Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Temples of Muaro Jambi and the Malayu Kingdom

This past week I made the 12-hour (one way!) journey to Jambi city, the capital of Jambi province, to handle some business related to my research project.  While there I had the opportunity to visit the Mahayana buddhist temple complex at Muaro Jambi, about 20km from the city.  The temples here were constructed between the 7th and 13th centuries and represent the largest temple complex in Indonesia, covering 2,612 hectares.  The complex spreads for 7.5 kilometers along the banks of the Batang Hari river and is still being excavated.   I spent about 5 hours wandering around the expansive complex, and I would recommend the trip to anyone.  

Go To Muaro Jambi

Guide Wawan beneath the Bodhi tree
There are two ways to get to Muaro Jambi: by boat and by road.  The latter is the quickest and cheapest if you are alone.  For rp40,000 (about US$4.50) I hired an ojek to drive me to the complex.  I didn't dicker with him, but if you feel the need you could probably talk the price down a bit.  It took about 25 minutes to get there.  You can hire a boat just downstream of the WTC mall in Jambi city.  The "captain" quoted me a price of rp300,000 (around US$33) to go and come back in his motorized longboat.  It takes between 1.5 and 2 hours to go.  I didn't go by boat because the sun looked pretty oppressive and I didn't want to get burned.  But I would think that taking a boat would be fun and you could probably talk down the price a bit.   

Guides Wawan and Ahok describing temple architecture
Candi Tinggi
The entrance fee to the temple complex is rp3000 (about 35 cents).  I told the guys there they should jack the price up, especially for foreigners, so when you go if the price is higher you can blame me.  They told me that at this point they are more interested with getting the word out about the temples; they were more concerned with ensuring that I had a good time there so I would tell other people about it.  You can hire a guide there at the gate; I would highly recommend this as they are very well informed.  I tried to stump them, asking questions about the soil and hydrology of the area as it related to the original occupants of the site, and they knew everything.  I really learned a lot from them and was impressed with their knowledge.  They don't have a set fee, but I ended up paying them rp150,000 (about US$18) to split two ways, but this included transport back to Jambi city.  They motored me to some of the more remote sites and gave me coffee.  They also have a small (but nice) museum with artifacts and interpretive materials in English.  

They also have bicycles in good condition for rent; you can get one for rp5000 (55 cents) per hour.  There are tandem bicycles as well.  Though I didn't do this because I was walking with the guides, but it looks like it would be fun.  The local folks have done a great job in maintaining brick and concrete paths around the temples, so I would imagine you could pass a very relaxing couple of hours biking around.  It's quite and clean and the people are very hospitable.  

Map from Tjoa-Bonatz et al; see references and note embedded citation

About the Temples...

Tjoa-Bonatz (see references)
The complex is said to be one of the most expansive and best preserved in all of Southeast Asia.  In fact, work is ongoing, and I had a chance to witness the work first hand.  One of the larger temples was just restored last year, and a smaller structure was finished in August.  Currently dozens of local people are employed by the Indonesian government to clear away the alluvium that has piled up around the structures.  As you can see, there is a lot of work to be done.  It's really exciting to watch the process and think about what sorts of treasures may be waiting just beneath the ground; there is a real air of discovery at the site. 

Eight temples have been reconstructed so far, and according to the guides there are 84 known temples, but there is no doubt that others remain to be discovered.  All the temples are built of bricks made from the local clay.  While the temples aren't as elaborate in terms of embellishments as those at Angkor Wat and Borobudur, I would attribute this to material constraints rather than a lack of sophistication.  At Borodudur there is plenty of volcanic rock available, which can be carved to make sculptures.  Muaro Jambi, in contrast, is in a floodplain, and so clay is the most readily available material.  Some statues have been unearthed, but these appear to have been transported from Java a thousand years ago.   

One of the houses, drawing from Tjoa-Bonatz
Another interesting feature of the complex is the existence of canals that link the various temples.  There are 6 man-made waterways and a reservoir about the size of a football field.  These channels were used for transportation and drainage and indicate a fairly high level of hydraulic engineering.  The canals are currently overgrown, but there are plans to clear them out and possibly provide boats so that visitors can travel from temple to temple via water. 

Though the dwellings and other functional buildings (made of wood) have long since disappeared, carving discovered at the site provide an idea as to what the buildings may have looked like.   Tjoa-Bonatz et al (see references) offer an excellent analysis of the style and function of the houses.  They conclude that the drawings show buildings that may have been located at the site while it was occupied.  They also conclude, that given the variety of styles, suggest that Muaro Jambi was a multi-ethnic trading center, with people from many different regions living there.  

Who Built the Temples?

Source for this map here.
Though there is a new assertion that the complexity of the Muaro Jambi site indicates that it must have been the capital of Sri Vijaya (1), most of the literature takes for granted that the temples were built by the Malayu kingdom.  The picture is blurred by a lack of written documentation, and much of what is known about Malayu and Sri Vijaya comes from Chinese records.    The Malayu kingdom was centered on the Batang Hari river, which flows through Jambi.  Control of the river meant control of the resources coming down the river, like gold and other precious commodities from the hinterlands of Sumatra.  Apparently somewhere along the line Malayu became a vassal state of Sri Vijaya, and by the 14th century the polity centered at Muaro Jambi was in decline.  

