Batak christianity in sumatra are they doing something about Lake toba inviroment?


The term Batak designates any one of several groups inhabiting the interior of Sumatera Utara Province south of Aceh: Angkola, Karo, Mandailing, Pakpak, Simelungen, Toba, and others. The Batak number around 3 million. Culturally, they lack the complex etiquette and social hierarchy of the Hinduized peoples of Indonesia. Indeed, they seem to bear closer resemblance to the highland swidden cultivators of Southeast Asia, even though some also practice padi farming. Unlike the Balinese, who have several different traditional group affiliations at once, or Javanese peasants affiliated with their village or neighborhood, the Batak orient themselves traditionally to the marga, a patrilineal descent group. This group owns land and does not permit marriage within it. Traditionally, each marga is a wife-giving and wife-taking unit. Whereas a young man takes a wife from his mother’s clan, a young woman marries into a clan where her paternal aunts live.

When Sumatra was still a vast, underpopulated island with seemingly unlimited supplies of forest, this convergence of land ownership and lineage authority functioned well. New descent groups simply split off from the old groups when they wished to farm new land, claiming the virgin territory for the lineage. If the lineage prospered in its new territory, other families would be invited to settle there and form marriage alliances with the pioneer settlers, who retained ultimate jurisdiction over the territory. Genealogies going back dozens of generations were carefully maintained in oral histories recited at funerals. Stewardship over the land entailed spiritual obligations to the lineage ancestors and required that other in-migrating groups respect this.

The marga has proved to be a flexible social unit in contemporary Indonesian society. Batak who resettle in urban areas, such as Medan and Jakarta, draw on marga affiliations for financial support and political alliances. While many of the corporate aspects of the marga have undergone major changes, Batak migrants to other areas of Indonesia retain pride in their ethnic identity. Batak have shown themselves to be creative in drawing on modern media to codify and express their “traditional” adat. Anthropologist Susan Rodgers has shown how taped cassette dramas similar to soap operas circulate widely in the Batak region to dramatize the moral and cultural dilemmas of one’s kinship obligations in a rapidly changing world. In addition, Batak have been prodigious producers of written handbooks designed to show young, urbanized, and secular lineage members how to navigate the complexities of their marriage and funeral customs.

Data as of November 1992

Batak lake cleaning

INDONESIA: Indigenous Batak Christians fight back against lake pollution

The Batak Church of Sumatra is a fascinating blend of the Batak indigenous culture with a vibrant Christianity. As such, the theology and practice of the Church is dynamically grounded in a deep respect for the natural world.

Building upon this, the Church has created a major new programme aimed at engaging Batak society in protecting the environment. The actions undertaken in this Sacred Gift range from: a campaign to tackle pollution caused by logging and factories on nearby Lake Toba; protection of their local national park; work on combating soil erosion caused by deforestation; and the creation of a new post of Environment Officer for the Church.

All these practical actions are backed by workshops, sermons, educational resources and specific Church-run projects, which build awareness of key environmental problems.

The Church’s actions are not only significant for the local area but are also a model for other Churches in Indonesia.


The community response

Sorting cloves after the harvest

The indigenous Batak Church is campaigning alongside other church denominations and traditional Batak leaders to inspire local people to protect and restore the forests and the lake through replanting and organic technique. THe first sites for replanting are in the districts of North Tapanuli and Samosir. Seedlings have been planted in a 100 hectare are where erosion, water scarcity and forest burning are the most severe. Additional planting is being carried out in the grounds of selected Batak churches and schools, and on church forest lands.

Organic techniques

Organic farming techniques have been integrated into the replanting programme under the direction of the Director of the Reforestation programme, an agronomist and four field staff. THey are supported by the Batak Church and their high visibility advocacy work against businesses putting untreated waste into rivers and lakes. Another important part of the project is awareness-raising and education in the local community.

Reintroducing local species

A tree nursery has been set up by the Batak Church at Sipholon, cultivating a range of trees including:

Timber trees:
Toona sureni and Mahogany
Fruit trees:
jackfruit, avocado, palm, and durian
Mixed planting:
Dipterocarpaceae, Fagaceae (beech), Quercus (oak), and Castanea (chestnut), Lithocarpus (tanoak), Lauraceae (laurels, including cinnamon and avocado), Litsea, Cunoniaceae, Monimiaceae, Magnoliaceae and Hamamelidaceae.


Inter-denominational environmental desk

In 2001 the Communion of Churches in Jakarta – which brings together all mainstream protestant churches in the country – held an important reassessment of its pastoral priorities. It decided to give more attention to conservation and creation – and to focus on the creation of an Environmental Desk, working with all major churches, through which environmental information and education resources are disseminated. To achieve this, it is working with ARC and the World Bank as sponsors and advisors.

Practical projects

The initiative was quickly taken up by the indigenous HKBP Batak Church of North Sumatra, who appointed an environmental officer in the town of Taratung. The officer is responsible for developing a consciousness about the environment within the church, by focusing on issues like deforestation and soil erosion with which its members can easily engage. The Batak church has three million members and 960 pastors.

The Toraja Church of South Sulawesi has started working on similar projects. It is planning to work with the Ministry of Forestry on reforestation of heavily logged lands, as well as on replacing mono-planted pine forests with a range of tree species. The church’s aim is to re-awaken traditional and religious values about the environment through education, prayer and the authority of the local clan leaders.

Advent and ecology

In 2002 and 2003 the World Bank, through ARC, funded a booklet titled ‘Advent and Ecology’. The core text was written by ARC and translated and adapted by a working party at the Jakarta Theological College. The handbook highlights Christian teachings on a range of environmental topics and is designed for preaching and teaching during Advent – the four weeks running up to Christmas – with the intention of inspiring people to undertake practical activities to improve their world.

The booklet has been distributed through the Communion of Churches of Indonesia to Christian radio stations, religious correspondents from all major newspapers, heads of all Christian theological colleges and all the main Protestant denominations. Take-up by secular and religious media was greater than anticipated and led to weekly features on Christian radio stations as well as the production of sermon notes through two of the Church networks. The Communion of Churches, encouraged by the response, has extended plans for the Environment Desk to include regular production of liturgical study material on Christianity and Ecology.


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