MAC: Mines and Communities

Eliza Kissya: Preserving the 'sasi' tradition against the odds

Published by MAC on 2006-05-02

Eliza Kissya: Preserving the 'sasi' tradition against the odds


2nd May 2006

M. Azis Tunny, The Jakarta Post, Ambon, Maluku

Eliza Kissya has for 27 years dedicated his life as a kewang chief to guarding the land and waters around his village on Haruku island in Central Maluku regency.

The 57-year-old Haruku native who comes from a family of kewang (traditional village policemen), says his job to conserve the environment in accordance with tradition is not easy.

Unpaid and alone he regularly deals with fishermen who use explosives in the area to stop them destroying the marine ecosystem, particularly the coral reefs.

He also meets state officials, bosses, mining companies and even opposes government legislation that does not conform to the traditional norms his ancestors laid down hundreds of years ago.

Despite the stressful nature of his work, Eliza felt unable to refuse being appointed a kewang chief by his Kissya clan. He and his brother gave up school at elementary level to undergo preparation for their future positions.

Eliza was officially appointed kewang chief in 1979, while his brother is now the village secretary. His first challenge was Law No. 5/1979, which aimed to bring uniformity to all rural administrations throughout the country. Eliza says the enforcement of this law weakened traditional, village-level institutions in Maluku.

Eliza stood his ground against the new law, working to maintain the kewang institution and its central concept -- sasi -- conservation-inspired prohibitions passed down by his ancestors.

As a kewang chief, he feels called upon to apply the traditions of sasi as a means to preserve natural resources on land and in the water.

There are three kinds of sasi in Haruku: marine, terrestrial and domestic prohibitions. To protect a particular species of fish, one must enforce a marine sasi in a particular part of the ocean. Fishing is then forbidden in this particular area for a certain period of time, say a year or two.

When a sasi is enforced in a particular part of a forest, people are not allowed to collect anything from the area for a set period. Anyone violating the law is normally subjected to social sanctions along with material ones in the form of a fine.

Domestic sasi in Haruku are concerned particularly with personal morality and conduct. A man is allowed to be outdoors wearing only a sarong during the day, except when he is sick. However, when a woman comes home from taking a bath or washing clothes in the river, she must wrap her body in a cloth, covering it past her breasts. Violating these sasi leads to a fine of Rp 10,000.

Eliza says the different kinds of sasi stem from one traditional source -- generations of wisdom about how to deal with nature.

Sasi govern the relationship between human beings and nature as well as between people.

"Today, people talk about sustainable development. But hundreds of years ago, our ancestors created and enforced sasi, laws which are still adhered to in our community," Eliza told The Jakarta Post.

One local sasi which has attracted some international attention is the lompa sasi (lompa is a fish).

In Haruku, seawater lompa are bred in rivers. The customary law on the island requires the villagers to protect the fish from the time their eggs are released into the rivers until the adult spawn are collected.

Eliza said the sasi tradition was economically advantageous to the public because it ensured an abundant harvest. Villagers could accumulate more-than-enough to eat and had savings for hard times in the future.

The tradition also has a special arrangement for widows and orphans in communities, who generally get a bigger share of the natural resources collected when a particular sasi is lifted.

For his consistent efforts to preserve the sasi tradition, Eliza was awarded the Kalpataru environmental award in 1985. In 1999, he received the Satyalencana medal of merit.

He has also received several citations at the international level for his dedication to environmental conservation and is frequently invited to speak at forums involving traditional communities from a variety of countries.

It has not been easy, however, for Eliza to ensure the sasi ancestral tradition is well-heeded. He has had to take those fishing with explosives to court singlehanded and attend trial sessions, going from Haruku to Ambon island without legal assistance and paying for his own travel.

Still, the father of six and the husband of Elizabeth has never stopped fighting for the rights of his village, especially if its the natural environment is under threat. Unpaid as a kewang, he feeds his family by growing plants and raising cattle.

To earn some money for the institution, in 1980 he wrote a book -- Sasi Aman Harukui (The Sasi of Haruku) -- in which he describes the sasi traditions and the kewang role to the public.

The book has sold well among students, environmentalists, researchers, anthropologists and non-governmental organization activists. OXFAM has asked that when reprinted, the book be translated into English.

The first village of Haruku was razed to the ground during the religious rioting that broke out in the region in 2000. The villagers later abandoned the place, rebuilding elsewhere.

Eliza is now cautious about applying sanctions on fishermen using explosives because most come from a neighboring village that was involved in a bloody conflict with his own.

While before he tried to put the fishermen behind bars, he now prefers to settle problems with them more amicably.

Eliza had to work even harder when PT Aneka Tambang, a state gold mining company, planned to carry out prospecting activities in his village during the early 1990s.

He believed the exploration work would be a threat to the environment and a health hazard for his fellow villagers.

Staunchly against the mining, he did not budge from his position when dealing with the enterprise and the regional administration.

The head of a family that usually prays together when any of their members is facing a problem, Eliza remembers he was moved to tears when his youngest daughter, Halida Kissya, prayed so solemnly that she cried when he was in conflict with PT Aneka Tambang.

Assisted by non-government organizations, environmentalists and the media, he fought hard against the company and eventually won, when it abandoned its plan.

"I feel happy if I am successful in my struggle, particularly if I can preserve the legacy of my ancestors," Eliza said.

"My family understands that I face a lot of challenges in my position. They understand that I fulfill my responsibilities without hope of reward.

"I receive no salary and suffer great pressure in this job."

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