Sacral Ecologies of the North Sumatran Highlands: An Environmental History of Conversions, 1800 to 1928


Faizah BInte Zakaria

PhD defended at: 

Yale University


This dissertation investigates interlocking socio-environmental changes among indigenous communities in the uplands of North Sumatra, Indonesia – including upland-lowland migrations to Malaya – during the long nineteenth century. This period was characterized by a mass religious turn away from animism to monotheistic religions, in particular, Christianity and Islam. Of central interest are the following questions: how do religious beliefs shape our interactions with the natural world? Conversely, how do changes to our local environments impact religious thought? The highlands of North Sumatra in this timeframe, are well-suited for this study as the region's inhabitants experienced not only two waves of mass religious conversion – the first to Islam, early in the nineteenth century and the second to Christianity towards the end of the century – but also two shifts in productive ecology. A dependence on forest products and subsistence rice production gave way to cash cropping in a violent transition that sent many refugees fleeing towards the Straits of Malacca in the early nineteenth century. A plantation economy then crept into the highlands towards the end, driving and drawing large groups of economic migrants from the highlands to the east coast. These migrations in turn fueled more conversions of both landscape and peoples who filtered back to the highlands.
This project takes as its premise that these phenomena - mass religious conversion, the transformation of the environment and large-scale migration - should not be studied separately but as a holistic system embedded in global networks.
Layering family histories with an account of environmental changes, I examine how the production of rice and camphor ordered a stable social and religious life in the highlands prior to the nineteenth century (Chapter 2); religious-inspired violence flattened the highlands and began the process of conversion away from animism to Islam and Christianity (Chapter 3); the social metabolism of tin mining transformed the Straits of Malacca and the rivers that fed into it from connecting to dividing channels (Chapter 4); schools disciplined and disempowered a potent landscape to entrench conversion in world religions (Chapter 5); the impact of conversion on the forest flora and charismatic mega fauna (Chapter 6) and the development of rule of law and its dysfunctions in managing interlinked disputes over land and religion (Chapter 7). I demonstrate that changes to how we manage our natural world do not only have an environmental impact but also cyclically fragment and re-unify nature into new units of the sacred and the banal. Conversion, often characterized as a moment of spiritual enlightenment in the religious histories that had dominated the historiography of the region, should perhaps be viewed as a continuous process of reconfiguring our natural environment. In that light, we should rethink what it means to be ‘indigenous’ in Southeast Asia.