Besides the splendour of its natural wonders, the homeland of Komodo dragons enchants visitors with its diverse cultural heritage: ways of living, ethnicity, language, origin, belief systems, social structures that found their way through history into the present. In order to preserve and foster such cultural treasures, the European Union is supporting a local NGO, the Indonesian Ecotourism Network (INDECON), with a three-year programme that aims to develop environmental-friendly tourism and expand the economic base of traditional villages in several districts in Nusa Tenggara Timur. In the past weeks I was lucky enough to visit six of the villages involved in the project, get acquainted with the “kampong” daily life, experience local traditions, typical food, and ceremonies. Our journey started from the Jerebu’u area, where we visited three villages located on the slope of the volcano Inerie: Tololela, Gurusina and Bena – signposts of Ngada culture. The villages’ shape is characterized by high thatch-roofed houses (rumah adat), stone altars, megaliths and ancestral shrines that embed mystical and religious elements. The daily life in each village is marked by long-standing rituals and agriculture is the most important activity from an economic point of view.
In the next days we moved to Waerebo, Tado and Melo, where we experienced the hospitality of Manggaraian people and drank the locally produced coffee, which is grown in family plantations surrounding the villages without any chemical fertilizer.
As many of these villages are off the main road, our visits were enriched by pleasant hikes through flourishing landscapes with rice field view, interspersed with mountainous areas and neat bamboo forests. Until not so long ago these areas were hardly penetrable, a fact that contributed to the preservation of the local traditions and culture.
However, such isolation often meant poor livelihood for the local people. Since the simple farming could not allow decent living conditions or support health and education needs, many villagers abandoned the traditional lifestyle and the local communities, to the detriment of the cultural heritage.
Since 2007, INDECON initiated the refurbishment of traditional houses and helped the local people in revitalizing village life, by maintaining the authenticity and nobility of the traditional construction process and providing a learning process for the younger generations. All of the hard work proved fruitful, as the number of eco-tourists visiting the communities has increased steadily over the last years, and the communities’ members gained new life skills and knowledge, especially women and youth.
The close association with farming and handicraft is also maintained and valued. Visitors are encouraged to learn about the stories behind the local products, assist to local ceremonies, and appreciate the sustainable ways of production. And as they know more, they also want to buy more gifts for their family and friends, thus providing an additional source of income to the local people and supporting the economic development of the village.
Innovative Indigenous Flores Ecotourism for Sustainable Trade (INFEST) is a three years program funded by the European Union and implemented by INDECON. It aims at promoting sustainable tourism to improve livelihood and contribute to poverty reduction, by working hand-in-hand with village communities, tourism stakeholders, and local government.