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Customary Society, Guardians of the Wakatobi Sea

Corals in Wakatobi. The Wakatobi National Park has a marine biodiversity with a scale and condition that place it as one of the highest priorities in marine conservation in Indonesia. Source: Simanjuntak Jekson.

March 31, 2020

By Jekson Simanjuntak

Wakatobi, SOUTHEAST SULAWESI. Nested on a pristine sea and coral reefs that is rich in marine biodiversity, Wakatobi is at the forefront of a movement that involves local customary societies in helping safeguard and conserve their own environment.

A number of journalists visiting this district of a multitude of islands accompanied by the Nusantara Nature Conservancy Foundation (YKAN) which has been active in counseling customary societies in Wakatobi since 2014, had the chance to see this beautiful, fascinating scenery for themselves.

The blue of the sky and the smooth sea accompanied this group of 20 people since they had left Wangi-Wangi, the main district town on an island of the same name, bound for Tomia Island, two hours away.

“People’s awareness here is already high, so that they do not throw garbage into the sea. This is also because of the role of the customary laws that are still respected by the people here,” said La Ode Arifudin, YKAN Stakeholders Engagement Coordinator during the trip. And true enough, no plastic garbage could be seen floating on the sea all along the way.

YKAN itself believes that customary society are the last defence in efforts to build awareness of the importance to sustainably manage their own natural resources and it has been one of the engines behind the issuance of the Regulation of the Wakatobi Distric Chief in 2018 on the management of coastal and marine natural resources based on customary communities.

“In principle we want to see the people prosper and the environment also safeguarded,”said Herlina Hartanto, the acting executive of YKAN who was also on board the boat.

Hartanto said that it was mainly because of pressure from and the awareness of the local communities themselves that had led to the issuance of the distric chief’s regulation.

“The rise of the regulation of the district chief on customary societies followed a natural process. It was initiated by the partners themselves, in this case the customary socieites and the government of the Wakatobi district,” Hartanto said.

Wakatobi District Chief H. Arhawi said at his office, that the district government had high respect and appreciation for local wisdom, especially of customary societies, in safeguarding the environment.

The Wakatobi district government fully realizes that without the participation of customary societies i, conservation efforts would not bear fruits. And besides, the vastness of the area also necessitated the involvement of all sides,

“There are a number of customary societies in the whole of Wakatobi district. On Wanci (island) for example, there are the Kadiapanse Kadiamendati and Kapota Liya. They are held in high regard by the community. We involve them in safeguarding the ocean,” says Arhawi.

Journalists are taking photo of Wakatobi District Head, H. Arhawi (Four from left), following a meeting with the Nusantara Nacture Conservation Foundation in Wakatobi. Source: Simanjuntak Jekson.


Pinning hopes on the local wisdom in Kaledupa

The conservation of the Wakatobi area that has been designated as a national part since 1996 and covers 1.39 million hectares could not be separated from the participation of the local communities, especially the customary one, as well as the local government.

In establishing and strengthening the institutionalization of communities in Wakatobi, YKAn is working under the umbrella of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and in collaboration with a number of other institutions such as, the Telapak Foundation which is tracing back customary rules, and Yascita, a local NGO that focuses on the mapping of customary areas in Wakatobi.

“Those are our starting bases. We started to try to rediscover local wisdoms through customary societies in 2015,” Arifudin said.

Retracing the local customs yielded a number of recommendations, including the need to revitalize the customary durles in a number of customary areas such as Limbo Tombol Iroha in Bharata Kahedupa, the local name for Kaledupa island.

In 2017, YKAN entered a partnership with Forkani (the Kahedupa Taudani Forum) to help the latter in revitalizing customary rules in Limbo Tombol Iroha.

“The regulations was welcomed by the village administration and they then worked together in a customary way with Limbo Tombol Iroha to conduct a custom-based monitoring/supervision of the environment,” said Arifudin.

Forkani Chair, La Beloro, said that his approach in strengthening customary laws in Kaledupa was based on conservation. The efforts began after the big meeting between TNC-World Wide Funds (WWF) in 2004 that involved all stakeholders in Wakatobi.

After successfully revising the zoning in 2017, the matter of strengthening the customary institution was discussed again and this went on up until 2009 when Forkani called for the involvement of customary societies in conservation during a forum attended by various sides.

“Talking about conservation, our ancestors had already thought about this even though the term used was not conservation. How do we treat nature, how do we catch big fishes, how when we hold feasts fishes can be easily caught, we had to build a system for those things,” La Beloro said.

