Friday, December 21, 2012

Kerinci Seblat National Park Bird List

It's been a while since I've made any posts.  That's because I've been back in the US for the past 3 months teaching and working on my dissertation.  I will make some more posts based on my research soon, but I wanted to post the following list of bird species I came across in one of the park's management plans.  I thought is might be useful to anyone thinking about journeying to the park to see some birds.  Sorry about the format, but scans and jpegs seemed the best way to go.  Acknowledgements to the World Bank, WWF, and Jeremy Holden on this list.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Emma's Organic Compost: It's Got What Plants Crave

Emma in front of new, high capacity biogas/compost setup

This is my friend Emma.  Emma runs a small non-government organization (NGO) called Lembaga Tumbuh Alami, or "LTA" for short.  Emma and LTA were one of my official sponsors and partners while I was in Indonesia doing my dissertation fieldwork, and over the course of my year there I had the opportunity to work closely with LTA and observe and participate in some of their projects.  Emma and LTA have been administering projects in and around Kerinci Seblat National Park for about a decade now.  LTA focuses on the environment and one of their main objectives is to support Kerinci Seblat National Park (where I was doing my fieldwork), but there is a strong commitment to social justice that plays an important part in LTA's philosophy.  In other words, Emma and LTA believe that the only way the park can survive is to help the people living around the park improve their livelihoods so that their dependency on the park decreases.  LTA's programs attempt to train farmers and other villagers so that they are less likely to enter the park to hunt illegally, cut down trees, or encroach. 

The LTA Organic Compost/Biogas Project

One of LTA's signature projects involves decrease farmers' dependence on chemical fertilizers.  Farmers across Sumatra and throughout Indonesia in general have a pretty heavy reliance on expensive, synthetically-produced fertilizers.  While these fertilizers usually increase yields, they are expensive, in some cases contributing to farmers being mired in a cycle of debt, and there are real questions about the long-term impacts of the fertilizers on the health of the soil.  In addition, there are also concerns about the effects of fertilizers towards the health of people.  Moreover, excess fertilizer running into streams can have very significant impacts on the ecology of streams. 

With all these things in mind LTA began a project a few years ago aimed at replacing at least some of the chemical fertilizers with organic fertilizer produced from livestock manure and the waste left over when rice and other crops are harvested.  The idea was to construct small holding bins and tanks where organic waste could be stored.  Although organic waste will break down naturally, this takes time, so the LTA project introduces an active micro-organism to speed up the process.  After a couple of months of decay and fermentation, the organic compost is ready to be spread on crops.

Organic compost ready to use.
A sizeable quantity of methane is produced from this process as well.  Methane is quite combustible and can be used as a fuel, so the LTA compost project utilizes a system to collect the methane.  Pipes then deliver the methane to a burner or other household appliance, and so in addition to receiving free, healthy organic compost, the participating farmers get enough fuel to operate 1-1 gas burners, which is sufficient to boil water or cook rice, the two primary uses cooking fuel in the villages here.  In many villages the primary cooking fuel is wood, and so the gas has a number of really significant benefits: 1) villagers don't have to spend time looking for firewood; 2) they can save money if they formerly bought firewood; 3) pressure on the forest is decreased because there isn't as much wood being taken for cooking fires; 4) biogas burns cleaner, and since most cooking is done inside the house there are health benefits from decreasing reliance on wood for cooking. 

The compost/biogas project has had significant impacts on the areas where it's been introduced.  Here are a couple of testimonials:

Stove fueled by biogas
Since the "biogas" has been installed in my house I've felt extremely blessed and I've greatly decreased my expenditures, especially for fuel oil and wood.  After the biogas station went into operation, the gas has been used to cook food, sambal, and rice.  I use the fertilizer that results from the "biogas to fertilize the crops in my field and the result has been quite good.  I've been able to cut down on my use of fertilizer by 40% compared with before I had the biogas station.... Agusrianto, Sako Dua Village

In April of 2010 a biogas station was built at my house and just one month after that I had gas.  The gas that comes from the biogas station is used to heat water and cook our food and sambal.  Since then I don't have to look for wood in my land to cook and the fertilizer that comes from the biogas station I use on my rice paddy.  Usually I use 3 karungs (unit of measurement equivalent to 50 kilograms) of chemical fertilizer at 150,000 rupiah (about US$17) per karung every time I work the paddy.  Thus the total cost of fertilizer is 450,000 rupiah (about US$51).  The first year I used the biogas fertilizer I decreased my chemical fertilizer use by 1 karung, in the second year I decreased it by two, and my plan in the third year is to abandon chemical fertilizer all together for my paddy.....Bustanudin, Kemantan Hilir Village

After the biogas station went into operation I used the gas to cook and the fertilizer to fertilize my crops.  The fertilizer that results from the biogas, according to my experience, is really good for the crops in my land, like onions, chili peppers, cabbage, tomatoes, and corn.  Since I've been using the fertilizer I can save up to 75% of what I used to spend on fertilizer.  Since I've been using the biogas fertilizer my friends in my farmers' group really want to use it as well but I can't yet meet their needs because I don't produce enough fertilizer.  From the money I've saved I'm able to put away something for my retirement and to buy things we need to improve our living conditions, like a refrigerator, fresh water dispenser, household goods, and other things....Suyitno, Kebun Baru

Though all of these comments are from men, the biogas that results from the process also benefits women, who are normally in charge of the household, including cooking and cleaning.  Interviews with women indicate that on average users of biogas have been able to decrease their expenditures on wood by 50%.  The biogas program is slowly expanding, but like many local NGOs LTA faces limitations in terms of funding and personnel.  Emma told me that she's actually turned down funding that would enable her to scale up the project (I actually witnessed Emma refusing money from a large international donor for another project) because these types of agreements often come with deadlines and timetables.  Emma told me that projects like the biogas/compost initiative require a great deal from villagers; they have to change their mindsets and the way they do things, and that is frequently very difficult for them.  They usually aren't enthusiastic about abandoning tried-and-true methods for new tools and techniques that have yet to be proven, at least, for them.  So there are challenges getting programs like this up and running, and because of this Emma doesn't like to be in a position where she has to rush results.  She also refuses to let her projects and programs be used as political tools, and so there have been instances where she has turned down offers of assistance from the government as well.  

