Thursday, February 23, 2012

Canoeing Rawa Bento Swamp

Photo by Luke Mackin
Wetlands (swamps, marshes, estuaries, etc) are an important part of the landscape of Southeast Asia.  In the past wetlands have been regarded as wastelands, and many of them have been converted into more "productive" uses, like agriculture and aquaculture.  Although ecologists, biologists, and geographers have long understood and studied the unique characteristics of wetlands, it is only in the past couple of decades that the ecological importance of wetlands have been recognized by a wider audience.  This past Sunday I had the opportunity to visit Rawa Bento swamp ("rawa" means "swamp" in Indonesian; "bento" refers to an endemic species of grass found in the area) here in Kerinci district with a couple of friends.  Rawa Bento is about 2000 hectares, with 1100 hectares in Kerinci Seblat National Park.  I was really interested in visiting the swamp because it has become an issue between the regency government and the managers of the park.  The regency wants to drain the swamp and convert it into rice fields.  They even received 35 billion rupiah (about $3.88 million) from the central government for the project.  The project had to be put on hold, though, because the swamp lies within the territory of the park, which is off limits to any kind of development (1).

The Importance of Wetlands

Map of Sumatra's Welands from here.  
Swamps, marshes, and estuaries are generally found in lower reaches of rivers where the topography (shape of the landscape) in gently sloping and where the water moves relatively slowly.  Freshwater swamps, like Rawa Bento, are defined as areas where the land is permanently or temporarily inundated by mineral-rich freshwater.  Freshwater swamps are different from peat swamps (another important type of swamp) because peat swamps are primarily watered by rain, whereas freshwater swamps get rain and river water, and so the soil is very rich.  Freshwater swamps have a lot of important functions; they prevent flooding because they hold water like a sponge.  When it rains a lot the wetland stores water, and when it is dry wetlands slowly release water into streams.  At the same time they provide nutrients from decaying biomass into the streams, which serves as food for fish and other organisms living in the stream.  Many animals that live in habitats outside the wetlands use the wetlands for migration or reproduction as well.

White Throated Kingfisher/Cekaka Beluka
(Halcyon smyrnensis) photo by Luke Mackin
Rawa Bento, though, is unique.  It's not a lowland swamp or an estuary like most of the wetlands in Indonesia.  Rather one of the highest wetland in Indonesia.  In addition, recent research by the Kerinci Birdwatching Club and graduate students from  the State University of Yogyakarta (UNY) has revealed that Rawa Bento is an important stopover for wetland migratory birds, some coming as far as Russia, such as the Wood Sandpiper and the Pacific Black Duck.  There are also a number of endemic species (found only in Rawa Bento).  Rawa Bento acts as a sink for runoff, where the sediment settles out of the water flowing in.  The wetland serves as a filter that the water flowing out of the swamp is cleaner.  The water flowing out can then be used for irrigation and and drinking.  In addition the swamp is a spawning area for fish and is a sanctuary for crabs and freshwater shrimp.  Rawa Bento is also thought to have some regulatory function on the local climate, but research still needs to be done to fully understand the relationship between the swamp and the local atmosphere.

Wetlands in Indonesia (and Southeast Asia in general) face a number of threats.  As I mentioned earlier, wetlands have historically been viewed as areas for conversion and expansion, and large-scale draining of wetlands in Malaysia and Singapore began in the 1930s.  Inland swamps are drained to become agricultural fields or residential areas, whereas coastal wetlands are converted to aquaculture, most notably shrimp farms.  In recent years sea-level rise associated with global warming has been recognized as an additional threat.  Many wetland areas in Indonesia are susceptible to rising seas, as you can see from the map below.
Map from CI:GRASP
A Swamp Adventure...

