Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mt. Merapi's Lahars...

On January 21st of this year a slurry-river of volcanic debris (a lahar) covered Magelang Road just north of Jogjakarta. The flow destroyed dozens of houses and businesses, but thankfully left none dead. In its wake the flow left thousands of cubic meters of rocks, sand, ash, and other volcanic materials to a depth of up to 7 meters. I noticed the remnants of the lahar last week on the way to the Dieng Plateau. Although the road, which is a main thoroughfare for the region, was cleared relatively quickly, a significant amount of debris remains. I wanted to know more about the lahar and its effects on people, so I rented a motorcycle and made my way back to Jumoyo to talk with residents and have a walk around. Several folks were kind enough to share their experiences with me and tell me about how the lahar has altered the local economy.

The people there told me that the flow was 7 meters high in some cases, or enough to completely engulf a two-story building. The main flow was 30 meters wide, and it flowed as quickly as a rapidly moving river (newspaper accounts estimate 14 kilometers/hour). The lahar destroyed 44 houses in this area and quite a number of businesses, as you can see from the pictures. Nothing has been rebuilt and many of the displaced residents are still living in a nearby shelter. In the wake of the lahar a new industry has emerged: breaking up and hauling off the volcanic material. As it turns out, the volcanic debris that comprises the flow makes an excellent building material when mixed with water. Hundreds of trucks have come from as far away as Semarang (200km away) to load up the stuff and cart it away. To meet the demand a number of enterprising folks have set up shop chipping the material out of the flow to load onto trucks. The owners of the property covered by the lahar have the rights to the material, and so the diggers contract with them to mine the material. A digger can fill up to 2 trucks a day, at 180,000 rupiah per truck (around $21). The owner's share is 50,000 rupiah per load. Many of the larger rocks are taken away to make stone carvings, but the largest ones are left as they lay. The people in the area believe that some of the rocks have spirits, and so they don't want to move them. One rock in particular has become something of a local celebrity; the story goes that it was crying, and the belief is that it is inhabited by the spirit of a local resident who is waiting for her husband to return. The mining and loading operation only employs a few people, though; others have taken to selling drinks and pictures to the tourists who have come to see the lahar and the weeping stone. Still others our completely out of work; I had a sort of conversation with an old mute lady that was previously employed as a dishwasher in one of the restaurants destroyed by the lahar. She has literally nothing left. Unfortunately in situations like this it is frequently those least able to cope that are hit the hardest. The residents told me that there was some relief early and a significant amount of involvement from NGOs, but support has dropped off rapidly. The residents are still waiting on payments from the government to rebuild. It's hard to grasp the shear magnitude of the debris flow from the pictures, but look at the truck and steam-shovel loading material for comparison. One of the most astonishing things is that this spot is more than 20 kilometers away from the volcano. I took the video below to give you an idea of the scale of the disaster.

After my visit to Jumoyo I headed into the countryside to visit some more lahar sites. I stopped briefly at the dam featured in the following video, further up the slopes of Merapi. This structure was constructed across the small canyon of the Kuning River (Kali Kuning) about 5 years ago specifically to stop lahar flows. As you can see from the pictures it has functioned as advertised; on the upstream side of the dam there is a 12-meter accumulation of material. The material actually overflowed the dam, as you can see from the picture to the left (note the broken guardrail). According to the folks around the dam, the government has moved some of the material out, but they don't know if the trucks and other heavy equipment will be back to finish the job. The folks hawking drinks, food, and pictures here were all working to make ends meet after the lahar destroyed their livelihoods. They told me they had no warning before the lahar came barreling down the mountain. And although they were all struggling, they made it a point to express how fortunate they felt to be alive; they said it was thanks to Allah. I was stunned that the dam structure is able to withstand the tremendous weight of the accumulated material.

Next I continued up the hill towards the villages of Rangkah and Kinah Rejo as I'd been told that these places had been stricken by lahars as well. I wasn't prepared for the absolute and complete devastation I saw here. These villages were almost completely obliterated by lahars that moved through along with the latest eruptions of Merapi last October. 33 people were killed and the local economy, which was based on cattle, was completely upended as the debris flows followed poisonous gas clouds through the area. This area as well has turned into a tourist destination, and the people of the area have partnered (1) with the Department of Tourism for the Jogjakarta region to collect an entry fee of 5000 rupiah (65 cents or so) per vehicle. The folks on duty told me that there are 35 attendants that work rotating shifts of 10 days or so (after 10 days the whole shift is replaced). This seemed like a creative way to provide temporary employment, but see the note below.

