Sumba Island belongs to the Lesser Sunda Islands. Sumba has an area of about 11000 square kilometres, so it is roughly twice the size of Bali. With approximately 656 000 inhabitants (2008) Sumba has only about one sixth of the population of Bali. Less than 100 kilometres from the southern coast of Sumbawa and Flores and yet in sight Sumba is quite different:

Instead of high volcanoes, as in many other islands of Indonesia, the terrain is rather hilly; the highest mountain is 1225 meters high. Geologically, Sumba is a continental fragment that broke off from Africa or Australia and floated to the edge of the line of volcanic islands of Indonesia. Sumba consists mainly of coral limestone. Only at the south coast there are also volcanic rocks. Sumba has no mineral resources. But when drilling in 2010 in the Wanggameti National Park gold was found.

No lush green covers the landscape. The north and east of the island are extremely dry and the landscape resembles a savannah. In the central highlands the hills are covered with Alang grass. To the south and west it is green – but only in the valleys and on the southern slopes of the mountains you find humid tropical vegetation. About 7% of the area of Sumba is covered with original forest.


Sumba has a semi-arid climate. Especially the east of the island is characterized by the hot north-Australian climate. There is a dry season from May to November. From December to April it can rain. The monsoon or rainy season lasts from about three months in the east up to five months in the west. The rainfall ranges from 800-1000 mm per year in the northeast to 1000-1500 mm in the central region and up to 1500-2000 mm in the south-western part of the island.

In the eastern part the average temperature is between 27 and 36 degrees Celsius. In the west the average is 2-3 degrees cooler. The night temperatures are significantly lower than in Bali. In the highlands and from July to September the night temperature can be below 18 degrees.

Lately, the monsoon has been very different. There were extreme droughts but also heavy rain. Rivers in the south changed their course because of the flooding and destroyed many fields and bridges. Recently the shortage of water forced the people in the Northeast of Sumba to abandon some traditional villages and new settlements.

The best time for travelling for nature lovers is from October to mid-December, when it becomes a little green due to sporadic rains, and from April to June after the monsoon. The surfers’ season is from May to October like everywhere in Indonesia. High waves from July to September make swimming often difficult.


Despite the relatively low population density, the Sumbanese today can live only partially of their own crops. In the arid dry regions of the northeast and on the high plains nothing can be grown. Only in the valleys and along river banks small agriculture areas can be found. Besides Sumba horses Indian Brahman cows, water buffaloes, pigs and lots of poultry are bred.

The agricultural products of the remaining areas of Sumba in alphabetic order are: Areca (betel nuts), cashew nuts, cloves, coconuts, cocoa, corn, hazelnuts, Jarak (Jatropha oil crop), Kapuk, peanuts, rice, Robusta (lowland) coffee, Shorgum (millet), soybeans, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, tapioca, and vanilla.

More recently, the extensive cultivation of crops for the production of bio-fuels – with the appropriate machinery – is forced. Usually, the farming methods are traditional. A lot is done with human power or with the help of Sumba horses and water buffaloes. The regional administration wants to reduce ritual animal sacrifice, especially buffalo sacrifice, since these animals are urgently needed for ploughing. In 1987 a decree was passed which forbids the sacrifice of more than five animals. Recently West Sumba decided to allow a maximum of three animal sacrifices per celebration – exceptions are common.

Along all the coasts of Sumba there is more or less intensive fishing. Today fishermen are mainly immigrants from Sumbawa, Ujung Padang (Makassar), Lombok and Savu. Fishermen from neighbouring islands who only come here for fishing in the waters of Sumba often are not welcome. It is claimed that they fish with dynamite and cyanide. The best time for fishing is during the monsoon season, during the dry months the amount of fish is very low.

Sea grass (Rumput laut) is grown in all the calm and shallow water areas around Sumba. From this AgaAga is made, or it is used as animal feed or natural fertilizer. This economic activity has increased dramatically in recent times and unfortunately leads to a negative ecological change of the shallow water areas. The proceeds from the sale of sea grass are sometimes higher than that from fishing. From the salty sand of the lagoons they produce salt with the help of driftwood.

Foreign aid organizations are trying to convince the Sumbanese to use new farming methods, forage and crops. But as long as these experiments make no profit for the hierarchy of the Indonesian government, they are not supported by the state.


According to the opportunities of income from agriculture, the western side of the island is more populated than the east. In Sumba most people are descendants of Malays and Melanesians. There was also immigration from Timor and Savu in the south-eastern areas; at the north-western coasts Muslim people settled from Sumbawa, Ujung Padang (Makassar) and Lombok.

Because of the missionary work of Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany about 64% of the population are Christians (3/4 Protestants, 1/4 Catholic), 6% are Muslims and 30% predominantly believe in the traditional Marapu religion (but statistics vary). The missionary work by German Redemptourists and the Dutch Church still continues today. Sumbanese people are often critical of other people and religions.

