Sasi and Indonesian Local Knowledge

“The epistemology of absent knowledges starts from the premise that social practices are knowledge practices. The practices not based on science, rather than being ignorant practices, are practices of alternative, rival knowledges. There is no a priori reason to favor one form of knowledge against another. Moreover, none of them in isolation can guarantee the emergence and flourishing of solidarity. The objective will be rather the formation of constellations of knowledges geared to create surplus solidarity. This we may call a new common sense. “

Boaventoura de Sousa, Epistemologies of the South

It all began with the film Semesta. Aside from Nicholas Saputra, the film presents a good depiction of indigenous law which for me is rarely discussed in more detail. “Sasi,” which means “prohibition,” is commonly practiced in many communities in the eastern part of Indonesia; however, it has not received a serious place in Indonesia’s broader knowledge base. There is an impression that this concept, both spatially and epistemologically, is limited in scope. This assumption, along with its possible supporting claims, are investigated—it could have the potential to transcend itself as an indigenous practice, and signify wisdom that originates from a deeper knowledge.

Sasi as a social practice

Etymologically, sasi means “prohibition.” Foundationally, Sasi is an indigenous law that regulates the procedures for extracting natural resources from both sea and land. From various sources that study Sasi, it can be concluded that Sasi was applied first in Maluku, before developing to Papua and other areas in the eastern part of Indonesia.

According to Arbain Langguhe, who studies the practice of Sasi in Maluku, what we know as Sasi originated from the island of Bacan. From Bacan, Sasi then spread and was disseminated by the church in territories with a Christian majority, and was introduced to Tobelo, West Halmahera. As an example, Sasi can be recognized in Papua due to the role of the church in preaching it, similar to how Sasi was also disseminated through Islam, such that there is the term sasi masjid.

What is possibly unexpected is the fact that Sasi is known more in Ambon because it was acknowledged and disseminated by the VOC. Sasi had been practiced before the VOC came to Maluku. According to Arbain Langguhe, the practice was then supported by the colonial government. Sasi then became more recognized in Ambon, the center of colonial activity. This is at odds with the assumption that the colonial government would eliminate all indigenous customs and law, and drive natural resource exploitation.

Apart from Sasi, there are also other forms of local knowledge in the eastern parts of Indonesia, such as the practice of prohibition known as Boboso, which can be found in Ternate, Tidore, and Jailolo. This social practice also becomes the philosophy of local communities. Sasi drives community members to manage things punctually, in accordance with existing social pacts.

Sasi as an emancipatory practice and discourse

“All social practices involve knowledge. The production of knowledge is, in itself, a social practice and what it distinguishes it from other social practices is its self-reflexivity, which productively reshapes the context of practices in motive and engine of actions “(Santos 2008) .

Sasi is practiced in various indigenous communities in the eastern part of Indonesia. The norms and knowledge embedded within the law of Sasi is conveyed orally, in the same way that most forms of indigenous law are passed on through generations. The principles of Sasi are taught by Kewang, a caretaker of indigenous law. Apart from Kewang, Sasi is also conveyed through religious leaders in the church or mosque. However, this indigenous law is not perceived as a “formal” local knowledge. This means that it is not conveyed through formal education, such as the schooling system. This is commonplace in many forms of local knowledge in Indonesia.

This fact also begs the question as to why Sasi, which resembles a philosophy and is not merely a “law,” cannot be perceived as part of a broader, local epistemology? Also, what is holding us back from elevating the status of local knowledge?

In fact, according to several authors that study Sasi, Sasi is a social institution that trascends regulation. It is a traditional and local knowledge designed to preserve the environment and safeguard the sustainability of natural resources (Persada et al. 2018:6891).

When discussing with Yance Arizona, a researcher and lecturer on indigenous or customary law at Universitas Gadjah Mada, I became aware of several barriers in elevating the status of indigenous law-based local knowledge in Indonesia. The first challenge, before looking at Sasi as part of a local knowledge system, is to place Sasi parallel to formal law.

There is a problem concerning asymmetrical coexistence which does not place Sasi as a practice that is equal before formal law. Formal law still sees Sasi as a binding form of local knowledge, even though the government has begun to discuss the importance of Sasi as an inseparable part of a policy on the management of maritime resources. “Local knowledge sometimes still needs acknowledgement from formal institutions, namely the government,” they said. One of our drawbacks is that we have not yet mainstreamed these various forms of indigenous law into a broader social movement; if we look to Latin America, this standpoint can manifest in the form of a social movement.

According to Yance Arizona, indigeneity is acknowledged as a right by laws and regulations, but its operationalization is nonexistent. This impedes it from becoming knowledge. In fact, according to Yance, among many legal practitioners and analysts, their perspective on concepts such as “rights” is also problematic. Yance adds that among many lecturers on agrarian studies, hak ulayat (customary rights) are not recognized as a right to the land.

The second challenge encompasses the point of view in positioning indigenous social practices as intangible and lacking in contribution towards economic growth, due to being unclassified according to the “economics of scale.” Pushing for the institutionalization of Sasi does not necessarily mean that we are anti-development—it means that we advocate for an alternative discourse that can still be compatible with the public notion of “economy.”

Our inability to make Sasi be an example of a shard of local knowledge also reflects the absence of significant Indonesian contribution towards discourse on Southern epistemologies. Perhaps, this is derived from our inability to articulate this into English, even though this is not an absolute prerequisite.

Looking at the challenges above only serves to kindle the desire to elevate the status of this local knowledge, so that we can acknowledge it as a small piece of a larger web of epistemologies located within this archipelago.


translated by Mitrardi Sangkoyo. Click here for the Bahasa Indonesia version.


Santos, Boaventura De Sousa, ed. 2008. Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies.

Persada, Nadia Putri Rahma., Mangunjaya, Fachrudin M., Tobing, Imran SL. 2018.  Sasi Sebagai Budaya Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam di Kepulauan Maluku. Jurnal Ilmu dan Budaya. 41 (59).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *