The village of Mbo Bhenga sits at the highest point of a single-track semi-paved road traversing the mountainous spine of Flores. Before the road was cut in the 1980s, the villagers lived in isolation in a forest dominated by towering kenari trees (Canarium vulgare). Kenari nuts attracted wild pigs and were the center of a diverse hunter-gathering lifestyle developed in tandem with rotational swidden farming of corn and root vegetables. With the road came chainsaws and people willing to buy the valuable kenari timber. With the village relocated beside the road, communication with the outside world improved dramatically, but without the kenari and the pigs, the forest no longer provided as it once had. Livelihoods slowly turned from pure subsistence to commodity cash crops, including kemiri (Aleurites moluccana) and coffee.
At the north end of the village’s forest remains a sacred ceremonial area of woodland, so ritually hot that it may only be visited by certain people at certain times, and may never be photographed. This land is overseen by a ritual headman known as the Moso Laki, a position with the historic role of determining land distribution for swidden agriculture and applying village laws relating to abuse of the forests. Since the 1970s, all forest land has been under the direct control of the Indonesian government’s Department of Forestry. The power of the Moso Laki has diminished, but the government forest rangers are too few to control illegal clearing of the protected watershed around Mbo Bhenga. Tadeus Oka, Moso Laki for Mbo Bhenga decries the incursions on the forest, but is almost powerless to stop it when it comes from neighboring communities.
From the point of view of Oka and the professional government foresters, livelihoods need to be tied to the living forest, and this is why they all enthusiastically supported the establishment of a Symplocos leaf gathers cooperative. For many in the village, the community consultation process performed by the Bebali Foundation between 2007 and 2009 had another impact, as it helped empower the community to form its own village administration where it had previously been a sub-village of a wider district.
The Na’a Ana cooperative was formed in 2009 and as of 2013 has 26 women members between the ages of 25 and 60 years old. More women are ready to join, and will be admitted as soon as the market for their Symplocos expands. From the start, both the Bebali Foundation and the Mosa Laki have been adamant this remain a women’s project, run by the village women for the livelihoods of their families and the protection of their forests.