Each week One Earth is proud to feature an environmental activist and hero from around the globe who is working to create a world where humanity and nature can coexist in harmony.
Aleta Baun grew up with a strong sense of community. As an Indigenous Mollo, she was born into a family of farmers on the island of Timor in Indonesia. After her mother passed away when she was young, a community of women and elders raised her. In their teachings, the environment was a source of spiritual identity and livelihood that should be respected. The Indigenous Mollo gather food and medicine from the forest, while growing crops. They also harvest from plants the natural dye they need for their weaving loom—a tradition passed down from generation to generation. On the western half of Timor island is Mutis Mountain, which is rich in biodiversity and home to West Timor’s drinking supply and irrigation water.
In the 1980’s, illegal permits to clear forests and cut marble stones from the mountain were issued to mining companies. Without consulting local villagers and their knowledge of the land, the local water source was polluted, and landslides became frequent. When Baun located the source for her community’s hardship, she was angry. This drew her to action, and she decided to travel for months, day and night, rain or shine, to meet with the elders of the 24 villages in the area. She informed them about what was happening to the land around them and how it adversely affected their survival. It was then she became known as “Mama Aleta.”
As she went from village to village, she spread the message that humans cannot be separated from nature. A small collation then began with three other women. They continued the pilgrimage on foot from one remote village to another, sometimes walking up to six hours straight. The movement grew quickly to include hundreds of members. Mobilizing around the mining site, 150 women strong spent a year peacefully weaving their traditional cloth in protest. In an unprecedented switching of roles, the men took care of the domestic duties while the women protested.
Mama Aleta soon became a target for local authorities who tried to assassinate her. After a close call with death, she decided to go into the forest to hide with her then two-year-old baby. Unfortunately, not everyone got away and several villagers were arrested and badly beaten. However, the movement could not be intimidated with violence. The villagers sustained their peaceful protest and as a result, the marble mining became an unsound endeavor for the companies involved. As more of the public became aware of the weaving occupation, the Indonesian government was prompted to pay attention. Finally, the mining companies were pressured to abandon their operations and in 2010 all projects halted.
In 2013, Aleta Baun was awarded the Goldman Prize. Since then, she along with her organization Pokja OAT, have developed five programs focusing on food security and storage, environmental restoration and tree-planting, empowering women through weaving and other sustainable income-generating activities, and legal advocacy paired with a credit union so Mama Aleta can give back to the community that taught her so much.