Don't forget to write!
We left Sungai Penuh a little after 7am.  It takes about an hour to get up to the swamp from where we live, and we wanted to put in early because you have a better opportunity to see wildlife if you are in the water before noon.  When we arrived in Pelompek (the village closest to the put-in point) we chatted a bit with the locals and arranged for a dugout canoe.  My good friend Luke, who provided some of the beautiful photos for this post, brought along a couple of rubber rafts that he wanted to try out.  Luke has a pretty good sense of humor, so I doubt he'll object to a bit of good-natured ribbing, but as he inflated one of the rafts about a dozen children from the village gathered to watch the show.  They'd never seen rubber boats before, and they were pretty curious about what these two foreigners and their Indonesian friend were up to.  After inflating the raft, Luke intrepidly entered the current and was promptly swept away by the creek that runs through the swamp.  To the delight of the gathered children, two locals quickly took a dugout downstream to "rescue" Luke.  We tried a couple of other ideas to make use of the rafts, but eventually the local way of doing things prevailed and we set off in dugout canoes.

After we got underway we paddled upstream for about 2 hours towards a lake.  Since the rainy season is petering out here the water in the lake was pretty low and lots of grass was exposed.  But when it rains the lake swells to several times its dry season size.  Along the way we saw a number of birds as well as a troupe of mitred leaf monkeys ("Simpai" in Indonesian; Presbytis melalophos melalophos).  After a short break we headed back; the trip downstream takes about an hour, so the whole trip is about 3 hours.  The earlier you leave the better, because it tends to rain a bit in the afternoon.  We got thoroughly soaked, and given the elevation (about 1400 meters above sea level) it can get chilly.  But all in all it was a great trip.

If you'd like to visit Rawa Bento, you can arrange a tour including transportation through the Kerinci Birdwatching Club (KBC), which I've mentioned in this blog in the past and will dedicate a full post to next week.  The advantage of going with KBC is that they can tell you all about the wildlife of the swamp as well as its history.  In addition, money earned through activities such as this help KBC fund bird conservation efforts.


(1)  One interesting aspect of this case is that the regency officials framed the issue to portray the park as an impediment to development, suggesting that the park sabotaged the conversion project.  One wonders why the regency leadership didn't simply make a call to the regency planning office (or even the park) to ask whether the proposed area fell within the park or not.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Where Does Chocolate Come From? Cacao Cultivation on Sumatra

In the previous two posts I've described some of my experiences from my trip up through the province of Sumatra Barat (West Sumatra) last week.  I made the trip at the request of my very good friend Nat, who is co-founder, owner and manager of Madre Chocolate, a small but growing chocolate company based in Hawai'i.  Nat asked me to visit the cacao farm to check out the operation and take pictures, because he's interested in buying cacao directly from the farmer.  Most chocolate companies buy cacao through a middleman, and so the farmers aren't able to realize the full market price for their product.  One of Nat's goals is to buy directly from the source so that farmers will harvest more of the benefits of their labors.  I'll write more below about Nat and Madre Chocolate, but first I want to talk a little bit about cacao farming and my experience at the cacao plantation I visited.

A Visit to a Cacao Farm

Drawing from
Cacao is the primary ingredient in chocolate and comes from the seeds of the fruit of the tree Theobroma cacao, which originally grew in South America.  Cacao was used in a variety of drinks, foods, and medicines in pre-Columbian (before Columbus) America.  It was then taken to Europe by the Spanish.  However, cacao won't grow in Europe because it gets too cold there in the wintertime.  Cacao needs consistently warm temperatures and a lot of water distributed evenly throughout the year (it also has specific soil and shade requirements), so the Europeans transported cacao to their colonial possessions in Africa and Southeast Asia.  Currently Indonesia is the world's second largest producer of cacao (after Cote d'Ivoire in West Africa), producing about 20% of the annual global crop.

