Sumba Island belongs to the Lesser Sunda Islands. Sumba has an area of about 11000 square kilometres, so it is roughly twice the size of Bali. With approximately 715000 inhabitants (2017) Sumba has only about one sixth of the population of Bali. Although Sumba is less than 100 kilometres from the southern coast of Sumbawa and Flores - and still in visibility range - it is quite different:
Instead of high volcanoes, as in many other islands of Indonesia, the terrain is rather hilly; the highest mountain is 1225 meters high. Geologically, Sumba is a continental fragment that broke off from Africa or Australia and floated to the edge of the line of volcanic islands of Indonesia. Sumba consists mainly of coral limestone. Only at the south coast there are also volcanic rocks. Sumba has no mineral resources. But when drilling in 2010 in Wanggameti National Park gold was found.
No lush green covers the landscape. The north and east of the island are extremely dry and the landscape resembles a savannah. In open areas weather and wind have partially exposed the craggy rocks. In central highlands hills are covered with Alang grass. To the south and west it is green - but only in valleys and on the southern slopes of the mountains you find humid tropical vegetation. About 7% of the area of Sumba is covered with original forest.
Sumba has a semi-arid climate. Especially
the east of the island is characterized by the hot north-Australian climate.
There is a dry season from May to October. From November to April, it might
rain. The monsoon or rainy season lasts from about 3 months in the east up to 5
months in the west. Rainfall ranges from 800-1000 mm per year in the northeast
to 1000-1500 mm in the central region and up to 1500-2000 mm in the
south-western part of the island.
The strong and dry Australian
wind from June to August dries out the soil additionally.
Due to climate changes, both the amount of rain and
the duration of the monsoon have been different recently.
In the eastern part the average daily temperature is between 27 and 36 degrees Celsius. In the west the average is 2-3 degrees cooler. Night temperatures are significantly lower than in Bali. During the month of June to August night temperatures sometimes drop down below 15 degrees. The highest temperatures occur before the first rains in October or November.
It is considered certain that the "El Nino" effect plays a role in the climate changes. There are extreme droughts during but also heavy rain after "El Nino". Rivers in the south change their course because of flooding and destroy fields and bridges.
According to the common rule, Sumba is more on the edge of the latitudes affected by cyclones. That has also changed. In April 2021, Cyclone Seroja severely devastated the south-east of Sumba.
Due to the water masses of the monsoon, El Nino and cyclones, the rivers in the south often change their course and destroy fields and bridges. Recently the shortage of water forced people in the northeast of Sumba to abandon some traditional villages and new settlements. In this area the residents are depend of permanent foreign aid.The best time for travelling for nature lovers is from March to June, after the monsoon, when it does not rain any longer, and when it is still green – as well as in October and November, when it becomes a little green due to sporadic rains. If you are planning your travel in very long terms, you should avoid years with "El Nino" effect.
For swimming the waves at some beaches at the south coast are too high from July to September.
Due to the specific climate water is very important for the people of Sumba. If you read travel-brochures of the district governments of Sumba, you should qualify the description, if you hear about great lakes and mighty waterfalls. But it's beautiful green all around.
Despite the comparatively low population density, Sumbanese today can live only partially of their own crops. In arid dry regions of the northeast and on the high plains nothing can be grown. Only in valleys and along river banks small agriculture areas can be found. The only livestock are here Sumba horses and especially Indian Brahman cows.
The agricultural products of the remaining areas of Sumba in alphabetic order are: Areca (betel nuts), caladium (colour root, ubi keladi), cashew nuts, cassava (manioc, singkong, ubi kayu), cloves, coconuts, cocoa, corn, hazelnuts, jarak (jatropha oil crop), kapuk, peanuts, rice, robusta (lowland) coffee, shorgum (millet), soybeans, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, and vanilla. In addition to Sumba horses and water buffalos there are especially Brahman cows, goats, pigs and poultry.
