Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Batak Textile Heritage Saujana Conservation and Sustainable Development OR When Batak Textiles were Honey and How They can Change the World

I delivered the webinar 'The Batak Textile Heritage Saujana Conservation and Sustainable Development' on 21 May 2021 as part of the 4th International e-Public Forum on Intangible Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development. This, in turn, was part of the 2021 INTERNATIONAL ONLINE SUMMER COURSE ON JOGJA WORLD BATIK CITY: Balancing Creative Economy and Heritage Saujana Conservation to Foster Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Why, you might wonder, is a seminar on Batak included in a webinar on batik?
Batak and batik differ by only one letter, but there is a world of difference between the two.
o Batik is a textile decoration technique practised mainly on Java, and
o Batak is an ethnic group in the province of North Sumatra that weaves and does not make batik.

There is certainly difference between Batak textiles and batik textiles, but there is also similarity.
All of the hundreds of textile traditions in the island archipelago of Indonesia have similarities and differences; they relate to each other like variations on a theme.
To my mind, the entire Nusantara textile heritage deserves UNESCO recognition, because all these textile traditions are related to one another and reference each other like a single ‘set’ of material culture. They form a whole.
I applaud the wisdom of the organizers of this forum for including a comparative perspective on batik.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

This seminar focuses on the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. The Sustainable Development Goals represent a remarkable step in the history of global relations. In 2015 the United Nations agreed to a global partnership to improve human lives and at the same time to protect the environment, through sustainable development. The date for achieving the goals was set at 2030. I understand that today’s seminar is one initiative of a member country to explore how to achieve these goals. I applaud this intention.

Detail of a Batak pinunsaan textile

The textile crafts of Indonesia represent an extremely valuable resource in the global attempt to live within planetary ecological boundaries. 
My position is that craft traditions present alternatives to the dominant global systems of production and capitalism, which have brought our planet into a precarious ecological position, with global warming, and over-exploitation of planetary resources and people.

Map of Indonesia

2017 Paris Climate Accord – a UN agreement

After the 2015 SDG agreement came the legally binding 2017 Paris Agreement to stay within 1.5 degrees of global warming, by peaking greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by 2050. This agreement implies and demands rapid and revolutionary economic and social transformation in the Global North, where most of the emission are caused.

Failure to meet the terms of this agreement are predicted to have dire climate consequences that will cost governments, including Indonesia, a great deal of money and will hurt most those who are least responsible for the CO2 emissions. Think of the cyclone earlier this year in Eastern Indonesia which threatened the lives of many weavers and the viability of their textile crafts. Think, too, of the corona pandemic which is believed to be a result of compromised ecosystems.

Degrowth Movement

The Degrowth movement has been building since the 1970s when scientists recognized the ecological limits to growth and it is becoming increasingly recognized and established.

It centres on a complex problem:
1. Capitalism requires growth to function
2. The Exponential growth of capitalism means that the terms of the Paris Agreement will not and cannot be met
3. Sustainable development, when it is based on capitalist growth, might be growth but it is not sustainable. 

Simply put, there is a problem when the SDGs encourage capitalist growth because this, precisely, is what leads to environmental degradation and social inequality.

Hence specialists are proposing degrowth as a way for the world to become more equitable whereby production and consumption remain within the ecological carrying capacity of the earth.

In other words, it is time to see the world turned on its head.

The word ‘development’, once a central, almost universal goal, has become problematic due to social consequences and the limited capacities of the planet.

Since the colonial era, craft has been seen as a vehicle to enable the poor to climb out of poverty. Revising craft for income generation is currently a predominant economic model for so-called ‘craft development’. Also in Indonesia.

However, recent research shows that capitalist growth creates poverty; it does not relieve poverty. Poverty in the world has never been as great as it is today. Growth of GDP does not imply improved well-being. (see Jason Hickel)
This means that the global economic system requires rehabilitation; the dominance of its economic and productions systems is currently a most pressing global problem.

Batak backstrap loom being manipulated by Ompu Elza, br. Sinaga. (2019)

Because capitalist growth creates poverty, environmental destruction and is exploitative there is a serious problem when craft is transformed into a vehicle for economic growth: I am speaking of faster looms, greater production, hierarchical workshop settings with a boss, and independent craft makers being transformed into labourers.

ATBM (semi-mechanized) loom being manipulated by a Batak weaver in Pematang Siantar. (ca. 2010)
Indigenous craft production systems are alternative models for business and industry. Indigenous production systems may offer strategies of sustainable production and social equality. Rather than conceptualizing craft as lagging in terms of global economic development, craft may be treasured for the kinds of models that it provides for alternative and sustainable economic and production systems. Then the challenge for craft activists becomes how to ensure that indigenous craft systems survive and thrive and are honoured rather than transformed into yet another capitalist activity. 
To explain this, I would like to speak briefly (given the short time available), about the position of Batak textiles, in the physical and social environments of the Batak people.