As you can see, there's a lot to learn from the temples at Muaro Jambi.  They are definitely worth a visit.  I've included a video below from youtube to give you a better idea of what you can expect to find when you make your visit to Muaro Jambi. 


(1)  The conventional wisdom is that Sri Vijaya was centered at Palembang. 


Tjoa-Bonatz, Mai Lin, J. David Neidel, and Agus Widiatmoko.  2009.  Early Architectural Images from Muara Jambi on Sumatra, Indonesia.  Asian Perspectives 48:1 pp32-55. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Border Troubles (Part 2)

"Perut dan Kepala kami ada di Indonesia, tetapi perut kami diisi Malaysia".  Resident of Camar Bulan, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, quoted in Kompas October 14, 2011 (1). 

In the last post I discussed nations, states, and nation states along with a brief description of how the old kingdoms in southeast Asia understood power and territory.  In today's post I'll focus a bit more on the current controversy between Indonesia and Malaysia.  As I mentioned previously the area at the center attention is on the island of Borneo, specifically west of the Malaysian state of Sarawak in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan (2).  There have been accusations that some boundary markers in isolated border regions have been moved, resulting in the "loss" of around 4000 hectares of territory for Indonesia.

The Dispute

The issue is actually pretty complicated for a number of reasons.  One is that the villages (Tanjung Datu, Gunung Raya, Sungai Buah, Batu Aum, and Camar Bulan, to name a few) in the area are fairly isolated and hard to access.  Services like healthcare are lacking on the Indonesian side, and so in some places Indonesian citizens cross the border to buy and sell goods and go to the doctor.  They've been doing this for a long time now.  For example, in Camar Bulan on the Indonesian side, residents have to travel for hours to get to the nearest market town in Indonesia.  The trip is expensive (more than rp400,000 or around US$50) and is contingent on tidal conditions.  On the other hand, it's much easier to cross the border into Malaysia.  Goods like rice and gas are much cheaper there as well.  But the government of Indonesia is particularly sensitive to areas lagging in terms of economic and human development; "left-behind" areas are sometimes the targets of special campaigns and programs.  The "left-behind" areas along the border draw attention because the people on the Malaysian side are relatively better off.  You might conclude that this gives the government of Indonesia an inferiority complex.  There have even been suggestions that the people in the area might decide to switch nationalities, which some Indonesians see as a real threat to the security of the nation.

However, as I mentioned previously, the border between Sarawak and Kalimantan is relatively new, having been decided by the Dutch and English colonial authorities in the 1800s.  Even at that time, though, the border was ambiguous.  The Dutch and English agreed to use natural landmarks, ridgelines, and watersheds to demarcate the border.  But these natural features change, and so over the years the "line" has become more of a "zone".  Not that it matters to the local people, though; most of them share the same language and culture, and many have families ties across the line.  Most of the people there don't seem to feel any sort of threat; one local resident quoted in the Indonesian paper-of-record Kompas said "Biar saja...itu urusan orang Jakarta dan KL.  Kita di sini damai saja":  "Oh well.  That's between the folks in Jakarta and K[uala] L[umpur] (the national capitals of Indonesia and Malaysia, respectively).  We here are getting along fine".  In fact, many Indonesians around the border are afraid that if tensions escalate, the border will be closed and they will lose access to a closer and cheaper market. 

The Indonesian government has taken a firm stance on this issue.  A spokesman for president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyo said that the government would not tolerate any actions that intrude on sovereignty.  At the same time they make sure to point out the lack of evidence that any border markers have in fact been moved.  There's more sabre-rattling in the Indonesian parliament (DPR), though.  One member claims to have proof that the markers were moved and warns that Indonesia must be prepared to go to war to protect its sacred sovereignty. On the other side of the border the language isn't as heated; the Malaysian papers cover the dispute but it doesn't seem to be front page news like it is here. 

The Geography of Borders

In the past geographers have been very concerned with borders and boundaries because the arrangement of states, including its location in relation to other states and the length/vulnerability of the border were very important for appraising the "security" of the state.  In many cases geographers have played key roles in the actual creation of borders; for example, American geographer Isaiah Bowman served as President Woodrow Wilson's adviser at the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I.  In this capacity he actually redrew the boundaries of Europe in the aftermath of the great conflagration; Bowman and others at Versailles actually created countries by the mere stroke of a pen.  Borders have been seen as "permitting a spatial approach to international or global politics by setting out the location of states and their absolute and relative distances from each other" (Starr, 2006).  It has also been suggested (Herz) that humans organize society in the way that will best protect them from external threats.  Thus states with clear borders provide a "hard shell" against aggressors, and so there has been a natural progression towards states. 

In the latter half of the 20th century, though, geographers began to look at borders more critically.  Agnew (1994) warned of a "territorial trap" laying in wait for those that take borders too literally.  Since the 1990s many geographers (and other scholars) have suggested that borders are becoming less important in an age of globalization.  More important is the flow of goods, services, ideas, and people.  However, the Indonesia-Malaysia case (and the US-Mexico border) shows us that borders and boundaries are still important.  The important question is why?  Arjun Appadurai writes that borders are important because they highlight the differences (and often the incompatibilities) between static nation-states and the "life-worlds constituted by relatively stable associations, relatively known and shared histories, and collectively traversed and legible spaces and places".  What he means by this is that the people on the ground, and the folks at Camar Bulan are a good example of this, have patterns of making a living that exist independently from the border; to them the border only becomes important when there is a dispute between the states.  It's interesting that the border is most important to those that live farthest away from it!