Farming methods are traditional. A lot is done with human power or with the help of Sumba horses and water buffaloes. The regional administration wants to reduce ritual animal sacrifice, especially buffalo sacrifice, since these animals are urgently needed for ploughing. In 1987 a decree was passed which forbids the sacrifice of more than 5 animals. Recently West Sumba decided to allow a maximum of 3 animal sacrifices per celebration - exceptions are common.
Along all coasts of Sumba there is more or less intensive fishing. Nowadays fishermen are mainly immigrants from Sumbawa, Ujung Padang (Makassar), Lombok, and Savu. Fishermen from neighbouring islands who only come here for fishing in the waters of Sumba are often not welcome. It is claimed that they fish with dynamite, cyanide, and put the fish in formalin. Best time for fishing is early in the year during the monsoon season, and from August.
Seaweed (Rumput laut) is grown in all calm
and shallow water areas in east Sumba. For that seaweed shoots get infixed into
ropes. The ropes are then anchored under water or they dangle connected with
plastic bottles on the sea surface. Harvest is several times a year. From
mature seaweed AgaAga is made, or it is used as animal feed or natural
fertilizer. This economic activity has increased dramatically in recent times
and unfortunately leads to a negative ecological change of shallow water areas.
The water gets dull and the fishes lose their environment. Fishing is therefore
often operated in these areas only as a side-line or stopped. Proceeds from the
sale of seaweed are also higher than from agricultural cultivation. As a
result, agriculture land is abandoned, in favour of seaweed monocultures.
People migrate to the coast - initially without any kind of infrastructure and
"El Nino" in 2015 stopped this development temporarily, because of seaweed
crop yields declined.
In 2021 the Cyclone Seroja destroyed the seaweed
harvesting installations in the south-east of Sumba due to high waves.
In parallel to the seaweed cultures, Sargassum, a type of brown algae, is harvested. Sargassum is not planted but exists as a mostly floating plant. Seaweed and sargassum are raw materials for, for example: blisters, emulsifiers, fertilizers and shampoo.
Sumba is regularly plagued by locust plagues. East Sumba is particularly affected. The invasion by locusts begins with the rainy season and peaks at the turn of the year (most recently in 2022/2023 in Northeast and East Sumba). In the event of an imminent plague, the farmers refrain from or postpone a new sowing so that it is not eaten.
From salty sand of the lagoons, they produce salt with the help of driftwood.
Foreign aid organizations are trying to convince the Sumbanese to use new farming methods, forage, and crops. But as long as these attempts make no profit for the hierarchy of the Indonesian government, they are not supported by the state. In addition to that, big and complex irrigation projects, often fail because of ownership structure and local egoism.
In the west of the island, in the districts Wewewa Selatan and Kodi Bangedo, cloves are cultivated on huge areas. The plants get along with the natural rain.
In the east of the island, the cultivation of sugar cane is started by means of artificial irrigation. At the government level it is planned to make Indonesia independent of sugar imports. Foreign investors were given appropriate land rights. There are 6 designated areas in East Sumba. If you come by plane to Waingapu you can clearly see 2 of these areas: coming from the North it is Napu and from the South it is Wanga. For these plantations, landscapes are transformed into flat surfaces, hills get removed and valleys are filled up. Large water reservoirs are being built. The reservoirs are sealed with plastic film. The water comes from the rivers or is pumped from deep wells. This is justifiable, as long as no further agriculture is operated. The water rights of the parties involved - investors and local farmers - have not been determined. In some areas, where competing farm systems are operated, one takes away the water from the other. Often the amount of water is not enough for conventional cultivation and new projects. Many a river runs dry today long before it reaches the sea. Meanders and adjacent pasture land dry out. There are already protests by local farmers in affected areas.
Where the amount of water for sugar cane is no longer sufficient, Jatropha is planted. It is bush for the production of biofuels. In my point of view the result of cultivation is rather bleak in Napu area. From Wanga and south of it looks pretty good.
According to the opportunities of income from agriculture, the western side of the island is more populated than the east. In Sumba most people are descendants of Malays and Melanesians. There was also immigration from Timor and Savu in the south-eastern areas; at the north-western coasts Muslim people settled from Sumbawa, Ujung Padang (Makassar), and even from Arabia (Palestine). Colonial rulers, especially the Portuguese left their mark. The Sumbanese in physical appearance does not exist.