As I walked around the site I talked to some of the residents. One gentleman took a break from scavenging the rebar and other metal from his collapsed home to talk to me. He told me that before the disaster he had 5 cows, but they were all killed. The government provided a replacement payment of 8 million rupiah for each large cow and 3.5 million for each young cow, but this was below the market rate. He told me he had received no aid to rebuild his home, as he showed me the temporary structure he built for his family. Another resident told me that the government had promised 5000 rupiah per person per day to meet daily needs, but the money had not yet materialized. Other folks were busy cons tructing ponds to raise leleh fish as part of a government recovery plan. I didn't quite under stand the logic of raising fish in the mountains, and no one could really explain it to me. The picture to the left is of a painting by local artist Ki Joko Wasih that was painted after the disaster. I think it speaks for itself.

What is a lahar, exactly?

A lahar (sometimes also referred to as a "debris flow" or "mudflow") is a rapidly flowing mixture of rock debris and water from a volcano. The word "lahar", which has entered the technical lexicon of geography and geology, is from Javanese and loosely translates to "mudflow", but this is misleading because they don't contain much silt, sand, or clay, which is what makes mud muddy. Lahars are interesting from a geographic perspective because they arise from a combination of volcanic and climatic process. They occur on both active and extinct volcanoes and can be devastating due to the extreme force of the flow; lahars have the consistency of wet concrete and flow as fast as rivers. One lahar killed 23,000 people in 1985 after a relatively minor eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia. Lahars can also displace thousands of people, which increases their vulnerability to hunger and disease. Lahars are different from other mass movements (like landslides and rock falls) because of the materials involved, the way the material moves down slope, and the triggering mechanisms. They are very mobile and can cover up to 20 times the area of an avalanche with the same amount of material. There are several different types of lahars, but they can be loosely lumped into two categories: "hot" lahars and "cool" lahars.

Hot Lahars (also called "primary lahars") are those associated with volcanic eruptions. Lahars require water, which can come either from convective rainfall associated with the air rising from the heat around the volcano or from melted glacial ice in the case of alpine volcanoes. In the tropics hot lahars often occur when an eruption coincides with the rainy season. Around Mt. Merapi hot lahars also happen when pryoclastic material and other debris mixes with one of the many rivers that drain the mountain. On average this happens once every two years or so in some channels. The lahar that destroyed Kinah Rejo was a hot lahar.

Cool Lahars ("secondary lahars")don't coincide with an eruption. Rain erodes away accumulated lahar material, which is very unstable and unconsolidated to begin with. Around Merapi this most frequently occurs during the rainy season, which lasts from November to April. According to the government's geological agency, they are most likely to occur when there is more than 40 millimeters (around a foot and a half) of rain in a 2 hour period, but in reality this varies depending on slope, type of rainfall, elevation, and a number of other factors. The lahar that covered Magelang Road was a cool lahar.

In addition to the obvious impacts around Merapi, it's been suggested (see Walter et al reference below) that lahars can amplify earthquake damage. This is because the material is loose compared to solid bedrock, and so volcanic vibrations loosen the material and cause it too shift and settle. It's kind of like what happens when you shake a cereal box. Thus structures built on old lahar deposits are more likely to be damaged. Human actions can also exacerbate the damage done by lahars. Deforestation and conversion to farmland reduces the hydraulic roughness of volcano flanks and leads to more severe lahar events.

Mass Movements?

Lahars are an example of what geomorphologists (2) call "mass movements". This technical term is pretty self explanatory. Another example would be the landslides I described in the Dieng Plateau post. Mass movements are typically the result of some sort of slope failure. A very simplistic way to think about this is to imagine the Earth as a dynamic system that is trying to level itself out. It does this by using rain, waves, wind, and seismic activity to move material from high places to low places. However, most of the time the forces that are trying to tear mountains and hills down are balanced by those trying to hold the mountain up. Slope failure happens when these forces are temporarily out of balance, and the resulting mass movement only stops when a new equilibrium is reached. There are all sorts of mass movements, but they are generally classified on the basis of the type of movement, the speed, and how much water is involved. I've included a diagram I took from the textbook I use to teach Introduction to Physical Geography at UH (3). I'll write more about the specifics of mass movements in future posts, but this is a good place to start.


Many thanks to my friends Wanto and Mike at Wisma Bahasa for giving me directions and recommendations for this post.

(1) According to the people working the gate, they get paid 14000 rupiah a day, just under two dollars. However, when I was there there were dozens of visitors. The remaining money goes to the department of tourism for the province of Yogyakarta. I'm not sure why this is or where that money goes.

(2) A geomorphologist is a geographer that studies landforms and their life cycles.

