Saturday, November 5, 2011

Road Construction and Kerinci Seblat National Park Part 1

Picture from Rapid Response Facility
In past posts I've focused on some of the threats to Kerinci Seblat National Park, including encroaching farmers and illegal logging.  Road construction is another major problem confronting the park's managers.  Currently there are no less than 32 proposed road projects that would cut through the park.  Over the next couple of posts I'll be talking about the proposed roads.  Each of these potential roads would have significant impacts on Kerinci Seblat National Park, ranging from direct impacts on flora, fauna, and ecosystems to more indirect and systemic impacts on the environmental services provided by the park.  These roads are emblematic of the preservation/development dichotomy inherent in national parks; you can have one or the other but not both.  Today's post focuses on one project in particular: the 40 kilometer road that would link Lempur village in Kerinci district (Jambi province) to Sungai Ipuh in Mukomuko district (Bengkulu province.  In the next post I'll discuss why roads are such a threat to conservation areas in general.

Roads for Development...

After the fall of President Suharto in 1998 significant power was devolved to district (kabupaten) governments.  At the same time, the districts were tasked with the responsibility of increasing locally generated revenue to pay for government programs.  For district governments the most popular way of increasing revenue is through infrastructure development.  The idea is that the more roads you have the more open and connected the district will be, and thus development will increase through trading and investment.  Roads and other infrastructural projects are also very visible projects; political leaders can refer to kilometers of roads built when they seek re-election.  The problem for the 15 districts and administrative municipalities around Kerinci Seblat National Park is that national law prevents them from building roads through the park.  This hasn't stopped road planning, though; currently at least eight of the 15 districts and municipalities have road proposals on the table. 

There are lots of justifications for roads ranging from opening up "isolated" villages to development of the tourism sector.  Though traditional pro-road arguments mainly focus on economic development, since the devastating earthquake that hit Padang in 2009 the most powerful and prevalent justification is that additional evacuation routes are needed.  On the surface the disaster argument is compelling; Kerinci district is hoe to Gunung Kerinci, a very active volcano.  However there are real questions as to the appropriateness of proposed routes in terms of disaster mitigation.  Given all of these justifications, the park is seen by many as an obstacle in the way of development.  All of this taken together means that roads are a very political issue here.  Support for roads comes from members of parliament and provincial governors on down to district headmen and the local people themselves.  The park is supported by a few local and international NGOs, but for the most part local people seem to be in favor of the roads (1).  It is easy to understand why if we look at the map of the park above (2).  The park is shown in red.  The enclave in the middle is Kerinci valley.  Roads are shown with dotted lines.  As you can see, there are only three routes into the valley.  You have to cross over the mountains to get anywhere, and it takes a long time to get to the closest big cities (about 7 hours to Padang, 250km, 11 hours to Jambi, 450km).  In addition, the physical shape of the park makes it difficult to go from one side of Sumatra to the other.

On the other hand, the park contains irreplaceable natural resources, protects endangered species, provides environmental services for millions, and sequesters an enormous amount of carbon, which helps to slow global warming.  Constructing roads through the park undermines its ability to do all of these things. 

Recently an "independent" team was dispatched by the Ministry of Forestry to study three of the proposed roads.  Members of the team were drawn from the national research bureau (LIPI), the Ministry of Environmental Health, two regional universities (University of Jambi and University of Bengkulu) and the Ministry of Forestry itself.  The team's first stop was in Lempur, where a proposed road linking Kerinci district to Mukomuko district has caused quite a controversy between the development and conservation camps.

A Visit to Lempur...

The end of "bikeable" road...
I wanted to check out the Lempur site first hand, so this morning I hopped on my honda and made a damp one-and-a-half hour trek down to the village.  My first stop was the forest path itself.  At the end of the bikeable road I met a farmer working in his chili field.  He guided me up the path through the forest for about a kilometer.  We passed a well-built bridge constructed approximately 7 years ago, which indicates that the road dispute has been simmering for a long time.  He told me that this area had been widened by heavy equipment several years ago and the "road" continued in this condition for about 5 km before giving way to a footpath which continues all the way to Sungai Ipuh in Mukomuko district.  Although all the forest in this area is secondary growth, I was amazed at how alive the forest was; I heard birds I'd never heard before.  The farmer told me the path is about 40 kilometers, and from time to time people make the trek to Mukomuko on foot.  He was in favor of the road project because it would improve "development".  He told me that his land is adat (3) land, and that customary adat law covers all the land between Lempur and Sungai Ipuh.  This is an important consideration as we'll see in the next post; TNKS officials and conservation advocates argue that a new road would be plagued by forest encroachment on either side.  Locals insist that adat custom would prevent encroachment. 

When I got back to Lempur village I started looking around for a couple of people that one of my collaborators suggested I talk to.  Some local folks directed me to an area behind the mosque, where I walked right into a ritual buffalo slaughter.  This event takes place once a year, and the gathering was an excellent opportunity to get some opinions about the proposed road. 

Everyone I talked to there supports the road.  It's easy to understand why; Lempur is situated at the end of a finger of valley that extends out of the main Kerinci valley, about 15 kilometers off the main road.  Most of the people in the area are farmers, for whom one of the most important considerations is access to markets.  The people of Lempur feel that if a road was opened up they could get their goods to Sungai Ipuh, which is on the other side of the Bukit Barisan mountains.  Currently it takes about a day to get to Sungai Ipuh (though to be fair there are a lot of alternative markets on the way); with a new road the time would be cut to an hour.  The people argue that they have historic cultural ties with the people in Sungai Ipuh; they say they speak the same language and have family connections there.  Moreover they feel that the park doesn't care about their livelihood needs.  One adat leader told me that before the park was created people were farming in the area; after the park was established those people lost their livelihoods with little or no compensation.  The locals claim that they are willing to compromise and cooperate with the park.  They also claim that if the road was opened there would be no need to worry about illegal logging or cultivation along the road.  Currently they feel they are at a "dead end" both literally and figuratively; they are at the very end of the road with no where to go while at the same time they say prospects for "development" are limited.

As you can see it's a tough situation.  Unfortunately the way we live our lives coupled with the constraints of geography forces us to pick winners and losers.  We have to choose between conservation and development.  In the next post I'll talk more about exactly what we lose when we build roads.  


(1)  This is due in no small part to local politicians portraying the park as an "enemy" to development; look for a future post on this very important topic.

(2)  Sorry about the crappy map; arcgis for some reason stopped working on my laptop, so this is the first time i've ever used globalmapper.

(3)  Adat refers to various local traditional codes governing, among other things, land use.

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