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Wae Rebo

From Living on Earth
December 28, 2001 |
Click here to read this full article.

STEVE CURWOOD: The archipelago of Indonesia has many threatened species of birds. Many live in Wallacea, which is home to more than 250 birds found nowhere else on Earth. Little is known in the West about the region, and its first field guide to birds was not published until 1997. But there are plenty of experts on Wallacean wildlife if you look in the right places. John Ryan found some on the eastern Indonesian island of Flores.

(Bird calls)

RYAN: Inside an ancient volcanic crater, a steep and muddy five-hour hike from the nearest road is the village of Wae Rebo. At its center are six giant houses ringed by the crater walls, cloaked in cloud forest. Each house is a pointed dome of smoke-darkened thatch, like a five-story-tall Hershey's Kiss. I went there by chance. I'd been on the truck to another town when a Wae Rebo school teacher invited me to his village. A hard day's travel later, I became the second American ever to visit Wae Rebo.

(Gamelan music)

RYAN: Women started banging a gong to announce the arrival of a foreigner.

(Gamelan music)

RYAN: In Wae Rebo, drums are called "the voice of the village." One rainy afternoon shortly after I'd arrived, five village women sat on the plank floor of the biggest house and practiced their beats on goatskin drums and small brass gongs. Between jam sessions, I was leafing through my 500-page Guide to the Birds of Wallacea.

(Voices)

RYAN: Several older women and a teenage boy gathered around the book. And as they turned the colorful pages, they pointed out the birds that live in the forests around Wae Rebo. They argued in a local Manggarai language over their names and their songs.

(Voices and imitated bird calls)

RYAN: A villager in her seventies, Agatha Nout taught me the calls of the bare-throated whistler, or kiong in Manggarai. Villagers call the kiong the champion singer, for its amazing repertoire of songs that fill the forest air every morning.

(Agatha Nout imitates the kiong)

RYAN: Agatha explained things that don't appear in any book. Like how villagers rely on the call of the sisisia or Wallacean drongo to protect their crops. The drongo's sisisia call often comes just before troops of monkeys emerge from the forest to steal corn. The farmers know to send their dogs toward the drongos to chase the monkeys back.

(Bird calls)

RYAN: As the forests shrink and the older generations fade away, this kind of local ecological knowledge is getting harder to come by in Wallacea. Wae Rebo's isolation has kept its culture and its surroundings relatively intact. People in Wae Rebo are proud of their traditions, but mostly unaware of how unusual their ecosystems are.

Nobody I spoke with knew that many of the region's birds could be found nowhere else on Earth. Or that their homeland had been declared a global priority by Bird Life International and other conservation groups. And nobody knew that their bird-friendly method of growing coffee in the shade of other trees, with little or no chemical use, was highly valued in international markets. They do know that isolation isn't easy, and people here want a road. Coffee farmer Bruno Sumardin:

SUMARDIN: (speaks in Indonesian)

TRANSLATOR: If they don't open a road, that means we people of Wae Rebo will keep having to haul coffee and rice and everything on our backs every day. If they do build a road, that probably means that our environment will lose its uniqueness and our traditions will eventually be lost. If I have to choose, I'd open a road.

(Bird calls)

RYAN: For now, the top elected official in western Flores wants to preserve the village as a cultural heritage site. Combine that with Indonesia's economic crisis and it's unlikely that a road will be built any time soon. Even so, I was hesitant to tell this story and risk ruining this place. Yet people in Wae Rebo want more visitors and more cash for their impoverished village. And in truth there's little danger of Wae Rebo becoming a major tourist destination. It's not on any map. And even if you can ask directions in Indonesian, most people on Flores don't even know where Wae Rebo is.

So have at it. Go to Wae Rebo in the Manggarai region on Flores Island in Indonesia. Just remember, check your legs for leeches as you hike up the volcano. Be sure to eat what you're served, even dog curry, for refusing food is a deep offense in a Manggarai house. And when it's time to settle down for the night between bamboo mat and bamboo blanket, the only sound, the low hum of insects in the surrounding forests and fields, sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite.

(Gamelan music up and under)

RYAN: For Living on Earth, this is John Ryan in Wae Rebo, Indonesia.

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