(3) Do any of these types of mass movements look familiar to you? What types of slope failures are most common in Hawai'i? Can you use the internet to find some newspaper stories about different


Christopherson, Robert. Every couple of years or so. Geosystems: An Introduction to Physical Geography. New York: Pearson/Prentice Hall. A bunch of pages.

Kerle, Norman, and Clive Oppenheimer. 2002. Satellite Remote Sensing as a Tool in Lahar Disaster Management. Disasters 26:2, pp140-160

Lavigne, Franck. 1999. Lahar Hazard Micro-Zonation and Risk Assessment in Yogyakarta City, Indonesia. GeoJournal 49: pp173-183

Rodolfo, Kelvin. 1989. Origin and Early Evolution of Lahar Channel at Mabinit, Mayon Volcano, Philippines. Geological Society of America Bulletin 101, pp414-426.

Walter, TR, and 14 coauthors. 2008. The 26 May 2006 Magnitude 6.4 Yogyakarta Earthquake South of Mt. Merapi Volcano: Did Lahar Deposits Amplify Ground Shaking and Thus Lead to the Disaster? Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 9:5.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Voice Never Silenced...

Every book banned is another star, another badge of honor, on my breast. Pramoedya Anata Toer, 1995.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading my first real novel in Indonesian. The book I chose (or rather, was chosen for me) for this momentous milestone in my language learning endeavor was “Gadis Pantai” (Girl from the Coast) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006, hereafter known as "Pram"), one of Indonesia’s most known writers. Although I'd read a number of other books by Pram, this was the first in the native language. Although it was tough going, I really got a feel for the use of the language. The book tells the story of a beautiful young girl born in a poor fishing village on the north coast of Java around the beginning of the 20th century. As a young woman, Gadis Pantai’s beauty becomes known throughout the region until finally a local nobleman sends for her to become his wife. Gadis Pantai struggles with the contrasts between her new life as an aristocrat and her memories of the world she left behind. Although she lives in luxury, she longs to return to her home, her family, and the simple world she left behind.

Pram's most known work is the Buru Quartet (or Tetrology), a series of four historical novels that narrate the story of Indonesian nationalism during the late colonial period. The protagonist, Minke, is based on Tirto Adi Suryo, a pioneer in the field of modern Indonesian journalism. The story begins with during Minke's youth, where as a member of the upper-class he's born into a life of leisure far from the daily toils of the lower classes. However, as a native Indonesian he still experiences the repression of the colonial establishment. Minke begins to question the status quo and eventually becomes a key figure in the nationalist movement. He founds a newspaper and has frequent run-ins with the colonial authorities as he becomes increasingly critical of their policies. The quartet incorporates Pram's extensive research on the history of Indonesia as well as his personal experience and observations, and thus provides profound insight into the forces that led to the creation of the Indonesian nation. Minke's development as a critical thinker parallels Pram's own journey, and we can see a vivid picture of the abuses of the colonial regime and the direct and indirect effects of colonialism on society. Minke is also heavily influenced by two women that play a prominent role in the quartet: his love interest Annilise and his patron Nyai Ontosoroh. Women play a prominent role in much of Pram's work, and he frequently mentioned in interviews that he was strongly influenced by his mother: "In my view, women deliver everything. In the back of my mind is always my own mother--my mother as a teacher, educator, and bearer of ideas."

Pram "wrote" the Buru Quartet while imprisoned on the prison isle of Buru (hence the name) in the 1970s. Although he was denied pen and paper by his jailers, he told the story every night to his fellow prisoners to raise their morale and take their minds of the death and deprivation they witnessed on a nearly daily basis. Pram came to be imprisoned in the wake of a coup d'etat in 1965 which toppled Indonesia's first president Sukarno. Pram had always been a vocal critic of the government, but in the 1950s he became increasingly harsh in his critique. He felt the nation's leaders weren't doing enough to address the poverty and misery experienced by the majority of the population, and that the leadership had betrayed the idealistic values of equality that characterized the revolutionary movement of the 1940s. When Sukarno was deposed, Suharto soon came to power, establishing the authoritarian Orde Baru (New Order) regime amidst a mass purge and organized campaign of terror against the opposition. Pram's critiques would no longer be stomached by the government; he was branded a subversive and sent to prison. His personal archives and papers were seized and have been lost to this day. Pram eventually was released from Pulau Buru, but he was kept under house arrest in Jakarta into the 1990s. When the first two books from the Buru Quartet were published in Indonesia in the early 1980s they instantly became bestsellers, but they were soon banned by the Suharto regime on the grounds that they secretly supported "Marxism-Leninism". The books continued to be published abroad and smuggled in, and you can frequently here stories about people reading them in secret.

