By: Claudio Sieber
The clans inhabiting the tiny village of Lamalera, on the sunbaked Lembata island in the remote Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara Timur, have been spearing and landing sperm whales by hand for at least six centuries. Despite the ongoing economic and religious transition, the society of this tiny village has not lost a single bit of their pride nor their identity. And because the Lamalerans have been doing this since the dawn of time, they carry on, with permission from the Indonesian government – as long as they hunt for their own consumption and not for commercial sale. This might change as conservationists such as WWF are incessantly prodding the Indonesian government, demanding stricter regulations for hunting practices within the Savu seascape and the Ombai Strait, a migratory bottleneck of regional importance. So far, the environmental activists have had limited impact, due to sluggish governmental action and the unwavering Lamaleran clans. Although many Lamalerans have been well-educated over the past decades, most families pursue subsistence lifestyles, with only minimal exchange of currency.
The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling allows some indigenous peoples to hunt whales, though commercial whaling was banned in 1986. This is certainly what the Lamalerans are keen to highlight; nothing goes to waste – a valid point of contrast to large-scale fishing and the waste in bycatch it produces. Lamalera’s whalers use similar traditional methods to those Western mariners practised in the early 19th century – an era when the crews ventured great oceanic distances in search of whales and their blubber for oil extraction, long before certain species were hunted to near extinction.
Annually, sperm whales and other cetaceans migrate between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Throughout the main ocean season, also called Leva Season, from May until late October, these giant marine animals pass through the Savu Sea. They will feed on the big squids of Pulau Lembata’s southern shore where the Lamalerans are waiting. Today, the villagers are hunting sperm whales and other marine species largely as they have for centuries, but certain things have changed. Whereas until the late 1990s, the villagers had only been taking to the sea for livelihood in simple sailboats called paledang, they’re now also using engine-powered boats to pull the paledang offshore once a whale is sighted and to search for their daily prey.
Conservationists are alarmed because the villagers catch not only sperm whales, but also protected deep-sea species like manta rays, orcas, dolphins and oceanic sharks with their engine-powered boats all year round to provide food and a living for their community. In 2010, the Ministry of Tourism (East Nusa Tenggara) and WWF workers came to Lamalera to talk about conservation, suggesting the idea of whale watching to attract tourism. As they were making their speech, some Lamalerans set off and returned with their whaling knifes to chase the environmentalists out of their village, claiming they had been living a fine life without governmental institutions, so there wouldn’t be any need to talk. Ten military soldiers rolled in, standing against a hundred outraged villagers. More discussions followed, but to no avail. Since then, venturing to Lamalera with the intention of talking about conservation awareness has carried certain risks.
Yosef Bataona, the head of Lamalera village, explains, “We’re living in a machine era! Nevertheless, the number of sperm whales we catch annually has not increased despite the use of engine-boats to support the paledang crew. Last year, we hunted down 25 whales. Some years we might catch 40, but sometimes not even one. On average, we need to kill three sperm whales a year to feed all our families. Us Lamalerans believe the whales are a gift from our ancestors and god. This is about survival! We couldn’t get through if only relying on the whales. Lately, we have been getting lots of pressure from the media world, but no one seems to really understand the deeper sense of our situation. Our people here struggle for one spoon of rice or a piece of corn. There is no fertile soil and the entire topography is stony, which makes growing crops impossible, so we have no choice but to take full advantage of what the sea offers us. Thus, as long as no one can provide us the salary needed, we have to carry on.”