In its development, the customary law in Kaledupa managed to obtain financial support from the Village Fund in order to monitor marine natural resources. The initiative then gave rise to the realization that there was a need for a legal umbrella to ensure the participation of customary societies in the management of the environment.

“The choice fell on a district chief’s regulation. The hope was that this legal umbrella will also protect customary societies in other islands in Wakatobi,” La Beloro said.

While waiting for the regulation of the district chief to be signed, the mapping of customary areas continued. Besides registering nine customary areas on Kaledupa island, the mapping also found three other customary areas on Tomia island.

“We were given a challenge by our superior, why not data the customary societies on Tomia as well? We took on the challenges and thus mapped the area and the customary law there,” said Arifudin who added that the mapping conducted on the two islands was also hoped to avoid the rise of jealousy between the different communities.

The data collection took about one year and at the same time it also sought to find the similarities between the existing customary areas.

“This initiative then led to the draft that was submitted as a draft regulation of the district chief. The discussion was started at the island level (Kaledupa and Tomia) and then was taken to the district level,” Arifudin said. In Kaledupa, YKAN worked with Forkani while in Tomia it worked with Komuntao (the Tomia Fishermen Community.)

On December 3, 2018, Arhawi signed the district chief’s Regulation Number 44 for Bharata Kahaedupa (Kaledupa) and number 45 for Kawati in Tomia Island.

Hartanto said that the strengthening of customary laws in the two islands took a long time and had faced a lot of challenges, including because of the heterogenity of the population following the arrival of many news settlers from elsewhere.

Fortunately, the process of strengthening the customary societies was conducted by the local population itself and thus resistance was insignificant.

“If the customary society leads the process, it would be much easier to find and settle problems, if there is the potential for a conflict,” she said.

Jika masyarakat adat yang memimpin proses itu, maka lebih mudah untuk menemukan dan menyelesaikan masalahnya, jika ada potensi konflik,” katanya.

The info-graphic above illustrate issues surrounding the Wakatobi National Park, the main program and working targets by YKAN, its beneficiaries and partners involved. Source: The Nature Conservancy.

Customary laws, a necessity

The local government, howeverk is still facing a problem in enforcing the law. Law numver 23 of 2014 on Regional Governments stipulates that the application of sanctions for illegal fishing and destruction of marine ecoystems, lays beyond the authority of the Wakatobi district government or of the National Park.

“So that when someone is doing something (wrong) inside the (National Park) area, we can only look on, because we do not possess the authority to take action,” Arhawi said at his office.

The district government also did not have the authority to make use of the marine potentials of the sea in Wakatobi. It was the Provincial and the Central Governments which held those authorities.

“The hope of the government is that regional autonomy could maximize the region’s potentials so that we can be self-supporting so that it does not get wasted. We have the potentials but we do not have the authority to maximize them,” Arhawi lamented.

But by putting the authority for supervision in the hands of the provincial and central government actually provides a good momentum for the local customary society to play a role. The regulation of the district chief provided new hopes in the management of coastal and maritime areas based on local wisdom.

“This is a form showing the existence of customary societies. This collaboration is important to safeguard the environment in the Wakataobi National Park,” Arhawi said.

Facts also showed that beside state laws, customary law is still strongly upheld in the life of the community in Wakatobi.

“People are really careful because of the customary sanction they may incur if found to have engaged in a violation,” Arhawi said, adding that social sanctions awaited violators.

Villagers, for example, would not deign to honor an invitation to a feast if the holder does not abide by customary decisions, he said.

The same thing would happen when there is a death.” If (the deceased) did not respect customs, then the body would not receive Islamic funerary rituals. That is why it is important for people to abide by customary laws,” he added.

Arifudin, meanwhile, believed that there are always loopholes in state laws that could be addressed by customary laws

“The example is that people are more compliant and fears customary laws more than state laws. Therefore, we want that customary laws can back up state laws,’ Arifudin said.

Customary Law as a Back Up for State Laws

Customary laws began to lose their shine in the 1970s as state law began their rise.

YKAN deems that the existence of customary laws should be able to synergize with and strengthen state laws, Arifudin said, adding that in many cases the two laws were complementing each other.

“A small example is, that under state laws there is a prohibition to collect the Kima giant clam, and such prohibition also exists in customary laws,” he said adding that if if looked in depth, it would come out that customary laws are actually a form of conservation.

