Sunday, October 2, 2011

Illegal Cultivation at Kerinci Seblat National Park

Yesterday I made my first visit to one of the 400 or so villages situated on the edges of Kerinci Seblat National Park.  These visits will be an important part of my work here because they will help me to understand the relationship of the park to the people living around it.  This particular village is in the area of Gunung Tujuh (Mountain 7) in the Kerinci regency, about 60 kilometers from my home in Sungai Penuh. 

Most of the people in the village (and in the region in general) are farmers.  They grow potatoes, chilies, corn, and cinnamon in the hills.  Unfortunately, the place where these particular villagers farm is within the national park, and so their activities are technically illegal.  From the perspective of the park, agricultural activities and conservation are incompatible.  The park exists, among other reasons, to protect the forest, and so the clearing of land to plant crops undermines the park's mission.  For their part the farmers have to make a living somehow, though.  This conflict has been the source of a considerable amount of tension over the years. 

The Farmer's Logic

It costs about $200 per planting
Park marker with chili field in background.  The field is in the park.
session to rent a patch of land in the Kerinci valley.  A farmer can get three crops of chili peppers per year, so the total rent is about $600.  Although the price fluctuates widely, in an average year a farmer can make $1000 growing chilies.  Fertilizer, seeds, and pesticide costs about $150 per year, so in the end the profit is about $250 per year.  However, if the farmer cultivates inside the park, where land is essentially free, the profit jumps to $850 per year.  In other words, a farmer can more than triple his income by farming inside the park.  In this way the park functions as a kind of subsidy for the local economy.  Agricultural production is increased, and all in all there is more money to spend, which makes everyone better off locally.

But there is a heavy price to pay.  Cutting down the trees on the slopes removes the root systems that help anchor the soil, increasing the rate of erosion.  Over the past couple of weeks I've noticed a number of stories in the national newspaper (Kompas) describing the problems facing paddy rice farmers in various parts of the archipelago.  Paddy rice requires a lot of water, which entails the construction and maintenance of irrigation works.   Farmers on Sumatra, Sulawesi, Java, and Kalimantan are all complaining that their irrigation channels and water reservoirs are getting shallower and shallower as a result of sediment flowing out of the hills.  Not only does the sediment decrease the capacity of the waterworks, but it increases the risk of flooding since it takes less water to fill the canal. 

In addition, rainforests are unique in that most of the nutrients that help the plants grow are not found in the soil itself, which is usually relatively poor, but rather in the trees, bushes, vines, and other plant life that make up the forest.  When something in the forest dies, bacteria, insects, and fungi immediately go to work recycling its nutrients, as you can see in the video below.  This means that the nutrients never get returned to the soil  To clear land, farmers cut the trees and then burn them.  The ash is good fertilizer, but it only lasts for a year or two.  After that all of the nutrients are gone forever, and it's very difficult to get trees to grow again.  Instead what generally happens is that grasses and shrubs move in, as in the picture to the left.  These grasses are very good at colonizing vacant land, and they create root systems that make it all but impossible for tree seedlings to thrive.  What's worse is that the grasses continue grow from the roots even after the grass is cut, making it extremely difficult to rehabilitate the land. 


As a geographer this is a very interesting problem to me because there is a spatial separation between who benefits and who pays.  Like I mentioned, the farmers in the villages benefit from cultivating in the park.  But they externalize (1) the costs of farming to other people at various scales.  At the local scale, there are landslides and decreased rice production due to the degraded irrigation systems.  At the global scale everyone is worse off because the park is less able to protect biodiversity and buffer against global warming. 

Finding a Solution

In the past enforcing the borders of the park has proven to be very difficult for the park's managers.  The geography of the park complicates the task; the park is a little bit bigger than the state of Connecticut, and its elongated shape means that the border is more than 2500 kilometers in length.  At first the park tried strict enforcement, handing out fines to those that farm inside the park and putting some farmers in jail.  This didn't go over well with the farmers, though; in the picture to the right you can see the remnants of a park building that was burned more than a decade ago by angry villagers after several farmers were arrested. 