Other geographers describe how borders and boundaries are an important part of the way we organize the world.  The University of Hawai'i's own Reece Jones (2008) describes how borders are cognitive tools.  However, if we read too much into them, "the fluid and permeable boundaries of the categories...gain the appearance of fixity and permanence".  Newman and Passi (1998) use the term "pedagogy of space" to explain how our experiences in school and with the media shape how we think about territory; these institutions are an important part of the "ideological reproduction of the state".  This is fancy university-speak, but it means that schools, the mass media, and other institutions are all part of how our view of our own "nation" is shaped.  We learn from maps, teachers, news reports.  I really think there's something to this; as a youngster I remember being enamored with maps because they were a really powerful way of presenting information, and if you think about it, there are a lot of assumptions inherent in maps. 

Imagined Communities?

So back to the case of Indonesia.  I mentioned in the last post that "Indonesia" hasn't always existed.  Before independence was declared, it was never a "state".  There was never a single "Indonesian people"; rather there were (and still are) scores of groups spread across the island with different histories, traditions, and even languages.  One of the only things uniting these disparate groups was the common experience of colonialism under the Dutch.  Thus when the founding fathers of Indonesia set about to form a state, they faced the challenge of uniting all these groups and fostering a common identity.  The Indonesian language is part of this.  It was declared the "national language" early on, despite the fact that it wasn't the most widely spoken language in the islands. 

For Indonesia the early-going was a little rough.  There were significant separatist pressures in the 1950s and the future of the nation was by no means certain.  The central government was faced with rebellions and other centrifugal pressures.  But eventually, as years passed, "Indonesianess" was created, and today is pretty strong.  Along the way, though, obstacles to the goal of creating national identity were seen as threats.  This is probably part of the reason why Indonesia is so sensitive about its borders.  Indonesia scholar Benedict Anderson, in his landmark book "Imagined Communities" (1983) describes how states form identities, and how we feel a connection to people we've never met just because we hold a common passport.  To Anderson "nationality" creates the illusion of togetherness.  This illusion is very powerful and useful to the central government, which will go to great length to preserve the illusion.  So in Indonesia, protecting "Indonesia" becomes a national priority, and border conflicts get a lot of attention.  Many analysts suggest that the government intentionally inflates the importance of border disputes to distract attention away from its failure to tackle problems such as corruption, poverty, and poor infrastructure.

As a neutral observer, I have no comment on this last point :).


(1)  "Our heads and stomachs are in Indonesia but our stomachs are filled by Malaysia".

(2)  Indonesians call Borneo "Kalimantan"


Newman, David, and Anssi Paasi.  1998.  Fences and Neighbors in the Postmodern World: Boundary Narratives in Political Geography.  Progress in Human Geography 22:2 pp186-207.

Starr, Harvey.  2006.  International Borders: What Are They, What They Mean, and Why We Should Care.  SAIS Review 26:1 pp3-10

Monday, October 24, 2011

Border Troubles (Part 1)

In recent weeks tensions have flared between Indonesia and Malaysia.  The current dispute stems from allegations that Malaysia moved several markers delineating the boundary between the two countries on the island of Borneo, resulting in the "loss" of several thousand hectares of territory for Indonesia.  This dispute provides an opportunity to discuss a number of issues very important in the field of geography.  In the past, borders and boundaries of different kinds have been a central interest in the field of geography.  Now geographers are leading the way in an ongoing discussion of borders and boundaries.  Over the next couple of posts, I'll address two questions: 1) what are boundaries and borders; and 2) what do they really mean?

Ganyang Malaysia?

This is not the first and certainly won't be the last border dispute between the two countries.  Between 1962 and 1966 there was an armed conflict in the border region of Kalimantan ("Confrontation" or "Konfrontasi").  At that time, Malaysia was forming itself from various bits of territory located on the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo.  Although the sultanates on the Malay Peninsula had gained independence from the British in 1957, the two territories of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo had not yet been incorporated into what would become Malaysia.  Some people in the two territories were against incorporation into Malaysia because, in addition to the spatial separation, there are significant differences in terms of culture, history, language, and religion between the Malay-dominated peninsula and the predominantly Dayak areas of Borneo.  At the same time, Indonesia was struggling with internal issues of its own.  Seeing an opportunity to unite his country through the creation of a common enemy, the charismatic president Sukarno exhorted his citizens to "Ganyang Malaysia" (Crush Malaysia) and incorporate the two areas into a greater Indonesia.  Over the next few years there was light skirmishing around the border and several hundred people were killed.  Though the campaign ultimately failed for Indonesia, the slogan "ganyang Malaysia" was a powerful one and reemerges from time to time.

Nations, States, and Nation-States

Why are borders so contentious?  In some cases it's about resource control and access.  But that doesn't seem to be really important in the Camar Bulan case.  Here there's something else at state.  To get to the heart of it, it helps to understand several sometimes confusing concepts used by political geographers to describe peoples and political entities: nations, states, and nation states.

A state to political geographers is a self-governing political entity with sovereignty.  It must have a population and be recognized internationally.  It has boundaries, economic activity, and an organized economy.  A "state" is what you think of when you use the word "country".

