The remote island of Sumba is one of the poorest islands in the Indonesian Archipelago, yet culturally it is one of the richest,
with very strong, ancient traditions.
Sumba is also home to one of the world’s last intact Animist cultures.
Relatively little is known about the history of the island. Colonized by the Dutch in the late 1890’s and known as Sandalwood
Island because of the vast quantity of native sandalwood trees, the land was populated by fierce warriors of differing tribes.
As a result, the Dutch colonial administration was not able to establish an administrative post on the island until 1933 – deeming
it finally safe enough to replace its only garrison with a police force.
Since Indonesian Independence in 1945, Sumba has been part of Nusa Tenggara Timor, the “Southeastern Islands”, with
its administrative capital in Kupang on the island of Timor. In recent times, the government has greatly improved airport access to
the island and the road network linking administrative capitals of Waingapu and Waikabubak.
However, little has changed in the more isolated reaches of the island; Life continues like it has for many thousands of years.
The island is sparsely populated with approximately 450,000 inhabitants, and covers an area of 11,150 square kilometers,
roughly the size of Massachusetts.
According to Indonesia’s 2004 Central Bureau of Statistics, Sumba is rated the 4th poorest province in the archipelago, where the majority of its inhabitants live below the poverty line. Subject to a long dry season, followed by brief monsoon rains, the islander’s subsistence is heavily dependant on one growing season per year, consisting primarily of dry land crops such as maize and tapioca that rely on adequate annual rainfall yields.
As in the rest of Indonesia, rice is planted wherever there are sufficient supplies of water. In most areas, however, the short rainy season does not yield a rice harvest plentiful enough for daily consumption throughout the rest of the year. With its population of more than 200 million spread out across more than 15,000 islands and divided into 27 provinces, Indonesia is faced with the complex challenge of supporting economic growth and improving living standards for both urban and rural dwellers.
Due to Sumba’s isolation from the central government in Java and its relatively small size and population for Indonesian standards, the island has historically lacked adequate support in terms of the distribution of already limited resources needed for economic growth.
Instead, like other remote islands in the archipelago, Sumba has had to depend on the central government’s sporadic
emergency aid in order to stave off famines due to crop failures.
Every few years, hundreds of thousands of tons of rice are sent to the island from the central government in Java. And to
complicate this situation, for the past eight years the Indonesian government has been in the grips of a severe financial crisis
and constant political uncertainty—both of which have brought even greater hardships and threats to its people.
According to a 2003 report issued by the Consultive Group Indonesia (CGI), an off-shoot of the World Bank, due to this ongoing
economic crisis and the country’s limited resources, millions more Indonesian people will be forced into poverty in the years
The new Indonesian Regional Economy Plan will compound this already growing problem. The Plan suggests that individual
provinces and governance throughout the country will be more decentralized from the government.
This is not a good scenario for Sumba, which has extremely limited natural resources from which to build an economic base.
According to the CGI report, “autonomy provides more rights for each province, and bigger shares of the revenues…especially
from natural resources. However, in Indonesia, not all provinces possess adequate natural resources.”