Sasi, West Papuan Tradition for Preserving the Nature

West Papua

Many indigenous populations around the world still preserve traditional customs to protect their lifestyle, including in West Papua. Sasi is one of the most notable customs in Eastern Indonesia, practiced by various populations in Papua and Maluku Islands, aimed to respect and preserve nature in relation to everyday activities.

Definition of Sasi in West Papua

West Papua

The practice of sasi as West Papuan tradition is aimed to preserve the natural resources, which are important for many locals living there. The word refers to a set of customs everyone must follow to keep the balance of nature and reduce the effect of “transgressions” against the environment. 

Sasi has a set of rules so strict, and there are hefty punishments for everyone who violates them. Some customs are general in nature and must be followed all the time. However, others are temporary and usually done after the coming of bad omens in nature.

In West Papua, sasi is observed in various regions where people depend on farming, hunting, and fishing on a daily basis. You can find examples of its practice in rural areas, such as Tomerrauw Village in Merauke and Menarbu Village near Wondama Bay.

How Locals Do Sasi

West Papua

The practice of sasi has slightly different applications between areas. However, people in various areas usually start this tradition after noticing “signs of natural imbalance”, such as the lack of fish in the nets or wild animals roaming in the village for food

Once the locals notice the signs, village elders or other respected figures will do certain rituals to signify the start of sasi. In Menarbu and Tomerrauw, this custom has blended with the Christian religion, and locals usually attend worships that are specifically designed to open this specific period. The priests and village elders also use the worships as announcements for the public, reminding them about the importance of sasi.

During the sasi period, locals in these West Papua villages are not allowed to hunt animals or catch fish. These acts are meant as a “rest period” for nature, in which people cannot disturb animals and their habitats. Examples include:

  • Not catching fish in certain areas of water, such as in the river or nearby sea
  • Not hunting animals in the forest
  • Only catching fish using fishing pole and small traps, not large nets
  • Not cutting down trees growing near the river
  • Not taking a bath or washing clothes on certain spots of the river

How long does sasi period last? It depends on the decision of the elders or arrangement between people. It can last for only weeks, months, or even years. During these times, animals and plants get opportunities to breed and flourish.

When the sasi period is over, village elders, religious leaders, and locals will hold a special ceremony. People can go back to catching fish and hunting, and they usually can see positive changes in nature.

Rules of Sasi in West Papua

West Papua

Like many traditional customs with widespread effects, sasi brings punishments for those violating the rules. Anyone caught hunting, cutting trees, or catching fish with tools other than the ones allowed must pay a certain fine. The amount of fine is calculated by the village elders or leaders—the more severe the transgression, the more that person must pay.

However, money is now always considered payment. Since pigs are precious commodities in West Papua, heavy transgressions may require the person to pay the fine with pigs instead. Another popular fine comes in the form of tree sapling, which the transgressor must plant on a certain spot.

As a traditional custom with sacred background and implication, the sasi period also demands good behaviors from people. For example, no one is allowed to fight, argue, or have sex in certain areas. Violation against these rules is thought of as bad omens and may cause misfortunes or disasters in the village.

What Are the Benefits of Sasi?

Aside from the spiritual aspects, sasi is definitely one of the most beneficial customs in West Papua. It gives the opportunity for nature to heal from human activities, allowing wildlife and plants to thrive despite human activities. Fewer destruction impacts will provide the surrounding populations with enough foods, medicinal herbs, and other bounties for a long time.

Reducing human activities also retain the quality of water, especially in the river and nearby sea. Restricting the use of large nets allow the fish population to grow. Some villages actually forbid fisher folks from using motorized boats, which can destroy fish eggs.

You can see other benefits in the quality of soil, which is the heart of many indigenous populations. By giving the time for the soil to “rest”, villagers can reap results like better, more frequent harvests. The soil in villages that do this custom is always fertile, giving the surrounding locals hope.

These benefits of sasi have drawn attention from environmental organizations and activists. The positive effects that come from this ritual benefit not only people but also nature. With growing studies and attention about sasi, locals in other areas in West Papua and beyond are expected to follow.

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