Part of the problem is that the villagers were here before the park, and so many of them feel they have a more legitimate claim on the land than the park, which was established by the central government, which is hundreds of miles away.  Another problem is that there has traditionally been little cooperation from the local government of the areas around the park.  The park's staff is relatively small, so in order for strict enforcement to be feasible they would need the help of the local government.  The sign in the picture at the beginning of the post is from the local government and cautions people not to go in the park, but in the background you can see that the hill has been converted to fields.  The sign doesn't seem to have much effect.

Now the park is attempting a new strategy.  Over the past couple of years management has spent a lot of time doing what they call "socialization" in the villages around the park.  This entails sending a staff member along with a couple of rangers to a village to make a presentation about the benefits of the park and the dangers of growing crops on slopes.  According to park officials, villagers are receptive to the message.  When I went to Gunung Tujuh they were also in the midst of a reboisasi (tree planting) coordinated by the park with the assistance of the army.  Local people (2) are paid according to how many trees they plant.  The crews were planting surian (Toona sinensis), petai (Parkia speciosa), pulai (Alstonia scholaris), and gaharu (Aquilaria malaccensis). 

I asked if there were conflicts between the tree planters and the farmers, but no one was really willing to answer the question.  My reasoning was that if you plant trees, someone has to lose their farmland.  I also asked one of my new friends, who happened to be working on the project, if the locals would remove the seedlings after the project was finished and the army left.  He didn't seem to think so.  But I'll go back in a few months to see for myself and talk to the villagers some more.  They were happy to have a visitor and were very welcoming and eager to talk.  They even gave me a bunch of fresh bananas to take home.


(1)  Businesses often are able to pass along the costs of production to someone else.  For example, consider a factory built on a river.  The factory dumps wastes products into the river, and therefore doesn't have to pay to dispose of the waste.  However, the waste creates additional burdens for people downstream through decreased fish catches and increased costs for water purification, or increased costs for medical treatment from people getting sick from the water.  Economists refer to these as externailities.  The general idea is that somebody always pays and that nothing is free.  Can you think of some other examples of externalities?

(2)  The crew I talked to was actually from a town about 20 kilometers away, but one villager told me that local people were part of the project, too.


  1. People always do what benefits them,and it's hard to change this. At the same time, the farmers don't make that much if they don't use the land of the park. Maybe if the price to rent a patch of land would be lower, the farmers would be able to negotiate. Or maybe not. They would want more money still, even if the rent for land is lower.

  2. This is such a complicated controversy. To save the farmers or the trees! I choose the trees for sure. There must be other land that could be used for farming. Forest are so important to the atmosphere and its sad to cut them down in place of farming. Like stated in this blog in the long run the trees are more important, so the farmers need to step back and realize the pros and cons of their actions. I completely support any efforts of park preservation because growing up in Hawaii we have many parks to try and preserve special parts of our land.

  3. I am all for preserving trees and land but the farmers should have some rights too. If the farmers are paying for land outside of the park and then are not allowed to farm within the park, then essentially what rights do they have to ownership of land??? These natives and their ancestors lived on this land long before these organized forms of governments and politics came along. I believe that they have some knowledge of balancing living off the land. Isn't the symbiosis of human and plants crucial? It seems the educational lectures to the natives is a good start. However it won't stop them farming farming within the preserved land. It seems that figuring out some landownership within or out of the park (of course within reason) would be a quicker more direct way to solve this issue. But I'm sure it won't happen because what government wants to give any power to the people?

  4. It seems to me that this is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. Since there are so many farmers doing the same thing and over using the land, no one feels any personal responsibility towards maintaining the park and keeping the trees. It's also a complicated issue since people's livelihoods depend on the farming and how much money they can make, so it's obvious that they will take the path that seems the most profitable (in this case taking over park land). The farmers and the local government need to work together in order to preserve the park and the trees for future generations. Perhaps they could rent out the property at low rates and promise not to destroy any more of the trees? In the end destroying the natural environment will be detrimental for the farmers and the local community, so everyone should work quickly to find a viable solution.