Emma's Organic Coffee

My good friend Jakob, organic coffee farmer explaining the
business in Kayu Aro
Emma also has a "side project" outside of her work with LTA: she provides organic arabica coffee seedlings and training to farmers in Kerinci district.  Though this project is for profit, Emma incorporates principles of ecofriendly sustainable agriculture in her business.  Emma and her partners set up a nursery to grow arabica seedlings a few years ago in Kayu Aro, Kerinci.  Emma employs local women to work in the nursery, and she sells seedlings at slightly below market prices to interested farmers.  These farmers have to agree that they will not grow the coffee in the national park (illegal coffee farming inside the park is a major problem), and in exchange they get guidance and support from Emma and her partners.  Emma also tries to incorporate organic fertilizer as much as possible.  After two years, when the coffee is ready to be harvested, Emma buys the coffee for export.  Most of the coffee grown in this area is robusta and is produced for the domestic market, so many farmers are eager to partake in the greater profits available to farmers that grow the higher-quality arabica.  Emma already has more than 300 area farmers growing coffee for her.

Currently Emma markets the coffee through a consortium because her farmers don't yet produce enough to export it alone.  But the program is rapidly expanding, and Emma has plans to create a Kerinci Coffee brand and market it around the world.  She has already had the coffee graded by a professional taster, and it has achieved very high marks (I've tasted the coffee myself, and though I am not normally very sensitive to these sorts of things, I can honestly say that Emma's coffee is by far the best I've ever had).  So in the near future, you may see Organic Kerinci Coffee at a supermarket (or Starbucks) near you.  Do yourself a favor and have a cup; you won't be disappointed.  And you'll be helping out small-scale farmers on Sumatra.   

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Oh No Not Rice Again!

Today on my second to last day here in Sungai Penuh I decided that instead of sitting around the house waiting for the next thing to go wrong I would go on a little expedition across the expanse of rice fields (sawah) that begins behind the shack in which I currently dwell.  I've been wanting to do this for a long time as sort of an peripatetic ethnographic tribute to the starchy stuff that makes up about 70% of my diet here, but I could never find the time because I was too busy doing my actual project.  So I packed a lunch and a nice refreshing beverage or two and set out.  My plan was to walk across the fields to the next village across the valley, and then keep going, chatting with farmers along the way, until I got tired, at which point I would take an ojek back to my house.  Here in Kerinci Valley you could probably go the 30 kilometers or so from the lake (Danau Kerinci) up to the northern end of the valley just by walking the bunds in the fields; this is a major rice producing region (1) and Kerinci rice is at least locally famous.  It's also fun to walk through rice fields; you can observe people doing the same thing they've done for generations and think about the cycle of life or some other nonsense like that.  The area I walked through has been cultivated for hundreds of years in basically the same way.

Starting Out...

I set out with my pack and my mp3 player, but about 3 minutes after I embarked on my journey I was besieged by a murder of little kids from the neighborhood.  I'd encountered them before, and because you have to be nice to the neighborhood kids when you are living in a different country, they all like the cool foreign guy and wanted to know what he was up to.  I told them I was going for a walk, and so they decided they'd follow me, which under normal circumstances wouldn't bother me, but since it's currently Ramadan and everyone is fasting, the presence of the aforementioned LBs would make it impossible for me to enjoy the tasty refreshments I'd packed.  I figured they'd get tired after a couple of kilometers and head back, but the LBs displayed amazing fortitude and stayed with me for the duration of the endeavor.  We ended up having a pretty good time together, though, and since most if not all of them are from rice farming families, they were able to tell me the ins and outs of wet-rice cultivation.  They told me about how they like to play in the fields; they have mud wars and play "Majapahit" (2).  They said that even though they are from the "city", referring to Sungai Penuh, they like to play in the country, so I didn't want to do anything to dissuade their outdoorsy inclinations.

As we made our way across the bunds we encountered a number of farmers, all of whom were surprised to see a muddy foreigner trekking across the paddy.  As I've mentioned in the past, though, Sumatrans are remarkably friendly towards foreigners, and they are always ready to take a break and have a chat.  They told me about how the sawah here is organized.  Since it is so productive it is quite valuable, and it generally gets passed down from generation to generation, but there is some buying and selling that takes place.  They have two local measures for the plots; smaller plots are referred to as piring and larger, longer plots are jenjang.  Usually one family owns several pirings, which are about 15x25 feet on average.  From a piring this size the farmer can harvest about 160 kilograms of rice.  Harvested rice is measured in kalengs, which is equivalent to 16 kilograms.  Thus you can get 20 kalengs per year, and each kaleng sells for about 50,000 rupiah, or slightly more than US$5.  They stagger the planting so all the rice is not harvested at the same time, and so this allows the farmers to help one another during harvest time.  Here there is a standard wage of 5,000 rupiah (just more than 50 US cents) per kaleng harvested, and the farmers told me that an able-bodied person can harvest 2 pirings per day, or 20 kalengs, for a total of 100,000 rupiah (US$11) per day, which is pretty good money here although it's hard work.

The Lifecycle of Rice...

I also wanted to document how rice is produced.  The timetable varies depending on geographic conditions like hydrology and climate.  In some places like the Mekong Delta farmers can squeeze out three harvests per year, but here in Sungai Penuh the cycle is 6 months, so two harvests per year.  After two harvests the farmers let the land rest for 1 month, so in 13 months they get one harvest.   There are several stages to the process, which you can see in the pictures below.

