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ICRS Yogyakarta - Building a Resilient and Green Economy by Capitalizing on Biodiversity and Culture with Textile Artisans in East Sumba

Consortium of:

Building a Resilient and Green Economy by Capitalizing on Biodiversity and Culture with Textile Artisans in East Sumba

  November 24th 2021

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The diversity of Indonesia’s many ethnic groups is evident in the tapestries these cultures produce.  In Indonesia, textiles are traditionally important indicators of temporal wealth and status and even also play a critical role in religious life. This can be seen in textiles with rich iconographic traditions that celebrate a cosmology founded on a pantheon of gods, a population of revered ancestors, and a universe teeming with a supernatural presence. Textiles were central to tasks of mediating between mankind and this often dangerous or terrifying universe and maintaining a balance and harmony between spirits and humanity[1]. One woven textile that is quite famous in Indonesia is the Ikat from Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara. Chandra Kirana Prijosusilo and her organization, Sekar Kawung, are concerned about the sustainability of Ikat weaving in Sumba. Sekar Kawung is a social enterprise that works closely with local artisans and collaborates with indigenous communities to protect the biodiversity in their land while supporting their cultures to thrive and help them to create sustainable social-economic development in their villages by creating sustainable products for contemporary urban consumers[2]. Prijosusilo shared her experience in Sumba with the Ikat weavers in Wednesday Forum, a weekly discussion organized by the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS), UGM, Graduate School on October 20, 2021. Her presentation has already been published as a chapter in a book entitled Civic Engagement in Asia: Lessons from Transformative Learning in the Quest for A Sustainable Future[3]. In this book, dozens of articles were written by scholars, researchers, and activists from across Asia. Joining Pijosusilo in this Wednesday Forum was Dr. Mochammad Indrawan, a researcher of Conservation Biology & Social Forestry at the Research Center for Climate Change (RCCC-Universitas Indonesia).

In the beginning of her presentation, Prijosusilo explained that the Ikat cloth is more than just a cloth. Each picture or motif of the cloth has contains a message and holds a deep purpose. For instance, the seahorse and the Hiamba Roti flower are imbued into threads of this textile as symbols of blessing, good luck, and beauty. Some cloth combines several symbols, namely Mata Hutar, Urai-Paita, Hiaba Hau, and Kadundu, which symbolize the importance of safeguarding the balance between heaven and earth. There is also Papanggang cloth which is an Ikat textile that tells the story of a king’s burial. The queen attends riding a horse and is covered with the royal umbrella. This motif was designed by Kornelis Ndapakamang. One pattern or picture that is closely related to religious life in East Nusa Tenggara, especially in Marapu, is known as Atanau. It is a picture of the human body with animal body parts. The meaning of this picture is that humans must protect all beings in nature and live by enriching the other. Some artisans say that in Marapu belief, the Atanau is the symbol of sincerity and faith. When the Atanau is pictured with its hands open it symbolizes having nothing to hide in the presence of God.

However, today the sustainability of Ikat weaving in East Nusa Tenggara faces many challenges. Therefore, Prijosusilo and Sekar Kawung developed an empowerment program for Ikat weaving communities in Mauliru and Lambanapu, Waingapu Subdistrict, East Sumba Regency, East Nusa Tenggara from August 2016-February 2018. Both villages are traditional Ikat villages in which Ikat cloth still plays an important part in the daily routine of society. Nevertheless, in these two villages, Chandra Kirana found some problems related to the sustainability of Ikat weaving. The family made Ikat, but most of them use chemical dyes and they found it difficult to sell their work. Their earnings are less than Rp. 900,000 per month. Thus, the economy is subsistence based. Many of them are elders and cannot speak Indonesian with an average education of only 5 1/2 years. Furthermore, the economic difficulties have caused many weavers to start focusing their activities elsewhere as their main job and source of income rather than on weaving. They also become breeders of cows and horses, because income from livestock is more promising. After all, livestock can be sold at any time. While the process of making Ikat is very long. It takes 42 stages starting from yarn maker, a coloring process which uses more than 20 kinds of plants, design, to the actual weaving process, which involve men and women. Unfortunately, there is also deforestation of the trees that have been the source of the Ikat weaving materials, such as cotton trees, and 20 other types of trees that are the source of dyes from the Sumba Ikat weaving.

