Conserving Culture: Lembata, East Nusa Tenggara

A picture not only tells a thousand words for the people of Lamalera, a village in Lembata, East Nusa Tenggara. It also serves as a tool to preserve their ancestral heritage and the environment from which they earn their living. In the eastern part of Indonesia, where the fruits of national development are rarely seen, culture and environment are all the people have.

“We cannot live without them,” said Hendrikus Kia Keraf, a resident of Lamalera, while presenting the photographs of everyday village life he and his fellow villagers took.

His presentation took place on the sidelines of a recent digital camera exhibition at the Jakarta Convention Center according to Ary Hermawan.

The Lamalera people are mostly fishermen. They make their living at sea by fishing and catching sperm whales, an ancient practice they fear outsiders do not understand. They are perhaps the last community in the world still to use traditional methods for whaling.
The world does misunderstand them.

Setting out to the sea in groups in traditional wooden boats (paledang) and armed with harpoons, they are often called “whale hunters”. Exotic pictures of their “whale hunting” can be seen in some tourism sites.

The area has become famous for tourists looking for “the fascination and excitement of a region that still practices a dangerous and primitive subsistence form of whaling”.

The villagers, however, reject the name.

“We do not hunt whales. We have traditional rules all villagers should abide by,” Fransiskus Use Bataona, another villager, said.

“We are not allowed to catch whales more than five miles from the coast. And if we encounter a whale and a torpedo fish at the same time, we have to kill the torpedo for our catch and let the whale go.”

To show the outside world how they see and understand their culture, Hendrikus, Fransiskus and dozens of other villagers were lent cameras to photograph their culture and explain the meaning behind the pictures.

“The pictures remind them of how precious their environment is and how culture plays an important role in their life. They teach the world through the pictures as well as learn from them,” Photovoices program coordinator for Indonesia, Saraswati, said.

Lamalera is the site of Photovoices’ first project in Indonesia, organized in cooperation with WWF Indonesia, National Geographic and Ford Foundation. The region is the key site of the WWF Alor Solor Program, which focuses on a protected marine area in the Sawu Sea.

Linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the sea is a migration lane for whales and a habitat for turtles, tuna and other marine life.

“In our conservation efforts, the WWF always considers the customary values held by the local people. We consult them during our scientific discussions to determine suitable conservation policies,” WWF sea and marine life program director Wawan Ridwan said.

“The Lamalera people cannot be separated from their culture (whaling).”

The arrival in Lamalera of conservationists from WWF and Photovoices was not met without suspicion from the villagers.
“They fear the NGOs will tell us to stop catching whales,” Fransiskus said.

But the villagers began to take part in the program as they came to understand its purpose: to honor their culture.

Photovoices first discussed with the villagers who would receive cameras because they wanted all community elements to be represented: traditional leaders, youth, students, fishermen and housewives. The program provided 50 cameras for participants.
For most of them, it was the first time they had ever held a camera.

“I only gave the Lamalera people a three-day workshop. But, with digital cameras, they developed their photography techniques very quickly. The results are comparable to those of professional photographers,” editor in chief of National Geographic Indonesia, Tantyo Bangun, said.

Moreover, he said, their photographs were more meaningful because “they have a better understanding of the subjects of their photographs because they are taking pictures of their own lives”.

Saraswati said the program appointed what she called a facilitator to explain the meaning of each photograph so the villagers and the outsiders would know what they were all about.

“The conservation strategy will be more effective because they are involved,” she said.

The program went for six months but the participants could contact Photovoices if they needed more training and workshops. Photovoices left eight cameras at the school and the local government office.

After Lamalera, Photovoices will head to Borneo.

“We have not decided where yet,” Saraswati said.

“It will be either Sentarum Lake in West Kalimantan or Muller Mountains in Central Kalimantan.”

Hendrikus and Fransiskus have not become professional photographers. They are still the same village whalers, but now they can be sure, through their photographs, younger generations will understand their ancestral heritage and continue to respect nature.