The first stage is to plant the seeds.  Farmers generally start the seeds in a corner of one of their pirings, planted very close together.  The seeds grow here for 2-3 weeks and then they are transplanted to where they will grow until it is time for harvest.  I really like thse "nursery" plots because of the deep green color.  The farmers do this so that they are only planting good seeds; after two weeks of growth they know which ones are going to grow and which ones aren't.

When it is almost time to transplant the young seedlings the farmer will flood the dry paddy so that the soil, which is about a meter deep, gets saturated.  Then the farmer will till the mud, turning it over to get it ready for planting.  Locally this process is called bajak.  Some people use a hand tractor for this stage, others use buffalos.  The lady in the picture is doing the job herself.

After the paddy is bajaked the rice is transplanted.  The rice will grow until it's ready to harvest, 5-6 months later.  In the interim the farmer chases off crop pests and sometimes sprays pesticide and applies fertilizer.  Eventually when the grains appear and the rice turns yellow it's ready to harvest.  The picture above is rice at about 3 months, the picture below is ready to harvest.

After the rice is harvested the chaf (jerami) is burned and the plot is left fallow for a bit.  Rice is sold on the market or saved for household use; in the picture in the next paragraph you can see a traditional rice storage shed (lubung padi), but I don't know how frequently these are used these days.

Heading Home...

As it turns out it's harder to navigate amidst thousands of acres of rice paddies than you might imagine.  The plots are for the most part small, averaging I'd say about 30x10 feet, and they are divided by small bunds made of mud.  The bunds are in varying states of repair or lack thereof, and so sometimes your route is determined by the condition of the bund.  Moreover, they tend to change direction, and so it's hard to go in a straight line for an extended distance.  So along the way I resigned myself to go in whichever direction the wind blew, or more accurately, whichever way the bunds lay.  We ended up going from one village to another and then another, making a big loop.  We arrived back in my "village" about 4 hours after we started.  By this time I was quite hungry and thirsty, so I went back to my shack where I could enjoy some nice warm water and a couple of packages of condensed milk (the backbone of my Ramadan diet) and bathe with the last gallon or so of water I had from my thrice-weekly collection from the distribution point down the street (3).  I'm glad we got back when we did, because shortly thereafter a storm rolled in and the sky opened up in a way I've rarely seen here.  The downpour was so freakish that there was actually hail; a friend told me she's been living here for 17 years and has never seen hail.  The power predictably went off, and I was a little apprehensive because we were experiencing all the signs of tornado weather, and there's no where to hide here.  But eventually the storm passed, and I was able to collect about 15 gallons of water within approximately 20 minutes.

It was a nice day.  I had fun with the kids, and learned a good bit about the specifics of rice production here in the Valley.


(1)  There are a lot of "major rice producing regions" in Indonesia

(2)  Majapahit was a powerful kingdom based on Java that gave rise to several notable personages that would become national heroes.

(3)  As when I began my fieldwork odyssey, there has been no water in my shack for about two weeks running.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Market Distorting Effects of "Free Land" at Kerinci Seblat National Park

Encroacher dwelling inside KSNP

I just returned from a trip to the field where I visited an area that is experiencing a pretty high rate of forest encroachment.  One of the hypotheses that I had when I started doing my fieldwork is that the park has become a kind of subsidy for the districts around it.  According to this hypothesis, people farming illegally in the park produce commodities that are then sold on the market, which provides income to the district.  At the same time, I assumed that because the park absorbs excess labor, the surrounding districts are under less pressure to spend money for things like job training or other programs that would increase opportunities for those that have none.  Thus I was expecting to find encroachment on the part of small-scale farmers and the occasional industrial plantation that had planted some oil palms or other tree crops in the park on the sly.  I have found both of these, but it is the existence of another driver of forest encroachment that has led me to the idea that I'm going to describe in this post.  In many places around the park where encroachment is rampant I've found that local officials, including district headmen, police officials, army officers, and the higher-ups at the various district offices have actually "invested" in park land; they have opened up land in the park and hired laborers to cultivate it.

The Kerinci Seblat National Park Gold Rush....

Forest encroachment is currently the number one threat to the integrity of Kerinci Seblat National Park.  "Encroachment" means that someone, either an individual or a corporation, clears park land and converts the forest to agriculture.  Thousands upon thousands of hectares of forest land have been lost to encroachment, and the park seems to be powerless to stop the trend.  This has been a problem for a long time, but the trend seems to have increased since regional autonomy laws were passed in the wake of the fall of longtime dictator Suharto in the late 1990s.  These reforms devolved a lot of power to the district governments, which formally had been part of a top-down authoritarian system directed from Jakarta.  Now districts have more control over their budgets and who gets hired to work for the district government.  Also significant is the fact that district assemblies and headmen are democratically elected.

As I mentioned in the introduction, a significant amount of encroachment is indeed done by individuals, and there are some corporations that "cheat" on their concessions (which are often at the edge of the park) by cultivating in the park.  Much of this is because of a lack of enforcement, but to be far the park doesn't have nearly the requisite manpower needed to effectively patrol its 2500-kilometer border.  But I've also found that a great deal of land opened up in the park is "owned" by district officials.  One village secretary in an encroachment-prone area told me as much as 30% of the land was owned by district officials.  These people don't actually work the land themselves; rather they pay laborers to do it.  Sometimes these laborers are other farmers that work the land as a side job, sometimes they are people from outside the region that are attracted to the park because of work opportunities.  These newcomers often become landowners themselves after some time working as laborers.

Much of the park's land is quite fertile because it's never been farmed and the soil is volcanic in origin.  High yields draw people in, but besides that the park land is essentially free in most cases for anyone that wants to open it up.  Thus illegal farmers often experience very high rates of return for short periods of time; I've heard that the standard rule is that people expect a 100% return on their initial investment in a period as short as 2 years.  As you can imagine, with so many local government officials gaining from illegal cultivation, there isn't much incentive on the part of the local government to do anything about the problem.  On the other hand, there is a great deal of incentive to make infrastructural improvements, like better roads, to encroachment areas, because this increases profit by decreasing transport times and costs.  Higher profitability will in turn draw more people to the area to open up more land.  