The Savunese from Savu represent the largest and most influential group of non-Sumbanese. They endeavour to greater autonomy and an own administration district in East Sumba with the capital Melolo.
Because of the missionary work of
Portugal, the Netherlands, and Germany about 64% of the population are
Christians (3/4 Protestants, 1/4 Catholic), 6% are Muslims, and 30%
predominantly believe in the traditional Marapu religion (but statistics vary
completely). The missionary work by German Redemptorists and the Dutch Church
still continues today. Sumbanese people are often verbally critical about other
people and religions.
The harmonious coexistence in Sumba is also
disturbed by the fact that the Indonesian central government often sends
officials of the Muslim faith to Sumba. Saudi Arabia and Europe only send
money, lots of money: Mosques and churches are being built everywhere.
About half of the population are children. The rate of new-born children in Sumba is still rising. Most families have 8-10 children. "Many children, many blessings" - this motto seems to be true because children help their parents mainly in their fields and fetching water. For grown-up daughters they get a dowry: water buffalo, horses, and cows.
There are also Transmigration (Transmigrasi) and Area Development Programs in Sumba. Everywhere new settlements are under construction. Partly such settlements are built in uninhabited areas with hundreds of houses lined up, a school and a new road; but partly they are also built in or around existing villages. Settlers mostly come from Sumatra, Java, Sumbawa, and Timor. Quite often the religion and way of life of the immigrants are different and so adapting problems are inevitable. Settlements in the dry north and northeast of Sumba make a predominantly poor and hopeless impression. Many settlements have been nearly completely abandoned (Lenang, Waiurang). In the south of the island the economic and social integration seems to be more successful. After all, up to 90% of the farms in new settlements, are operated after a period of 10 years (as I counted in the villages of Kuruwaki and Hobajangi).
Australia installed a restrictive immigration and refugee policy in 2014. Boat people on their way to Australia are intercepted and sent back by the Australian navy. The refugees come from entire Asian and Arab countries. Sumba is a stopover for many migrants. Financed by Australia the government of NTT intends to build an internment or concentration camp in the area of Gaura in Sumba. The plot is apparently already bought. Due to the change of government in Australia this project is perhaps not followed up.
Sumba is divided into 4 administrative districts. Apart from East Sumba there is the former West Sumba district, which in 2006 was divided into 3 districts: Central Sumba, West Sumba, and Southwest Sumba. Central Sumba and Southwest Sumba are currently building monstrous administrative centers, reminiscent of socialism, on the flat land. In East Sumba, Central Sumba, and West Sumba new ports are being built which from a technical point of view will never go into operation or are economically unprofitable. But it is obviously important for their identity.
The programs of the 4 local administration districts in Sumba are similar. These are political targets among others:
- Social development into a modern community
- Guarantee the basic needs
- Production and marketing of products to strengthen the economy
- Improvement of the health system for all levels of society
- Improvement of the public education and the education system
- Reduction of the mortality of pregnant women and children
- Improvement of the nutritional situation
- Economic Development
- Improvement of the infrastructure
- Development of the tourism sector as a model for other sectors
- Partnerships between religious and other social institutions
- Promoting cooperation with NGOs (Non-Government Organization)
- Promoting a mutually acceptable vertical transparency of government
- Promoting the rule of law and strict law enforcement
- Preservation of natural resources for a maximum benefit of the people
And finally, in their programs they demand an administration with more competence, transparency, and less corruption. Sumbanese often say that the corruption in Sumba is the highest in Indonesia.
In many decisions Bali is a model, especially in economic terms. Its own profile or backbone of the local policy is missing. Money seems to be the only engine of action.
An example of the impending sale of the island is the unregulated or even subsidized sale of land to non Sumbanese. Hopefully the specific culture of the island will not fall by the wayside.
Due to the long-term isolation of many areas and through subsistence economy, a great variety of cultural and linguistic differences have emerged within the population of the island. In the 50s the Indonesia administration referred to local languages as feudal languages and Bahasa Indonesia as the language of the new democracy. This had little effect, at least in the countryside Sumbanese speak their regional language among themselves. Even the opposite is true: on local NTT radio you can hear more and more songs in regional languages.
