- She formed SOKOLA with four other NGO colleagues, focusing on the education of forest people, starting in the Jambi jungle. Their major program called Sokola Rimba, or “Jungle School” which focuses on basic literacy and relevant life skills.
- SOKOLA’s volunteer teachers do not follow a fixed template but customize their teaching to the local context in consultation with the Orang Rimba community.
- A cadre of young, newly-literate Orang Rimba are now able to serve their people as tutors and community leaders. Trained in advocacy and empowered to do liaison between their communities and the outside world, these youth represent their elders and “speak to the national government” on policies that impact on the forest people.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her ennobling passion to protect and improve the lives of Indonesia’s forest people, and her energizing leadership of volunteers in SOKOLA’s customized education program that is sensitive to the lifeways of indigenous communities and the unique development challenges they face.”
Indonesia’s rainforests, the world’s third largest, are gravely threatened. Worse, it is not just forests that are being decimated by rampant corporate interests, government negligence, corruption and other destructive practices. What stands threatened as well is the very existence of an estimated forty million indigenous peoples who live within the forest, and who are dependent on forest resources for their food, shelter, and livelihood.
In 1999, Saur Marlina Manurung, a young Indonesian anthropologist, decided to devote her life to protecting and uplifting the lives of Indonesia’s Orang Rimba, the local name for “forest people.” Her life choice was both radical and surprising. Though drawn even as a child to an outdoor life, Manurung, known universally as “Butet,” was raised in the sheltered environment of a middle-class family in Jakarta. With degrees in literature and anthropology, she could easily have chosen a career as a citified academic. But she said: “I’d had enough just playing around with nature. It was time for me to do something and become useful.”
After working as an education facilitator for four years with a forest conservation organization in Sumatra, Butet formed SOKOLA with four other NGO colleagues, focusing on the education of forest people, starting in the Jambi jungle. Their major program called Sokola Rimba, or “Jungle School” was inspired by Butet’s direct experience as a nomadic teacher, living with the Orang Rimba and moving with them as they traveled from place to place to hunt or gather forest products. Armed with only a small blackboard, some chalk, a few books and pencils, for eight years Butet would teach groups of children out in the open, focusing on basic literacy and relevant life skills.
Focused on the Bukit Duabelas National Park in Central Sumatra, where an estimated three thousand five hundred Orang Rimba live in relative isolation. SOKOLA’s volunteer teachers do not follow a fixed template but customize their teaching to the local context in consultation with the Orang Rimba community. SOKOLA emphasizes life-skills rather than academic knowledge, stressing basic literacy for children and practical skills to cope with the changing forest environment. Increasingly, Orang Rimba have to deal with the encroachment of forest-exploiting businesses, government agencies, threatening their basic rights, livelihoods, and community cohesion. Since the Orang Rimba are hunters-and-gatherers, SOKOLA schedules are flexible and teachers must follow them as they move.
Butet and her volunteer teachers struggle with the challenge of sustaining an organization that relies mainly on donations and volunteerism, the dangers of working in remote locations (caught between illegal loggers and the people they seek to help), and cultural taboos that discourage girls from being schooled. Impressively, Butet’s leadership has built up SOKOLA into a network of fourteen schools in ten provinces, run by volunteer teachers and trained Orang Rimba youth, benefitting ten thousand children and adults. A cadre of young, newly-literate Orang Rimba are now able to serve their people as tutors and community leaders. Trained in advocacy and empowered to do liaison between their communities and the outside world, these youth represent their elders and “speak to the national government” on policies that impact on the forest people. SOKOLA’s challenges remain formidable, but an undeterred Butet is confident that SOKOLA’s second generation of volunteer teachers will grow and inspire similar initiatives by others. She herself does not plan to do anything else. “As long as I can still carry my backpack and I can still walk, nothing and no one can stop me,” she quietly asserts.
In electing Saur Marlina Manurung to receive the 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes her ennobling passion to protect and improve the lives of Indonesia’s forest people, and her energizing leadership of volunteers in SOKOLA’s customized education program that is sensitive to the lifeways of indigenous communities and the development challenges they face.
His Excellency Benigno S. Aquino III, Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, members of the Magsaysay family, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen.
Good afternoon, magandang hapon. May I first express my gratitude to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for making it possible for me to be here on this special day. Thank you RMAF President Abella and your fantastic team!
I believe every person on this earth has his or her own dreams. When I was a child, I was a huge fan of adventure books and films. I dreamt that one day I would work in the middle of a jungle just like Indiana Jones. My work in my country’s jungles over the last fifteen years has been a dream for me, and getting awards has never been my goal. I am simply a tool that was sharpened by those around me, first and foremost my dear students in the jungle, who are my life-teachers.
A nation’s progress is often judged by the strength of its economy or the size of its GDP. Many people feel indigenous peoples (or IPs for short) should also contribute to this type of ‘progress’. GDP does not calculate what is valuable in the eyes of IPs: the cost of lost cultures and local knowledge, dramatic reductions in biodiversity and the negative impacts of such reductions on social capital.
The Orang Rimba – our term for the forest people – with whom I have worked for many years are nomadic hunters and gatherers, who lived isolated in the rainforest of Sumatra for thousands of years. They were not able to understand numbers when buying and selling goods at the market; they did not comprehend the contracts they were signing which sold their lands. They were unable to participate in the forums which discussed their collective futures. All of this is because they were illiterate, unable to speak Indonesian, and were not aware of their rights. Similar issues are faced by indigenous peoples worldwide.
Now they have these skills they have more power in taking control over resources to sustain their lives, and are able to make informed decisions affecting their futures. Literacy has become their main capital for gaining other expertise. Therefore appropriate education with appropriate methods is a crucial investment.
It saddens me that we have become so detached from nature. I believe the world would be a better place if we had more respect for indigenous peoples and their choices. They are small in number, making up only less than one percent of the world’s population, yet they inhabit almost one-third of the world’s arable land.
The Orang Rimba have taught me many things about life?not to mention fun! Orang Rimba have also been the proving grounds for all teachers at SOKOLA and myself. We began our adventure there and as we gained confidence, we were able to build schools throughout Indonesia. Thank you friends! I stand here representing you. For all indigenous peoples throughout the world, I send you this message: “I hope the time has come that you can represent yourselves and determine your own fate.”
I am not the only person who has this vision. It is shared by all of us in SOKOLA, and many other persons and groups in Indonesia and elsewhere who work with IPs.
I cannot end my response without thanking those who have led me to accept this great honor today. Thank you to my amazing team, SOKOLA. Without your support and passion, I would not be here. I hope this award will inspire us at SOKOLA to continue to deliver the best possible education outcomes so our people will have a better chance to realize self-determination. Thank you to the many dear friends and supporters of SOKOLA across Indonesia and other countries. Thank you also to my loving husband Kelvin, and my family who always understand me and have guided this stubborn head of mine from when I was a small child until today.