Encroachment and the Market for Land...

Another phenomenon I've noticed in my fieldwork is that the farmers often use relatively unsustainable, inefficient methods to grow crops.  They tend to use a lot of fertilizer and pesticides, and they really push the land for maximum yields, which in the medium and long term will exhaust the soil making it virtually useless.  There is a lot of erosion as well.  When I ask farmers why they do this they tell me that they don't know any other way to farm.  However there is a small percentage of farmers, maybe 20%, that have actual training in agriculture.  The yields as well as the long-term sustainability of these farmers far out-perform those of their less-skilled neighbors.  This has always perplexed me because this is an agricultural society, and they've been farming for hundreds of years.  Thus I expected that there would be a fairly high level of "traditional ecological knowledge" (TEK) which has been handed down from generation to generation.  But this isn't the case.

I think this is because the land in the park is free, and so it distorts the market value of all the land in the districts causing land to be used in less-than-efficient ways.  If you have to pay for land, you will make sure that you get the most out of it.  But if land is free and readily available, you have less incentive to ensure that the land continues to produce over the long term.  In addition, in most places here the rural population is growing.  Now according to orthodox economic development theory, you would expect to see, in a developing country like Indonesia, people leaving the land to move to urban areas.  They leave because there are no opportunities in the village.  While this influx of people into metropolitan areas comes with its own raft of problems, it provides a ready supply of cheap labor for industrialization and economic development in the city.  And according to the orthodox thinking, while most new city residence will experience a certain degree of misery since they live under overpasses or along train corridors and other marginal places, eventually they will move out of these areas as they integrate themselves into the urban economy.  So it's a stepping stone.  While we observe this dynamic in Jakarta on Java, where all the land has been exhausted, it doesn't seem to be happening to the same degree here on Sumatra.  I think this is possibly because protected forests have assumed at least some of the role cities are supposed to have in the absorption of excess labor.  Instead of moving to the city, people just stake a claim in a national park or other protected area.  I believe this has negative impacts not only for the environment, but from a macroeconomic standpoint for the greater economy in general.

Capital Formation and Development...

From the standpoint of economic development, one key determinant in healthy, growing economies is capital formation.  "Capital formation" refers to "the transfer of savings from households and governments to the business sector, resulting in increased output and economic expansion".  In other words, capital formation happens when surplus income from lots and lots of households is gathered together, forming a pool of money that can be used to invest in businesses.  Theoretically banks play a really key role in this process because people save their money in banks, and then the banks loan out the money to businesses or individual entrepreneurs to invest in some enterprise that will bring greater returns down the road.  So if you have a great idea for a business but don't have enough money to get it started, the idea is that you can go to the bank, convince them to give you a loan, and implement your vision.  Stock markets, at least theoretically, are supposed to operate along the same lines.  Thus according to this minute bit of economic theory, savings rates are very important in economic development.  In fact if you look at analyses of the Japanese Miracle period of development in the 50s and 60s when that country was shattering all previous records for economic growth, or at South Korea and Singapore as more recent examples, you'll find that the traditionally high rates of savings in those countries is considered to be instrumental in the high economic growth rates.

Why is this important for Kerinci Seblat National Park?  Well, I believe there is a strong possibility that the "gold rush" I described above undermines capital formation at the local level.  Since so many people are "investing" in land within the park, there is less capital available to entrepreneurs and other enterprises.  In addition to this, the high rates of return on illegal cultivation skew people's expectations about returns on investment.  Remember, we are talking about a 100% return on investment within 2-4 years.  However, when you invest in a bank the best rate you are going to get is somewhere around 3%, which leads to a 100% return on your investment in a bit more than 23 years.  With the stock market the best you are going to get is 10%, and that's really good, but you only double your money every 7 years at that rate.  So as you can see, it makes more economic sense to invest in park land as long as you can get away with it.  In addition to limiting capital available for economic development, I think the easy availability of free land also probably stymies local creativity; instead of trying to identify a new way to make money people that have a surplus simply open up new land.  At the same time capital formation makes money available to local governments in the form of bonds.  In the US, when a municipality or county government wants to make improvements to say, the sewage system, they probably don't have enough tax revenue to pay for the expensive improvements all at once.  In this case they will often sell bonds to the public, which is essentially a loan.  Thus they can raise a lot of money all at once to pay for infrastructure improvements.  People buy the bonds because there is an interest rate and so they get a return, and because the bonds are issued by the government they feel reasonably confident that there isn't going to be a default.

In Indonesia, at least in the places I work on Sumatra, they don't use the bond system.  Rather to fund projects most district governments, because they aren't able to raise very much money themselves, rely on grants from the central government.  But these funds are directed from the top down; in other words the district government doesn't get to decide what the money is spent on.  I've heard many district officials complain about how funds from the central government aren't consistent with local needs.  And because the money comes from outside the district there is usually a pretty high level of corruption involved (skimming money off the top, inflated budgets, etc).  I think that relying more on bonds would have two positive effects: 1) it would allow the district governments more freedom in deciding how money is spent, and 2) since the debt would be "owned" by local people there would be more accountability in how the funds are spent.  People aren't likely to buy bonds if they know a good bit of the money is going to be wasted on corruption.

This is my current thinking on the structure of encroachment at the park, and though there are a lot of assumptions this model seems to fit all the data I've gathered in the field and everything I've seen and heard while on the ground.  There is a lot going on here, and it will take me some time to really analyze my data to see if I'm right.  In addition, though I have some passing knowledge of everything I've described in this post, much of it, including the parts about capital formation, are outside my expertise as a geographer.  So when I get back to the University of Hawai'i and start writing my dissertation I'll have some work to do to bring myself up to speed on these issues.  But as a working model I think this is pretty good because it goes to show how complex the encroachment problem actually is, and how to really understand it we need to see it in the context of the bigger economic and social picture.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Hooray It's Ramadan!

