Butet Manurung

Fellow Ashoka
Fellow Since 2006
This description of Butet Manurung's work was prepared when Butet Manurung was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006 .


Across Indonesia, indigenous peoples are finding that they can no longer avoid contact with the outside world. Although they are often at the center of conflicts over land, forests, coastlines, they seldom participate in discourse and problem-solving. By giving indigenous youth access to education, Butet Manurung is preparing a generation of young people to become bridges between their communities and outside interests.    

La nuova idea

Butet is trying to change two basic and related patterns in society. The first is the exclusion of indigenous peoples from the benefits of education. The second is a paternalism that treats such peoples either as savages that must be civilized, or features of the natural environment that must be preserved. Butet simply wants to make it possible for people to make informed choices about how to cope with change, preserving when they wish, adapting when they see fit, but always enjoying their freedom to choose. She sees that working with young people is the most viable approach to solving these two systemic obstacles to full and equal citizenship.Butet is preparing young indigenous people to help their communities make informed and dignified choices about how they will cope with change. The first step is to provide basic education—literacy and comprehension of the wider world. Since the school system does not extend into remote areas, Butet is creating a national volunteer service to place teachers in remote communities. Based on her own experience teaching in the forests of Sumatra, Butet has developed a completely new method that allows people from pre-literate societies to quickly learn to read and write Indonesian. While Butet believes in the power of education in general, she is also scouting for young people who can begin building bridges between their communities and the many outside interests they now face. Her organization runs a program that brings youth from indigenous communities into national forums discussing natural resource use, forests, and forest communities. Butet has identified 700 communities nationwide that are facing pressure to change yet have no educational opportunities for their young people. So far, her organization Sokola has placed 18 volunteers and is growing quickly. At the same time, Sokola organizes study and exposure trips for indigenous youth, providing opportunities for their voices to be heard in citizen-sector and government forums.

Il problema

Indigenous peoples tend to evoke two strong opposing viewpoints. Because they live in fragile ecosystems, they are alternately viewed as its best defenders and worst enemies; as rightful inhabitants and dangerous encroachers; as a vigilant monitor and powerless victim of environmental catastrophe; as barometers of ecological diversity and as mere footnotes to major economic and political conflicts. In Indonesia, the paradox extends into a moral realm. To some, including much of the citizen sector, indigenous peoples are symbols of pristine nature, cultural diversity, and gentle, simple living. While to others, including at times the state, they represent poverty, backwardness, and an embarrassingly primitive obstacle to progress.One reason opinions about indigenous people are polarized is that seldom does one hear an unfiltered voice from the people themselves. There are few opportunities for indigenous people to join public discourse. Without access to education, indigenous communities produce comparatively few leaders who can represent their people to the outside. Other marginalized communities, despite poverty and discrimination, may at least produce a few leaders who are literate and have some formal schooling. With luck, citizen-sector organizations may spot them and help them develop their leadership roles. But because of the immense obstacles of distance, language, and education, there is no proactive effort to discover and cultivate indigenous folk. Of course there are indigenous people who have, by dint of their own talent, and with luck, become effective leaders—yet these do not come from the most isolated communities. Indonesia does have a national network for indigenous peoples, but actually this body has very few active members who come from indigenous communities. Most are representatives from citizen organizations working on environmental protection and culture.  The result is that the links between organizations working on behalf of such peoples and the communities themselves are not always as strong as they should be. Butet recounts a story of an organization that spent several years trying to win over forest peoples to its conservation agenda. When that failed, the organization went ahead and made a forest management plan in the name of the local tribe without their input or consent. The zoning plan ignored the way that people actually use the forest, and the strong cultural beliefs that guide their actions.  When the community found out, it vowed not to cooperate and a conflict, possibly a violent one, now looms.Education is a long-term solution to such problems, but there are significant technical obstacles. The state has been slow to setup schools in remote areas, in part because few teachers are willing to go there. Where schools do exist, the curriculum and teaching style hardly fit with local customs. The structure of a school day, of rote lessons, and a uniform national curriculum are simply alien to hunter-gatherers’ way of life. Most projects to set up remote schools fail.  

