Teubalut Salemu's bare feet kept sinking into the thick mud as we trekked through the lush forests of Siberut island's remote interior. The island, part of the Mentawai district—a chain of islands off the western coast of Sumatra known worldwide for their amazing surf—is the tribal homeland of Teubalut's people. And its forests are central to their way of life. Teubalut is a Sikerei, a cross between a shaman and a medicine man, and these forests contain everything he needs to create herbal medicines. He swung a machete as we walked, clearing a path through the vegetation. Occasionally he picked up a leaf and held it close to his face to take a deep sniff.
"This is mumunen," he said of one leaf. "We usually use this leaf to concoct medicine for the stomach, back, and waist."
We were searching for ingredients to help patients suffering from joint pains back in his village. Teubalut wandered off, slowly disappearing from my sight with his friend Stefanus Salemu, another Sikerei from the same village, which is about an hour from the forest.
The two men, their sinewy bodies covered in faded tattoos, loincloths cinched around their waists, are some of the most important people in Mentawai culture. The Sikerei are more than just medicine men. They are tasked with protecting their villages from evil spirits that are believed to bring bad karma and disease with them. And they also serve as one of the village's chief decision makers, occupying the role of a tribal elder.
It's a way of life that's rapidly disappearing in modern Indonesia. The Mentawai people, long the victims of disastrous government policies that attempted to "modernize" the islands, have survived decades of forced relocations, military crackdowns, and religious persecution. Today, the indigenous peoples of Siberut island—the largest of the Mentawais—have been pushed into an area that occupies roughly 8 percent of the island. The rest has been seized by the state and either turned into a national park or sold off to renewable energy and timber companies.
Now another controversial plan to turn some 20,000 hectares of ancient forest into an energy source is the latest battleground for the future of the island. PT Biomass Andalan Energi, the renewable energy company at the center of this fight, was awarded a concession to convert the forest into biomass plantation—a burnable renewable plant-based energy source. Much of the concession overlaps with lands that have historically been the home of local Mentawai communities. Much of the forests affected contain the kinds of medicinal plants Sikerei like Teubalut need to cure disease and, according to their beliefs, ward off evil spirits. The local government has basically sold off their homes, their hospitals, and their religion to an energy company.
The indigenous communities in Siberut island now have to figure out what happens after you lose everything. But Teubalut remains defiant. He told me that there's no way his people will leave the forest. "We will refuse," he said.
But it's happened before. I traveled to Muara Siberut, a coastal town on the southern tip of Siberut island to meet Batista Teu Lakka, another Sikerei, who was moved from his tribal lands to a modern resettlement home. Batista was dressed in a loincloth made from the bark of the Baguk tree and a traditional necklace called a lekkeu. He smoked a cigarette and shuddered a bit from the cold of the recent rain.
His tribal homelands—he's from the Sabulukkungan people—are included in the concession as well. Not that he is able to make it back to the forest much anymore. On a good day, the trip takes about three hours by boat, and another three overland. When he was a younger man, the trip was do-able. Now, well into his late 70s, it's just too difficult.
The story of how Batista ended up in a coastal resettlement village far from this tribal lands begins with an explanation of his religion. The Mentawai people practice an indigenous faith called Arat Sabulungan. It's an animist religion that believes that everything in the universe has its own spirit. This made the Mentawai people "backwards," in the eyes of founding father Sukarno's nascent government. In Sukarno's Indonesia, a religion needed a holy book, a prophet, and international reach to be considered a real religion.
The government forced the Mentawai people to renounce their religion. This was in the 1950s. By the early 80s, Gen. Suharto had seized control, and his authoritarian regime exerted even harsher control over indigenous communities like the Mentawai. Soldiers started to show up on the islands and track down the Sikerei. The shamans were detained and questioned. Had the abandoned the old ways yet? Have they converted to a "modern" religion like Islam and Catholicism?
"Our traditional Sikerei clothes were destroyed and burned," Batista told me. "We couldn't wear Kadut anymore. We couldn't have tattoos or we would be sent to jail."