Here in Sungai Penuh, where I'm doing my PhD fieldwork, we're two months into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.  Ramadan is the most important month of the year for Muslims as it is a time of prayer and fasting (puasa).  During the entire lunar month of 30 days Muslims are required to fast from sun-up to sun-down.  It's also a time to fulfill the religious obligation of zakat  to make contributions to those that are less fortunate.  The month ends with the holiday Eid-Al-Fitr, when most people return to their families to celebrate.

Man I'm Hungry...

In Indonesia the Ramadan fast is called puasa, but in Arabic it's referred to as sawm.  Because the period of daily fasting depends on the sun, the times to start and end vary from location to location.  Since Indonesia is right on the equator we get about 12 hours of sun per day with little year-round variation, so the fasting period is relatively constant.  As you move away from the equator, though, the amount of sun varies increasingly the closer you get to the polar regions.  This is caused by the tilt of the earth.  You've probably noticed this yourself if you are from the US or Europe; in the northern hemisphere summer the days are much longer than in the winter.  Since it is currently summer in the northern hemisphere, the sun is out for longer and so the Muslims that live in these places are obliged to fast longer.  Conversely, since it is winter in the southern hemisphere the days are shorter, and so the fast is shorter.  In predominantly Muslim areas the length of the fast is normally listed in the newspaper, but there are also websites and other resources that provide this information for other places.

In order to prepare for the daily fast, most people get up very early in the morning (again the time depends on where you are) to eat a meal before the sun starts to rise.  This meal is called sahor in Indonesians and suhoor in Arabic.  Here this is usually around 3.30am.  Most of the time people go back to sleep afterwards.  During the day people are not allowed to eat, drink, consume medicine or smoke, but if you happen to be sick you are allowed to violate this prohibition as long as you add compensation days at the end of the month.  The daily fast ends when the sun sets with buka puasa, literally "opening the fast" in Indonesian (iftar) in Arabic, a meal that starts around 6.30pm here.

During the month of Ramadan markets spring up in most places here offering ready-made food for people preparing to break their fast.  Here in Sungai Penuh dozens of temporary stalls have been erected along one of the market streets, and they will stay up until the end of Ramadan.  The stalls open at around 3pm, and by about 5pm the place is a madhouse as people scramble to buy dinner.  Then there's an amazing transformation as people make their way home to eat, and by the time the special "EAT NOW" siren goes off at around 6.30pm the place is a morgue.  You can get anything you want (that is normally available in town) at the Ramadan market, and it's convenient because you can shop with your eyes and stomach and everything is located in one place.

After the siren goes off, most people begin breaking the fast with a sweetened beverage with chopped fruit served over ice (if available).  This provides ready energy, and then people get on to the regular meal.  The folks I've been around here can eat and eat and eat at this point and there is no keeping up with them.  Though most restaurants are closed during the day, they generally stay open later during Ramadan so that people can eat well into the night.  It seems like lots of people stay up until the morning meal, but I haven't done any kind of structured survey to support this.  What is clear though is that during Ramadan patterns of behavior and commerce change.

People don't have to follow the fast, but there are some social pressures here to follow the norm.  As mentioned in the past, I don't follow the fast because I don't have the desire to, but I avoid eating or drinking in front of other folks as a courtesy.  Normally they will tell you they don't mind, but I feel uncomfortable eating or drinking in front of others that are abstaining.  When I lived in Malaysia a few years ago I did attempt to fast to see what it's like, but after the fourth day I was quite ill so I had to stop.  Since then I don't really have any curiosity about it; my body is not built for it and I don't have the religious conviction that makes it a realistic endeavor.

Plan for Ramadan...

This will keep you 8 hours or so on the road.
But if you are in Indonesia during Ramadan, and especially if you are in a rural area, you will be affected by Ramadan.  If you are a newcomer it's an interesting and enriching learning experience, but it's different if you've been through it before.  First of all, as I mentioned above all the restaurants close down, so you have to prepare yourself before hand and stock up on provisions.  I am used to eating out because my kitchen consists of a single hobo-stove, one wok, and a small kettle, so I have to get creative in preparing one-dish meals.  I don't have a refrigerator either, so I can't keep ingredients before I cook and I can't save food after I cook.  But you figure out work-arounds.  On the same note, if you have to be on the road during Ramadan it will be very difficult to find anything to eat on the way, so you should take provisions with you.

Next, if you have to be involved in any sort of group activity, it's advisable that you wake up or stay up and eat the early meal.  In many cases even if you want to sleep you won't be allowed to, as people will wake you up.  For the most part, at least in rural Sumatra, people won't understand any resentment you have to getting up, nor will they understand if your just not ready to eat that early, so it's best to just go along with it rather than make a fuss.  When I was sleeping in the barracks of the tiger protection team last week the guys, god bless 'em, played cards all night while I was trying to get some shut eye.  Sumatrans seem to have a much greater tolerance to noise and flashing lights than your average Westerner, at least when it comes time to sleep, so bear this in mind.

Lastly at the end of Ramadan everyone wants to go visit their families and so all flights are booked months in advance and the price of tickets for transportation that are available increase significantly.  If you are going to be in Indonesia during Ramadan take this into consideration, because if you don't you risk getting stuck someplace.  Likewise, count on people being away from the office (or count on them coming in late) at least towards the end of Ramadan.  At this time pretty much everything shuts down, so if you have to schedule meetings or get work done, it's not likely to happen during this period.  Moreover, if you have to get some sort of official document or anything else from a government office, your likely to face a delay, so when thinking about extending a visa make sure to take this into consideration.