The social role of hand-woven Batak textiles is an example of what industrial, post-colonial society is looking for -- and longing for -- when it aspires to become sustainable.

Indonesian people I think would all agree that the textiles of their ethnic communities are flags of identity. Each community has unique and characteristic textile designs.

detail of Batak Bintang Maratur textile
In the Batak area the weaving arts are in severe decline and much textile knowledge has been lost. As a consequence, many Batak people are not aware that the identity-function of the cloth relates to much more than just how it looks. It also relates to how the cloth was made and used. Because time is short, I will restrict myself to brief aspects of how it used to be made.
Ompu ni Sihol, surrounded by her grandchildren, is making indigo dye. (1980)
Batak textiles are like honey. A bee collects pollen from the flowers in the near vicinity and makes honey. A weaver, in this case Ompu ni Sihol, is like a bee. She assembles materials from the near environment and her honey is an ancient clothing tradition.
Batak textiles originally represented the near environment including:
1. Various kinds of wood to make the weaving equipment
2. Grasses used in weaving, dyeing and starching
3. Plants for dyes
4. Local fibres for the yarn, including banana and a kind of nettle as well as cotton
5. Water next to the village serving in all of the processes
The indigenous textiles were made using local materials and local knowledge, and stayed within local ecological capacities.

Here Op ni Sihol is using local, wild indigo, dye pots made from local clay, and the water flowing beside her village. She has transported the indigo in handwoven mats made from local grasses.

Her grandchildren are helping and learning. Call it capacity building, cultural survival, community building, valuing of the elderly, transmission of cultural heritage, or the indigenous education system.

Currently, Batak textiles are no longer like honey.
1. Fibres and yarns are imported from elsewhere; dyes are imported from elsewhere; equipment is imported from elsewhere. All of these Imports imply CO2 emissions for transportation and they put the Batak people out of work. They therefore also imply loss of skills.
2. The imported synthetic dyes and yarns are made of hydrocarbons, and these hydrocarbons are obtained from sacrifice zones, areas that are destroyed for the sake of economic growth.
Once ecologically sound, Batak weavings today represent the opposite of what they once were.
They no longer represent the homelands/local environment.
They represent pollution because they do not biodegrade.
They no longer support the community, and no longer use local equipment and heritage know-how.

Furthermore, the semi-mechanical loom is utilized in a different system of production. Weaving on a backstrap loom in the village helped to create an integrated social life. Local know-how is activated and shared when weaving was done. Precisely this kind of community integration is being lost due to industrial style production. There is loss of skill, knowledge of local environment falls into decline, local wisdom is lost, and the position of the elderly in society declines and there is the attendant gap between generations.
3. a production hierarchy occurs whereby the weavers become labourers in an owner’s or a designer’s set-up, instead of continuing as the independent artisans they once were. The new loom constructs inequality instead of community. When weaving produced integrated community life, cultural and historical identity were also produced.

The kind of cultural integration that I am describing runs very, very deep. If we look at what the Batak weaver makes, she is also demonstrating, through her cloth, her view of the universe.
I have depicted here the basic structure of Batak textiles. Western education teaches us to emphasize the patterning of a textile when searching for its meaning, but this emphasis on motifs and the visual is a colonial legacy. For the Batak people, basic composition was important for the whole cloth and all of its component parts. Not just motifs, but their  arrangement in the cloth. That basic structure had everything to do with how Bataks understood their universe was structured.

Traditional Batak textiles were always divided into three parts if they had a role to play in adat, or ritual. A cloth had two similar sides and a centre. That same 2:1 relationship was found in all the parts of a cloth. Note how the supplementary warp and weft patterns have two similar sides and a centre that is different. The structure is expressed in colour, technique and patterning.

The Batak loved textiles that elaborated a single theme in a complex way, so that the smallest design feature was homologous with the largest design feature. That was the Batak aesthetic.

Supplementary warp pattern

Supplementary weft and ikat patterns

The understanding of the structure of the universe spilled over into daily life: 
  • In the kinship system, there are three groups: Wife-Giver, Wife-taker, Ego Clan
  • The universe consisted of three layers: Upper World, Under World, the Middle World
  • The three Gods in the upper world were represented by the three Batak colours: red, white, black/blue.
  • Ritual, music, seating arrangements, village layout, house layout, house carving and colouring, all have that 3-part unity that is repeated and repeated. 
Not only the recapitulation of basic structures was satisfying for the Batak, but also increasingly complex elaborations of that arrangement.
The origins of this 3-part design unity can be found the culture history of the Batak, and appear to be rooted in early Austronesian influence, early connections with other parts of the archipelago (Timorese textiles are particularly striking for their similarity in general layout with Batak textiles), and early Hindu-Buddhist influence (still evident in sari layout). Their textile design, in other words, also reveals or reflects Batak culture history.

