Cultural Sustainability

The School of Public Policy course, PUAF689I, “Social-Ecological Systems, Environmental Policy, and Sustainable Development in Indonesia,” naturally allows students to examine the issue of social-ecological sustainability. This can also be called cultural-ecological sustainability, defined—for this blog post—as the sustainability of a cultural-ecological system as each generation passes through a society. The sustainability of any culture is not, in itself, good or bad. However, in the context of cultural-ecological systems, sustaining an existing culture may better promote environmental sustainability than currently-available alternatives. Cultural-ecological sustainability issues arise in both the traditional Balinese rice farming system—the subak—and the current jungle knowledge system.

Cultural-Ecological Sustainability of the Balinese Subak

According to Windia (2010), the subak, known since 1071 AD, is a traditional Balinese irrigation system autonomously managed by farmers. At the same time, the subak is a spiritual and social system. The subak embodies the Tri Hita Karana (THK) philosophy—Tri means three, Hita – happiness, and Karana – causes. These are: harmony between humans and (a) God their Creator, (b) their neighbors, and (c) nature. As cited by Windia (2010), Pusposutardjo (2002) says that THK is a concept of harmony and togetherness.

According to Artha Wiguna, Lorezen, and Lorenzen (2005), one cultural-ecological sustainability issue with the subak is that the young generation is not interested in working in rice fields. Citing Pitana (2005): “Becoming a farmer is the last choice – when other sectors are already locked because of the lack of skill and knowledge.” In one subak, 50-year-old and older farmers said their sons are malu (ashamed) or malas (lazy). Also, parents want their children leave the fields for “important” work. It is seen as economic and social progress, even if income is not higher.

This issue may be linked to farmers’ children spending more time off-farm, mainly as casual workers in construction. Off-farm labor is facilitated by access to farming machinery and outsourced or hired labor, according to Artha Wiguna, et al. Farmers’ children are also being drawn away from farms into the tourism sector.
Farmers argue that their children will not learn rice cultivation after the children retire because it is very complex and cannot be learned at an age of 40 or 45 years old. Knowledge of ceremonies would also be lost.

Cultural-Ecological Sustainability of Sumatran Jungle Knowledge Standards

The current jungle knowledge system in Sumatra is also facing a problem of cultural-ecological sustainability. Though it might not be a millennium-old system, like the subak nearly is, the jungle knowledge system features comprehensive knowledge of the jungle ecosystem—mammals such as orangutans, birds such as hornbills, and jungle plants including medicinal plants. The main problem here is not a potential loss of knowledge, but a loss of standards.

Dani, a Gunung Leuser National Park “Tourist Guide” who led our class on our trek, underwent three years of education and training to obtain the knowledge, skills, and abilities of navigating, interacting, and utilizing the many resources of the jungle. He says that currently, the key prerequisite to tourist guide training is simply English ability, and that the training is focused on knowledge of mammalian species. He argues that having broader knowledge of the jungle—especially knowledge of flora not connected to mammals—would be beneficial because eco-tourists might be interested in the broader system.

Defining the sustainability problem of the jungle knowledge system presents difficulties. It only relies upon one person, Dani. Dani might be over-qualified for a Tourist Guide. The university he attended must hold the knowledge of the jungle. Gunung Leuser National Park might have some higher Tourist Guide standards than what Dani describes.
Regardless, when the growth of the palm oil industry continues to threaten tropical jungles, a loss of jungle knowledge standards may or may not lead to a cultural-ecological sustainability problem. However, fuller knowledge of the jungle means better valuation of the jungle as a natural resource.

Commonalities and a Potential Solution

Both the subak and Gunung Leuser National Park in the jungle are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This status confers special treatment. Of most relevance in this discussion is ecological sustainability. The UNESCO World Heritage Sites are also tourist destinations. In terms of cultural-ecological sustainability, UNESCO-linked tourism is likely to help sustain the subak, but—paradoxically—it might not help sustain the standards of the jungle knowledge system. One can argue that this difference, however, shows that the publicity of the UNESCO World Heritage Site status can be leveraged to sustain the cultures that are sustaining the ecology.

Then farmers can make a case to the children: since UNESCO and the rest of the world values the subak, they do not have to look down upon it, but can take pride in the subak. When Professor Wiwik Dharmiasih and her team applied for UNESCO status, they smartly used the application to cover all the entire subak cultural system, not only local instances of the subak. The UNESCO application team or other subak advocates can educate farmers and their children about the UNESCO status. They can be told that part of taking pride would be to master all aspects of the subak and to understand the subak in the global ecological context. This could be institutionalized as an education system, perhaps inventing a UNESCO Subak Knowledge Certification. Such a system might help the children see that the subak contains knowledge on conservation that the world needs.

The UNESCO status can also be used to maintain the high standards for jungle Tourist Guide certification. People of Gunung Leuser National Park, such as Dani, can argue that UNESCO status should be understood as a symbol of excellence. Mastering the jungle knowledge system at a high level would be a means of demonstrating excellence. This excellence could be used as a way to attract more tourists and offer a higher-quality experience.

Implementing such a solution might be challenging. However, the children might show interest in this. Jeffrey, 24 years old, works at Bukit Lawang Indah (Inn) near Gunung Leuser National Park. He told me that he had a dream in which he showed his children the jungle and all its beauty. Jeffrey said he wanted to protect the jungle for that reason. Perhaps not enough young people are quite like Jeffrey, but perhaps UNESCO status can provide young people an incentive to sustain the subak and the jungle knowledge systems, thereby sustaining the ecological systems to which those cultural systems are linked.

-V. H. Lui

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