From an Indonesian forest to a university campus

Remote indigenous communities have been historically marginalized in Indonesia. Members of one tribe in Sumatra are pushing through this barrier via higher education.

From an Indonesian forest to a university campus Photo: Kuniawati Hasjanah

The success and progress of any country is measured by, among other things, its general state of education. Hence, every Indonesian citizen is legally entitled to get the best possible learning opportunities, supported by adequate facilities and infrastructure. So, all citizens must have access to proper educational facilities as a basic right, regardless of wherever they live in our large country.

People living in remote inland areas or coastal areas are very dependent on the natural and human resources available to them. Those who are firmly tied to traditional customs often isolate themselves solely to maintain the habits of their ancestors. Suku Anak Dalam (SAD) – or the Kubu Tribe, is a remote forest-dwelling group of around 200,000 in Jambi Province in Sumatra Island that, unsurprisingly, is marginalized. One way to improve the quality of the tribes’ human resources is through education. The awareness of the SAD people about the true meaning of education is actually a manifestation of the seriousness of the community to be a partner of the provincial and local governments in improving the tribe’s human resources.

The lives of the SAD in Jambi have been changing – a shift of cultural identity from the forests to more of an urban-based existence. Their 200,000 people are scattered in small groups whose situations are different. They also have not fully implemented their new societal system since leaving the forests, now living closer to people in more urban villages and interacting with this new society.

Jambi's forests have been decimated to make way for palm oil plantations, and the tribes are increasingly being pushed out, so they have had to adapt to survive. Hunting has become increasingly difficult because pigs are now hard to find. Also, they do not have many other skills, so many of them steal palm fruit and local crops just to eat. Given this dire situation, the Pundit Sumatera (Sumatra Sustainable Support) organization is collaborating with the local government to provide education opportunities for the Suku Anak Dalam.

At first, the tribe was enthusiastic about the prospect of education. The word “education” is not a new thing for them – the SAD people already heard that education can ultimately support their lives. Pundi Sumatera has thus organized a formal education process through a concept call a “natural school.”

Education policy

The tribal people are free to interact within their village communities in Jambi via educational initiatives. They can register at the nearest school, and receive health services including, for example, having a midwife or doctor visit every few days for checkups. Culturally, SAD people can still practice their own ritual beliefs as usual, without having to feel threatened or influenced by other existing indigenous groups in their communities. The government, both local and provincial, have collaborated to provide access to education for them. (There are also national laws addressing the welfare and land rights of minority indigenous communities.)

After completing the temporary resettlement program for the SAD tribe in September 2016, the local government built “smart homes” in SAD areas for easier reach. The smart homes are designed to increase tribal children’s education that they cannot get in a formal state school setting (Detik, 2017). The activities they do on their smart home routine is a weekly meeting held each Saturday, and members of the Pundi Sumatera organization serve as teachers at the smart houses. They also have socialization activities such as health education and getting insights into other things than hunting for subsistence and funeral rites.


The Suku Anak Dalam is one of multiple ethnic minorities in Sumatra that live in extreme poverty. Yet, there is hope as well as signs of progress. Pundi Sumatera has been at the forefront of this in many ways.

In particular, the organization assisted young tribal members Ms. Juliana, and Mr. Seri Santos, in pursuing higher education, beginning when they were in elementary school in 2012. Juliana is the first female from the SAD community to attend a university. Seri also attends the same university. Pundi Sumatera have played a huge role in persuading tribal leaders because their traditional ways do not provide opportunities for girls to pursue higher education, especially away from their parents and community. The tribe’s women seem to always accepts their fate, never opposing the customs and advice of their tribal elders.

Juliana's parents finally gave their blessing for Juliana to study at Muhammadiyah Jambi University, far away from her parents. She currently is doing online courses from a house near the university, with the help of Pundi Sumatera, and her parents bought her a cellphone to help in her studies. Seri is also studying there online.

Photo: Kurniawati hasjanah


Pundi Sumatera has also provided computer training for Juliana and Seri because of their online assignments. Even so, Juliana's house has no electricity and the internet connection is not good, so they have to be smart in finding hotspots to get a good signal. To recharge their cell phones, the SAD community uses three solar cell units.

Small steps are a big leap for this community.


Juliana dreams of becoming a doctor. Unfortunately, Muhammadiyah Jambi University does not have a medical department, so she is studying forestry because, practically, she will learn things to help the tribe’s traditional forest community. Small steps by Seri and Juliana are a big leap for their community.

It is also the obligation of the Jambi’s provincial and district governments to further integrate them to modern civilization. Their awareness of higher education has started to grow, but they have to overcome obstacles, such as lack of electricity and and difficulties in finding internet and phone signals to study online. It’s time to increase the number of tools available to develop their potential.


Kurniawati Hasjanah is a journalist with the Kompas Gramedia Group and post-graduate student at the School of Government and Public Policy Indonesia.

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