Pram was considered a threat by the New Order because he questioned the relationship between the individual and established power structures in society that constrain the individual. Not content to simply accept the status quo, Pram constantly examined the nature of power and its often crippling effects on the spirit and aspirations of the individual. Manuaba (2003) describes 4 fundamental aspects of the nexus between power and spirit.

1. Defiling of humanity stemming from extreme differences between socio-economic classes. This theme is developed in Gadis Pantai, where the heroine is constrained and ultimately undermined by her lower-class origins. She is completely at the mercy of her aristocratic husband.

2. The objectification of humans. This theme is also developed in Gadis Pantai. The heroine is treated as a mere object for the pleasure of her upper-class husband. She must sacrifice her desires, her dreams, and even her thoughts to become an accessory to him.

3. The fate of people from lower classes. Pram's writing describe how class-based systems, like the colonial regime, debase humans and limit their potential for growth and development. People are not free to rise above their class and ultimately their fates are determined by the status into which they are born.

4. Violence towards humanity. Pram shows how violence is used to solve problems, to enforce class divisions, and as an expression of frustration and emotion by people that have no other options. Violence is a product of unjust systems of governance.

Pram's novels usually don't have a happy ending, but that's because he felt a strong obligation to support an ongoing transformation in society. One gets the sense of his buried optimism from his works; he is guided by idealistic principles about equality amongst all people.

Pram is regarded as one of the leading Southeast Asian candidates for the Nobel Prize for literature. Over the course of his career he received numerous awards, including the PEN Freedom to Write Award in 1988, the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1995, UNESCO's Madanjeet Singh Prize in 1996, and the Chevalier de l'Orderes des Arts et des Letters in 1999. He also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1999.

If you'd like to sample Pram's work, I'd recommend The Fugitive (Perburuan), his first novel published in 1950. This short novel is a good introduction to some of the themes that appear frequently throughout his novels. Pram developed the story while in prison under the Dutch, who returned to Indonesia after World War II to retake control from the Japanese. The story is about a young man returning to his village after participating in guerilla campaigns against the Japanese occupiers. He finds that everything changed while he was away, and falls into a fatalistic acceptance that things will never be the same.


GoGwilt, Chris. 1996. Pramoedya’s Fiction and History: An Interview with Indonesian Novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Yale Journal of Criticism 9:1, pp147-164

Foulcher, Keith. 2008. On A Roll: Pramoedya and the Postcolonial Transition. Indonesian Studies Working Papers #4, University of Sydney. 24pp.

Manuaba, I.B. Putera. 2003. Novel-Novel Pramoedya Ananta Toer: Refleksi Pendegradasian Dan Interpretasi Makna Perjuangan Martabat Manusia. Humaniora 15:3, pp276-284

Toer, Pramoedya Anata. 1982. Gadis Pantai. Lentera Dipantara 2003 imprint. Jakarta, Indonesia, 270pp.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Temples of Dieng Plateau

This weekend I was fortunate enough to be invited out of the city on a day trip to the Dieng Plateau. I've been working pretty hard lately, and the Dieng plateau is one of the few "on-the-map" places in this part of the country that I hadn't yet visited, so I gladly jumped at the opportunity. The Dieng plateau is about 2000 meters above sea-level in Central Java in the region of Wonosobo. Dieng (from Di Hyang, "Place of the Gods") is the home to several Hindu temples dating from around 12-1300 years ago. Compared to the masterpieces at Borobudur and Prambanan these temples are relatively plain, but they were built a couple of hundred years prior. These temples are neat because they represent a mixture of Javanese culture with the Hindu religion and don't really resemble other Hindu temples in India. They were built here in memory of ancestors in the hopes that the spirits would continue to protect the living. They are dedicated to the god Shiva, who was the favored god of the Javanese Hindus. There isn't much of a written record concerning the temples, and for a long time they were all but lost to the outside world. However, they were "rediscovered" in 1814 (1) by a British soldier vacationing in the area. At that time they were submerged in a lake! Around the middle of the 19th century the Dutch colonial authorities started draining the lakes and cataloging the sites. The picture you see is from the Arjuna complex

