Sumba : Island of Thousand Cattle

“You don’t own cattle means you ain’t Sumbanese”…is this statement true? Yes, it’s an authentic proverb created by people of Sumba and has been generally accepted among themselves. In some places of Sumba, especially in East Sumba , personality of the locals have been formed into livestock farmers. For most of their history, people of Sumba believe that cattle are part of their traditional daily life.

Cattle on the island of Sumba, Indonesia’s most impoverished region, are burdened by many crucial social functions – they carry tradition, family pride, money and, of course, meat on their backs. Sumbanese primarily live of farming, cattle breeding, rice-field farming and trading. The number of cattle one owns, contributes to the social status. The more cattle you own, the higher your social status in Sumba. 

The Sumbanese people treat cattle as an asset and their main livelihood. Cattle play a very important role in the life and culture of Sumbanese people. 

For instance, a man who will marry a girl, should bring a dowry in the form of cattle. One can easily find a case in Sumba when groom should prepare a dozen of buffaloes, horses, or pigs as fully requested by the family of bride-to-be. Other than as dowry, cattle are also sacrificed in funeral, traditional house construction as well as Sumba Marapu ceremonies.

Supported by the natural surroundings of Sumba island which is dominated by wide savanna, locals usually shepherd various animals such as horses, buffaloes, cows, goats, sheeps or pigs. Many cattle are produced, but not without a few problems experienced by the livestock farmers in order to raise them. One classical problem that still occurs to this day is the traditional breeding pattern applied among the livestock farmers in Sumba. Most of the farmers still rely on the grassland to feed their cattle.

When rainy season comes, the needs of cattle feed can be easily fulfilled since there’s abundant green grass available everywhere in the savanna. On the other hand, during dry season, it is very hard to find any feeding source for the cattle. Some specific cattle, especially horses and cows only eat fresh green grass. Dry weather will cause the grass to turn brown which contains less nutrients than the fresh green grass.

To meet the needs, Sumbanese livestock farmers burn the dry grasslands to grow new shoots of green grass. According to Indonesian Forestry Department, the grassland fire and deforestation case in Sumba island has risen significantly in the last 10 years. Obviously, it has negative impact on the surrounding environment. The only purpose of Sumba grassland fires and deforestation is no other but cattle feeding. There’s a misconception among the farmers; if they burn the grasslands or forest, they will soon notice that green shoots of grass are sprouting out of the dead and black landscape, which later can be used for cattle feed.

In fact, deforestation has many negative effect on the environment. The most dramatic is a loss of habitat for many other species.

Well, it becomes government responsibility to provide appropriate education and better understanding of the grasslands fire or deforestation and its impact on local communities in Sumba.

Feel free to add your bunch of thoughts under comment section below! You might want to discover other interesting stories & facts about Sumba here: An Intriguing Story of Sumba Life Cycle Rites or Horses as Sumba cultural identity

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