A nation, on the other hand, is a group of people that share a similar culture, tradition, history, and in many cases, religion.  Nation doesn't refer to a location on a map; rather it refers to people.  Not all nations have states; one of the best examples of this is the "nation" of the Kurds, a group of people spread across Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.  They have a common culture, historical tradition, and language, but they don't have a "state".  Instead they form large minorities in the aforementioned countries.  Because of discrimination and oppression, many have long been actively campaigning for the creation of a Kurdish state. 

Lastly we have the nation-state.  A nation state is when the boundaries of the state roughly correspond to the geographic distribution of the people.  Commonly used examples include France and Japan.  I don't like the French example as much, because although "Frenchness" is very important in France, the country is facing some challenges to its identity.  Japan, though, is a good example because it contains most of the "Japanese" nation, a group of people with shared traditions and culture.

Why Is This Important?

Although we take for granted the existence of "countries", they haven't always been the dominant form of political organization.  For much of human history power has been exercised through other types of entities, like tribal confederations and empires.  The notion of the "state" really emerged after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  The POW was a series of treaties that brought to an end several long conflicts in Europe (the 30 Years War and the 80 Years War).  Although this is a really pivotal period in history, the outcome that concerns us most here was the acceptance that the "prince" would be able to call the shots in his territory; he'd be able to determine the religion of his people without any interference from outside, and his absolute power would extend all the way to the boundaries of his territory, which could be clearly defined on a map.

These developments would change the way we map the world, both on paper and in our minds.  Although the Peace of Westphalia dealt with European conflicts, its effects have extended to every corner of the globe, since the Europeans would go on to colonize nearly every part of the planet, and so the idea of mappable, definable boundaries extended to their colonies.  When the colonies became independent, they inherited the boundaries.

The Mandala and Riverine Kingdoms of the Malay Archipelago

Defined boundaries are a relatively new concept in Southeast Asia.  Goegrapher Jeyamalar Kathirithamby-Wells (1995) contrasted the kingdoms of island Southeast Asia with those in India and China.  In the latter two countries, a large landmass lent itself to a relatively clear idea of where the country "ended" (think of the Great Wall of China).  But in Indonesia there are lots of islands and rivers, which encouraged "riverine configurations with dendritic patterns of human settlement".  The ruler was seen as the "lord of land and water".  Central to this were patron-client relationships rather than spatial configurations.  Power radiated out from a center, which was often a port city.  As you moved away from the center, the influence of the ruler got weaker and weaker, until you reached a broadly-defined frontier area, which in many cases fluctuated in terms of its allegiances.  The term "mandala" is frequently used to describe this core-to-periphery gradation.  The control of resources and trade goods was much more important than a clearly-defined boundary. 

Geographer Thongchai Winachakul described the experience of Siam (now Thailand) in his landmark work "Siam Mapped".  Winachakul was interested in how Thailand came to be; he describes how it was a process of "negative identification".  As the European powers carved up Southeast Asia, with the British in Burma and the French in Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the rulers of Siam were confronted with the conundrum of how to preserve their sovereignty against an onslaught of colonialism.  They had to quickly learn about how the colonial powers physically mapped territory and defined boundaries, which was alien to their understanding of political organization and the exercise of power.  In less than a century, Siam went from being a kingdom with fluid frontiers to being a state with definite boundaries and clearly limits to its sovereignty.  As Winachakul writes, "it was this triumph of modern geography that eliminated the possibility, let alone opportunity, of those tiny chiefdoms being allowed to exist as they had done for centuries.  In other words, the modern discourse of mapping was the ultimate conqueror.  Its power was exercised through the actions of major agents representing contending countries.  The new geographical knowledge was the force behind every stage of conceiving, projecting, and creating the new entity" (129).

As you can see, geographers have played an important role in how we view the world politically.  In the next post I'll delve further into the current conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia and revisit the question of what borders actually mean. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Vanishing Glaciers of Puncak Jaya...

Carstensz Glacier.  Photo from Jakarta Globe.
When we think of the tropics many images come to mind....warm, sunny beaches and hot and humid rainforests probably being the most common.  Most of us don't think of snow-covered peaks and glaciers, and for a good reason: they just aren't very many of them in the tropical belt.  But there are a few, and amongst these are the glaciers of Puncak Jaya in the region of Papua in Indonesia. 

From Prentice and Hope, 2006.  See references.
Puncak Jaya is located in Lorentz national park, which is the largest terrestrial national park in Southeast Asia.  The glaciers in the mountains there represent the only tropical glaciers between Mt. Kilimanjaro in East Africa and the Andes mountains of South America. But the days of the Puncak Jaya glaciers are numbered; a study using high-resolution remotely-sensed imagery found that between 2000 and 2002 the total area of the glaciers decreased by 7.5% (Kincaid and Klein, 2004), which confirmed what previous studies had shown.

Glaciers can provide unique glimpses into the past because there are bubbles within the ice.  These air bubbles provide a snapshot of the composition of the atmosphere at the time when the bubble was trapped in the ice.  By drilling cores in the ice, glaciologists can study the air bubbles to understand how the earth's atmosphere and by extension its climate have changed.  Some core records go back further than 100,000 years!  It's thought that the Puncak Jaya glaciers are a lot newer than this, but for geographers, climatologists, and glaciologists the ice at Lorentz is special....the glaciers are at the western edge of the pacific warm pool, an important feature of the global atmospheric-oceanic circulation system (1). 

Chasing the Cores...

