The Bridge Between Culture and Landscape: Al Azhar, APRIL Stakeholder Advisory Committee
Al Azhar is an academic with a life-long interest in oral culture and what lessons it has to offer about the harmonious relationship between man and nature
Malay oral tradition is rich in meaning. Among its many manifestation is Pantun, which, rather like the Japanese Haiku, is composed according to an unchanging formula – a quatrain, recited to a fixed rhythm, with eight to 12 syllables in each line, and with lines one and three, two and four, rhyming. Pantun is elusive. To the uninitiated, the meaning may be unclear. But to Al Azhar it is the essence of the expression of man’s relationship with his environment, and its interconnectedness.
“I found ecological determinism in oral literature,” he says. “When I was young, at school, I was taught literature by an inspirational man. He made me understand that literature is a door to freedom of the mind. Then, when I grew up, I realized it leads to a form of prison: knowledge”.
Al Azhar straddles the divide between literature and forest conservation, an unusual bridge to cross, but one which has brought a unique perspective to his role as a member of APRIL’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee. “I believe that the environment is in crisis,” he continues.
“And I believe that environmental damage is cultural damage, damage to the spirit, to the mind, and to civilisation as well. That is why I joined this group – because I wanted to help heal a small part of this damage, and I believed that this company was at least trying to open the door to the sort of change I feel is needed.”
Al Azhar was born in a small village, Kampung, in Riau, and went to school nearby. The forest was all around, and like all children of his age, he was in and out of it all the time. ‘Nature’ was deeply embedded from an early age. Academically gifted, he eventually went to Pekanbaru University to study Indonesian literature. “In Malay culture,” he points out, “history is not always written as in a Western perspective, but recited as poetry, stories, lullabies.”
“This is where I found my love of Pantun, and from that my interest in the Malay oral tradition. And I am sure that I felt a link between that and my childhood environment. Much of Pantun is about the intrinsic link between man, community, ecology and the world as its universe. And there are lessons in oral literature about how landscapes can be managed so there is a balance between man and nature, and both benefit. We seem to have lost that understanding.”
After taking his degree, he lectured in Literature at Pekanbaru and then in 1989, by now married, he was offered the chance to take a Masters at Leyden University in Holland. “I remember the shock of the cold,” he says. He studied South East Asian literature, as one of two Indonesians in the Humanities faculty, and gained his Masters, subsequently becoming a lecturer in Malay and Indonesian modern and classical literature.
He remained in Holland for four years and was offered the chance to prepare for a PhD but “there were political changes in Indonesia, and they brought me back home. I wanted to experience this change of feeling in Indonesian politics so I went back to Pekanbaru where I continued to research Malay oral tradition.” Al Azhar believes that understanding the divide between written and oral literature opened his eyes to ecology where it’s rooted. “Oral literature cannot separate the forest from society. If you listen to oral stories you can hear and see the trees, birds, flowers, people, as one. Written literature doesn’t do this.”
This literature is full of metaphors. “The earth is not just soil, but a mother,” he says. “The sky is representative of a father. The tree is the bridge between the two. To my mind, the problem with the environment in Indonesia now is not just about ‘how much’ or ‘how wide’, but the loss of the way in which man builds a relationship with the forest and his wider environment.”
He believes that earlier policies led to the widespread destruction of a natural resource in the interests of economic betterment. A laudable aim in itself, but tackled the wrong way. “The issue was that the government felt that there would be a trickle down effect from big business utilising the natural resources of the country but this didn’t happen as expected because of a failure to ensure better distribution of wealth”
Al Azhar, at heart an academic and a spiritual man, took the unusual step of joining an advisory board because he (and they) felt he could bring a different perspective to bear. “I wanted to see if I could steer them to giving people wider access. People join a large company to realise the dream of improving their circumstances. I felt that I was being offered a situation where I could help a company I thought was open to enabling the sort of changes I feel are needed.”
He is also a realist. He accepts that large companies are not simply going to disappear. “We can’t live in a pretend world and assume all would be well if they did not exist. Our best option is to help them change, where there is a desire to do so. Maybe, as an SAC member, I can offer more ideas to help the company move in what I believe is the right direction. So much of what we discuss in the wider environmental world is about past mistakes. Our job is to avoid future mistakes. To enable behaviour change, transparency, openness. A business is as much an integral part of its environment as are the people who work there, the communities that surround it, and the landscape in which it sits and on which it relies.”
Al Azhar is at heart an optimist. While he recognises the dynamic between business and environment is challenging, and that public policy needs to be more enabling, he believes change and realisation are on the way. “The question,” he asks, “is how slow is too slow? At the moment I think the pace is dragging, but I am hopeful that it will accelerate. I am certain that it must.”
Sungai Dua di atas bukit
Elang bersarang di kuala
Bulan dua sekali terbit
Pilih yang terang cahayanya
(Two rivers upon the hill
An eagle nested in the estuary
Two moons rise together
Choose the one with the brightest light)