While some cacao is grown in large plantations, the farm I visited is relatively small scale.  I was shown around the 8,300 square meter (a little smaller than a football field) farm by Datuak Damo Anso (Pak An), who, along with this plot owns a total of 3 cacao parcels. He told me that the 667 trees in this plot were planted 19 months ago, and that they start to bear fruit after about a year.  Pak An's manager, Rahmat, told me that they grow two different varieties of cacao.  One has red fruits while the other has green; they said the red one is better for making chocolate.  I asked why they don't grow the red ones exclusively and Rahmat told me that the local planters can't tell the difference when they put the seeds in the ground.  They also do grafting, which means that they take a stem from a more desirable variety and attach it to trees that aren't producing as much as they'd like.  Eventually the new stem starts to grow and they cut off the old stem, and so the fruits that are produced are of the better variety.  They also grow "protection trees" (tanaman pelindung) between the rows of cacao trees because cacao likes shade.  Pak An taught me a lot about growing cacao, but to learn more about what happens after the fruit is harvested, I asked Nat.

After the Harvest

I first met Nat 4-5 years ago when he moved to Hawai'i after he finished his PhD in ethnobotany.  We had a mutual friend and Nat needed a place to stay for a couple of weeks while he looked for an apartment, so he crashed at my place.  We quickly became friends.  In addition to his chocolate expertise Nat is an expert forager, and so I learned a lot from him about the wondrous variety of edible fruits and leaves that grow in Hawai'i.  Over the past few years Nat has pursued his dream of starting a company to produce small batches of high-quality chocolate that emphasizes flavor and fairness over profit.  Now Nat's company is starting to take off, and it's been pretty inspirational to see how all his hard work and dedication is starting to pay off.  I emailed Nat to ask him what happens after the fruit is harvested, and he was kind enough to mash out the following steps in making chocolate:

Cocoa butter crystal forms from Chocolate Alchemy.

  1. After picking the pods are cracked, the wet seed taken out and fermented for 508 days under banana leaves.  This moves a lot of bitter alkaloid compounds like theobromine and caffeine to the shell out of the seed and develops the flavor of the seed immensely.
  2. The seeds are dried in the sun, having to moved in and out of the sun if it rains.
  3. The seeds are let sit for 7-30 days.
  4. The seeds are then sold usually through a middleman to chocolate makers.  
  5. They are then roasted for a short time to bring out the flavor and kill pathogens on the shell.
  6. They are then cracked into "nibs" to help remove the shell.
  7. They are next winnowed using air flow to completely remove the astringent, bitter shell
  8. The shell is sometimes sold for making "cacao tea", as garden mulch, or used in the soap
  9. The remaining nibs are refined down to about 10-20 microns between steel or granite rollers into what is called "cacao liquor" although it is not alcoholic at all
  10. For some portion of the world's cacao, this liquor is then placed in 10,000 lb heated hydraulic presses to squeeze out the fat (cocoa butter), leaving behind the cacao press cake which is ground up and sometimes alkalized to make cocoa powder the cocoa butter is used by the cosmetics industry and by some chocolate makers.
  11. For chocolate bars, the cacao liquor is conched (mixed with low hear) for 1-4 days long with sugar, extra cocoa butter (optional), vanilla (optional), lecithin (optional, an emulsifier that lowers energy use, usually derived from soy so creates allergies for some people), and milk powder only for milk chocolate.  This conching develops and blends the flavors through the Maillard reaction where proteins "caramelize" like the browning of steak on a skillet
  12. Once the chocolate reaches the desired flavor it is tempered to grow the right cocoa butter crystal, cocoa better has 6 crystal forms and only 2 have a nice shine and snap, whereas the others are dull and crumbly.  So just like carbon can be coal, graphite, graphene, carbon nanotubes, or diamond (all the same atom, just different arrangements), we want the diamond form of cocoa better.  This is achieved by heating the chocolate to 120 degrees f, cooling to 80 degrees f and heating again to 88-91 f, all while stirring thoroughly.
  13. Once the chocolate is tempered, it is poured into molds which are chilled for 10-30 minutes
  14. The chocolate bars are removed from the molds.
  15. The bars are foiled and paper wrapped
  16. Phew!  finally done, 1-2 months after the cacao fruit is picked from the tree!
Nat also told me that most Indonesian cacao isn't used for chocolate making but is instead sold directly to cosmetic companies for making cocoa butter, which is used in skin care products.  Since this doesn't require the cacao to be fermented, the farmers don't normally invest in fermenting facilities, and they only get the basic market price for their product.  One of the by-products of the cosmetic uses is cocoa powder, which is sold to big chocolate companies, who add a bit of cocoa butter and milk to replace the missing fat that is removed when the cocoa butter is taken out.  Thus what you eat when you buy an average chocolate bar is diluted and adulterated chocolate.  In addition this removes a lot of the healthful aspects of the cacao.  

