Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Making a Living in the Hills of Sumatra

Sungai Penuh is in a valley right in the middle of two branches of the Bukit Barisan range of mountains. The valley here is extremely fertile because it is volcanic in origin. Remember what I told you a few posts back about volcanoes and soil? Kerinci valley is a good example. It's so fertile that people have been growing wet rice here for around 500 years. I've included a picture of one of the rice fields to the left. In Indonesian this type of field is called "sawah", wet rice. This is how the rice you eat begins its journey. Most people refer to this as padi or paddy rice, and it's found all over Southeast Asia and on into Bangladesh and South Asia and north into China. This type of rice is extremely productive, and it yields a lot of food in a small area. However, it is a labor intensive crop, which means it needs a lot of work. It also needs a lot of water, and so a reliable source of water is key to wet rice cultivation. In places like Indonesia you can see really extensive irrigation works which channel water from natural streams to the field. One of the most amazing places to see this is on the island of Bali, where maintainence of the Subaks (this is the Balinese word for the irrigation works) are traditionally maintained by a very complex social system. Because wet rice needs lots of people labor, and also because lots of people labor is needed to build and maintain the irrigation system, there are usually very interesting systems of rules, regulations, and community labor associated with them. Traditionally farmers have also raised fish to eat in their rice fields, but that has changed because now farmers use pesticides to kill crop pests, which makes it difficult to raise fish in the water. Why do they do this? Because it increases the amount they are able to harvest.

Wet rice is an important crop in the valley, but it doesn't grow on hillsides unless extensive systems of terraces are created (1). Here in Kerinci Valley there aren't many terraces, so people grow other crops on the hills. One is dry rice, which is a good crop, but the yield is not nearly as high as wet rice. Many farmers grow cash crops on the hills. Cash crops are things grown not to eat, but rather to be sold. Here some of the most important cash crops are tree crops. I think you can figure out what this means. One important tree crop here is cassiavera, a type of cinnamon. You can see a picture to the right. Cinnamon comes from the inside of a certain type of tree, and so the tree must be cut down to harvest the cinnamon. The cinnamon in the picture is from branches that have been cut off a tree, so the tree will continue to grow. Cinnamon originally comes from Sri Lanka. The type grown here is used mainly for cosmetics and other products.

Another important tree crop is rubber. Did you know that all the rubber in tires and shoes originates from a tree (Hevea brasiliensis)? The trees have to be "tapped", like maple syrup trees. The farmer or "tapper" cuts a slice in the tree with his knife, and the tree "bleeds" the raw material for rubber. You can see the process in the picture to the left. Usually a container of some sort is attached to the tree to collect the material. Rubber originated in South America, but was brought to Southeast Asia in the 1800s. When a virus devasted the South American trees, Southeast Asia became the world's leading producer of rubber. Sumatra is still one of the largest producers of rubber in the world. After these trees are planted they started producing rubber in 5-7 years. Rubber trees often supplement other crops planted by farmers here. This is because the price of cash crops like rubber fluctuates; sometimes is high, and sometimes it's low. When it's too low it's not worth the work to harvest the rubber, and so the trees can be left until the price increases again.

Yet another important cash crop here is shown in the picture to the right. Can you tell what this is? I'll give you a's grown on the Big Island as well. That's right, it's coffee. The coffee that adults drink is made from the bean of these bushes. Sumatran coffee is Coffea robusta, a hearty type of coffee that grows well in the climate here. Sumatran coffee is quite famous and is sold all over the world. But it is another type of commodity that is vulnerable to price fluctuations. Sometimes the price is very high, which is good for the farmers, but sometimes the price is very low, and this causes big problems for the farmers (2). So as you can see, the economy of this part of Sumatra is very dependent on cash crops. Can you think of why this might be bad for the economy? What happens if the price for all of these commodities is low at the same time? In those cases, everybody suffers. In addition, there is really only one way to make more money off of these crops: to grow more of them. That means expanding the area in which these crops are grown. And I've told you in other posts what this can lead to.

There is one other crop that is extremely important to this particular part of Sumatra: tea. Tea is generally grown on plantations, though, because you need to grow a lot of it to make any money. There is a plantation in Kerinci Valley that is one of the largest tea plantations in the world. I've got a picture of it to the goes on for miles and miles! Tea from here is sold all over Indonesia and is also exported, which means it is sent to other countries as well. I'm going to be exporting some tea of my new friends gave me two one-kilogram bricks of tea (at least I hope it's tea) to take back to Hawai'i with me. Other important crops here are cabe (Indonesian for chile peppers) and patchouli, a plant that is beloved by college girls that like to listen to Bob Marley all day and wear burlap clothing.

So you can see how important agriculture is to this area. This is what the people here do, and it's what they have done for generations. It's also what their children will do. That's all for today. Why don't you think about the questions I've included below?

1. "Terraces" are used to grow wet rice on hills. The farmers cut into the mountains to make flat spaces where the rice can grow. This alters the landscape significantly, but terraces are wonderfully beautiful in some places. See if you can find some pictures on the internet. Start with "Banaue" in the Philippines. What did you find out? Where else do they have rice terraces? What other crops are grown on terraces? Check out "Machu Picchu".

2. What sorts of factors might cause the price of a commodity to go up? What might cause the price to go down?


  1. We take for granted our grocery stores and markets that usually have everything we are looking for, but we do not consider the process involved to get our rice or cinnamon to us. We should appreciate the little things more. A good option would be to grow our own food.

  2. I was surprised to learn that part of what makes rubber comes from trees. Before reading your blog, I thought that rubber was made entirely from a chemical source. I think that this crop is a great for the environment and for Indonesia's economy. There are environmental benefits to this kind of crop because it does not create pollution to harvest it, but actually helps the environment because the trees release oxygen.