The Dieng Plateau is also a volcanic landscape (technically a "complex volcano", an "an extensive assemblage of spatially, temporally, and genetically related major and minor volcanic centers with their associated lava flows and pyroclastic rocks [Francis, 1994]), and the tell-tale features that provide a clue to the tectonic violence just beneath the surface of the Earth are a significant attraction here as well. There are a couple of stratovolcanoes ( including the Sumbing and Sondoro volcanoes)here and a number of craters. Other features include fumaroles, which are volcanic openings in the earth's crust where gas and steam escape, and solfataras, which are fumaroles that emit sulfurous gases (2). All of these features suggest that the Dieng area has been affected by numerous phreatic eruptions. Phreatic eruptions happen when magma rising from below comes into contact with water beneath the surface. This causes the water to quickly turn into steam, which increases the pressure below the ground. When enough pressure builds up there is a violent, explosive eruption that sends steam, ash, rock, and water everywhere. As you can imagine, the Dieng plateau can be a very dangerous place, not just for the phreatic eruptions but also due to the fumaroles. For example, in 1979 149 people were killed when they tried to flee the area. For several days there had been signs of an impending eruptions, so some villagers decided it was a good time to head for the hills (3). Several days later the villagers were found dead on the trail, lined up as though they were walking. Authorities presumed they all suffocated when a cloud of poisonous gas descended upon them. But despite the dangers, the Dieng plateau, because of its cooler temperatures and rich soils, is an important agricultural region. The government has also initiated a geothermal project to generate electricity. We stopped at a hot spring where water and gas bubble up from below. If you've ever wondered what it smells like when the earth farts, you should visit this place. The smell comes from sulfur, one of the principle substances ejected from volcanoes and springs. I've included a video clip of the bubbling pool for your viewing pleasure. Unfortunately the blogging software doesn't come equipped with Smell-O-Vision.

One of the best things about the trip, though, was getting there. During the 3 hours it took to go from Jogja to the plateau we passed through some stunning scenery. Climbing into the mountains you'll pass miles and miles of vegetable farms. The milder climate allows farmers to grow a wide variety of produce, including potatoes. But the striking thing about the agricultural landscape is the density of it; virtually every nook and cranny is planted with some sort of vegetation. Entire hills have been completely given over to terracing. And while this enables increased agricultural production, the environmental consequences are very apparent: slope failures that have resulted in landslides. I've included a series of photos to the right to give you an idea of how this happens. In the first picture (sorry about the blur; I took it from the car) you can see a farmer working on freshly terraced area. Terraces are created by removing all the vegetation and cutting into the mountain to create a level surface for planting. This has two very negative effects: 1) the trees and other vegetation serve as anchors for the soil; their roots help keep the soil in place, and 2) the walls of the terrace increase the slope of that part of the hillside to nearly 90 degrees, which increases "shear stress" and weakens the structure of the slope. In the second picture you can see an entire hill covered with terraces. Nearly all of the original vegetation has been removed and only a few trees remain. In the third picture you can see the unfortunate results of this farming strategy: a landslide. The one in this picture is a relatively small one, but in some cases a significant portion of the hill comes tumbling down. Although the farmers construct rock walls to reinforce some of the terraces, it's usually just a matter of time before a landslide happens in this very rainy environment.

(1) For a short time between 1811 and 1818 the British controlled Java. This was a part of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. France's Napoleon conquered the Netherlands, and thus took over all the Dutch colonies. France's enemy, England, then invaded Java and after 45 days took control. The English ceded control back to the Dutch at the end of the war.

(2) The name solfatara comes from a crater of the same name near Naples, Italy. Although the volcano is dormant, it still emits sulphurous gas.

(3) Or, in this case, out of the hills...


Francis, P. 1994. Volcanoes: A Planetary Perspective. Oxford University Press, New York, 443pp. Via Oregon State's Volcano World site.

Van Bergen, Manfred, Alain Bernard, Sri Sumarti, Terry Sriwana, and Kastiman Sitorus. 2000. Crater Lakes of Java: Dieng, Kelud, and Ijen. Excursion Guidebook for IAVCEI General Assembly, Bali 2000. Find Here....

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Why Does This Happen? Small Business Clustering in Indonesia

Tire vendors as far as the eye can see! Scenes like the one to the left are common here in Indonesia; when you come here you'll likely encounter agglomerations of merchants offering the same good or service. This include rubber stamp makers, license plate makers, sunglasses salesmen, florists, furniture makers, and others. At first glance it might doubt the logic of 15 nearly identical keymakers setting up shop next to one another; surely there can't be enough demand on a daily basis to support them all. And why would someone set up shop right next to 14 other guys doing the same thing? Doesn't it make sense to start your business someplace else to draw customers from a different location rather than join in the apparently vicious competition? Well, like most things in life, there's more here than meets the eye, and a basic understanding of some simple geographic principles helps us make sense of it all.

Historically there are a lot of examples of like professions being grouped into certain districts. Sometimes this has more to do with regulation than anything else. For instance, in the royal cities of Java professions such as gamelan manufacturers were all located on a particular street. Other places, like New York City's Garment District, gradually became centers because different types of businesses in the same industry (weavers and tailors, for instance) clustered together to minimize transport and other costs. But neither of these explanations seems to help with the keymakers and tire sellers. But there are other possible explanations!