The soldiers put Batista in jail after learning that he was still practicing his original ways. He was later let out when one of his herbal medicines was able to save an ill man's life, he told me. But he was still moved to a resettlement village as part of the government's forced modernization program.
The series of programs, which established new coastal communities and funded the development of farmland, were, by many accounts, a disaster. In the 1980s, huge numbers of Mentawai people were moved to resettlement communities. Most of them were along the islands' coasts, far from the tribal forests that were so central to the communities' way of life. Some villages were as far as 12 hours away, by foot.
"They built these small houses for the indigenous peoples, but there was resistance," explained Tarida Hernawati, an anthropologist with the Citra Mandiri Foundation of Mentawai who has spent 15 years working in the islands' indigenous communities. "They went back to the forest."
Later, after Suharto's fall, the Reformasi government of Megawati Soekarnoputri continued the relocation program. But the Remote Indigenous Communities program, or KAT, was drafted with a deep Javanese perspective that doomed it to failure at the start. The government splashed cash to develop new rice paddies, but the Mentawai people didn't eat rice. They ate sago, the pulpy inside of the palm tree. Before long the rice paddies were left fallow and abandoned.
The government's plan followed a simple logic. The Mentawai people placed their villages, which were mostly in the remote forest, at the center of their culture. The forest was the foundation for their entire life. So moving them to modern villages far from their tribal lands would succeed in doing what decades of military repression couldn't.
But once the Mentawai people left the forest, agricultural industries started to swoop in. By 2015, the government had declared that large swaths of Siberut island as industrial plantation forests (HTI). The decision left many of the Mentawai people even more distrustful of the government, which now seemed to be pushing them off their tribal lands to make way for more agri-business companies.
"It could be related," Tarida said. "So these indigenous peoples were removed from the forest areas, including national parks, in order to manage the forests."
The fact that the biomass concession was awarded under President Joko Widodo's administration made the sting even worse. President Jokowi was heralded as an ally of indigenous peoples when he announced plans to dedicate "customary forests," to nine communities that would total more than 13,000 hectares.
But then the same government handed over nearly 20,000 hectares of indigenous land to a biomass company on a single island. Toggilak Sabulukkungan, another man from Sabulukkungan, told me that the president had already broken his promise to help indigenous communities.
“We have sacrificed so much already," he told me in his local language. "We left our customary forests and moved here, so why has the government abandoned us?"
Toggilak told me that his people felt excluded from the conversations about the island's fate.
"If companies want to invest they should come to me," he said. "Talk to me, not with the government. I'm the one who has to decide how to manage it. Because I know exactly what the forest is for."
The government believes that the forests are a source of income. Under Indonesian law, the state owns all forested land, and it's up to the ministries to determine which forest to preserve and which to develop. But Toggilak sees the forest as something sacred, something that is so central to his sense of being that it's difficult to be separated from his ancestral lands.
"I want to stay in the forest because the source of life is there," he told me. "The forest and the people of Mentawai cannot be separated from each other."
Toggilak and Batista gathered the local children of the resettlement village and began to explain to them the importance of the forest. I sat there listening as Batista's wife Justina Saumanuk warned the younger generation not to trust the promises of the government.
"We have to defend this land," she told the crowd. "I may not live much longer, but this land belongs to our grandchildren. If we give up and give it away, where will they grow banana, keladi (a root vegetable), pinang (a local nut), and chocolate? We need to defend this land to our death."
I bid them all farewell and started to gather my things to leave. It was a rainy afternoon and I had a long trip ahead of me. But Toggilak and Batista stopped me before I could leave. If I was going to write about their struggle, could I also deliver a message to the government, they asked. I had to let them know that no one in their community wanted the biomass company to tear down the forest. Hopefully, they said, their opposition alone would be enough.
"But if that doesn't work, maybe we'll need to turn to our arrows and machetes," Toggilak said. "We are ready for war."