Besides the national language, Bahasa
Indonesia, there are 6 regional languages in Sumba. The common name for all of
them is Bahasa Daerah or Bahasa Sumba. In West Sumba they are completely
different. In East Sumba there is one Language but with many local dialects. For
none of the local languages, you find a dictionary, everything is passed down
verbally. Some languages are spoken by less than 50,000 people, such as in Wanukaka
Equivalent in all languages are the words for water = wai or wee, man = umbu, and woman = rambu.
In addition to that there are the languages of the immigrants (cf. above). So, in coastal regions they speak their own language, with the neighbouring village the specific Bahasa Daerah and with the administration Bahasa Indonesia. The majority in the place determines the common language. Many children start learning Bahasa Indonesia at school ... and then can they can speak Indonesian usually better than their parents.
From time to time there are massive conflicts between villages, especially in the west of the island. This can simply be explained by the different languages: They do not understand each other!
English is only helpful in towns. Without Bahasa Indonesia you will have understanding problems in the center of the island. Even with Bahasa Indonesia you might have problems in the inland. However, if someone knows a little English, he will be determined to speak with you.
See also some remarks in Orientation in Sumba.
In most regions of Sumba and outside the 3 major towns, people live without access to clean water. Often water is pumped from rivers, distributed, and sold by tank trucks. Wells are scarce and often difficult to build because of limy ground. Many villages have no toilets at all.
People's attitudes to health issues can be illustrated by the following example: Mosquito nets, donated from the UN, are often used as fishing nets, as well as protecting plants from birds or poultry.
In the country, many public health centers (PUSKESMAS) are not or barely manned. For example, a huge recently completed hospital opposite the Pasola Square in Lamboya is completely empty due to lack of staff. Sometimes there is a sporadic mobile care (PUSKESMAS-Keliling). Malnutrition is widespread. Infant mortality rate is among the highest in the world. Also, medicine is hard to get.
The resources of Sumba are limited. Where there is crop failure, the poorest families have not enough to eat. Relief supplies by the central government to cover crop losses have stopped in recent years due to the economic crisis. Nevertheless, many villages get permanently minimal portions of rice in order to cover their basic needs. However, the delivery is often irregular, and the distribution does not always seem to be fair.
Statistics (from 2005) count about 38 doctors for 100000 people in Sumba, 84 nurses and 133 midwives. In addition to conventional medicine, there are a very large number of shamans. There are 17 health centers for 100000 people. According to statistics 30% of the patients have infections, 21% malaria, 13% injuries, 10% skin diseases, 26% others.
The effects of famine are visible everywhere. In every village there are children who cannot lift their heads at the age of one year; children at the age of 10 have the size of a 6-year-old and a lot of children have different signs of malnutrition (Source Sumba Foundation).
Sumbanese who work in Bali bring not only money home but often HIV. This issue is currently visualized on advertising panels.
The traditional isolated lifestyle, where one clan lives in one village and with rare mixing with people from other villages causes problems. The theme inbreeding is known and visible.
Corona / Covid-19 had mainly spread in the cities.
That wasn't an issue in the country. Because of the impending exit
restrictions, many people got vaccinated - or what was cheaper - bought a
vaccination certificate. Not all families received the government-planned
Corona allowance of 10000 rupees per day and family.
Sumba belongs to one of the rather neglected regions, due to its distance to the capital, relatively low population, and population density. In Sumba only a little more than half of the children will start school. Of these only about half finish basic education successfully. As soon as a child can contribute to their parents' income, this is more important than school. A remarkable number of especially strong and practically gifted children have to stay in the village and help their parents at home and in the fields. There is no money available for school. Often, the way to school takes more than an hour.
In secondary school, a lot of practical knowledge is imparted, such as technical, biological, and medical know-how to get along in the village. These schools are rare and are often far away according to population density and demand, so that a daily return to the village is hardly possible.
