moral construction . The undeniable effect of merging practical usefulness, mythic knowledge and identity in the construction of the category wesie is to give it a moral dimension. That is, there are right and wrong ways in which to engage with forest which arise in part from the specific social histories of parts of it, but also from its intrinsic mystical properties. Forest is unpredictable, dangerous and untamed, and various attempts are made to control it. This is reflected in the inferential symbolic opposition between 'nature' and 'culture' evident in most ritual, in the specific rituals conducted prior to cultivating forest, in the charms which are used to protect travellers in the forest, in the prohibitions on certain behaviours and utterances while in the forest, in the correct ritual disposal of its products.
It is in the context of this that we must understand the ritual restrictions on harvesting forest products at particular times. But none of this prevents gratuitous destruction of wayside saplings or the felling of entire trees in order to capture one arboreal marsupial, and is certainly insufficient to support elaborate feedback models of ritually controlled conservation [Ellen 1985: 563-566]. It is palpable that if there is sufficient pecuniary motive, land and resources can be disposed of despite the existence of sasi, displeasure on the part of the 'Lord of the land', or the ancestors. The irregularity of such transactions is partly moderated by appropriate ritual payment, as we have seen for recent land transfers. It is understood that in the eyes of the ancestors this may be insufficient compensation, and that at a later date those who have engaged in the transaction may suffer because of it. But these sanctions are only partially effective, and many feel able to live with the vague threat for short-term gain, and take other appropriate piacular measures retrospectively, as they become necessary. There is no reason to believe that such attitudes in themselves are particularly new, but their invocation with respect to massive land alienation is.
It is not short-termism which is replacing a conscious commitment
to preserving longer term cycles, but the emergence of a view in which
long- and short-term mean something, combined with deliberate revision
of the received version of Nuaulu-forest relations to accord with
recent developments. The existence hitherto of a non-temporal, non-linear,
space-time conception of environment in which cycles are sensitively
1. In table 1, columnm 1 provides the years during which I conducted my own
initial census and subsequent updates. The 1970 census was complete and reliable, but on subsequent visits I have only updated census data for Rohua. Even here the figures must be understood as provisional and errors may occur due to under-reporting of infant mortality in particular, the common practice of name-changing and shifts in residence between villages. The Rohua figures are designed to include all ethnic Nuaulu, including Christian and Muslim converts who remain in the village, any non-Nuaulu spouses, and their joint offspring. They do not include other in-migrants. In 1971 the population of Rohua was 36 percent of the Nuaulu total and I have assumed for the purpose of calculating the total figures for 1973 through to 1990 that this has continued to be approximately the case. There are no separate official statistics for ethnic Nuaulu, and occasionally available figures for animists in the sub-district as a whole have to be treated with extreme caution; electoral figures available for 1986 refer only to adults and do not discriminate between Nuaulu and non-Nuaulu. The sources for population figures at desa and kecamatan level are explained in the note following table 1.2. The Moluccas was first incorporated into the national transmigration
programme ('Transmigrasi umum/nasional') as early as 1954, but Seram did not effectively feature in this until the second half of the seventies, with the arrival of 400 families in the Kairatu area. The greatest expansion took place between 1982 and 1989, with 25,953 migrants from Java and other parts of the Moluccas settling in special zones created at Pasahari (north Seram), Kao, Wasile, Ekor and Banggai [Kantor Statistik Kabupaten Maluku Tengah, 1984: 114; Kantor Statistik Provinsi Maluku, 1989:155].
shoreline in excess of 80 kilometers. The figure provided is obtained if we multiply the length of coastline by the 5 kilometers accepted by Nuaulu and government alike as that distance from the coast beyond which all land must be regarded as the legal entitlement of the Nuaulu. This appears to include part of the Manusela National Park, a forest reserve of some 186,000 hectares and in which settlement is officially prohibited.