Ritual Life and Livelihoods in Conflict on Savu

Threads of Life fieldstaff Yansen never fails to have his photo taken cycling with President Widodo

On this end of the year trip to Savu we intended to focus on deepening our understanding of the construction and use of traditional houses.  From Denpasar, Bali we fly to Kupang, Timor and then to Savu the next day. At the Denpasar airport, Yansen never fails to have a bicycle ride photo taken with Indonesian President Widodo.

So much on Savu is changing due to climate change and the expanding government involvement in traditional communities. We found Savu to be more dry and barren than last year as rains all over these eastern islands have not yet fallen (as I write on January 15, 2020). Springs are dry and drinking and bathing water must be purchased by those who can afford it. Savu now has big government offices and roads that feel way overbuilt for the needs of this little island. This new overlay of government and modernization feels like it dwarfs the old ritual centers and their power.

New airport on Savu allows government officials to fly regularly

Sacred sites such as Narmata was where elders of the land held council to balance human activity with the fragile landscape of Savu

Compare the above photo to the subtle beauty of old ritual sites such as Narmata where the traditional leaders have always held council to determine ceremonies that honored the seasons. Ceremonies and prescribed rituals aimed to create balance between people and the fragile landscape of this island. Ritual taboos have sustained scarce springs to flow even in long periods of no rain. Now industrial level businesses are being sought by the government to improve economics but in conflict with the old ways. Large scale salt harvesting that now rings the entire island has required trees to be cut down for space for this business to expand. Yet it is trees that hold water in the ground.

In 2006, salt farming was on a small scale using these small lontar ‘boats’. Now, the industry is controlled by the government who have joined with a foreign investor to farm salt on Savu and Raijua as well as other islands.

Salt production in 2006 was still on a small scale farmed by family groups

Salt farming today on a large scale circles the islands of Raijua and Savu

In the past, the Deo Rai of the Mone Ama traditional leaders controlled the seasons of salt production, lontar production, grazing, and even the harvesting of limestone from the sea for making lime to use for chewing betelnut and for indigo for textile production. Palm wine production has also become a government owned business, buying lontar palm wine from farmers on Savu, Raijua, Timor.

With so little water available on the island due to the lack of rain, the textiles offered to us are less brilliant in colour as not of enough dye material can grow and little water is available to process the textiles. Talking about these problems on the islands with weavers makes us all aware of how fragile and threatened these lands and cultures are – not to mention our own work at Threads of Life. We will need to spend time in 2020 thinking of ways to address these problems. We are grateful to our friends on Savu who share their stories to show us how we all share these challenges.

Chating with our friends while enjoying Peregu; a combination of peanuts, corn and the ubitqitious sweet Lontar palm nectar