Picture from Madre Chocolate
Nat also told me that Indonesian cacao, if it's fermented properly, has a distinctive hazelnut flavor that isn't found in cacao from other countries.  He's not sure why this is the case; it could be the soil, the fermentation microbes, or something in the way the farmers grow the cacao.  Nat is hoping to work with the farmers to bring out this unique flavor.  As I mentioned previously, part of Nat's (and Madre Chocolate's) philosophy is to make the farmers a more integral part of the production operation, which includes increasing their participation and ensuring they reap more of the rewards for their work.  In Nat's words:

Another part of chocolate making that we're trying to change is that most cacao growers never taste the chocolate made from their cacao, so the feedback loop is never closed and they don't know how changes in their growing and fermentation effect the final chocolate.  We try to send back a bar of chocolate made from the growers' chocolate so they can see the effects, and where we've done this in Mexico, Hawai'i, and Indonesia, we've seen the growers eyes light up with understanding when they taste it.

I had a really good time with Pak An learning how cacao is grown.  The cacao farm is located in the heart of the Minangkabau culture region of Indonesia, so I suggested to Nat, that if he does end up sourcing cacao from An that they call the resulting product the "Minangkabar" (1).  I even took the picture below so that he can use it on the wrapper.  Note the cacao tree in the foreground.  We'll see if Nat realizes the brilliance of my marketing strategies.  In the mean time, if you want to learn more about Madre Chocolate, where to get it, or the chocolate-making classes they offer, click here.  It's good stuff.  


(1)  Which also might be a good name for a newspaper or gossip show....

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Minangkabau Language Primer

As I mentioned in previous posts last week I spent some time up in West Sumatra, which is the center of the Minangkabau culture.  The Minang have a language all their own, and although it is very similar to Bahasa Indonesia, there are some differences both in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary.  When I was travelling through the region people seemed delighted when I made an attempt to speak the local language, and lots of folks were happy to spend some time to teach me the basics.  The problem with learning Minang, though, is that there aren't any texts (that I'm aware of) and internet resources are sadly lacking.  What follows is a short guide that should help get you started.  People along the way will help you as well.

Personal Pronouns

There are several ways to say "I" in Bahasa Minang.  The word you use depends on the status of the person you are talking to.

"Ambo" is a polite term used with people older than you.
"Awak" or "Aden" is used for people that are familiar to you or younger.

Similarly there are several ways to say "you".

Use "Wa'an" for males familiar or younger.
Use "Kau" for females familiar or younger.
Use "Uda" for males older or unfamiliar.
Use "Uni" for females older or unfamiliar.

Use "nyo" or "enyo" for he or she.

One of the simplest transformations is changing "a" at the end of the word to "o".  So for instance, lama (long), becomes lamo.  Lomba (race) becomes lombo.  It doesn't work for "pizza", though.  Nobody got the joke when I ordered "pizzo" at the Pizza Hut in Bukit Tinggi.  Additionally the pronoun suffix "-nya" becomes "-nyo".  For example:

Berapa harganya?  (How much is it)  becomes "Bara hargonyo".

Another transformation that seems to be quite common is that "ut" at the end of the word in Bahasa Indonesia becomes "ui".  For example, "menurut" (according to) becomes "manurui".  I'll tell you about why the "e" becomes an "a" in the verb section below.


