The village of Kampung Naga in Indonesia’s West Java province has for decades eschewed modernization for a way of life rooted in a deep spiritual connection to nature.
Kampung Naga families have worked for generations to preserve the forest in the Ciwulan River Basin, all under the guidance of a customary rule book.
They have also worked to reintroduce more than 10 variants of rice seeds that were phased out during the 1950s in favor of new higher-yield varieties.
Today, Kampung Naga offers a limited form of tourism, aimed at presenting the community’s customary traditions to a handful of curious outsiders at a time.
KAMPUNG NAGA, Indonesia — Ucu Suherlin pictures his community as a small fishing boat in the center of a perfect storm. As the kuncen naga, or senior customary elder, 55-year-old Ucu is at the helm of a small Indigenous village trying to maintain a traditional way of life in West Java province, an industrial heartland.
Kampung Naga, or “Dragon Village,” lies near the Ciwulan River and less than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from a main road linking the cities of Tasikmalaya and Garut in West Java, a province with a population larger than California’s but smaller than a tenth the area. It’s also Indonesia’s largest province by population.
In 1956, the village was burned to the ground by Darul Islam, a militant Islamist group that controlled parts of West Java in the 1950s. The violence also threatened to immolate generations of customary tradition.
“After that we experienced pareum obor,” Ucu told Mongabay, a Sundanese spiritual term meaning the dying of a torchlight.
Today, Kampung Naga’s tightly thatched roofs cascade neatly downhill among plots of rice and tall coconut palms. Under the village adat, an Indigenous belief system, thatches may point only north and south. Parents spend their days farming and making handicrafts from bamboo; young children play with traditionally made toy carts, which kick up dust in courtyards between traditionally built homes.
Ucu’s outlook as kuncen naga was informed by his late father, Djadja Sutidja, who recognized (as the then-senior elder) that the customary society could not shut itself away entirely from the changes unfolding outside.
As kuncen naga, Ucu is charged with preserving and fostering customary values and rules that have stood for generations. One guiding principle is “ngaula karatu tumut kajaman,” which means to adapt in change.
But Kampung Naga has proved highly selective on how the society has adapted to the changing times. Village authorities have, for example, resisted taking up modern utilities, even as electricity cables and access to subsidized gas proliferated across West Java during recent decades. Families here continue to use kerosene and firewood for household fuel.
But while the village remains walled off from much of wider society, Ucu has built a more open approach to education and tourism.
After Ucu graduated from university in Jakarta, he returned to Kampung Naga with a plan to present the community’s customary traditions to a limited number of curious outsiders.
The main draw was the unique approach to conservation, he said. Kampung Naga families have worked for generations to preserve the forest in the Ciwulan River Basin, all under the guidance of a customary rule book.
That stewardship is determined by the principle of leuweung ban, which regulates an almost fundamentalist approach to conservation of the landscape. Even if a member of the community stumbles across a fallen branch, they may not pick it up.
Cutting down a tree is proscribed by Kampung Naga rules, with any violation subject to sanction from customary authorities.
Ucu’s late father stressed the importance of precise communication with outside authorities to conserve Kampung Naga’s way of life. Kampung Naga is a village of accomplished storytellers; several guides here recount customary rules and historical tales in fluent English with flair.
“Customs do not forbid citizens to study or go to school,” Ucu said. “Actually it is a requirement because it can help bridge tourists’ understanding of the way of life in the Kampung Naga community.”
Other projects include reintroducing more than 10 variants of rice seeds that were phased out during the Green Revolution, a period of profound shift in agriculture beginning in the 1950s that saw high-yield seeds widely introduced.
The success of this unusual tourism arrangement has drawn the attention of the government, which awarded Kampung Naga with a sustainable tourism accolade in 2019.
“We never discriminate among visitors — whether it be religion, ethnicity, or their origin,” Ucu said.
Ucu has since received offers to grow the small tourism venture, such as paved access from the nearest asphalt road.
“We refused that outright because we are not a commercial tourist attraction,” he said. “What use is the money if the customs are broken?”
Banner image: The thatched-roof houses of Kampung Naga. Image by Donny Iqbal for Mongabay.
This story was partly reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team in an article first publishedhere on ourIndonesian site on Oct. 28, 2021.