One possibility was predicted by economist Harold Hotelling in 1929 (Hotelling’s Model). Hotelling asks us to imagine a beach filled with thousands of people (which shouldn’t be too hard in Hawaii). An enterprising businessman decides to open an ice cream stand somewhere on the beach. Where do you think his stand is most likely located? If you answered “it the middle”, you’re correct. Now, due to the success of our ice-cream vendor, someone else gets the bright idea to open another ice cream shop to compete. Where do you think our new competitor is most likely to set up shop? Take a look at the diagram below and think for a minute.

According to Hotelling (and according to our common sense), the new vendor will build his stall right next to the existing stall! The reason for this is because he/she can grab half the market from the first competitor (we're assuming, of course, that the buyers only think about how far they have to walk). If an additional competitor were to set up shop, he/she also would tend towards the center (see the diagram below). This might be one way to explain the concentration of tire vendors, key makers, etc. But I suspect that there are other factors at work here. To shed some light on this curious phenomenon, I set out on an adventure of discovery.

My first stop was a long line of 10-15 keymaker’s stalls on Jalan Demangan. Here there wasn’t really any difference between the various products and there didn’t seem to be much pressure to attract customers. After buying a key (rp 5000) to break the ice, I talked with the keymaker.

“Why are there so many keymakers here?” I asked.

“Because this is the key place”, he answered.

“Yeah but why is this the key place?” I prodded.

“Because all the keymakers are here”, he responded.

After this round of circular logic was completed we got down to business. There isn’t a whole lot of cooperation between the keymakers, but apparently there is some. He said he sells around 20 keys a day, which, at 5000 rupiah per key, is somewhere around $13, enough to pay for life’s necessities. He told me all the keymakers are pretty much the same and that he mainly gets customers through repeat business or word of mouth.

Another explanation is that the various vendors are related somehow. It might be that a parent sets his children up in the same business. So next stop was the fruit stand where I do my buah shopping. Although there are several stalls in a row, they are all owned by people from the same family, and so there is a good bit of cooperation here. I saw a variation on this theme on “tire alley”. Some are relations. Others come from villages far away. The way this works is that a “pioneer” opens up a shop, has success, and sends word back to the village, and is soon followed by others who set up their own shops. There are also a couple of different dynamics at work amongst the 20-30 vendors here. The tire salesmen cooperate with one another as well; they even have an association responsible for keeping the area clean and resolving disputes. There was also a high degree of differentiation in terms of products offered as well as equipment used.

The flower vendors told me they had traditionally all been grouped together, but they came to their current location after being displaced from their original spot downtown, which the government turned into a parking area. They were given their new area as compensation. Here again there seemed to be some cooperation as well as family connections among vendors. The furniture guys cooperate the most (based on my short interviews). This is because they are all from the same area in Bantul, a district outside the city limits. I asked them the same question I asked the others: “What if a hotel managers comes and wants to buy 100 cabinets (keys, flower arrangements, etc)….Do you share the work with your neighbors or do you do it all yourself?” Though all the others responded that they would probably fill the order themselves, the furniture guys said they would share the order.

Keith's Rule...

Another reason for clustering is that groups of small businesses together seem, to the rest of the economic “system”, as one large business. This might help them draw customers from further away. Thus their range increases but their profitability threshold remains low (1). Think about how car dealers tend to cluster together. Customers know that they can see a lot of cars without having to go all over town. To illustrate this, I invented a little model. If we imagine the world as a flat isotropic plane (2) with an even distribution of population we can represent the market area as a circle. As we know, the area of a circle is the radius of the circle times the square of Pi. Now for the purposes of my model I've substituted the business threshold for the area. That way I can solve for the radius of the circle, which gives me my hypothetical range. Each additional shop increases the threshold, but it also increases the range. In the table below you can see how it works. The marginal range is simply the additional market radius required to support an additional vendor.

Number of Shops
Marginal Range

This is a pretty interesting result. As you can see from the table above, as the number of shops gets bigger, the marginal range gets smaller. That means that the market radius required to support each new shop actually decreases! Eventually this will tend asymptotically towards 0, which means that you can keep adding shops forever without hurting the market (3)! Of course, the real world doesn't work this you get further away from the center of the city the population density decreases, and we can't really assume that the market doesn't get saturated at some point. But this does show us that business clustering isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Anyway, back to the story. When I talked to the sunglasses vendor he told me that there isn't much cooperation between the different vendors, but they all cluster together for the reason I just explained. Thus there's a symbiotic relationship even if there is no cooperation.