The numbers are pretty simple and go like this:

Cieh  (1)
Duo   (2)
Tigo   (3)
Empek  (4)
Limo   (5)
Enam   (6)
Tujuah   (7)
Lapan    (8)
Sembilan   (9)
Sepuluah   (10)
Sabale   (11)
Duobale  (12)
Tigobale  (13)
Duopuluah  (20)
Tigopuluah  (30)

If you are counting things, you don't use "cieh".  Instead you change the Bahasa Indonesia "se"  to  "sa".  Thus "sebungus"  becomes  "sabunkoi".


Remember that "a" becomes "o" at the end of the word.  There are also some distinct nouns that don't appear in Bahasa Indonesia.

Ari          Hari
Buyuang  Boy
Honda     motorcycle (any brand)
Kudo       horse
Padusi     girl
Talua       egg
Gale        glass
Oto        car
Piti          money  (duit, uang)
Sarawa   pants (celana)


In the case of verbs the "e" in the "me-" prefix is generally replaced with an "a".  In addition, remember, like nouns, if the word ends in "a" it is generally replaced with "o".  So "membeli" (buy) becomes "mambelo".  But as in Indonesian conversation, the me- prefix is often dropped.  There are some distinct verbs in Minang as well.

Caliak             To look, see (lihat)
Karajo            To work (kerja)
Lalo                To sleep (tidur)
Mangale          To sell
Mangecek       To talk, speak (berbicara)
Nanyiak          To ride (naik)
Patang             To come (datang)


Angek     hot (temperature)
Gagah     handsome (for males)
Rancak   beautiful (for girls, scenery, etc)
Lamo      slow, long (lama)
Capek    fast (cepat)
gadang    big (besar)
kete        small  (kecil)
maha      expensive  (mahal)
dake       close by, near (dekat)
jauwah    far away (jauh)
lamak     delicious
bana       much, very (banyak)

To make a superlative, you use "paling" just like in Bahasa Indonesia, but you change it to "paliang".

Nyo paliang tinggi di siko.     He is the tallest here.

Wanting and needing

To say that you want something or you intend to do something you use "ka", which means "to" or "towards".

Aden ka mambail salai baju.     I am going to buy a set of clothes.
Aden ka pai.                            I want to go.

If you want to say that you have to do something, just at "juo" to the end of this construction.

Other Words and Phrases

You will also find the following words and phrases for just getting around and communicating.

Agia                Please (as in "please, take one" or "please have a seat")
Alun                Not yet (belum)
Ala                  Already (sudah)
Apo                 What?
Bilo                 When (for asking questions)
Sabalum           Before  (sebelum)
Sakete             A bit  (sedikit)
Saroman          Like (as in comparisons; same as "seperti")
Ala ba bini?           Are you married?
Ambo mangecek bahaso Minang.   I speak Minang.
Apo karajo uda?   What is your job (mister)?
Baa kaba kini?      What's up?  How are you?
Bilo barangke?      When do you depart?
Di ma?                  Where? (di mana)
Di siko.                 Here (di sini)
Elo-elo ajo            I'm doing fine; I'm okay
Jam bara kini?       What time is it?
Lamak Bana         Very delicious
Makan bana, kerajo kamale     Eating a lot makes one lazy.
Ngak ado piti, ngak ado cinto...     If you don't have money, you don't have love.
Onde!                   My God!  Oh!  (Aduh!)
Ongok-Ongok Dolam Bocah!      Oh woe is me!  I am so poor!
Pai ka ma?            Where are you going? (Mau ke mana; a greeting)
Rendang saroman raso mancik!     This rendang tastes like rat!

If you have any suggestions or corrections, or if you have something you want to say in Bahaso Minang drop me a line.  Don't be shy, give it a go.  The people will get a kick out of your attempt to speak their language, and you'll meet a lot of interesting folks.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Journey Through The Minang Heartland...

