Thursday, January 26, 2012

Revisting Gunung Tujuh: The Political Ecology of Forest Encroachment

A couple of days ago I made my way back to Gunung Tujuh, the site of several villages bordering on Kerinci Seblat National Park.  I'd previous visited the villages a few months back and had been meaning to return, but the sabotage of the reforestration project I discussed in a previous post gave me immediate cause to make a repeat visit (1).  As it turns out, somebody (or more likely, somebodies) took an industrial sprayer filled with herbicide to 500 hectares of tree seedlings, destroying approximately 1/3 of the 1500 hectare project.  I wanted to find out who was responsible or at least why they did it, so I scheduled a meeting with some of the village heads.

I had a number of questions prepared for the village heads.  I wanted to know about how land is managed in the villages.  I also wanted to learn about social aspects of the villages, including the education system.  I was curious about the history of the villages and wanted to hear their take on the conflicts with the park, since these villages have a particularly contentious history with the park authorities.  I learned that the villages were founded back in the 1960s and were originally settled by people moving out of more crowded areas of Kerinci Valley.  At that time there was no national park, and the Basic Forestry law, which gave the central government formal authority over all forested areas in Indonesia, had not yet been passed.  Thus at that time migrating villagers, at least in this part of Sumatra, were free to open up new land for cultivation, as they'd been doing for hundreds of years previously.

I learned a great deal talking to the village heads.  They were happy to talk to me about their troubles with the park and seemed glad that someone was paying attention to them.  We talked about population dynamics, including birthrates and in/outmigration.  We talked about schools and educational opportunties (or lack thereof)  We also talked about the life of a farmer in here in the hills.  All of the folks I spoke with felt that they were being treated unfairly by the park, while at the same time they didn't feel like anyone in the regional government was interested in their plight.  One of the village officials I spoke with told me that, before the park was officially designated, the members of the village met with representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture to map out where the borders of the park ought to go.  They went so far as to physically construct border markers on the ridge behind their ladangs (cultivated fields).  According to the story, though, the park's planners had different ideas and drew the borders in such a way that 60% of the villages' cultivated land would fall inside the park's boundaries.

Then I headed to one of the small dry goods shops in the middle of one of the villages.  As a foreigner in remote Sumatra I always draw a lot of attention from people that are milling about.  People gather around because they are curious and want to know what I'm up to and where I'm from, and it's always a friendly interaction.  At the same time this is a good way for me to get information as to what's going on in the area and how people are doing.  I figured maybe I'd get the scuttlebutt on the aforementioned forest sabotage, but the topic didn't come up, though we did have a pretty good conversation about how women are like the weather.  Maybe next time.  But I did learn enough to formulate a theory as to why forest encroachment is so problematic in this area.

Political Ecology?

Scale Diagram from Wilson, 2009 (see refs)
My little branch of geography is called "political ecology"  This subfield attempts to figure out the connection between social, economic, and political processes and on the ground change.  Political ecologists are generally skeptical of simple answers to environmental problems.  For example, around here the common explanation for why people encroach into the national park, or why they illegally cut down trees, is that they are hungry.  I call this the "imperative of the stomach".  But if we see this as a problem that needs to be addressed, we need to think about why people are hungry, and why are they pushed into difficult situations.  One of the main questions political ecologists ask is how processes operating at different scales interact to produce outcomes on the ground.  By "scale" I mean basically how big a lens we use to look at what's happening.  We can see a problem from the global perspective, the national perspective, the regional perspective, the local, and even the individual viewpoint.  And often the picture that is revealed at these different scales is different.

So back to the farmers at Pesisir Bukit and Pauh Tinggi.  The people I talked to said the local folks are locked into a specific pattern because they need to make money to eat.  From the global perspective that pattern is a problem because it leads to the destruction of resources that are considered important at a global scale (trees and biodiversity).  At the national level it's a problem because the local farmers encroach into an area that the national government has decided should be set aside.  So the priorities of the global and national scale are expressed in the policies of the park, which prohibit farmers from moving in (2).  However, if we look at the regional scale, the rules that keep people from farming in the park are more of a political issue.  The leaders of the district say that the park is bad for people because it keeps them from making a living, and it also keeps the district from making money from things like plantations and production forests, which they could tax.  The district headman has been very vocal about this; he often says that "the world cries out for us to protect the 'lungs of the earth', but they don't care about the lungs of the people of Kerinci'" ("Dunia berkoar-koar mengatakan TNKS paru-paru dunia, tapi mereka tidak memperhatikan paru-paru masyarakat Kerinci").  This has been a very effective strategy for the district headman because he has been able to portray the park as a common enemy, and so people in the district support him (3).