High schools are only in towns. The curriculum is excellent. But only those children can afford these educations which have relatives in town where they can board. If possible, middle-class families send their children to boarding schools in Yogyakarta, Malang or Bali.
Without school education and a good knowledge of the Indonesian language, children have less chance of a good future. Not all children in a family may later inherit the land of their fathers. Children without land and without education will remain unemployed.
Sumba is one of the 5 poorest of the 30
provinces of Indonesia. A large proportion of the population lives on
subsistence farming. People are dependent on natural resources and have few
opportunities to sell their product surpluses at a market. Official statements
about the poverty rate are pretty meaningless (between 28% and 85%). Around 70% of
employees do not have a permanent job.
problems caused by the pandemic have made many Sumbanese poorer. This can be
seen in the streetscape, 3 examples of this: Increase in people waiting in
front of the pawnshops (Pegadaian). Increase in supply of used motorcycles due
to forced sales. Increase in street vendors selling little more than a few
bottles of fuel.
For the majority of the population there are no opportunities for an economic development outside the village, due to lack of jobs on the island. For those who cannot find work in Sumba, Bali is a first hope and Malaysia is the desired paradise because of higher wage levels, and almost same language (Bahasa Melayu).
Not only men may have a chance of getting a job outside of Sumba. Numerically, there is a high proportion of women working as housemaids, mostly in Malaysia. Working women who finance their husbands and families, and what work abroad is really like, is a controversial subject (cf. Health HIV).
Lately there have been cases where employment agencies sold minors to Malaysia. To prove the age of children, they used the identity cards of the older sibling or relatives.
I talked about the environment in the other sections whenever it was relevant. I am aware that the following environmental issues are more likely subordinate compared with current problems of the people of Sumba.
Due to its special flora and fauna the World Wildlife Fund categorized Sumba as a deciduous forest eco region. Sumba has a mix of plants and animals, of Asian, Australian, and oceanic origin. The northern part of the island originally was monsoon deciduous forest, while the southern part was evergreen rain forest, and had no distinct dry season. The forest in the north is nearly totally cut down. The forest in the south is partly preserved, like in the mountain regions Jawila, Tanah Daru and Wanggameti.
There are a number of mammals, but Sumba is particularly rich in bird species, of which 7 are endemic species. A number of other birds are found only here and on some neighbouring islands. Among endemic species of birds are 4 endangered species: Red-napped fruit-dove, Sumba Buttonquail, Yellow-crested Cockatoo, and Sumba Hornbill. In addition, there are the usual typical tropical bird species, especially in southern forests. In the mountains and on the coast are lots of eagles, pelicans, and migratory birds from Australia.
During dry season, meanders, and planes of
the south-flowing rivers and protected forests in the south form a large water
reservoir. Population growth and expansion of cultivated areas and thus an
increased consumption of water and cutting down of forests is a major threat to
the life on the island. Still wood is cut down, although the government has
banned it by law. According to government regulations, new buildings
must use bamboo or wood from other islands.
The soil in Sumba mainly consists of porous limestone. Where the humus layer is too thin, the water seeps through. Therefore, irrigation programs must be adjusted so that the water table is maintained.
Due to the extremely large increase of seaweed / AgaAga production in shallow water areas the flora and fauna there gets driven out.
In order to protect nature two national parks were designated in 1998: Laiwangi Wanggameti National Park and Manupeu Tanah Daru National Park. These two parks now operate together under the name "Matalawa". Please note: In these national parks you do not get pampered as in North America. Particularly in Laiwangi Wanggameti National Park, there is absolutely no infrastructure. In addition to these parks, there are numerous nature reserve areas.
There is less plastic waste on beaches in Sumba than in the densely populated areas of Indonesia. The beaches north of Waingapu are quite heavily littered. The beaches in the south are clean.
The administrative district Sumba Barat has started a garbage disposal program. In many public and tourist places garbage containers have been set up. At least in tourist places, it has become much cleaner.On some beaches changes due to the rise of the water level or stronger monsoon influences can be observed. In the east of the island there are beaches that step back up to one meter per year. There is also a decline in Tarimbang.