This past week I took my little Honda on a 900-kilometer ride up north through Minangkabau country at the request of a friend of mine, who asked me to check out a cacao farm near Payakumbuh (I'll write about that experience in a future post).  The trip took me from Sungai Penuh in Kerinci Valley (where I live) up through Solok to Padang, over to Padang Pajang, through Bukit Tinggi, on to Payakumbuh and Lima Puluh Kota district.  On the way back I passed through Batusangkar and Ombilin, around Lake Singkarak and down through Solok city before returning through Solok and Solok Selatan districts.  It was definitely a trip to remember, and I'm going to use this post to share some pictures of some of the neat things I saw.

My first stop was in Padang, which I won't describe because I hate Padang (no offense).  But along the way you start to see indications of the rich culture of the people whose homeland you are entering.  One of the most noticeable aspects of Minangkabau culture is the style of architecture.  The roof of the traditional Minang house is the most distinctive feature; it is made to resemble the horns of a water buffalo, which is the symbol of the Minangkabau.  In fact the name Minangkabau means "triumphant buffalo.  You can see a couple of examples below.  The first is from Batusangkar.  

As you can see the houses are elaborately decorated.  This one is the home of an affluent family; there are also more basically decorated places.  Another characteristic is the finials or decorations at the top of the roof peaks.  Most of the time these are Islamic moon and crescents, but sometimes you see things like weathercocks or airplanes.  The next one is from a village outside Payakumbuh.

After I left Padang I headed for Bukit Tinggi.  The drive is really beautiful through the mountains and there is a stunning waterfall along the way.  Unfortunately, I broke a sprocket on my Honda in the hills.  Fortunately the town of Padang Pajang was only about 5km away, and so I was able to limp the rest of the way.  In most places there is a Honda service center, and the guys there replaced my chain assembly and changed the oil.  It cost about $40 and took two hours, giving me some time to wander around.  The picture below is of a lovely mosque there.

After my bike was fixed I moved on and spent a couple of days in Bukit Tinggi, which is a place I'd been before.  Bukit Tinggi is one of the centers of Minang culture and is well established on the tourists' path, so you can google it if you want to see pictures.  I really like it there; the weather is cool since it's at about 1000 meters and the food is delicious.  It's a great place to spend a couple of days.  In lieu of pictures I've included this video of a delightful street performer.  I was amazed at his ingenuity.  

After Bukit Tinggi I made my way over to Payakumbuh, about 45 minutes away.  This is a bustling little town with friendly people, and is a good base to explore the surrounding countryside.  In addition, all through Minang country (with the exception of Solok city and district), the roads are really good.  God bless the Minang and their road maintenance skills.  So you can get around fairly easily and quickly, but you still have to be careful because the people drive crazy.  

The next place I stopped was Harau Valley, about 15 km outside Payakumbuh.  The older I get, the rarer it is that I see something that is breathtaking, but the Harau valley definitely qualifies.  You can see a picture below, but this doesn't do it justice.  Harau valley is a narrow closed gorge with massive granite walls rising hundreds of feet on either side.  I'd never heard of the place before I went to Payakumbuh, but I would definitely recommend it to you.

While in Harau I has an experience that has helped to convince me that I need to get some basic medical training when I get back to the US.  I first had this notion seeing broken bodies from auto accidents being haphazardly moved, contrary to the basic first aid rules I learned in Boy Scouts.  On my way around the dirt track loop that rings the back of the canyon I picked up a local who looked as though he could use a ride.  He happened to be going to an out-of-the-way waterfall, where he was working as a laborer for some film students from Padang Panjang.  I hiked back to the waterfall and was chatting with some of the students and then it happened.  

