Image credit: “Backstrap loom silk weaving in a Bugis country house in the central highlands of South Sulawesi” by Joel Abroad/Flickr; License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Written by William Ingram.

Much of the enterprise development seen in indigenous communities across Indonesia focuses on teaching the indigenous people how to operate in the market, with the support organisation learning about the local culture only as far as is necessary to this end. This kind of engagement is often experienced as an imposition of non-indigenous values and thus meets resistance that undermines the success of livelihood initiatives.

Enterprise initiatives working on cultural arts and crafts development with indigenous communities therefore face a challenge: they need to build livelihood opportunities without undermining the culture from which the craft springs and without degrading the environment within which the raw materials are found. Furthermore, they are required to do this without having any integrated tools that could help them understand the linkages between culture, ecology and livelihoods or that are appropriate to the skills sets of their field staff, many of whom have no more than a high school education.

Therefore few organisations attempt to address these three issues simultaneously in a serious fashion, and as a result there are often unintended consequences from the livelihood initiatives for the culture or the environment, which in turn undermines the long-term viability of the livelihoods work.

Many aspects of material culture in Indonesia, particularly the textile arts, embody social and spiritual information and meaning in their motifs, visual structures, making and uses

Addressing these issues, the current work of the Bebali Foundation aims at supporting organisations to link culture, ecology and livelihoods using non-academic tools appropriate for local staff. In our own organisation, we realised that there was a gap between the implicit cultural knowledge about our partner communities that our field staff had developed over years of field work, and the institutional knowledge of our organisation.

A key insight in addressing this gap has been that if we want the organisation to align as much as possible with the cultures of our partner communities, then our internal pedagogy has to mimic the pedagogy of the people we work with: the way that information is recorded and shared must mimic the way the cultures themselves record and share information through material culture. Otherwise, we are subtly imposing an external epistemology and devaluing the indigenous one.

The more we engage with this issue, the more we are coming to see that changes in pedagogical and epistemological processes are at least as significant as drivers of change in material culture as are economic changes.

Many aspects of material culture in Indonesia, particularly the textile arts, embody social and spiritual information and meaning in their motifs, visual structures, making and uses. They are also mnemonics for stories, poetry and myths that root a people in its historical, social and ecological context. Congruent concepts will recur in different aspects of material culture and be expressed on different scales.

A person growing up within such a culture is immersed in this milieu. Understanding is visceral: it resides in the muscle memory of repeated tasks. It is implicit: no one person can hold it all and each person’s interests lead them to hold different parts of the whole.

Understanding is dispersed across a wide community, is rich in contradictions and conflicting points of view, and is compiled anew in the performance of each ritual or social gathering. Rightness is felt more than it is thought. Mastery is recognised in someone who feels the congruency of underlying connections so deeply that an intellectual understanding emerges, but this intellectual understanding is seen as intensely personal and is often considered spiritually dangerous to share.

Figure 1. Visual structure for a Tais Marobos Rarote textile from Malaka, Timor

How then can an external organisation record and share information in a way that mimics how indigenous cultures record and share information through material culture? Since 2015 the Bebali Foundation has been developing what we have called the Culture-Ecology-Livelihoods Learning System (CELLS) to combine field research practices and office workflows with three of our existing database systems (a cultural knowledge database, an herbarium and plant use database, and a retail inventory database).

Figure 2. Data schema for a cultural object

For a cultural object (be it a textile, a basket, a loom, or some other aspect of material culture) from a particular cultural group, we document its visual structure (Figure 1), the motifs and designs within that structure, the object’s uses, and the rituals performed upon it during its making and within which it has a role once completed. We record the raw materials, tools and techniques employed in its making. The names of the makers are recorded, along with their family and clan memberships.

Then the amount of each plant material that is being grown, and the origins thereof, are recorded and combined with the techniques data to find out how much of an object can be made sustainably. Meanings, myths and stories are recorded wherever they occur in this data schema for an object (Figure 2). Many text fields are formatted as a blog with multiple entries recorded over time but without indicating which is the ‘correct’ answer. Within the database, users may move from one part of the schema to any other part, from the schema for one object to that for any other object, and from the schemas for one cultural group to those for any other.

The CELLS workflows stimulate the Bebali Foundation to develop questions about the links between culture, ecology and livelihoods, exposing the connections that turn data into understanding and applicable knowledge. Using CELLS, field work staff develop a more holistic understanding of their work in communities, expanding their approach beyond a narrow focus on livelihoods. There are now endless opportunities for dialogue which become the relationship-building experiences that are the foundation for successful collaboration.

There is hope that the opening up of the CELLS platform to other local organisations working with indigenous weavers, which is scheduled for later in 2019, will extend and expand the success of this process.

William Ingram is co-founder of the for-profit Threads of Life ( business and a programme officer for the non-profit Bebali Foundation ( Since 1998 these organisations have worked to support cultural continuity, responsible use of plant resources, and improved livelihoods for more than 1000 indigenous weavers in over 50 communities on 12 islands across Indonesia.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

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