This also presents the opportunity to think about the nature of competition. All the key makers were the same; they have pretty much a standard service and inventory that they offer, and there isn't any difference between them. This would be similar (4) to what economic geographers refer to as “perfect competition”. In perfect competition there is no product differentiation. This means that the good or service sold by one vendor is no different from those sold by all the other vendors. In addition, there are no barriers to entry in the market place (anyone can start a business) and there is easy entry and exit from the market. The tire guys at first glance looked like perfect competition as well, but when I started talking to them I realized that there are a lot of differences between them, and they try to find niches by offering different products. There is also significant variability in the tools they use; some have state of the art equipment while others use older equipment. This is closer to monopolistic competition. Look for a future post describing these concepts in deeper detail.

Anyway, I had a great time biking around town talking to folks. They were universally friendly and more than willing to talk. I also wanted to know if the success of the business depends on the location in the line of stalls, but I forgot to ask. But all in all, this was a pretty neat opportunity to apply some theories and ideas from economic geography.

(1) Threshold and range are terms from Walter Christaller’s Central Place Theory. Threshold refers to the minimum market population or income required to support a particular distance. Range is the maximum distance customers are willing to travel to buy something. Can you think of some types of businesses that have short ranges? What about long ranges? What kind of business has a low threshold? A high threshold? Are there any obvious connections between these two concepts? (Diagram courtesy of Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrique, Department of Geography, Hofstra University).

(2) An isotropic plane is pretty much just a flat surface with no variations. Isotropic planes are one of the favorite tricks of geographers in making simple models. Remember that models are merely representations of reality, and they vary in detail. This is a very simple model, much like Von Thunen's market rent model.

(3) My calculus is really rusty, but I think a way to represent this is the following (I hope this is right because it took me 20 minutes to figure out how to use the equation tool in Word:

(4) Instances of perfect competition are rare. A closer example here might be the becaks I described in a previous post. Can you think of an example of perfect competition in Hawai’i? What about examples of monopolistic competition or oligarchy?


Mahalo Nui Loa to Dr. Matt McGranaghan, Department of Geography, University of Hawai'i, and Dr. Gary Fuller, Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography, University of Hawai'i.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Do You Have A Cousin In Indonesia?

If you’re Hawaiian or part Hawaiian the answer to this question could very possibly be “yes”. For years researchers have worked to determine how the Old Hawaiians came to be in Hawaii, because they had to come from some place. Most scholars agree that Hawaiians are decedents of voyagers that came in several waves of migration first from the Marquesas Islands and later from Tahiti (1). This leg of exploration and settlement was one of the last in a string of journeys leading to the population of almost every habitable island in Polynesia, starting from Tonga and Samoa. But the question remains, where did the first voyagers come from? Who are the people responsible for the incredible advances in navigational techniques that allowed the settling of these islands thousands of years before Europeans were able to leave the site of land?

Given the lack of written records, all sorts of ideas have emerged. One (now discredited) hypothesis (3) argues that the Polynesians came from South America (4). Others argue that the Polynesians are descendants of the original inhabitants of Taiwan. Still others argue that the Polynesians originated in Southeast Asia. Support for the various theories has traditionally come from the study of archaeological remains (including cook sites, tools, garbage heaps, and other things left over from human settlements) and comparisons of the various languages. However, over the past couple of decades a new form of data has made a contribution as well: DNA. DNA is (very basically) the molecular instruction manual used to build people. It contains a complex code made up of 4 different chemicals that fit together in different ways (genes). Scientists who study how genes work are geneticists. One of the interesting thing about genes is that they are passed from parents to children, and so by studying how many genes people share (or don’t share) we can tell how closely related those people are.

Formerly the dominant hypothesis seemed to be that people moving out of Taiwan around 6,000 years ago eventually came to populate the islands of Polynesia. The idea is that rapid population growth contributed to this out-migration, and that the spread through the Solomon islands and the western Pacific islands (Tonga, Fiji, Samoa) was relatively rapid. However, in recent years this hypothesis has been called into question, with genetic information being used to cast new light on Polynesian origins. Most recently a study released this year indicates that Polynesians began migrating far earlier than previously thought, originating from Southeast Asia rather than Taiwan. This new information also suggests that Polynesians are at least partially the descendants of earlier inhabitants of the region, rather than their displacers. According to this new study the Polynesians left the mainland for Indonesia about 10,000 years ago, later moving on to the Bismarck Archipelago in Papua New Guinea.