Glaciologist Lonnie Thompson, of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University, has been studying tropical glaciers for years.  Thompson and his team made an expedition to Puncak Jaya last year to collect ice cores.  No one had ever collected cores from the Puncak Jaya glaciers before, and time was of the essence in this case.  The problem was actually getting to the glacier, though.  Puncak Jaya is located in a relatively isolated and hard-to-reach area of Papua, and the team had to hike for two days just to reach their base camp. 

A Short Introduction to Glacial Processes...

Glacial Cirque
Glaciers are thick masses of ice that originate on land from the accumulation, compaction, and recrystallization of snow.  They are fundamentally different from snow and ice in that it takes years and requires lots of pressure from weight for glacial ice to form.  About three-quarters of the world's freshwater is frozen in the form of glaciers, and these massive sheets of ice cover about 10% of the earth's land area.  Glaciologists and geographers classify glaciers into two categories: alpine glaciers (forming in mountains) and continental glaciers.  The glaciers at Lorenz National Park are alpine glaciers.  Alpine glaciers form at high altitudes
Notice the morraines...
and move down the slope under their own weight.  You might think of them as "rivers of ice".  Along the way they exert tremendous pressure on the landscape and scoop out pieces of the mountain.  Alpine glacial landscapes are really distinctive; at the top there's usually an amphitheater-shaped feature called a cirque.  As you follow the glacial flow downslope you'll notice along its sides trails of rocks that have been dislodged from the mountains.  These are called morraines.  You can tell where two glaciers have come together because there will be a medial morraine in the center of the new flow.  As you move further down the slope you'll eventually pass an equilibrium point past which snow is no longer accumulating; past this point melting exceeds accumulation.  This is referred to as the zone of ablation.  Ablation is a fancy word used to describe all the processes that remove ice or snow from a glacier.  You can see how it works in the diagram below.  

Diagram from Christopherson, 2010.  Geosystems.
Glaciers are pretty fascinating and we can learn a lot from them.  It is unfortunate that many tropical glaciers, including those at Puncak Jaya, are disappearing. Fortunately Dr. Thompson was able to make it to Puncak Jaya before the glaciers there are completely gone.  The cores are still being analyzed (in fact, two Indonesian graduate students at Ohio State are taking leading roles in this project), but they could potentially reveal a great deal that will help us understand in greater depth how the Earth's climate and atmospheric-ocean interactions work. 


(1)  The warm pool plays an important role in the El Nino-La Nina oscillation; look for a future post on this phenomenon.  

References and For Further Reading

Kincaid, Joni, and Andrew Klein.  2004.  Retreat of the Irian Jaya Glaciers from 2000 to 2002 as Measured from IKONOS Satellite Images.  Paper presented at 61st Eastern Snow Conference, Portland, Maine.

Prentice, Michael and Geoffrey Hope.  2006.  Climate of Papua.  Ecology of Papua.  Springer-Verlag: NY.  

Stone, Richard.  2010.  Arduous Expedition to Sample Last Virgin Tropical Glaciers.  Science 328, pp1084-5.

Thompson, Lonnie, Ellen Mosley-Thompson, Mary Davis, and Henry Brecher.  2011.  Tropical Glaciers, Recorders and Indicators of Climate Change, Are Disappearing Globally.  Annals of Glaciology 52(59): pp23-34.

Indonesia's official site for Lorentz National Park can be found here.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sungai Penuh: Sleepy Mountain Town or Portal to Hell?

This week I started a subscription to the local newspaper, Radar Kerinci.  It's important to pay attention to the local news because it helps me stay abreast of political developments that might be directly or indirectly related to forest clearance activities.  Today, though, it was not a story about illegal logging or a new road through the national park that grabbed my attention.  Rather it was two golden nuggets of small town reporting that have exposed a different side of my adopted home. 

Heboh, Kesurupan Massal di SMAN 1 

Loosely translated this headline is "Commotion, Mass Demonic Possession at Sungai Penuh High School #1".  The front page, above-the-fold story is accompanied by a picture of a distraught young lady being led off by (presumably) her parents.  Evidently over the past week scholastic activity has ground to a halt at Sungai Penuh's elite high school owing to a growing wave of possession by demonic spirits.  The trend started last week, when on Friday the souls of two students were overtaken by spirits from the Pit.  Three more students fell under the sway of dark powers on Saturday, 15 on Monday, and 20 more on Wednesday.  All in all the legions of the Evil One have infected more than 40 students, the majority of which were females.  On Thursday some students took it upon themselves to close the street next to school in the interests of public safety.  "Maaf Pak," one motorist was told.  "Tidak bisa lewat.  Ada kesurupan di SMAN 1 Sungai Penuh" (Sorry sir, you can't pass.  There's been a possession at Sungai Penuh High School #1).  Things got so bad that the headmaster was forced to close the school. 

The incident is not surprising to local residents, because evidently it happens every year or so.  In addition to this (and I am not making this up), the school is built on the site of an old graveyard.  One local resident familiar with the history of the school suggested that the resting place of the dead had been disturbed, and so they in turn disturbed the living.  The way these types of occurrences are usually handled involves inviting an "orang pintar" (1) to dispel the mysterious spirits, after which a traditional banquet is held and a buffalo sacrificed.  I would imagine similar measures will be taken this year, so next week hopefully I'll be posting about the feast.