New houses in Desa Harapan Jaya; Rawa Bento
swamp (trees) and Gunung (Mt.) Kerinci in background
Then in the middle we have the farmers, who are operating under local, rather than regional, national, or global conditions.  They are caught in the middle; while the park says that they can't farm within the borders, the district government, on the surface, at least, supports them.  However the district government hasn't offered any strategies to help the farmers, either by offering them land someplace else or helping them find new livelihoods.  One of the village heads complains that the district government has failed to provide funds for a middle school, which he sees as a key tool in improving the opportunities available to the youth in the village.  In fact there isn't very much real support at all for the farmers on the part of the regional government, and some folks told me that they don't feel like anyone, not the regional government and not the national government, supports them.  In short, they are all alone.

This is important because is creates a kind of trap for the farmers.  Because they don't seem to have any options they continue to do what they are doing.  But the conflict between the park and the district government has some important consequences for the farmers at the local scale.  For one, as I mentioned in the previous post, the farmers don't have any formal title of ownership over their land.  Rather it is governed by an adat (traditional law) system.  Land transactions and conflicts are regulated rather harmoniously under this system, but there's a big defect.  The farmers can never be absolutely certain that they will have access to the land in the distant future.  Since they have no legal protections, they could be evicted next year, next month, next week, or even tomorrow (4).  So instead of buying and selling land, they have a system they call ganti rugi.  If you are in the village and you want to secure some land to cultivate, you don't buy it.  Rather you pay the person that currently owns it compensation for the work they did to open up the land in the first place.  But since there is always uncertainty, securing the rights to the land always carries the risk that the government will come in and kick you off.  Thus the future value of the land is a lot lower than it otherwise would be if the farmers had clear title to it.  This changes their long term calculations and affects how they use the land.  In this situation it makes a lot of sense economically to clear land, cultivate on it a couple of years, flip it, and start the whole process over again.

Of course this has implications for conservation at the park.  It encourages "unsustainable" agricultural practices, as the farmers in the area have neither reason or capacity to adapt less-damaging agricultural systems.  And it effectively prevents the farmers from making investments in the land that would lead to long-term increases in productivity.  No one really benefits from the situation except for the people exploiting it for  political gain.  For their part the people managing the park sympathize with the farmers, though their primary responsibility is to enforce the law.  They have made some efforts to help farmers with alternative livelihoods, providing villagers with ducks to reduce their reliance on the land in the park, but villagers complain that these small-scale programs come nowhere close to compensating them for the loss of land.

I don't know how to solve this problem, but now I have a good idea of the processes driving the encroachment.  Knowing about the social, economic, and political contexts surrounding environmentally destructive behavior helps us to understand what sorts of interventions definitely will not work, and points us in the direction of addressing causes rather than symptoms.


(1)  I hate to say "I told you so", but I told you so.

(2)  It should also be noted that although encroachment is against the law, the national park does not have the resources to enforce the law, which complicates the picture still further.

(3)  I would say the bupati uses this to distract attention from other issues.

(4)  The park has tried to evict encroaching farmers in the past; most recently in 2010 the park had an agreement with the district headman to expel the villagers, but the headman backed out and no action was taken.


Wilson, Geoff A.  2009.  The Spatiality of Multifunctional Agriculture: A Human Geography Perspective.  Geoforum 40:2 pp269-280.


  1. It is good idea to protect nature; however, people do not consider about people who live around the park. People who do not live around this park might say it's good to save nature, but they also should consider people who live there.

  2. I think education of the locals about ecological services the forest provides, coupled with an alternative income solution would make a considerable difference. Or perhaps if the farmers used more efficient water, herbicide, and pesticide application techniques crop yields could be increased, and the amount of land needed per person/family could be decreased. They should be aware that the forest benefits them in many ways, like filtering the herbicides and pesticides out of the runoff from the farms before it reaches their drinking water supply, and helping control erosion. I also think it is extremely important to educate not only the current farmers, but also the school aged children, for they will be the farmers of tomorrow.
    Reagan Grant

  3. I think that the, while the farmers cant' expand, they can still work at least so it is not a total one-sided situation.

  4. This is an interesting glimpse into the politics surrounding the local villages and the government. It seems like the farmers are more concerned about their own survival while the government is looking out for the needs of the rest of the country. It really seems to come down to the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. If the farmers can't adapt to the changing climate then it's not really the government's fault.

  5. Reading this post gave me interesting insight into the struggles and dilemmas the villages in Gunung Tujuh face - a region 6,000+ miles away from all I've ever known. It's difficult to imagine how no matter where you are on the map we all experience similar walks of life. It's an incredibly vicious cycle the villages have fallen into ; needing sustenance but having little to no resources other than what has been taken away from them. They have basically fallen into the cracks of the system. I understand the importance of fighting deforestation but I don't believe crippling the lives of human beings is the way to go. I hope a solution is brought to light soon!

  6. I have to agree that the farmers are between a rock and hard place here. I would say that since this is a national park, the national government should step in and grant subsidies or do something for the farmers in exchange for protection of the park. That is if they are really committed to conservation...

  7. It would be nice to see a bit more communication between park officials and the residents of the area. It’s important for people that live close to these parks to understand the importance and value of the park and also for the park to work with them in solving issues such as more efficient methods of cultivation.