Anyway, remember that Ramadan is the most important and sacred part of the year for Muslims.  It's pretty interesting, if inconvenient, and you can learn a lot.  People are very friendly and are willing to tell you all about it, and folks will invite you to buka puasa with them, which means a big deal to them.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Bad Boys Merangin!: On Patrol with the Tiger Protection and Conservation Team

Iswadi, Herizal, Suhardi, and M resting on the way to the field.
This past week I was fortunate to have the opportunity to follow along on a forest patrol inside Sumatra's Kerinci Seblat National Park conducted by the elite rangers that make up the Sumatran Tiger Protection and Conservation Unit.  The unit is specially tasked with protecting and conserving the critically endangered Sumatran Tiger, but they also perform other ranger duties as well.  Since the unit was created in 2000 it has expanded to five four-man teams and has achieved a great deal of success in preserving the Sumatran tiger.  I followed one of the unit's teams for 5 days through the park's dense forest and rugged terrain, an experience that was extremely rewarding in terms of my research while at the same time being one of the most grueling tasks I've ever undertaken.

Heading Out...

Provisions for 5 days
I drove over to Bangko in Merangin district (4 hours from where I live) the day before the patrol was to start in order to get prepared.  The team was kind enough to prepare the "logistik" or provisions that I would need for five days, which you can see in the photo to the right.  The bags contain dried minnows and about 8 pounds of rice.  The guys at the barracks stayed up late since it's Ramadan (a post on the Muslim holy month will follow) and before they begin the day's fasting they eat a big meal at around three in the morning and go back to sleep.  Our patrol plan was to camp at the edge of the forest on day one, search for illegal animal traps for three days, and then head back to the barracks on the fifth day.  This particular patrol was a bit special because once a year the five teams that make up the Tiger Protection and Conservation Unit have a contest to see who can find the most traps.  The team that comes in first wins a bonus of 3 million rupiah (a bit over US$300), whereas the second place team gets 2 million, and the third place team gets 1 million.  We woke up around 7:30 am, loaded up the ancient Toyota Land Cruiser (see photo above) that had been pressed into service because one of the team's Ford Rangers was in the shop, and set out on the 4-hour drive to our departure site in the Lembah Masurai area of Merangin district. We felt every bump along the extremely rough road, but finally we made it to the village of Nilo Dingin, smack dab in the middle of an area that is currently experiencing some of the highest rates of forest encroachment on the whole island of Sumatra.

Chatting with coffee farmers
We hiked a couple of kilometers through the sprawling coffee gardens that forms the mainstay crop of the thousands of farmers that have flooded into the Lembah Masurai area to farm.  The volcanic soil here is rich and highly productive, and very high yields have drawn as many as 18,000 families from as far away as Lampung and South Sumatra.  They have become a major problem for authorities charged with managing protected forests, as they have begun encroaching into the park and other conservation areas.  We spent the night with a friendly farmer from Pagar Alam in South Sumatra, who told us he'd been farming coffee here for four years and that it has allowed him to send his children to university.  We enjoyed his hospitality and the basic comforts of his pondok (1) while other farmers showed up to check out the foreigner and the forest police.

Into the Woods...

After a 3am meal we went back to sleep, waking at around 7am to head into the forest.  We trekked up the steep slopes of Mt. Masurai, a dormant volcano.  My prime concern was not to fall behind and not to become a hindrance, since there was a prize at stake for the team.  I was pretty nervous about not being able to keep up given that these guys go into the forest for a living.  In addition, I'd had my appendix removed a few weeks before, and even though I felt 100% healthy I wasn't sure how my body would react to strenuous hiking.  I had been training for the patrol before my surgery, but after I stopped to allow myself to fully recover.  After a few hours hiking we reached the top of a 40-meter waterfall and stopped to take a break.  The view was really breathtaking; as we walked across the top of the waterfall I imagined myself in one of those panoramic cinema shots taken from a helicopter you sometimes see in the movies.  I know it sounds corny, but it was exhilerating.  Shortly after this we found our first active snare, which you can see in the photo below.  This particular trap was set by poachers for a forest goat, which brings about US$5 per kilogram at market.  The poachers usually set the traps along trails since animals follow trails because the going is easier.  This particular trap was worth 50 points in the contest, so everyone was excited.

Team leader M describing how the trap works. 

At around 4pm we found a spot to camp so that we could set everything up before dark.  Though we camped beside the trail, the guys told me that normally they try to camp off the trail and near a river, since beliau (2) likes to use the trail.  They told me that they ask the tiger's permission to camp by the trail when they need to, because "we are under (his) rules here".

The Next Two Days...

100% waterproof shelter.
The next morning we hunkered down because it was raining.  Amazingly the shelter the team constructed kept us 100% dry.  By about 10.30 the sky had cleared, so we broke camp and got back to work.  Although I started out feeling fine, the second day really took its toll on me because we did a lot of ascending and descending over difficult terrain.  The guys had no problem though; it was a particularly humbling experience trying to keep up with the nimble forest rangers because I kept slipping and getting caught up in thorns.  Every time you fall or have to extract yourself from the ever-present pokey-plants that seem to consciously come after you it saps a bit more of your energy.  The guys seems able to avoid all of these hazards, though, and they climbed up the slopes like Spidermen.  Particularly impressive was the fact that three of them were keeping the Ramadan fast, which prevents them from eating food or even drinking water during the day.  Though I couldn't (and really had no desire to) keep the fast, I limited myself to a couple of packets of condensed, sweetened milk and a package of potato candy each day.  I did make sure to keep hydrated, though.

By the end of the third day we were ready to descend back towards the pickup point.  We started at about 9am and hiked until about 6pm, by which time I was completely wrecked.  Coming down off the mountain involved going straight down the slope, cutting a trail as we went, which was particularly exhausting.  But after a long day we finally made it back to a village and hunkered down for the night.  It was a great experience and I learned a lot about the park and the challenges it faces as well as the heroic job done by the PHS unit.  They are extremely dedicated and committed to their jobs, and they are proud of the work they do.  "When poachers see the black coming, they run, because they know there's no negotiation", said one of the PHS members, referring to the fact that they wear black whereas regular forest police wear green.  There's a subtle jibe here, and I'll let you figure it out.

