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The Kubu
Nomads of the rainforest

Dutch colonial ethnographer Van Eerde noted that he could find no greater cultural contrast in Indonesia between the highly civilized people of Bali (with their lavish costumes, elegant dances and elaborate religious ceremonies) and the primitive Kubu tribesmen of southern Sumatra, who wandered naked in the jungle, lived in simple huts and foraged for food. However, if Van Eerde had the opportunity to do a more comprehensive comparison with other primitive tribes in Kalimantan or West Irian, not to mention the most civilized Javanese among the Indonesians, most probably he would have gotten a better picture of what he should have seen.

By sheer chance, thanks to the political change in Indonesia, from being colonialized to being independent, the Kubus and the Balinese actually found themselves living next to one another in a Jambi transmigration project. Some of the Balinese were tempted to leave their island because of land scarcity while the Kubu had been compelled to exchange their 'miserable existence in the jungle' for transmigration settlement houses, plots of farmland and a year's free supply of food.

The Kubu are southern Sumatra's indigenous inhabitants. As traditional hunters and gatherers, they have inhabited the lowland tropical forests of Jambi and South Sumatra provinces for centuries, where they survive by gathering an enormous variety of edible forest products, and by hunting wild game : deer, lizards, boar, tapirs, honey bears, monkeys, birds and in the past even elephant. The only animal they do not hunt is the tiger.

Apart from this, the Kubu eat wild tubers, fruits, leaves, fish, shellfish and smaller animals such as turtles, snakes and rats. The Kubu use only a long spear to kill their prey. Dogs are used to chase the quarry and exhaust it so that they can kill it with a spear. Bows and arrows, blowpipes and other weapons are unknown to them, but they do make many types of traps and snares to catch small animals. Until several decades ago, most of southern Sumatra was still covered in virgin jungle.

Villages with suffounding agricultural fields were only to be found on the banks of large rivers that meander lazily through the lowland swamps, and in the highland valleys. In recent years, the entire landscape has changed dramatically. Logging, mining and plantation agriculture have opened up many lowland areas, while the construction of the Trans Sumatra Highway has brought a flood of migrants from over populated Java, Bali and Madura.

Unable to stop the invading farmers, bulldozers and chainsaws around them, the Kubu have managed to adapt their way of life to the deteriorating circurnstances. Against their nature they have adopted agriculture on a limited scale, they clear small plots of forest land for the cultivation of upland rice, corn or root crops. Moreover, these fields attract animals such as deer and pigs, which may be hunted with greater efficiency.

Picture: Kubu people

Most Kubu now live in close contact with village farmers without becoming or wanting to become village dwellers them, they can hunt freely, and often they work as daily laborers. They also gather and trade forest products like honey, rattan and various types of tree resins. Their handicrafts (basket and fish traps) are increasingly in demand. in exchange, the Kubu receive rice, tobacco, salt, hardware (spearheads, axes, bush knives), medicine and cotton loin cloths (which have long ago replaced their old barkdoth ones). Increasingly, however, the Kubu also request flashlight, guns, radios and other products, and the debris scattered around their forest huts bears silent witness to an increasing contact with the outside world. In addition to their familiar husks, shells and bone remains of game there are now found discarded batteries, empty tins, bottles and plastic trash.

A kind of economic symbiosis has developed between the Kubu and the farmers, in spite of the fact that both groups remain socially far apart, The villagers, sedentary Muslims; with a sense of belonging to a new and developing Indonesia. Show little respect or sympathy for the hanaked, omnivorous, uncivilized Kubu who cling to such an archaic and disorderly way of life. The Kubu still consciously reject village life.

The heavy work in the fields, the restricted freedorn of movement and the numerous obligations arid duties imposed on villagers in the form of mandatory schooling, development and political activism, and gotong royong (a more modern), principle of most Indonesians means 'working together for helping each other', are still alien for the Kubu. They continually resist the pressures and temptations of the outside world that would force them to become settled villagers.

This also explains; why the Kubu never accept houses in transmigration settlement areas and why they soon leave resettlement villages built for their development and civilization by the government or missionary organizations.

They prefer the freedom of the forest, living on the margins of civilization as old job laborers in nearby farms. Only when this possibility is taken from them do they appear more openly in the. Outside world as beggars in logging camps, at bus terminals or along the roadways. Perhaps one can look upon this as a modified and modernized form of hunting and gathering with money, food and cigarettes as its aim. It is a way of life, which the Kubu have not chosen for them. What is required is not simply the protection and conservation of their original environment, but a fundamental reconsideration of the fate and future of the Kubu.

Last revised on November 26, 2010
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