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Lived Eco-Religion: How Social Movements in Indonesian Local Communities Respond to Environmental Crises in Creative ways

  20 January 2023


Written by Jekonia Tarigan

Religion and ecology as a field of study emerged in the 1960s as a part of awareness of a global environmental crisis the decade before, one of which was marked by the critics of American historian Lynn White Jr. He published an article in Science which specifically blamed Christianity as the main actor that caused the environmental crisis related to its biblical text and teaching that legalized and perpetuated exploitation of nature.[i] Meanwhile, on the Islamic side, Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his book entitled Man and Nature: the Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man argued that the environmental crisis originated in secularized modern science, which emptied the cosmos of its sacred character.[ii] Critiques like these more or less show the dynamics of religion and ecology discourse, so that one of the main questions that needs to be answered at this time is whether religion is destroying or saving the planet? This question was proposed by Jonathan D. Smith in his presentation in Wednesday Forum, a weekly discussion forum organized by the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies and the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies on 23 November 2022. Smith is a Visiting Researcher at CRCS and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds. He has conducted qualitative research on religion and social action in Jordan, Lebanon, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

As consequences of the previous discourse, religion is expected to contribute to the solution of the problem. [iii] The question then is how does religion respond to environmental crisis? To answer this question, Smith is conducting a synthetic review of existing data about how social movements address environmental issues in local communities in Indonesia by using lived religious resources to create new environmental practices. He presents a synthetic review of 244 qualitative studies (some written by CRCS/ICRS alumni) of 208 environmental social movements operating at the local community level in Indonesia between 1990 and 2022. Smith explains that social movements become the theoretical background in his research because it is related to broad networks of people and organizations engaged in collective action in the pursuit of environmental benefits. This includes both movements for environmental justice and those working for behavioral change of local communities or individuals to address environmental challenges. Smith is concerned with local communities in Indonesia because local contexts shape how movements adopt different strategies and messages, including religious ones. Furthermore, movements use bridging narratives between different local groups, and they create collective action frames.

This framework also shows the dynamic of religious diversity and practice in Indonesia, as a frontline of environmental crises with hundreds of active movements. However, because this study concerns the social movement of local communities, Smith also uses the concept of lived religion or local and daily practices rather than doctrines or institutional forms of religion. In doing so, Smith brings together data from qualitative studies (especially case studies) for a useful and intelligible conceptual model about how religion responds to environmental change.

Through this study, Smith found that religion plays an ambivalent role in how communities respond to environmental crises. One response is religious creativity by inventing new ways of living by reframing and adapting beliefs to address environmental challenges. From the lived religion resources there is a rich bank of resources in three categories found in the data: first, lived and daily religious beliefs and practices of official religions (Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity – Catholic and Protestant, Hinduism, and Islam); second, the systems and values of local communities connected to distinct locations; and the third, local beliefs, traditions and wisdom. There are 571 distinct concepts, practices, rituals, and systems found in the study. Concepts such as fangshen (Buddhist), stewardship (Christian), kejifuli (Confucian), tri hita kirana (Hindu), khilafah al-ard and hima (Islamic), sacred forest (adat), pawang hujan (local). Practices like slametan (local), sedekah sampah and istighoza (Islamic). Rituals such as: nyadran kali (local-Islamic), melasti (Hindu), bau nuale (lokal Lombok). And systems, for instance: nagari and sasi adat (adat), forest management system (adat).

Smith explains that there is a creative synthesis in how movements use these resources. Movements build upon these resources by connecting them with ecological, economic, or legal concepts and connecting traditional systems with other legal and social systems. The dynamic process of improvisational synthesis that results in new or renewed concepts and actions (practices, rituals, traditions, and systems) that connect environmental and cultural/religious values. The type of synthesis consists of building on existing synthesis in lived religions; traditional systems are already a synthesis of material and non-material influences and ccollective action frames: connecting multiple groups and interests for a shared environmental goal (consolidation).

According to Smith, an interesting example of the creative synthesis from Java is a Buddhist community adapting Javanese Nyadran rituals for community-led water conservation. Java was at one time largely Buddhist, as evidenced by the massive Borobodur Temple in Central Java. However, today Buddhist adherents are much fewer in number, but in one community, the village of Kalimanggis, they build on shared rituals of Nyadran for river and spring conservation. The Nyadran ritual dates to the time of Borobudur, a way to show respect to ancestral spirits by visiting sacred springs to pray and by cleaning the area of any visible rubbish. The ritual continues today in a synthesis with Javanese Muslim traditions. The ritual is carried out at least once a year at a specific time on the Javanese calendar. The area leading from the village to the local springs is cleaned of all the garbage and the springs are cleaned as well. Then the village process to the springs and make offerings next to them and to neighbouring trees. After prayers, the villagers return for shared food. The Buddhist community viewed the ritual as a way of participating with their Muslim neighbors in a shared tradition. They saw the ritual as part of their tradition and following the Buddha’s teachings to care for the environment. They began to participate in Nyandran practice as part of a community-led project to keep local springs and rivers clean. In this way, an ancient ritual takes on a more explicitly environmental meaning, as a way to raise awareness and practice for water and waste management.  

Another example came from West Sumatra in which Islamic and Minangkabau systems for forest management are synchronized. on the island of Sumatra, there are  significant areas of rainforest that have been protected from logging and palm oil plantations, and where tigers and elephants still roam, though they are constantly under threat. Ancient traditions of forest management have been practiced for years, but have been disrupted by development. In some areas, the government has designated the area as protected, restricting access for local people for logging or local resource management. Therefore, the traditional system has been disrupted but it could be revived. The Minangkabau have adopted Islam and blended it with adat traditions. This close connection between adat and Islam is encapsulated in a popular Minangkabau saying, “adat basandi syara’, syara’ basandi kitabullah,” which roughly means all rules and regulations within the community should be based on Islamic religious law and the Qur’an. Unfortunately, this synthesis is not followed in environmental practice. In 2007, a group of NGOs, scientists, and local Muslim and adat leaders joined together to make this synthesis applicable to forest management. They worked on mapping the forests and designating areas as hima (management zones) and harim (protected zones), and setup a forest management system led by the local community. In this way, they are working to revive a traditional forest management by blending ecological, religious, and environmental practices.

The question remains as to why movements use lived religion in some cases and not in others? According to Smith, there are four factors that influenced movements to choose a religious response: first, sacred land or resources being threatened or damaged; second, the community having their religious identity threatened or incentivized by the State; third, influence of religious leadership and trust in religious leaders; and fourth, traditional practices or systems being disrupted by development, ecological degradation, and imposed environmental policies. In accordance with that, the movement should be very creative because there is a contestation within local communities and religious groups over time. However, the quality of local community participation and power dynamics will shape the extent to which movements cocreate socio-ecological practices include different segments of the local community.



[i] Lynn White Jr, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (1967): 1203–7. P. 1205
[ii] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man,” 1968. p. 21
[iii] Zainal A Bagir, Michael S Northcott, and Frans Wijsen, "Varieties of Religion and Ecology: Dispatches from Indonesia, vol. 53 (LIT Verlag Münster, 2022). p. 2