I also learned a lot of neat forest tricks from the PHS guys.  Despite being hard-core forest dudes, they are some of the nicest folks you could hope to meet, and they took really good care of me.  I'd like to say that I'll be out on another patrol soon, but to tell you the truth, I'm not sure if I can handle it.

Lend a Helping Hand...

I was thinking about what I could do as a thank you to the guys for letting me tag along and it occured to me that one piece of equipment they could really use and would very much appreciate is a Leatherman.  I checked on Ebay and it looks like I can get the Leatherman Sidekick for about $35 per (3).  Since there are 20 team members, I'd need about $800 to buy one for each team member.  But I'm still a poor PhD candidate.

So here's the deal.  If you'd like to buy a Leatherman Sidekick for the members of the Tiger Protection and Conservation Unit, or if you'd like to make a partial contribution, please contact me at  Or if you'd like to buy a Sidekick and send it to my Hawai'i address I can give you the information if you email me.  I don't have an NGO or anything like that, so you'll have to trust me with the money.  If you look at my blog you can see what I'm all about; I'm not doing this to scam anyone.  If I can collect enough money I'll ship the tools to the unit's coordinator.  This is a good way for you to make a useful contribution to tiger conservation.  Thanks in advance!


So far I'm up to 4 leathermen, which is 20% of my target.  Thanks to the generous person that made the first contribution!


Thanks to two more generous folks I'm up to 8 leathermen, 40% of the target.  Thanks much!


Now at 11 leathermen thanks to another donation.


Just received another donation of two leathermans to bring the total to 13.  Only need 7 more....


15 Leathermans and counting!


(1)  Pondok means "hut" and in this case refers to semi-permanent structures built in upland farms where the farmers stay while they are working their fields.  Normally the farmers have a house in town and only stay in the pondok when it is time to plant or harvest, but here in Nilo Dingin the encroaching farmers stay there most of the time.

(2)  Beliau is a non-gender specific respectful third-person form of address.  In the forest here you say "beliau" rather than "harimau" (tiger) because it is believed that literally saying "tiger" will invite the beast to come.  I use "he" in my translations because it is simpler

(3)  A reader informed me that Amazon has them cheaper than the original $40 I posted.  The $35 includes the sheath but doesn't include shipping.  If you get free shipping you can have it sent directly to me.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Development Versus Conservation? A False Dichotomy at Kerinci Seblat National Park

Kerinci Seblat National Park (green) and
surrounding districts
One major "dilemma" that frequently crops up is a so-called dichotomy between conservation and development. In simpler terms we can think of this as nature versus the economy. The general notion is that you can have one or the other but not both, and when you have conservation it impedes development. Over the past year I've been doing research around Sumatra's Kerinci Seblat National Park, and I frequently hear this line of thinking when I talk to government officials. This discourse also gets carried in the local press, and so the average person on the street often echoes this reasoning as well. But it's not just limited to government officials; "experts" and "academics" sometimes echo this zero-sum game logic too. In fact, a couple of weeks ago at an international conference during a research presentation a scholar pointed to economic development (and population growth) as the major determinants of conservation failure in Indonesia. I took issue with the assertion, and in this post I'll tell you why.

"Development" and the geography of Sumatra

From BAPPENAS masterplan
There are definitely incompatibilities between conservation and a certain type of development, and this is the root of a lot of problems, at least here in central Sumatra.  To understand this we need to look at the economic geography of Sumatra.  The island is overwhelmingly agricultural, and the majority of people make their living off the land, farming relatively small plots of rice, horticultural products, or tree crops.

But the island is also very rich in mineral wealth; there is a great deal of coal and rich deposits of industrial metals are scattered here and there.  There's also a lot of gold on Sumatra.  So mining, most of it small to medium scale, is a major economic activity here.  In fact, when we look at the national planning agency's (BAPPENAS) long-term "master plan" for the nation's economic development, Sumatra figures in as a key source of raw materials, some to be used in industry on Java and some to be exported.  Extractive enterprises like mining are the key to the future for Sumatra, at least according to official plans.

We can also see this reflected in the regional spatial plans that the districts formulate to guide policy and development priorities.  In order to raise district revenues and increase the "prosperity of society" (kesejahteraan masyarakat), district governments are looking to mining as a key sector.  In addition to this, expansion of industrial plantations, like palm oil, figures in as an important component as well.  District governments try to attract investors to do exploration to gauge the size of mineral deposits which will later translate into more mining and, theoretically at least, more locally-generated revenue to fund government programs.  At the same time the district governments improve or create new infrastructure, like roads, that would make it easier to get mined materials out of the district.

The trouble with commodities...

Amidst the endless acres of oil palms in Mukomuko
There are a number of problems with these primary sector activities, though.  The first problem is with the types of jobs that are created.  These are primarily low-skill labor jobs that don't pay much.  As an example, we can look at Mukomuko district in Bengkulu province, where the district has adopted a strategy of increasing the land cultivated by industrial palm oil plantations.  Laborers on these plantations earn an average of 37,500 rupiah (about US$4) per day.  The average annual per capita income in Bengkulu province (2008) is 8,798,818 rupiah (US$946), and so a plantation laborer needs to work 234 days per year to reach this level.  Subtracting weekends there are about 250 working days per year, not including holidays and vacation time.  Thus according to these very simple calculations, laborers on palm oil estates are making right at the provincial average.  The problem is that Bengkulu is one of the poorer provinces in the country, and the average income there is only 41% of the national average.  The same story holds true for those working in mining.  Thus we see that the jobs that are created aren't really elevating the prosperity of society.