This new information would be consistent with and would support the notion of the "voyaging corridor". This voyaging corridor refers to an area between what is now the Solomon Islands and New Guinea and the eastern islands of Indonesia where tropical storms (hurricanes or typhoons) are relatively infrequent and where the prevailing winds are pretty predictable. Moreover, one could feasibly sail across the whole region by hoping from island to island without ever losing sight of land. Terrel, Hunt, and Gosden (see reference below) relate a hypothesis by Geoff Irwin that this area served as a voyaging "nursery" in ancient times. What they mean by this is that this would be an ideal place for people to try out new techniques and technologies for traveling by sea without exposing themselves to excessive risk. Even in the best of circumstances, though, you might expect the discoveries that enabled people to travel vast expanses across the ocean to take thousands of years (and they probably did). So, if people left mainland Southeast Asia 10,000 years ago, and began moving into the Pacific 4,000 years ago, that leaves several millenia for the evolution of the advanced technology needed to make the long journeys. And in those thousands of years, there was certainly a significant amount of exchange amongst the various peoples of the region, which would also be consistent with other DNA evidence that suggests the links between the various peoples of the Malay Archipelago, Melanesia, and Polynesia are a lot closer than was previously believed.

So it is increasingly apparent that there is a clear connection between the islands that form Indonesia and Hawaii. So why the confusion?

My good friend and colleague in the Department of Geography at UH David Strauch reminded me of the socio-political aspects of this debate as well. Along with hypotheses about the histories of peoples come assumptions that are sometimes rooted in hidden biases and prejudices. Archaeologists, linguists, geographers, geneticists, anthropologists, and historians are all humans, after all, and humans make mistakes. David (as well as many highly-respected experts) contend that the “express train” hypothesis is based upon thin evidence and instead is a relic of a mindset which assumes that prehistoric Southeast Asians (including Indonesians) and Melanesians were too “primitive” to give rise to advanced Polynesian civilizations, and hence there had to be an alternative explanation.

The peopling of the Pacific is one of the most fascinating stories in human history. The fact that the Polynesians were able to journey thousands of miles across a vast ocean long before Christopher Columbus journeyed to North America is staggering. But there's still much to learn about this story. The many mysteries are just one more reason to learn about geography, and the Hawai'i-Indonesia connection is another reason to make a trip here!

(1) Though this notion of discrete "waves" of migration might be misleading; many scholars suggest that there was a great deal more mixing and mingling amongst the various peoples of the Eastern Pacific.

(2) I'm referring here to Thor Heyerdahl and the voyage of the Kon Tiki, which is actually a pretty cool story. Thor Heyerdahl was an anthropologist who thought that the Pacific islands must've been settled from South America. No one believed him, though, so he set out to prove his hypothesis by reenacting the voyage. Heyerdahl built a simple raft and sailed from South America to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Though his hypothesis was eventually abandoned, Heyerdahl made an important contribution to scholarship on Pacific Island voyaging and paved the way for groups like the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which built the Hoku'lea. The Kon Tiki adventure is a great example of how we learn about things....through trial and error. Being wrong is part of the great march of knowledge. So don't be afraid to make mistakes!

(3) The difference between a theory and a hypothesis is sometimes confusing and the words are sometimes used interchangeably. However in geography the words are distinct and refer to different things. Understanding the difference between them is extremely important. Hypothesis refers to a general idea about how things work. A hypothesis is used to guide further research into a topic. We formulate a hypothesis as an initial explanation for something, with the understanding that we will endeavor to learn more about it. On the other hand, a theory develops as we gather more information and proof. A theory is the best explanation based on all the information available. It is consistent with facts and research and is usually a pretty solid explanation, though theories are often revised. Can you think of some examples of hypotheses and theories? How might you go from the hypothesis stage to the theory stage?

(4) Look for a future post on the geography of languages in Southeast Asia and Polynesia.

References and For Further Reading:

Bhanoo, Sinya. 2011. DNA Sheds New Light on Polynesian Migration. New York Times 2/7/2011.

Hurles, Matthew, Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith, Russell D. Gray, and David Penny. 2003. Untangling Oceanic Settlement: The Edge of the Knowable. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 18:10pp531-540

Oppenheimer, Stephen, and Martin Richards. 2001. Fast trains, Slow Boats, and the Ancestry of the Polynesian Islanders. Science Progress 84:3 157-181.

Soares, Pedro (and 15 co-authors). 2011. Ancient Voyaging and Polynesian Origins. The American Journal of Human Genetics 88 pp239-247.

Terrell, John Edward, Terry Hunt, and Chris Gosden. 1997. The Dimensions of Social Life in the Pacific: Human Diversity and the Myth of the Primitive Isolate. Current Anthropology 38:2 pp155-195