Here, Sekar Kawung wants to create a robust village tourism sector that improves the quality of Ikat textiles, the quality of the environment, and the quality of people's social and economic life. Sekar Kawung aimed to do this in 18 months by creating a series of robust eco-culture micro businesses. Besides that, Sekar Kawung also wants to kindle a sense of self-esteem and pride within artisans’ hearts and minds in Mauliru and Lambanapu by revitalizing the culture so it can strategically adapt to the changing world markets. Sekar Kawung focused on several programs. First, protecting and restoring the land. Traditionally cotton was planted locally to make yarn and more than 20 species of plants were harvested from the wild to create Ikat textiles. However, regarding the problem of deforestation, all materials needed for the Ikat textile are now rare. Sekar Kawung then planted a total of 3649 trees in 21.37 hectares of land with 87 farmer families in the village of Lambanapu, Muliru, Palahembi, and Yubuwai to create a tenun Ikat botanical garden. Secondly,  Sekar Kawung also built a community-based tourism sector in which they built a homestay, prepared youth tour guides Maila Humba, and created an Ikat workshop. Furthermore, Sekar Kawung also opened a new market by creating online shops named Kuka and Etsy on online platforms like Tokopedia. Sekar Kawung also held an Ikat textile art exhibition featuring 7 Ikat designers, 23 Ikat artisans, 2 youth photographers, and two youth responsible for travel guides. This exhibition was attended by 1675 visitors and successfully raised Rp. 677,364,000 in Ikat sales. Sekar Kawung also focuses on strengthening culture, therefore new designs that are deeply rooted in culture developed and Ikat weaving is now a formal part of primary school education.

In addition to Prijosusilo’s presentation, Dr. Mochammad Indrawan explained that the aim of the book that he edited about civic engagement in Asia Is to show the importance of progressively inclusive and multi-stakeholder discussions to facilitate interrogations of deeply embedded beliefs and perspectives.  Due to the nature of sustainability being an all-encompassing norm, the co-production of knowledge and transformative learning could serve as a basic premise to meaningful civic engagement.  The co-production of the clashing of cultural assumptions of knowledge along with the search for meaning, and genuine solutions helped improve the focus towards a wise and balanced form of collective action. Evidence from the project suggests that sustainability in Asia could be attainable if all partners and relevant stakeholders were engaged in a sustained mutual learning platforms to reflect on their tacit knowledge, experiences, local stories, and narratives. Effective collaboration and synergy among actors and participants are needed to ensure that sustainable development learning takes place across local communities.

Finally, Prijosusilo concluded that local culture actually can contribute to economic development significantly, but it needs more attention from policymakers. She also argues that it is important to go deep and truly study to understand the culture and numerous potentials so the economic development can continue because it has a strong connection and is integrated with government policy. When the spirit of the local culture is strong, the creativity of the community blooms with beauty and this is good for the economy. This is an important aspect of sustainable development that is often overlooked. Regarding the environmental improvement, although environmental concerns were high on the agenda in the project design and many trees were planted, it cannot be said that the project has created significant environmental improvement. More than 75% of the trees perished due to the harsh dry season, therefore the Ikat botanical garden is also suffering from a lack of care.



[1] Robert J Holmgren and Anita E Spertus, Early Indonesian Textiles from Three Island Cultures: Sumba, Toraja, Lampung (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989). p. 13

[2] accessed October 24, 2021

[3] M Indrawan, “Civic Engagement in Asia: Lessons From Transformative Learning in the Quest for A Sustainable Future,” 2020.