A second major problem is that a development strategy that relies on commodity extraction and agricultural extensification doesn't really address the needs of the people in this part of Sumatra.  As proof of this we can again refer to the regional spatial plans, which describe in detail the weaknesses of the various district economies along with the types of policy interventions that are needed to address those weaknesses.  For example, the spatial plan of Kerinci district, where I live, suggests that the most urgent reforms are needed in regional land management, agricultural extension, and value-added enterprises.  The first refers to the problem of "sleeping land"; land that is useable and zoned for agriculture but is not currently under cultivation for one reason or another.  Here in Kerinci we find that a major reason for not farming land is speculation and investment.  The second refers to a lack of skills on the part of farmers.  For the most part they don't know how to sustainably manage their land for maximum yields, and many are trapped in a cycle of debt whereby they mortgage future crops to pay for fertilizer, seeds, and pesticides.  There are not sufficient training programs and other extension services for the farmers here.  Most farmers here live harvest to harvest and so there is no capital accumulation.  The third problem refers to the fact that there is not much processing of agricultural products here.  For example, a major crop in Kerinci is potatoes.  Farmers sell their potatoes to a middleman who transports the potatoes to market in Padang, 7 hours away.

Kerinci potatoes.  I lifted this picture from Antara because
when I was writing this post I realized I have never taken
any pictures of potatoes here.  
Now there are a couple of problems with the potato business here.  The first is the distance to market.  It is a long way to Padang and the roads are bad.  So this increases the transport cost and thus cuts into the profit margin for the farmers.  In addition to this Indonesian potatoes are currently facing stiff competition from cheaper potatoes imported from China and other places, and so lots of Indonesian potatoes end up rotting or being sold for less than the cost of production.  Why don't the farmers grow something else?  Well the answer to this question is tied to the lack of skills I referred to in the above paragraph.  Farmers don't know how to grow anything else, and there isn't any way for them to learn.  I have conducted numerous interviews with farmers and village heads in Kerinci, and these three problems that are highlighted in the regional spatial plan are indeed at the top of their list of complaints.  Moreover, I have observed and interviewed a number of farmers both in Kerinci and other districts with formal training in agriculture, and they experience higher yields and a lower incidence of crop failure than their untrained neighbors.

Instead of addressing these difficulties, though, the district government relies on a strategy of agricultural extensification, seeking to increase the area under cultivation.  But as you might imagine this merely perpetuates and expands the problems of agriculture in the district.  The district government has failed to prioritize training and extension, land reform, and agribusiness.  The reasons for this, according to my observations, are complex but are rooted in local political processes.  Elections for district headman (bupati) are based more on the amount of spending (legal and illegal) rather than actual political platforms.  Thus the guy with the most money to buy votes generally wins.  In order to get money, candidates form alliances with local financiers to form a "success team" (tim sukses).  In return for their support, success team members are often given positions as heads of local government agencies (DINAS) or are given preferential treatment in tendering and bidding for projects.

This leads to district-level offices being run by people whose skills, training, and experience is not consistent with the demands of the job.  In addition, civil servants are often moved from agency to agency for political purposes.  I have spoken with numerous government officials that complain of being moved around from agency to agency every couple of years.  Thus the typical district government office is loaded with people that aren't really suited for the positions they occupy, and many of them are not motivated to address the challenges of the job.  As a result, policy formation and implementation suffers.  We can imagine a continuum of public policy ranging from higher level activities, which require a great deal of coordination, skill, and commitment, to lower-level activities that are rather simple and easy to implement.  Things like land reform and comprehensive agricultural extension would be on the higher end of this continuum.  They are difficult things to implement, but not impossible if you have the right people doing the job.  On the other hand you have things like expanded the land under cultivation, which isn't really that difficult to implement.  My argument is that because of the way politics works here, there is a bias towards policy activities on the lower end of this spectrum.  Making new roads would be another.

A third major problem with this strategy for development is rooted in the logic of the strategy itself.  Since the fall of longtime authoritarian president Suharto in 1998 Indonesia has transferred a great deal of political and administrative authority to the districts as a reaction against the top-down authoritarian structure of the Suharto years.  But at the same time the districts are supposed to generate more of their operating funds, which during the Suharto years came directly from the central government in the form of numerous grants and payments.  The districts want to increase revenues to pay for the activities of government, like education, health, and other services.  But the problem is that regional autonomy has greatly increased corruption at the district level, and so a significant amount of money is "lost" by a variety of means.  Thus more locally generated revenue means more money lost in corruption.  This is related to the political dynamic I described above; people want to be on the team success because it is a way to get control of a government office, where they can enrich themselves through corrupt practices, which further hinders policy making.

What's this have to do with conservation?

As I mentioned before (and in previous posts), I focus on Kerinci and Mukomuko because these are two of the districts that border Kerinci Seblat National Park.  In fact, more than 50% of Kerinci district is covered by the park.  The district headman complains that the park, which is under the control of the national government, hinders development in the district because farming, logging, mining, and other activities are forbidden there.  Thus the reasoning goes that the district is economically crippled because of conservation, and development options are limited.  The headman is very vocal in his criticism of the park, and his views, which are frequently covered in the local press, filter down to the people of the district, and so there is a general feeling of hostility towards the park.  But the park has become a scapegoat used to deflect attention away from the political leadership's inability to promote real "development" in the district.  Thus we see the false dichotomy between development and conservation being perpetuated.

In addition the bias towards infrastructure projects like roads, which is in part motivated by corruption (infrastructure projects provide numerous opportunities for graft, and so infrastructure development is a favorite of regional governments) place pressure on the park in two ways.  First they have direct ecological impacts, which I've described in previous posts.  Second they have the indirect effect of opening up new areas in or on the edge of the park to encroachment, logging, and other illegal activities.  The districts want to build roads through the park because it decreases transport costs and thus increases the profit margins on extractive activities.  In some cases a mineral deposit that is not worth mining may become profitable if the transport costs are decreased.  And so when road projects through the park are rejected the district governments claim that the park is impeding local development.  Conservation becomes a burden.

This is a big challenge for the park because it can't interfere in district level politics.  Moreover, because these problems are structural in nature, there is no quick-fix.  Meanwhile the park is undermined by the false development-conservation dichotomy while the long-term outlook of the surrounding districts is compromised, because extractive activities and agricultural extensification and the development strategy that relies on them do not take into consideration the ecological costs of these activities, which generally manifest themselves several years down the line.