I couldn't get this story out of my head for two reasons: 1) the sheer oddness of it, and 2) I, like all normal males, have a fascination with high school girls and demonic possession.  So I spent the evening talking with my friends about the hottest news in Sungai Penuh.  I wanted to know if they believed the story.  Only a few said they doubted the validity of the demonic possession.  I expected this response; mysticism is strong in rural areas of Indonesia, and in many places there is a mixing (syncretism) between local beliefs and the big universalizing religions (Islam and Christianity).  At the same time, this area of Sumatra is known for being devoutly Muslim, and so I was curious as to how people reconciled stories of demonic possession with Islam.  Most all of my friends didn't see any incompatibilities between the two, but there were a couple that described the possessions as superstitious and therefore sacrilegious.  One of my friends even took me over to the school.  I felt a little cold there, but that's most likely due to the altitude.  Below you can see a picture I took of the entrance gate.  WHOOOOOOO!!!!

Keluyuran PNS Nakal Digaruk

This headline translates to "Naughty Truant Civil Servants Nabbed".  Before I go into the details of this one, a little background is in order.  Here in Sungai Penuh on any given workday you will witness teeming masses of civil servants on motorcycles and stepthoughs cruising around town, strolling around the square, or milling about in coffee stalls seemingly without a care in the world.  They are easy to spot because they are all in uniform.  To the newcomer it's quite a striking sight indeed.  In fact, I had a conversation about this very subject with my new American friend here.  We wondered why this sort of behavior was tolerated.  Apparently someone high up in the ranks decided to put his or her foot down.  A multi-agency task force was assembled and dozens of police officers hit the streets to round up civil servants that were out of the office without permission.  The police collected ID information and sent the naughty civil servants back to work.  The paper says that action will be taken later.

I'd never heard of anything like this before, but after being in Sungai Penuh for 4 weeks it makes perfect sense.  My friends told me that civil servants have a reputation for lax attitudes towards work.  I don't want to compromise myself too much here, but let's just say that as someone that has had extensive dealings with the bureaucracy here, I understood where they were coming from.

Scores of civil servants were caught in the sting.  I'm sure, though, that the numbers are exaggerated.  Most of the civil servants couldn't get the proper permission because the boss was out of the office!

(1) literally "smart person" but I assume this has a local connotation having to do with someone versed in the ways of the beyond

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Tale of Two Bupatis....

Coffee cultivation in Kerinci Seblat national park at Meragin
Today's post is a kind of continuation of a previous post about illegal cultivation at Kerinci Seblat National Park.  The post discusses how the structure of government has changed in Indonesia, and how these changes are complicating conservation at the park. 

The structure of formal power in Indonesia...

Part of my research here at Kerinci Seblat National Park focuses on how power and authority are exercised around the park, and how this affects the functioning of the park.  The general idea is that the politics and political systems around the park have an impact on conservation in the park.  The most powerful people in this new political landscape are the bupatis, or district headmen. 

Like the US, Indonesia has several levels of political organization.  In most states in the US, there are four main levels of government: town, county, state, nation.  Each of these levels has different rights and responsibilities.  Indonesia has 5 levels of government.  The most basic is the kelurahan, which varies in size from place to place but is generally several hundred people.  The next step up is the kecamatan, generally translated as "sub-district".  The kecamatan is led by a camat.  Above this we find the kabupaten level.  Kabupaten is usually translated as "district" or "regency".  The kabupaten is led by a bupati.  The next highest level is the "provinsi" or province, led by a gubernor or governor.  There are 43 of these currently and they are roughly analogous to counties in the US.  The top level is the central government in Jakarta. 

Until about 12 years ago each of these levels of government could be thought of as links in a chain of power linking Jakarta with the lowliest village in the remotest part of the archipelago (1).  The country was led from the late 60s to the late 90s by Suharto, an authoritarian ruler who used the five levels of government to control the country.  During the Orde Baru all the governors and bupatis were appointed by Suharto and his associates, so "power" radiated from the center of the country, like spokes on a wheel.  In 1998, however, Suharto was deposed, which created a power vacuum.  The people of Indonesia wanted to weaken the power of the central government because Suharto had gotten too powerful.  So they changed the constitution and made the regencies much more independent and the bupatis much more powerful.  A later amendment to the constitution made it so the bupatis would be directly elected.  The upshot of this is that the bupatis are now much more powerful than before, while at the same time being freed from the chain of authority radiating from Jakarta.

The new reality....

Kerinci Seblat National Park covers parts of 15 different districts.  We've already learned that encroachment and illegal cultivation are big problems at the park.  The park is responsible for policing its own borders, but it depends on the cooperation of the surrounding districts for support in terms of law enforcement and criminal proceedings.  As we've seen previously, one of the biggest problems facing Kerinci Seblat National Park is the tens of thousands of people farming illegally within the park's borders.  This issue came to a head in two regions late last year (2010).  In Kerinci and Merangin regions the bupatis agreed to cooperate with the park to evict encroaching farmers.  The way the story played out is an excellent example of how politics affects conservation.