Design is community in yet another sense. The textiles were designed for the community, by the community. The Batak did not have ‘specialized designers’. That is a colonial invention. They did have talented weavers, some more talented than others. Designs emerged, developed and changed through the collective activities of weavers within their community. Designs grew incrementally, which explains why each ethnic group has strongly characteristic designs. The whole community approved or rejected the innovations informally, so that when new designs were accepted, this was a community decision. Furthermore, the adat community decided when and how a design could be deployed ritually. And on top of that, the full range of textiles design types represented the full range of social categories within the community. So social organization was reflected in the full range of designs. Clearly, textile design represented the whole society and was the work of the whole society.

So, what is this weaver weaving? She is weaving life. She is weaving together her physical environment, reproducing her intellectual universe, constructing community, enacting and depicting her kinship system, displaying her culture history, learning and expanding and passing on ancient skills.... Her identity has many, many layers, variously and deeply significant. The complexity of her work is spectacular, far greater than the sum of its parts.

It was therefore unthinkable that her work would become obsolete or ‘disposable’ like the commodities of industrial production. That would be throwing away her entire life, all that was precious and meaningful to her. There was no waste in her clothing system.

These multiple layers of meaning disappear when a piece of craft becomes a commodity representing only a single value: money. Then, the only value it has for the maker is at the moment of exchange, or when she gets paid as a labourer. This represents a considerable loss of social integration, cohesion, pride, know-how, uniqueness and on and on.

I would like to lay the goal of sustainable development beside the traditional Batak textile craft, when it was still like honey.  I have intimated that traditional Batak textile production already meets the goal of sustainability. The definition of 'development' is problematic, however.  Upon being used for capitalist development, that same tradition becomes unsustainable. And this is what we are currently facing. The word ‘development’ is problematic when it involves industrialization, and commoditization and all the consequences thereof for people, culture, communities and planet.

Attempts to use the Batak weaving arts as a source of income generation have led to an expansion of CO2 emissions and waste, as well as poverty for weavers, loss of know-how and community, de-skilling – all the things that I have mentioned above.

I propose that it would be prudent to safeguard the possibility of indigenous expressions of local genius. I propose that indigenous craft (clothing production) systems be recognized -- and also treasured – as models of sustainable production. The whole world, and certainly the Global North, needs these models. Craft can lead the world.

Indigenous Batak textiles show: 
o how goods can be valued socially (when they are not commoditized)
o how they can produce social harmony and justice (without the egregious exploitation that has resulted in the world from the capitalist system)
o how cultural pluriversality functions 
o How local textile traditions embody alternative values whereby community well being rather than money occupies the central position.

Some Resources

Degrowth Movement


Hickel, Jason. 2021. ‘Extreme poverty isn’t natural, it’s created’ (Blog March 21)


Hickel, Jason. Growth is Killing Us.


Hickel, Jason. 2018. The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and it Solution. Windmill Books.


Hickell, Jason. 2020. The Great Unravelling: Inequality. Webinar: The Postcarbon Institute


If continued growth is not sustainable, would its opposite – degrowth – be the right alternative? EOI (Escuela de organizaciĆ³n industsrial) blog.


Robra, Ben and Heikkurinen, Pasi. 2019. ‘Degrowth and the Sustainable Development Goals’ In Decent Work and Economic Growth. Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Springer, Cham


SDG Index Finds No European Country on Track, Green Deal Brings Potential


Sustainable Development, Poverty Eradication and Reducing Inequalities


United Nations Climate Change website


UN Sustainable Development Agenda 2030. – do the SDGs fit??

Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs of Form


Sunday, May 16, 2021

More Webinars

 Here are additional webinars that I have given on the topic of sacrifice zones, related  to my article, "Fashion, its Sacrifice Zone and Sustainability"


Decolonizing Fast-Fashion: A Living Wage and Good Working Conditions for Women of the Global South


Sponsoring Organization: Unitarian Universalist Association Office at the UN

24 March

You’ll find my contribution here:  0:52:53 – 1:08:00


Extinction Rebellion: Fashion Act Now 

Fashion and Degrowth – Exploring the link between decolonisation and sustainability, May 11

You can find more about Fashion Act Now on their informative web page