Putting Nature in the Center of Education: An Indigenous Perspective


The pandemic forces many students around the world to experience some form of home-schooling for the first time. Amid the pandemic, Fridays for Future makes sure that the focus on the other crisis is not lost and demands that climate change becomes a school subject. While education systems around the world are shaken up, other communities had different approaches to learning and what it should entail for decades already. This article explores how the indigenous Sedulur Sikep (Samin) community in Central Java, Indonesia seeks to strike a balance between maintaining its identity, raising awareness for the environment and providing relevant education for the 21st century.

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Homeschooling à la Java: Gunarti (far right) teaching Sedulur Sikep Children

At a house at the foot of the hills of North Kendeng, children gather to learn how to read and write. They are sitting on the floor and are facing a woman writing Javanese characters on the blackboard. Apart from learning how to read and write Javanese characters, they also learn to read and write Latin characters and to sing Javanese songs (tembang).  The teacher is Gunarti, who founded the learning center (Pasinaon) decades ago. Pasinaon is one of Sedulur Sikep's efforts to maintain its identity and also its natural surroundings.

Sedulur Sikep or previously called Wong Samin (Samin People) in a pejorative way, are followers of the teachings brought by Samin Surosentiko. A figure who lived in the late 1890s in Blora, Central Java, who was known for his non-violent resistance to the Dutch colonial governance. He spread the teachings about a simple way of life by farming and minimizing government involvement in family life. In the early 1900s his followers numbered into the thousands, which led to the colonial government arresting him. After Samin went into exile in Sawahlunto in the early 1900s, his followers continued to spread his teachings to several areas in East Java and Central Java.

Gunarti and other Sedulur Sikep practice the way of life as taught by their elders. Some of them believe the only honest work is farming. In addition, they also do not send their children to formal schools and choose to educate their children at home. Through the farming lifestyle children are exposed to their practice such as planting and raising of livestock early on.

The community does not call its educational practice home-schooling, although they carry out the principles of home-schooling, which emphasizes the central role of parents as those who are in charge of education.

For them, learning does not necessarily entail going to school, but it is enough to follow what the parents do in everyday life. In Java, this form of education is practiced for more than a century already.

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(Video: Sedulur Sikep's Children learning Gamelan and Tembang (Javanese Songs) with Gunarti as the teacher)

In contrast to some indigenous communities who live in separate locations apart from the majority of the community, the Sedulur Sikep’s settlement mingles with Javanese communities who are predominantly Muslim. Gunarti's house is only about 100 meters from a mosque.

But the Sedulur Sikep life comes with challenges and Gunarti heard of her nieces and nephews being teased by other children for not going to school and for not reading the Qur’an.

Seeing the problems her community was facing, Gunarti came up with the idea to complement the education needs of the Sedulur Sikep children, which their parents could not fulfill.  There was resistance by some people of her community who worried that new teachings would corrupt their identity and destroy their values such as honesty. But with the support from others, such as her father-in-law and her husband, Gunarti managed to convince the community that e.g. some level of literacy is a necessity and that there should be a way to achieve a compromise.

Learning Indonesian and Javanese Language
Sedulur Sikep's Children learning Indonesian and Javanese Language

For Sedulur Sikep, the most important goal in life is to try to be consistent in what you say and do. Children are taught by their parents not to do things that are prohibited by the teachings, e.g., not to lie, not to steal, not to take things they are not entitled to and so on. Almost all of them are prohibitions. Then what needs to be done as a child of Sedulur Sikep? Through her pasinaon, Gunarti teaches how important it is to live a simple life, build harmony with everyone, not to create hatred, and to protect the nature.

Protection of nature at the center of education

In the teachings of Samin Surosentiko, everything in this world is divided into two things, namely wong (human beings) and sandang dan pangan (food and clothing as things other than humans). What is not human is meant to be used for the continuation of human lives. Sedulur Sikep parents have taught this understanding to their children, coupled with their closeness to work related to land and water, which is farming.

Pasinaon (Learning Center) at Gunarti's house.

Sedulur Sikep in Pati District live in a highland area with teak forests and Karst Mountains. Even though it looks barren, agriculture is quite fertile and reliable. Karst Mountains are like sponges that store water. Water is very important for the survival of all creatures including farmers.

The Karst Mountains belong to the North Kendeng Mountains. They are considered as ancient mountains with good limestone quality. The beauty and good quality of this limestones is what attracts many cement companies to come to this area and to mine it. Since 2006, several large cement companies have attempted to enter this area (See our  web-dossier: Cement and the Kendeng Mountains). The Sedulur Sikep see this as a threat to the environment and their livelihoods.

Gunarti understands that the struggle to save the environment is not easy. Nor is it a problem that can be resolved immediately. Therefore, it is important to prepare the younger generation of Sedulur Sikep who will continue to carry out resistance movements against the destruction of the environment and their livelihoods. This awareness led her to put environmental and nature protection at the centre of her teachings. In every session she always includes knowledge about how rich the Kendeng mountains are for water, animals and many plants that are important for human life who live around them, including the Sedulur Sikep.


Erna Widyayanti is a homeschooling practitioner and teacher based in Depok, Indonesia.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.