Indigenous leader—and 2013 Goldman Prize winner—“Mama Aleta” turned to a traditional practice to bring her people together and protect the Indonesian forest.
The voice on the other end of the line speaks a language few outside Indonesia have heard. But mining companies have heard—loud and clear—what Aleta Baun has to say.
“The forest is like the dress for the earth. It covers the world. Don’t destroy nature, the forest, because it’s like destroying the clothes; it’s like making the earth become naked,” says Mama Aleta, a respectful nickname for the 50-year-old mother of three, who became the unlikely leader of a movement to halt destructive marble mining in West Timor, Indonesia.
For her work, Mama Aleta was among the winners of this year’s Goldman Prize, the world’s largest prize for grassroots environmentalists, announced April 15.
Mama Aleta is Mollo, one of eight indigenous tribes on the island of Timor. From October 2006 to November 2007 she organized a community occupation of mines near her home village of Kuanoel, using a peaceful, traditional practice as a tool for protest: weaving.
Like generations before, the Mollo herd cattle and tend corn, rice, oranges, and other crops in a mountainous landscape threaded with forests where women gather plants for medicines and the dyes used in weaving. Villages lie in the shadows of marble outcrops called Fatu—sacred places that give Mollo families their names, provide spiritual protection during times of conflict, and guard freshwater springs. According to a traditional saying, “The land is meat, water is blood, stones are bones, the forest is the veins and hair.” For the Mollo, keeping the earth intact is the same as keeping the physical body intact.
“It’s a philosophy taught to us by our ancestors,” says Mama Aleta, speaking in Mollo through a translator.
West Timor is one of the driest regions within the Indonesian archipelago. Mining marble pollutes precious water sources and erodes the fragile soil.
During her “weaving occupation,” 20 to 40 village women faced off against military and police squads—all men—to lead a protest at two connected marble sites, Fatu Lik and Fatu Ob. To hold their ground, the women positioned themselves on the front lines of the protest and wove cloth or spun cotton while other protesters held ground behind them. Not unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement that grabbed headlines in the United States five years later, Mollo protesters occupied the mining sites around the clock—working in shifts—from October 2006 to November 2007.
It wasn’t the first time Mama Aleta had organized the Mollo to protect her country’s natural resources. In 2000, she led a group of four elders on secret visits: they walked to 16 villages, some of them 15 miles away, reminding the people of the Mollo philosophy and urging them to oppose the mining. Their campaign worked. The villages sent members to protest the destructive mining practices at government offices and mining sites, even as mining proponents fought back, threatening Mama Aleta with rocks and machetes, forcing her into hiding for several months. Still, under community pressure the mines shut, the first in 2001 and the last in 2010.
Today, Mama Aleta is standing up to new challengers: oil and gas companies. But after graduating from Universitas Tritunggal Surabaya in 2011, she also has a new tool for protest: a law degree.