La strategia

Butet defines Sokola’s market with four criteria. First, an indigenous community has to be mostly illiterate and there must be some interest in education. Second, there must be some history of contact and influence with the outside world, particularly the influence of the mainstream cash economy. This criterion would rule out, for the time being anyway, the most remote tribes of Papua. Third, Butet looks for communities that are either already in some kind of conflict with the state—for example, forest dwellers facing eviction. Last, and perhaps less a criterion and more a starting point, Butet and her team must be able to identify a unique strength in the culture around which to build a local curriculum.  In designing the volunteer program, Butet draws on the lessons she learned during her own time teaching in the forest. The quality of education depends on the quality of the teacher.  The unusually demanding situations Butet’s teachers face demand an unusual set of skills and attitudes. Because many indigenous groups live in ways that outsiders would consider “unstructured,” the teachers have to be able to live that way too. They must adjust themselves to a different sense of time.  For example, when the people are hungry, they go hunting. If the teacher wants to spend time with them, he or she has to go along. Butet also needs people who are emotionally and psychologically strong enough to immerse themselves in a totally alien culture. Teachers might inadvertently break a local taboo and suddenly be asked to leave the community for a time (this happened to Butet herself). The teacher has to be perceptive enough to read the situation, sensitive enough to abide by the community’s wishes, yet strong enough to return and ask to be accepted back in.Butet says that she relies mostly on instinct in selecting new teachers, but has developed her personal insights into practical tests as well. For example, she shows applicants a film of children playing in the forest, and observes how they watch. Can they sit quietly and take in what they are seeing, or do they constantly express their surprise or interrupt the film with questions?  Butet learned that patient observation is a crucial skill in this work. And when the film is over, when the time is right for questions, she sees whether applicants are curious about the people they just saw—What’s that boy’s name? Is she the mother?—or more prone to abstract queries—Why doesn’t the government do more for these people? Again, Butet has learned that those who can adjust are those who are naturally interested in people and who relate to them well, across the cultural gulf, not necessarily those with a professional interest in “issues” such as cultural survival and ecology.Butet manages the volunteers and related programs in the four provinces of Jambi, Aceh, South Sulawesi, and Flores. The programs in each of these regions have been specifically designed to address real needs facing the communities, such as, people in transition from hunter gatherers to cultivators who want to learn agricultural techniques or those evicted from their fishing grounds who are learning new income generating skills. In each region, at least one coordinator from the Sokola team lives in together with volunteers recruited and trained locally as well as those from the national network. In the coming months, Butet will expand her work to indigenous communities in Kalimantan in collaboration with a locally based CO.  Volunteers who make it into the program learn Butet’s unique teaching method, developed especially for pre-literate societies. Butet simplified Bahasa Indonesia by identifying seventeen basic syllabic types that make up the bulk of the language. Because most of her students have only a remedial grasp of Bahasa (since they speak their native tribal languages), they have to learn the language at the same time they learn to read and write.  Butet’s syllabic method allows students, whose cultures all have strong oral traditions, to memorize basic blocks of the language. This makes it much easier for totally illiterate people to learn how to encode and decode the alphabetic symbols that make up the written language.  Butet’s teaching method, invented from scratch in the forest, has now drawn the interest of mainstream educators.The indigenous youth with whom Butet has been working have become some of the most effective teachers of younger children in their communities. Butet has provided the opportunity for them to travel to other regions to share their experiences and to learn about other indigenous groups in Indonesia. These youth have assisted their chiefs in meetings with representatives of the Forestry Department and local government officials. Butet has made use of the considerable media interest in her work to help a wider public learn about these remote communities and to enable the youth themselves to voice their ideas and aspirations.  

La persona

Butet recalls that she has been obsessed with indigenous peoples ever since she was a child.  National Geographic was her favorite magazine, and she dreamed about becoming an explorer. But she had to make do climbing trees near her Jakarta home, partly because her protective father offered her little freedom and enforced strict discipline. Later Butet understood that her father, who worked as an economist, had been so shocked by his experience leaving North Sumatera and moving to the capital that he went out of his way to protect his family from the dangers of the big city.Butet was an excellent student, excelling in mathematics and an accomplished pianist—though she pursued these achievements out of a sense of obligation. Then her life took a sudden turn: as she entered university, her father passed away. In college, she studied anthropology and education, and she finally had a chance to explore the world. An avid member of the Nature Lover’s Club, and eventually acting as its head, she became an expert hiker, rafter, and cave explorer. And on her expeditions she finally had the chance to meet firsthand the peoples she had previously encountered only in print or on television. She wrote her thesis on the relationship between traditional village leaders and government-installed functionaries in West Timor. As she developed her own interests, she supported herself by teaching piano, and today credits her father with imparting to her the discipline and perseverance that would shortly become crucial to her success.Upon completing her degrees, Butet took what seemed to her a dream job: going to the forest to set up an education program with a remote tribe of hunter-gatherers, part of a conservation organization’s strategy to work with local communities. Butet was unfazed by the fact that none of her predecessors in the role had made any headway, and that the latest died of malaria contracted in the jungle. But after 3 months she realized that she had to unlearn everything she thought she knew about education and simply focus on living with the community. Children, with their natural curiosity, were most receptive to her presence. Butet shelved the curriculum and spent her days playing with the children, letting them teach her about their community and life in the forest. As the children took a greater interest in Butet, she looked for opportunities to teach them to read. After 6 years of intensive work with forest communities and the organizations that want to serve them, Butet crystallized her own vision for connecting with indigenous youth.