About half of the population are children. The rate of newborn children in Sumba is still rising. Most families have 8-10 children. “Many children, many blessings” – this motto seems to be true because children help their parents mainly in the fields and fetch water. For grown-up daughters they get a dowry: water buffalo, horses, and cows.

There are also Transmigration (Transmigrasi) and Area Development Programs in Sumba. Everywhere new settlements are under construction. Partly such settlements are built in uninhabited areas with hundreds of houses lined up, a school and a new road; but partly they are also built in or around existing villages. The settlers mostly come from Sumatra, Java, Sumbawa and Timor. Quite often the religion and way of life of the immigrants are different and so problems are inevitable. The settlements in the north of Sumba make a predominantly poor and hopeless impression. In the south of the island the economic and social integration seems to be more successful.


In most regions of Sumba and outside the three major towns, people live without access to clean water. Often water is pumped from rivers and distributed by tanker. Wells are scarce and often difficult to build because of the limy ground. Many villages have no toilets at all.

In the country, many public health centres (PUSKESMAS) are not or barely manned. Sometimes there is mobile care (PUSKESMAS-Keliling). Malnutrition is widespread. The infant mortality rate is among the highest in the world. Also medicine is hard to get.

The resources of Sumba are limited. Where there is crop failure, the poorest families have not enough to eat. Relief supplies by the central government to cover crop losses have stopped in recent years due to the economic crisis. Many villages get rice delivered to permanently meet their basic needs. However, the delivery is often irregular, and the distribution does not always seem to be fair.

Statistics (from 2005) count about 38 doctors for 100 000 people in Sumba, 84 nurses and 133 midwives. In addition to conventional medicine, there are a very large number of shamans. There are 17 health centres for 100 000 people. According to statistics 30% have infections, 21% malaria, 13% injuries, 10% skin diseases, 26% others.

The effects of famine are visible everywhere. In every village there are children who cannot lift their heads at the age of one year; children at the age of 10 have the size of a 6-year-old and a lot of children have different signs of malnutrition (Source and more information cf. Sumba Foundation).


Due to its distance to the capital and the relatively low population and population density Sumba belongs to one of the rather neglected regions. In Sumba only a little more than half of the children will start school. Of these only about half finish basic education successfully. As soon as a child can contribute to the parents’ income, this is more important than school. A remarkable number of especially strong and practically gifted children have to stay in the village and help their parents at home and in the fields. There is no money available for school.

In secondary school, a lot of practical knowledge is imparted, such as technical, biological and medical know-how to get along in the village. These schools are rare and are often far away according to the population density and demand.

High schools are only in the towns. The curriculum is excellent. But only those children can afford these educations which have relatives in town where they can board.

Without education, the children have less chance of a good future. Not all children in a family may later inherit the land of their fathers. Children without land and without education will remain unemployed.


Sumba is one of the five poorest of the 30 provinces of Indonesia. A large proportion of the population lives on subsistence farming. People are dependent on natural resources and have few opportunities to sell their product surpluses at the market. Official statements about the poverty rate are pretty meaningless (between 28% and 85%).

For the majority of the population there are no opportunities for an economic development outside the village, due to lack of jobs on the island. For those who can not find work in Sumba, Bali is the first hope and Malaysia is the desired paradise…

Not only men may have a chance of getting a job outside of Sumba. Numerically, there is a high proportion of women working as housemaids, mostly in Malaysia. Working women who finance their husbands and families, and what work abroad is really like, is a controversial subject.


Due to its special flora and fauna the World Wildlife Fund categorized Sumba as a deciduous forest eco region. Sumba has a mix of plants and animals, of Asian, Australian, and oceanic origin. The northern part of the island originally was monsoon deciduous forest, while the southern part was evergreen rain forest and had no distinct dry season. The forest in the north is nearly totally cut down. The forest in the south is partly preserved.

There are a number of mammals, but Sumba is particularly rich in bird species, of which seven are endemic species. A number of other birds are found only here and on some neighbouring islands. Among the endemic species of birds are four endangered species: Red-naped fruit-dove, Sumba Buttonquail, Yellow-crested Cockatoo, and Sumba Hornbill.

During the dry season, the meanders and planes of the south-flowing rivers and protected forests in the south form a large water reservoir. Population growth and expansion of cultivated areas and thus an increased consumption of water and cutting down of forests is a major threat to the life on the island.

The soil in Sumba mainly consists of porous limestone. Where the humus layer is too thin, the water seeps through. Therefore irrigation programs must be adjusted so that the water table is maintained.

Due to the extremely large increase of sea grass / AgaAga production in shallow water areas the flora and fauna there get driven out.

Two national parks were designated in 1998, Laiwangi Wanggameti National Park and Manupeu Tanah Daru National Park, in order to protect nature. Please note: In these national parks you do not get pampered as in North America. Particularly in Laiwangi Wanggameti National Park, there is absolutely no infrastructure. In addition to these parks, there are numerous nature reserve areas.

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