Outside world still a mystery to tribe that time forgot

HIGH in the lush hills of western Java, an animist tribe lives a peaceful existence, untouched by the turmoil of the financial crisis.

The Baduy, who are estimated to number somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 people, are an anomaly surviving in tribal lands only 75 miles from the teeming city of Jakarta.

Yet, despite their proximity to the Indonesian capital, the Baduy might as well be a world away, as they live in almost complete seclusion, observing customs that forbid using soap, riding vehicles or wearing shoes.

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Villagers stare blankly when asked about events in the outside world. Salina, a young mother, plays with her son on the steps of a thatched-roof hut in a small riverside village. "I don't understand about any crisis," she says when asked about the economic turmoil that has taken its toll on the rupiah which has lost almost 25 per cent of its value this year.

Within a 20sq mile area in the shadow of Mount Kendeng, the Baduy people cling to their reclusive way of life.

On the surface, it appears primitive, but experts who have studied their farming techniques say they are attuned to their environment.

For example, they are forbidden from using metal hoes, helping to prevent soil erosion, when cultivating a dry variety of rice.

Nonetheless, the long list of taboos often appear to make their lives unreasonably tough. School education, glass, alcohol, nails, footwear, diverting the course of water and rearing four-legged animals are among some of things forbidden to the Baduy.

"There is no education. Going to the field is an education for them," said Boedhihartono, of the University of Indonesia, who has studied the Baduy for years.

Their society is divided into an outer zone of villages and an inner heartland of three villages. Baduy who break the rules are banished to the outer zone.

Members of the inner zone of about 800 people, or 40 families, dress in white, as opposed to the black attire worn in the outer zone, and they follow the Baduy traditions much more strictly.

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Visiting the Baduy requires tough trekking along slippery paths in plunging valleys. Foreigners are allowed to visit the outer zone but are limited to a few nights, sleeping on bamboo mats in villages pitch black at night due to the lack of power.

The outer area acts as a sort of buffer zone and leaders from the inner Baduy sometimes pay surprise visits to make sure their outer-zone compatriots are not breaking too many taboos. They sometimes confiscate radios and other things deemed as pollutants from the modern world.

But it is difficult to keep all things at bay. On a recent trip, some Baduy children had forsaken traditional wear, one wearing a blue Italian football shirt, while the use of money, formerly taboo, has replaced bartering with the outside world.

The outer Baduy sell sarongs they make and travel to nearby towns to sell honey and palm sugar. The cash is used to buy salted fish and other things they can't produce themselves.

"Even in the centre, they already know money," said Boedhihartono, who has over several years developed what he describes as "a sort of friendship" with the Baduy.

Asked if they knew much of the outside world, he said: "Of course not really, except if they come to my house, they watch the TV". While they are meant to shun modern medicine, he said the use of antibiotics had helped sharply increase their numbers.

The main threats they faced were outsiders trying to plunder their land and proselytising by some in the majority Muslim community surrounding them.

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