BY: PAOLO MESSINA
Among the Indonesian rainforests of Siberut, off the coast of Sumatra live a people who maintain their age-old ways. In the comparative isolation of the Mentawai Islands they live a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle that is characterized by spirituality, body art, and their tendency to sharpen their teeth.
They have an egalitarian society based on equality, with no hereditary title or subordinate roles. Continual care for one’s soul is the guiding principle of the Mentawai people who believe everything must remain in balance. Yet off in the forest, the drone of a logging chainsaw threatens their existence.
Since the 70s there has been widespread cultural discrimination against the Mentawai. Vested economic interests have sidelined the communities ever since dictator Suharto’s New Order Era created a policy of “modernizing the Mentawai”. This modernization meant forcibly relocating their villages by burning their cultural symbols, traditional houses, and the virgin forest that surrounds their villages.
The government called it a “relocation of alienated people” and set up behavioral change programs to assimilate the Mentawai into a developing Indonesia. Environmentalists say these programs are simply a front to open the forests to Jakarta-controlled logging companies. Uncontrolled rates of deforestation in Indonesia have turned it into the world’s third largest green house gas producer.
Paul Messina set out to voice these concerns to the outside world. He says: “When you live the Mentawai way of life you suddenly realize how close your existence is to our planet Earth. We are walking and thinking extensions of the planet we live on.”