Photo from 
A Nalim, the bupati of Merangin Regency, has a reputation in his short tenure as headman for his willingness to tackle tough problems.  In early 2010 he reached an agreement with the park that something had to be done about the 12,000 or so people living and farming illegally inside the park.  People had been settling in the park since the mid 1990s, most of them coming from other parts of Sumatra.  At first there were a few hundred, but through time the new settlements reached into thousands and began to outnumber the local residents, who managed the land according to long-standing traditional regulations (2).  Pak Nalim ordered signs posted and notices circulated informing the farmers that they faced eviction in November if they didn't choose to leave voluntarily.  As you can imagine, this caused quite a bit of consternation in the encroaching communities; many of them had been established for a long time and had even built schools and mosques.  As the November deadline approached, farmers and their families slowly moved out of the park, giving up what they felt, by rights, was their land.  In November the bupati sent in a multi-agency taskforce to clear out any holdouts and to demolish houses and other structures.  This whole episode has stirred up questions about human rights, not to mention those concerning the fate of those evicted.  Regardless of the wisdom of the action, no one can accuse Pak Nalim of failing to support the park. 

Murasman, the bupati of Kerinci, also agreed to an eviction deadline for encroaching farmers in his region, but for different reasons (3).  In contrast to Pak Nalim, Pak Murasman has a different sort of reputation.  In his 2 years as bupati he's been quite antagonistic towards the park.  His argument is that the park covers 52% of Kerinci region, an area that can't be developed and has no immediate benefits for the citizens of his regions.  Since Kerinci region is located in an enclave within the park, Pak Murasman's plans to build roads to connect the region to other areas have been foiled, because roads passing through the park need special permission from the Ministry of Forestry, which has not been forthcoming.  Pak Murasman has cleverly used the existence of the park for political gain; he portrays the park as a common enemy of the people of Kerinci and positions himself as their champion.  He is very adept at appealing to the emotions of people; one of his favorite lines has become something of a slogan around here:

"Kita disuruh menjaga TNKS, tapi mana konvensasi untuk rakyat Kerinci?  Dunia berkoar-koar mengatakan TNKS paru-paru dunia, tapi mereka tidak memperhatikan paru-paru masyarakat Kerinci."

We are ordered to guard Kerinci Seblat national park, but where's the compensation for the people of Kerinci?  The world cries out that Kerinci Seblat national park is the "lungs of the earth", but they don't pay attention to the lungs of the people of Kerinci. 

This is a very powerful message around here, but it's not entirely accurate.  I'll elaborate further in future posts as to the relationship between the people here and the park.  Suffice it to say that this can be described as a political strategy; numerous complaints have arisen about problems that don't seem to get solved in Kerinci region (4), and so the park serves as a convenient distraction.  But regardless of the relationship between the bupati and the park, people here took the eviction deadline quite seriously, and, just as they were in Merangin, were quite concerned about the future.

However, when the deadline rolled around, Pak Murasman claimed that the border markers delineating the park's boundaries had disappeared, and so the people had no way of knowing they were in the park (5).  They were therefore not in the wrong, said Pak Murasman, and he refused to carry out the eviction orders.  As a result, the people are still there.

Thus we have two different approaches to a common problem.  The anecdotes above show us that conservation is not just about plants and animals; it's a political activity as well.  And the success of conservation efforts at places like Kerinci Seblat National Park are very much influenced by the politics of places just outside the borders.  Over the next year here I'll be exploring this issue and others like it further. 


(1)  This is something of an exaggeration, but you get the idea. 

(2)  These traditional rules are known widely as adat in Indonesia and have been recognized as having legal validity.

(3)  Which I will not be discussing in this post for a number of reasons....

(4)  Incidentally, two times in the past week alone Pak Murasman or his "close associates" have been reported to the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

(5)  Many (maybe most) of the park's boundary markers are in disrepair or are non-existent.  Many of those missing have been moved or destroyed by encroachers.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

My Kingdom for a Basin Wrench...

Photo from Plumbworld
Today I moved into a new place here in Sungai Penuh.  For the past two weeks, I've been staying with my good friend Agung, sleeping on the floor.  I didn't want to wear out my welcome, so last week I began looking for my own apartment (1).  My only requirement was that there be enough current to operate a small refrigerator so I could keep the caesar dressing and capers I sent myself from Jakarta from spoiling.  Apparently this is a deal-breaker for most places in town, though.  On my second day of looking I chanced upon an American couple here in town.  I asked them if they knew anyone looking to rent out a place.  My new friends told me that they did, but also that they were going to Bandung (2) until January to have a baby, and they suggested I stay at their place to make sure nothing happens while they are gone. They gave me a quick tour of the place, which is located in a relatively quiet part of town with a good view of the town and valley.  Much to my amazement, the place has very fast wi-fi, an actual shower, a sit-down toilet, a HOT WATER HEATER, and a fridge.  In other words, posh.  Especially for Sungai Penuh. 

I was reluctant to accept the offer for about 3 seconds for a couple of reasons.  First, I had just met these people (though I've spent some time with them since and we've really hit it off).  Second, I had already readied myself for a year of squat toilets, cold bak mandi baths, and limited connectivity.  In a weird kind of way I was looking forward to it as sort of a hardening experience.  All of a sudden the comforts of home just dropped out of the sky into my lap.  But then reason, logic, and good sense returned, and I told my new friend that "I'd be stupid not to accept an offer like that".  However, for the week before they left for Bandung I debated whether to tell anyone back home about my new digs for fear of losing my "cred" as a real field researcher. 

More Water Woes

Wouldn't you know that as soon as I move in things start to go wrong.  Less than half a day after my friends left, the feeder pipe for one of the sinks burst.  It's actually quite fortuitous that I was around, or else the leaking water would've flooded the kitchen.  But I was around, and I had to get to work.  I turned off the water at the street (3) and made a plan.  