He took the example of sacred areas, such designation made it possible for the said area to be conserved.

“Customary socieites may see them as sacred places but that is actually a conservation concept that has been passed from one generation to another. In terms of compliance, I see that communities would not dare to transgress this,” Arifudin said.

For Hartanto, the customary laws that are being passed from one generation to the other, holds their own wisdom but would also continue to evolve and adapt to the needs of the times.

“Customs are not static. They exist because of their ability, both that of customery communities or the custom itself, to adapt to times, making the necessary adjustment,” Hartanto said.

She said that in Wakatobi, people still heeded customary laws because they were sill part of their identity. It would then be wiser to use something that is already widely accepted by the society, for example to regulate and manage natural resources in a sustainable way.

“We hear it ourselves, taboos are feared more by people compared to other regulations. According to me, that is how it should be,” Hartanto said.

The Strengthening of customary laws

At present, the district chief’s regulation on the involvement of customary society were not yet effective in building up the existence of customary laws. There was a need, therefore, to continue to build self-confidence and also strengthen the custom apparatus, especially in relations to their main duties and functions.

On the other hand, there was also a need for regeneration for people who master customary laws and who can act as custom officials.

“As we already have a regulation of the district chief as legal umbrella, we also need to go through a number of phases before really applying customary laws. For example, we should build the capacity of the human resource, conduct promotion on the main duties and functions, including promoting the various regulations that is contained in this regulation of the district chief,” Arifudin said.

To allow the regulation of the district chief to run in an optimal way, Hartanto underlined the need for cooperation between many sides, including the authority of the Wakatobi National Park because the management of natural resource was a complex and multi-dimensional.

“It is impossible for one institution to become a superman or superwomen, be ablt to overcome the problem alone. It is impossible. Therefore, we have to coordinate, a synergy is a must,” Hartanto said.

She also reminded that there was still a need for scientific studies on local wisom so that it can be proven that customary laws do not go against but on the contrary, support the application of government policies.

“Scientific data from a study and local wisdom in an area often click because they actually share the same basis,” Hartanto said. In essence, she said, local wisdom, just as with scientific studies, are based on observation.

She said that from YKAN’s experience on the field, information that is obtained from scientific approaches are often very useful for residents or the local government.

“When we present scientific data, people and the local government accept them. This is the advantage that we are bringing in efforts to conserve nature,” she said.

Meanwhile, Arifudin who has long been involved in working with communities, local wisdom do not run against conservation activites, but perhaps there may be some developments that needed to be reviewed. He took the example of the trend for people to modify their fish catching equipment.
“If left like that, we think it would lead toward overexploitation. Why do we not simply return to the environmentally friendly fish catching tools as these can tend to safeguard our natural resources,” he said.

Arifudin therefore believed that guidance needed to be provided, even if it needed a long time, to really understand the aspiration of the people and the various problems related to the environment that could actually be solved.

“If the challenge is that the customary area covers a wide range, then customary law should be respected by all together. Because with time, the complexity of the problems faced by communities can only become more complex and customary societies should be ready for that,” Arifudin said.

Evaluation on customary laws

Customary communities hold the right to manage their natural resources with a wisdom that has been passed between generations for a long time, because they have been living in an area for quite a while. But this does not mean that customary societies did not need evaluations.

YKAN itself has not yet reached the evaluation phase for Wakatobi because the process to strengthen the customary laws had only just began.

“After the customary area is agreed on, what is to e done next is to strengthen the institution. When the customary institution is already strong enough, then we will conduct an evaluation,” Hartanto said.

YKAN believes that the management of a national park would need substantial human resources as well as fund.

“Therefore, if customary communities can help in the management of an area, why not? It is even good and needs to be backed,” Hartanto said.

Hartanto, however, did not dare to speculate whether the regulation of the district chief could be upgraded into a regional regulation but said that YKAN will always try to optimalize existing regulations.

“Just wait and see. If the regulation of the district chief is felt to be not enough, we could push for a regional regulation,” she said.

But so far, she said that YKAN’s experience showed that if the customary society at some point would feel that a regional regulation was needed to protect their natural resources, then the process will proceed naturally.

“We rarely just come and propose a regulation to the local government. The process is usually a bottom up process. That is what we do. If we deem it is sufficient for the time being, then we can do something else,” Hartanto said.

She deemed that there were still a lot of homework to do and instead of having to busy oneself with a new regulation that could not necessarily be implemented, working under existing regulations was the best option. (end)


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