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Rituals open Indonesian whaling season

Islanders say they keep ancient traditions alive while conservationists complain of increasing commercialization

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Rituals open Indonesian whaling season

After being blessed, a traditional boat sets out to sea from the Indonesian island of Lamalera to mark the start of the annual whaling season. (Photo by Handrianus Atagoran/ucanews.com)

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Whale hunting is a tradition practiced for generations on Lamalera, a tiny island in Indonesia's southernmost province, East Nusa Tenggara.

Before the the six-month whaling season starts at the beginning of May each year, fishing communities comprised mainly of Catholics perform special rituals for three days, with some participants clutching rosaries and reciting prayers.

Village leader Antonius Boli Azimu, 43, said the rituals combine Catholic practices and customary ceremonies.

A highlight is the so-called Misa Leva, or Leva Mass, seeking God's protection and successful hunting.

"This tradition has been carried out since the time of our ancestors," Azimu told ucanews.com.

Lamalera faces a migration route in the Savu Sea for whales travelling from the northern to the southern hemisphere between May and October.

Up to 20 islanders man each of a flotilla of small boats equipped with harpoons. They have stopped using nets because of the environmental damage they cause.

"Instead, when we see the targeted whales, the trained hunters, called lamafa, will jump from the boat and stab the whale with harpoons," he said.

The catch is shared among participants, with a portion reserved for widows and orphans. Some whale meat is bartered for agricultural produce.

Ecological impacts

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission allowed this community and some other indigenous groups to continue whaling as an “integral part of their cultures”.

However, during the past two decades some environmental groups have expressed concern over Lamalera whale hunting.

In 2010, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said it posed a threat to the survival of whale populations as as well as other marine life.

Many environmentalists criticize the use of modern sea-going craft instead of traditional boats and argue that these days the hunting is more commercially than culturally driven.

There are also ecological impacts from some hunters also killing manta rays, which are supposed to be protected by Indonesian law.

In 2016, there was extensive media coverage of police, acting on complaints from conservationists, arresting Lamalera fisherman Gregory Dengekae Krova for hunting manta rays. Many Lamalerans saw this as an attack on their way of life.

Fisherman Emanuel Dile, 35, is one of about 2,000 inhabitants who rely largely on the sea as a source of livelihood due to Lamalera's low rainfall.

"For us, the sea is a mother," said Dile. "Everything in the sea can be a source to fulfill our living needs, and certainly we have to preserve it for future generations."

He said such practices do not harm the marine ecosystem because they only hunt sperm whales, which are not classified as endangered. "We also will not hunt pregnant whales,” he said, adding that they could only catch 10 sperm whales in a year.

The Indonesian government officially recognizes the hunt as part of the community's cultural heritage.

In recent years, the government has also been promoting it as an annual tourist attraction, including for hundreds of foreigners.

Agus Dermawan, from the Ministry of Maritime and Fishery Affairs, said fishermen had been requested to maintain the traditional authenticity of the hunting and prevent abuses by some individuals.

Local wisdom

Father Piter Dile Bataona, a native of Lamalera and coordinator of Divine Word's commission for justice, peace and integrity of creation in West Timor, which is part of East Nusa Tenggara province, said during the Leva Mass on May 1 that such religious rituals were an opportunity to reaffirm accumulated local wisdom and knowledge.

He said, traditionally, the Lamalerans have rules that must be adhered to, including on the boundaries of where whales can be hunted.

"They do not do as they please," Father Bataona said. "They also have a moral and customary obligation not to kill all types of whales and obey it."

He said that when the Catholic Church was introduced to Lamalera in 1886 by Western missionaries, the traditional rituals were already part of their heritage.

Rather that banning the old rituals, the islanders looked for what could be integrated with church practices and traditions.

The priest noted that the Vatican Council II set guidelines for the Church that "faith must be rooted in the foundation of culture and tradition."

He said the ancient heritage of Lamalerans now enhances their Catholic faith.

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