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The Native Perspective, Episode 4: Orang Rimba

The Native Perspective is a Food Circle project that discusses taking urgent climate change action in order to protect indigenous peoples who depend on their natural environments for survival, food, shelter, and to maintain their cultural identity. Because climate change affects those who rely on nature the most, it is crucial to support indigenous communities worldwide which in turn ensures the preservation of ecosystems, as indigenous peoples have developed a balanced rapport with their natural surroundings and there is much knowledge to be gained from their lifestyles for more sustainable living. The dialogue also draws talking points from ecocriticism; it examines people’s attitudes towards nature, and indigenous studies; centering and elevating the voices of different indigenous cultures and promoting their experiences. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Orang Rimba: The People of the Forest

Scattered across Indonesia’s once lush forests is the indigenous people of Orang Rimba. Literally translating to “forest people” in the Bahasa language, the Orang Rimba have inhabited the forests in Sumatra for centuries, shifting around in small nomadic groups, fishing, hunting, gathering, and protecting the forest, their home, and its other residents. The Orang Rimba have an incredible connection with the forest, especially its trees, thanks to their animistic belief that animate and inanimate objects alike possess souls and are thus interconnected and must be protected. The tradition of ‘birth trees,’ for example, is a ritual that entails planting a tree on top of a buried umbilical cord following the birth of a baby to whom the tree becomes a personal and sacred possession. They also have a vast knowledge when it comes to their nature, such as nutrient loss in soil once a land has been deforested and exploited by damaging agribusiness. [1]

Usually self-isolated from the outside world, the Orang Rimba once traded non-wood resources to the Malays who then sold them to markets. [2] The Orang Rimba population has been reduced to around 3,000 individuals or fewer, and their existence is at a constant struggle with the ever-changing world around them. They are located mainly in the Bukit Dua Belas National Park in the Jambi province, one of the very few places left in Sumatra where they can still, to some extent, practice their traditional way of life. However, even this is fleeting and the Orang Rimba as a distinct group of people are severely threatened with extinction. [3]

Disappearing with the Trees

The immense harm done to the Orang Rimba and their way of life is somewhat unique as it is caused through the very much direct and brutal destruction of their environment. The single most prominent and damaging factor are the palm oil plantations. Indonesia is the world’s leading exporter of palm oil, its production has increased greatly in less than 10 years and it generates the government $12.4 billion in foreign exchange from exports. This means a massive deforestation movement is plaguing the island of Sumatra, with “about 12 million hectares of forest [land] cleared in the past 22 years, a loss of nearly 50%.” [4]

A loss of forest land this colossal contributes to emissions worldwide in a detrimental scale. To the forest itself, it is beyond catastrophic. It has led to the endangerment of many species, including the Sumatran Orangutan. With around 7,500 individuals, this great ape is critically endangered. [5] Also critically endangered are the Sumatran rhinos and tigers, with fewer than 300 and 400 left of them in the wild, respectively. [4] Despite this, the world, unfortunately, continues to exploit the rainforest as a resource, completely disregarding the damage. This is because palm oil is cheap, versatile, and easy to acquire. What’s more conflicting is that it is found in a variety of products, including food, cosmetics, cleaning products, and fuels. [6] Huge corporations like Nestlé, Wilmar, PepsiCo, and Unilever play a leading role in exploiting the forest, extracting, and using, or overusing, palm oil. [7]

What does this mean for the Orang Rimba? Apart from losing their land and its biodiversity, the Orang Rimba suffer deliberate displacement and forced evictions, intimidation, and even poisoning. They are unable to harvest resources from the forest or use it as shelter. Their land is taken by force to be used for profit, and they are continuously being harassed by company security guards. Many have resorted to sheltering under plastic sheets, while others are either forced to beg or migrate to urban settlements. [7] As a solution, the government has provided them with “pre-fabricated houses to live in, without shade, without water. [Which] hasn’t worked. [Because] what they want is their forests.” [8] All of this heavily affects the longevity of their culture, as it is proving to be more difficult to pass on “intergenerational knowledge and skills, such as weaving mats and baskets made from forest products,” because these very products are nearly impossible to come by, leading to the Orang Rimba having an insecure sense for their future. [9]

The sky is their roof and the earth is their floor, says an Orang Rimba proverb, establishing that the forest is their only true home. The indigenous people of the Sumatra forest have demonstrated a clear desire to stay in and indeed protect their forest from violent invaders, and it should be the absolute central mission of environmentalists, NGOs, and even consumers to help them achieve it.

Author: Rima Qayed


Indonesia NGOs and Nonprofits

Indonesia NGOs and Nonprofits - GlobalGiving

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  1. I met the tribe on the front line in the battle to save Indonesia’s forests - Survival International

  2. Living Without the Forest: Adaptive Strategy of Orang Rimba, Available at:

  3. Orang Rimba: Endangered People in Endangered Forest | ヒューライツ大阪 (

  4. Sumatra | WWF (

  5. Orangutan | Species | WWF (

  6. Palm Oil Destroys Rainforests But World Not Buying Sustainable Crop (

  7. Demanding Accountability: Strengthening corporate accountability and supply chain due diligence to protect human rights and safeguard the environment, Available at:

  8. Saving Sumatra’s Endangered Peoples | WWF (

  9. Indonesia: Indigenous Peoples Losing Their Forests | Human Rights Watch (