She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
She says: “I believe that one day women’s leadership among our indigenous elders will be recognized. We just need to work very hard to convince our elders and to raise our women’s awareness and education”.
She says also: “I have to admit that in the past few years we have had problems and differences working with our network. Some organizations claimed our groups and our land as their work only. Our hard work was challenged because of disputes between the organizations (local NGOs) in our network. We can’t be the object of some vague discourse. We want the people to get on their own feet”.
Aleta Ba’un – Indonesia
Aleta Ba’un (born 1966) is a West Timorese community organizer who defends the rights of indigenous peoples. She has helped found many local NGOs, including the Women Voice Center Sanggar Suara Perempuan (SSP) and the Eastern Indonesia Women’s Health Network (JKPIT). Her leadership has been an inspiration to other activists, especially to other indigenous women.
“Indigenous people are always left behind. We have to struggle to maintain our way of life”, says Aleta Ba’un, referring to her identity as a West Timorese indigenous woman. Her kind gestures and motherly approach leave an imprint on anyone who meets her. Her modesty is typical of the culture of the Timorese people.
Aleta was born on March 16, 1966 to a family of indigenous farmers in the remote village of Lelobatan, three hours from Soe city, West Timor, NTT province. She spent her childhood helping her family by working in the field after school. “The indigenous people have values that I will cherish all of my life”, she says of her childhood.
Aleta graduated from high school, but her formal education ended there. Unable to pursue her studies because of her family’s meager income, she moved to the city where she found work as a housemaid. She and her family were hard pressed to get by from day to day. The economic conditions in one of Indonesia’s most undeveloped islands challenges the general belief that Indonesia is a wealthy and rapidly developing nation.
In 1993, Aleta met some activists from the Haumeni Foundation, an NGO based in Soe city. She recalls, “I learned and experienced first-hand village organizing and raising awareness of the community, especially in regard to women’s economic empowerment and health issues for the poor”.
Her initial years with the foundation she spent in villages working as a community organizer. She didn’t have trouble integrating as a field organizer, since she herself is an indigenous person.
The people of Lelobatan must walk for hours to reach Kapan, the nearest town, for trade. That small city has a bus station with buses travelling daily to Soe city or Kupang city (capital city of NTT province). The roads between Kapan and Lelobatan are very poor. During the rainy season, road travel is worsened by mud and potholes. People resort to going on foot for days, since vehicles rarely travel during this season.
The villages within and around Lelobatan are traditionally bound to the kingdom of Mollo Utara. People from the 21 villages have been bound by blood and family ties for hundreds of years. The leadership has been there for ages and the society is instantly bound into a tribal council called the amaf [tribal leaders or elders].
In Aleta’s work, it is critical that she always work with the amaf and that she maintain their trust. As Aleta herself is also a direct descendant of the tribe, this is not a problem. Although she is an exception, women generally don’t speak up in leaders’ meetings within the amaf council. There are one or two daughters of elders who have become amaf, but they never really influence decision-making within the leaders’ meeting.
They usually attend the meeting as a family representative. The amaf’s duties are to solve problems in the community related to tribal ceremonials as well as conflicts that occur on a daily basis.
Later, Aleta worked with Sanggar Suara Perempuan (Women Voice Center), an NGO which gathers documentation on women’s health problems, women’s issues and women’s-rights violations. The poor condition of women’s health and the rampant violence toward women in the country prompted the creation of local NGOs which focus on women’s health, especially in Eastern Indonesia, including Timor or NTT.
At this time, Aleta also started to look into the issues of indigenous peoples. She founded the Alliance of Indigenous People in Kupang (capital city of NTT province) with some colleagues.
By the end of 1999, she was fully engaged in her first advocacy campaign against an investor trying to mine marble from an area which was considered by the local people a sacred heritage from their ancestors. It was a three-year battle involving tedious negotiations with all the stakeholders involved, during which Aleta proved her community organizing skills. “We were struggling to fight investors who tried to steal our lands”, Aleta recalls those days in early 2000. “I didn’t have enough money to cover our meals”.
During the campaign, tensions grew between the investors and the indigenous groups lead by Aleta and the amaf.
The indigenous group protested day and night in front of the building where the marble taken from the sacred Nausus hill would be processed. Working together, the people built tents and camps near the hills to protect their sacred stone. “There were hundreds of indigenous families gathered in the protesting area. I felt really proud of the emerging movement”, says Aleta.
She admits she had less time for her husband and children but her sacrifice is very valuable to her greater community, and this seems just as important. She remembers carrying her baby during the negotiations with the investors. The protestors were invited to the legislative desk, where the representatives of indigenous elders and their audience were heard by the regent of the provincial parliament.
Throughout her campaigns, Aleta has sought support from various NGOs, including Yayasan Pikul (a funding NGO based in Kupang city) and Aleta’s own organization, SSP, which enabled her community organizing efforts and her most demanding mining campaign in 1999-2001. With the solidarity of NGO networks throughout the country, Aleta has found ample support for her advocacies. Protest letters and faxes poured in from all over Indonesia and overseas to press the local government to stop mining in the remote areas of West Timor.
Aleta is working to get more indigenous women to participate in the struggle for their beloved land. With the help of some friends, Aleta pioneered in the creation of the local women’s network in Soe city. They work with local NGOs and the local government to run workshops and training sessions for women in remote villages concerning health issues and the threat of violence against women.
Violence against women is rampant in West Timor, where it has one of the highest incidence rates in the country. As a result there are various campaigns to promote awareness of rape and other sexual violence towards women, organized by the NGO network JKPIT (the Eastern Indonesia Women’s Health Network) based in Kupang. Aleta, an active member of this network, sees this work as critical in expanding her own advocacy work.
On many occasions, Aleta has been invited to national and regional meetings on women’s issues. Aleta, who is also known as Mama Leta, is currently working with the Indigenous Peoples’ Council, which represents 21 villages between Soe and Lelobatan. The newly-founded organization arose as a response to the urgent need for indigenous societies all over Indonesia to form their own organizations.
She remembers that the disputes created confusion among the amaf and divided the movement into conflicting groups. She also felt very sad because the conflict occurred just after the successful anti-mining campaign.
Although Aleta owes her knowledge and experience to the organizations and networks that she has been a part of, she admits that there are many who have disagreed with her efforts and organizational goals. She wishes that other NGOs would not envy or dispute the work she has done.
Those were difficult days, and for a long time Aleta struggled to divide her time between SSP and her true calling in the indigenous movement. She recalls the day she had to make the most difficult choice in her life: To leave SSP, the organization she loves. She knew, however, that she had to move on and that a long road awaited her.
The promotion of a democratic indigenous organization needed her total dedication. Aleta and her friends are starting all over again, conducting discussions from one village to the next. “We have nothing to start with but our determination and dreams”, she says. “I do believe there are ways for our indigenous people to defend their rights without intervention from outside. We just need to sit down and discuss.
The elders still need to unite their thoughts and agree. I do believe one day women’s leadership amongst our indigenous elders’ patriarchy will be recognized. We just need to work very hard to convince our elders, and to raise our women’s awareness and education”. (1000PeaceWomen).
Many texts in Indonesian on the web including the name ‘ Aleta Ba’un’.
link: INDONESIA ECOLOGY.