For my forest, for my people: Women preachers of Meru Betiri

“It’s usually only men who get these opportunities. But this training is different – it’s for Islamic women preachers to learn about climate change.” 

Yuliatin is a 29-year old female preacher who grew up near Meru Betiri National Park in East Java, Indonesia, an area known as one of the last habitats of the Javanese tiger. One day, Yuliatin, who regularly conducts an Islam study class with other women in her village, receives important news. “I’ve been invited to a training,” Yuliatin tells her friend Paini. “I’m so surprised – it’s usually only men who get these opportunities. But this training is different – it’s for Islamic women preachers to learn about climate change.”

She marks the training day on her calendar – 5 September, 2011. When the day arrives, Yuliatin and Paini, who is also invited, go to another village where the training is held. Yuliatin is very excited, especially because the facilitators are from the national government’s Center for Forestry Education and Training, RECOFTC and LATIN (Lembaga Alam Tropika Indonesia). She also feels nervous about being able to follow the lessons, as her formal education ended at a young age.

Twenty women preachers from five villages participate in the training. Yuliatin is one of the youngest; most of the women are senior preachers. She tries not to feel discouraged, and keeps in mind that her aim is to simply learn something new.

“I would like you to draw what your forest looked like back in 1999, after all the illegal logging,” the trainer asks at the start of the meeting. As Yuliatin thinks about her drawing, her mind flashes back to that time, 13 years ago…

“Boom!” Yuliatin could clearly hear the sound of a tree hitting the ground. As she lived very close to Meru Betiri National Park, she heard the sounds of falling trees almost every day, from morning to evening. It seemed that everyone was felling trees – even her own family. Yuliatin’s father helped support her family by selling firewood, and as a teenager, Yuliatin often went to the forest with her family to gather wood.

Next, the trainer asks them to draw “the forest of your dreams.” Cherished memories from Yuliatin’s childhood flood back – she is six years old, swimming in a small river with her friends. The forest is full of big trees, fruits, tall bamboo and singing birds.

As Yuliatin compares the two drawings, she feels a sense of responsibility. She also took part in illegal logging back in 1999. She wants to help bring back the forest of her childhood.

Yuliatin learns about climate change, REDD+ and Islamic perspectives toward forests. It is an unforgettable two days – not only does she gain new knowledge, but new feelings when, at one point, she is wrapped in plastic to demonstrate how the impacts of climate change feel!

Inspired by the training, Yuliatin is motivated to share what she learned with others and encourages fellow villagers to plant more trees to rehabilitate the surrounding degraded forest. Her husband is the first person she shares with, “I learned a lot from the training. Now I know what climate change and the role of our forest is. I know why floods have been happening more frequently – it’s because our forest has been badly degraded. We must plant more trees!” Her husband doesn’t react as she had hoped, “You know that planting more trees will reduce our harvest – our rice, our corn. You talk like you’re smart. But I’m not sure a woman should talk about such issues. Don’t worry about our forest, as a woman you just need to take care of our kids.”

“I’m not against being responsible for domestic work. But this shouldn’t mean that I can’t do other things,” she responds. “If we plant stinky bean, jack fruit or durian trees, we can sell the fruit and earn more income at the same time. If we don’t plant more trees, floods will wash away our crops, and we will lose everything. Do you remember the floods in 2001, 2002 and 2007? Read this if you don’t believe me.” Yuliatin gives him a booklet on climate change and REDD+.

Yuliatin sees that convincing her husband is only the first challenge, and that she may well face more rejection from other people when she talks about climate change. “This is important to me, and I’m prepared to face challenges,” Yuliatin says to Paini. She confides to her friend why it’s so important to her: “After junior high school, my family could not afford to pay for my education. So I went to Malaysia to find work to send money to my parents for a new house. I was only a teenager, and I was sure that city life would be better than living in a village - instead it turned out to be the hardest experience of my life. For three years, I was a domestic worker. The family I worked for treated me terribly. They didn’t allow me to communicate with anyone, not even my family. I worked from 5am to 2am every day. One time I was accused of stealing clothes and beaten until I was unconsciousness. Another time, I was locked in a storage room for five days, while the whole family was away. They didn’t leave me any food, and I survived on snacks I found in the room. That was the loneliest moment in my life – alone and starving. So that’s why I’m so grateful to be home. Here I have a small patch of land from my father, and I can generate some income for my family. I want to preserve my forest and my home.”

One day after the training, she asks four other women preachers to come to her house to discuss what she learned at the training and how they could teach others. “I want to show you something from the training. I will wrap you in this plastic and ask you how you feel,” Yuliatin says as she copies the activity from the training. The women preachers try it and an interesting discussion ensues.

“Taking care of the forest will reduce flooding and erosion, and will give us more sources for water. Water plays a very important role in our worship – Muslims need water to clean their body and soul before praying,” says one of the preachers. At the end, they all understand they must protect the forest and plant more trees, and they agree that the lessons are worth sharing, especially together with the Islamic perspectives.

One day, Yuliatin’s friend Paini tells her, “Some people are gossiping that during the training you were ‘looking for chicken’. They say you’re dressing differently and using make-up.” Yuliatin knows that when a married woman goes outside of the village without her husband, people suspect the woman of having an affair – this is what is meant by ‘looking for chicken’.

“Women participating in a training is so uncommon – people just aren’t used to it. But my belief is this: when you keep something smelly, it will smell bad. But if you keep something good, it will always be good. I am doing something good for my forest and my people. They will understand this eventually,” Yuliatin says, “I’m not worried about what people think. My father always told me ‘don’t be afraid to fight for something right’.”

The women preachers arrange their first training and invite 35 women. They soon realize that participants have varying levels of understanding - and agreement. Some question why they are learning about forests during Islamic class and cannot understand the connection. For the next training, Yuliatin develops a new strategy – she plans it together with a religious leader from her village, and also invites a facilitator from RECOFTC’s partner, LATIN. She knows that they are well-respected by the community, and that people will listen to them. She conducts the training, with back-up from the two. She finds that this time, the participants are in agreement with the lessons. However, she finds that some participants are illiterate, so Yuliatin gives the handouts to their adult children, and ask their children to explain to their moms.

Yuliatin also shares the lessons beyond members of her Islamic class. She conducts a training for 20 community health volunteers in her village, who quickly grasp the concepts and in turn share with their husbands, asking them to plant more trees. She holds a training for 40 children in primary and junior high school. Yuliatin shares her knowledge in casual conversations with people she meets – during community meetings, or with other parents at school. Though she still faces challenges – sometimes people say she is ‘showing off’ because she participated in a training – Yuliatin feels she is not alone. She has a network – the other women preachers – that is supportive of each other. She’s also very self-motivated, “When you are going to war, you need a weapon. My weapon is my big heart for my community. If the government will allow us to keep managing the forest, I can generate more income so my kids can become better educated.” Now she sees that slowly, people have started to believe in her, including her husband. People are starting to plant more trees. They understand that when they plant trees, they can receive multiple benefits, including non-timber forest products such as stinky beans, mangoes, jack fruit, and more.

Yuliatin’s friend Paini recently told her the latest gossip, “People are saying that you are an important person. They are impressed that you were invited to Jakarta to share your experiences in a national event with RECOFTC.” With this recognition, Yuliatin feels proud and strong enough to pursue her dream – to see her childhood forest again.

March, 2016