Changing the feeder pipe on a wash basin requires a special tool called a "basin wrench".  I have one of these back in the US, but it didn't make the list of things to bring to Indonesia.  The picture at the top of the post shows a basin wrench; as you can see it's designed to reach up into confined spaces.  I figured I could find one in one of the stalls in the market.  The first task, though, was to figure out how to describe a basin wrench in Indonesian, because I didn't know the word for it.  One of the best ways to learn how to use a foreign language is to practice describing objects.  In some cases, it's a real challenge.  As you can see from the picture, there are some distinctive characteristics to a basin wrench.

"On this end it has teeth to turn the bolt.  There is a long stem here, and then on this end there is a handle so that you can turn it", I told the merchant in the building goods stall.

"Hmm," he said, and brought me a sink trap.

"No that's a sink trap.  I'm looking for a tool.  That's why I said 'tool'.  Let me try to explain this a different way.  I have a faucet, and a washbasin (4).  Under the washbasin there is a connection to the water pipe, but the space is very tight, so I need a special tool," I elucidated.

He seemed to understand the nature of the problem, and so he disappeared into the back of the stall for a moment.  He came back with a shiny, new socket set.  I was momentarily stunned by the ridiculousness of trying to use a socket set to connect pipes, but I quickly recovered to manually demonstrate how a socket wouldn't work in this particular instance.  Then I tried again.

"Oh.  We don't have those in Sungai Penuh.  You have to go to Padang," he said.

"PADANG?!?!?  That's 7 hours away.  You mean to tell me that there's not one single tool like this in Kerinci valley?"

"Yes.  We don't have those."

"Listen, somebody has to have one.  They would have to to install the sink in the first place.  Why don't you tell me the name of a plumber or handyman, and I'll call him."  I figured that surely a handyman would have the right tool for the job.

Next I went to visit the recommended plumber.  It turned out that he was the proprietor of an air-conditioning repair shop, but he said he'd be happy to come to my adopted home and do the job.  By this time I figured it was probably a better idea to let someone else to the work.  So he showed up to my place about 45 minutes late, which is surprisingly punctual for Sungai Penuh.  He surveyed the situation and went through his tools.  He didn't have a basin wrench.  But by this point I recognized defeat.  He actually had to take the sink off the wall and go after the seating bolt with a pair of pliers.  But he eventually got the job done, and on the bright side I learned a cool trick for applying sealing tape to pipes by watching him.  I paid him 50,000 rupiah (about $5.50) for the labor.  He was quite pleased, because this was the equivalent to about 2 days of work for him.

Don't Do It Yourself

I quickly realized how silly it was in the first place to even contemplate doing the work myself.  Because services in Indonesia are incredibly cheap compared to the US.  To call a plumber for this particular job in the US probably would cost close to $100 (though I certainly would've done it myself there).  Here, though, there is a huge difference between the cost of goods and the cost of services.  What this means practically is that it's much easier to pay someone to do a job than to buy the gear to do it yourself.  In my case, I'd have to buy the basin wrench, which runs about $12-18 in the US.  The price would be almost the same (a bit cheaper for reasons that should become obvious as you read) because much of the cost is tied up in the production of the object.  For example, if you buy a car in Indonesia you pay about the same as you would in the US, but if you have your car fixed it's much cheaper in Indonesia.  This has some interesting implications for understanding the economy and standard of living here (and around the world).  The map below shows nominal (unadjusted) gross domestic product (4) per person around the world.  Find Indonesia on the map.

Nominal GDP per capital according to the IMF; map from Wikipedia

The per-capita gross domestic product of Indonesia in 2009 was about $2900.  If you compare this with the US, at $47,600, you might think that Indonesia is terribly impoverished.  But GDP per capita doesn't take into account the difference in costs of services.  It cost $2.20 to ride the bus in Honolulu; here it costs about a quarter.  To account for this difference, economists have come up with the concept of purchasing power parity (PPP).  The theory behind PPP is fairly complex, but the upshot is that we can compensate for the different prices for services (and some goods) across countries by adjusting them to a universal currency.  The adjusted, purchasing-power-parity income for Indonesia is $4200 (CIA Factbook 2010), whereas for the US it's $47,200.  You can see global PPP rates in the map below. 

Adjusted PPP GDP per capital 2009, Wikipedia

 The PPP numbers give us a better idea about the standard of living in Indonesia; it's not as poor as you might believe just from looking at the nominal GDP numbers.  On the other hand, if we look at countries at the top of the GDP list (like Luxembourg, $110,400; Norway, $88,600) and compare these numbers with the PPP GDP (Luxembourg, $82,600 ; Norway, $54,600) we can see that those countries aren't as rich as they might appear at first.  This is because services are much more expensive in these countries. 

The lesson here is that if you are coming to Sungai Penuh and anticipate the need to fix a feeder pipe, you'd better bring your own basin wrench.   


(1)  A better description would probably be "hut with concrete walls".

(2)  Bandung is a big city on the island of Java.  

(3)  This wouldn't be necessary at Agung's place, because there hasn't been any water there for a week and a half. 

(4)  Washbasins are not as common as you'd think in Sungai Penuh. 

(5)  Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the total value of all goods and services produced in a country; the per-capita number is sometimes used as a crude measure of the relative wealth or economic development of a country.  It's not a very good measure. 

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.