One of the students started having a full-on grand-mal seizure.  When I was younger I used to have seizures, so I was familiar with the routine.  But then the seizure didn't stop, and the young man's breathing got lighter and lighter while his heartbeat became more and more regular.  I suggested lightly that the kid needed to be taken to a hospital or the local PUSKESMAS, but no one was listening.  After 15 minutes someone went to get "help" which arrived in the form of a local villager who quickly diagnosed "kesurupan", or "possession", which could be remedied with the proper prayers.  As time went on I could see the poor young man's life slipping away.  I didn't know what to do; I tried to call a doctor friend in the US but we were out of signal range.  I became more forceful, arguing that the problem was physiological rather than spiritual.  "What is it, then", they asked.  "I don't know.  I'm not a doctor, but it could be an allergy, a bite, epilepsy, too much sugar, too little sugar, many things.  But I know that we can't do anything....your friend needs medical attention.  So please for the love of God let's get him out of here.  PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!"  Finally they relented and we carried the kid back to one of their trucks, but the local "healer" was not too pleased with me.  I felt so helpless, and I normally pride myself on being able to handle a crisis.  

The next two pictures are from Ombilan, which is a town on Lake Singkarak.  This is a pretty large lake, maybe 20 kilometers long, which is evidently a popular vacation place for the locals, but when I was there it was blanketed in haze, which I think comes from the burning of rice chaff.  The first picture shows a mountain pass.  In the second you can see a curious road sign.  It's pretty clear what it is advising drivers against; the question in my mind is why drivers need to be advised against this particular hazard.  

My next stop was more just to take a break from the road.  I paused to get some Sate Padang in Solok City, and while I was complaining to my new friend, the proprietor of the restaurant, about the miserable condition of the roads, a Minang wedding procession happened by on the side of the road.  One of the interesting aspects of Minangkabau culture is that it is matrailinial, and so property is inherited by the woman's side of the family.  Men leave their own extended families when they get married and become part of their new wives' families.  

One the folks I met on the road told me there are three types of Minang weddings:  for regular folks the ceremony and party lasts 3 days.  For people with "a little bit of money" it lasts 7 days.  For rich folks it lasts 40 days.  There are all sorts of neat courtship ceremonies as well, and if you ever get a chance to see any of them you should.  Below you can see another picture of the procession; all the ladies are carrying baskets filled with rice.

This next picture I think I'm going to send to Sesame Street.  I took this on the way back home.  There is actually a place called "Letter W"; it is right on the border of Kerinci and Solok Selatan districts on the Kerinci side, so it is in Jambi province.  It is basically a rest stop.  I asked the locals where the name comes from and they told me it's named for a nearby waterfall.  They didn't seem to know why it is called "Letter W" as opposed to "Huruf W".  They asked me if I would like to see the waterfall, and I asked if it was a normal waterfall or an extraordinary waterfall.  They told me it's pretty run-of-the-mill, and since I've seen dozens of waterfalls, I decided to take a raincheck.  They didn't seem to put out.  Incidentally, the distance to Sungai Penuh indicated on the sign is incorrect.  This is pretty common, so don't get your hopes up when driving.

In this last picture you can see yours truly.  I don't take a lot of pictures of myself, but I like this one.  This picture was taken when I stopped on the way home in Solok Selatan at a little shack to get out of the pouring rain.  In rural Sumatra the people are very welcoming, and they're usually happy to pass the time with you chatting and laughing.  The old man in the picture is a rice farmer; the younger fellow repairs motor scooters out of the shack.  I chatted with the old man about John F. Kennedy and President Sukarno, politics, and conservation.  We had a pretty good time as you can see from the picture.  It may sound corny, but encounters like this are my favorite part of the journey.  The kindness of normal Indonesian country folks is beyond remarkable.  

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Mystery of Merangin's Missing Women

Picture from here.
In 1990 economist and future nobel laureate Amartya Sen wrote a landmark article in the New York Times Review of Books entitled "More than 100 Million Women are Missing".  The essence of the article, based on demographic statistics and reason, was that in several parts of the world the normal proportion of men to women has been skewed by certain "cultural traits".  Sen points out that at birth, pretty much universally, boys outnumber girls by a ratio of around 105 boys to 100 girls.  However, since girls tend to be heartier than boys, boys experience greater childhood mortality.  In addition, women tend to be more resistant to disease.  This combined with a number of other factors means that women tend to have a longer life expectancy.  All of these conditions taken together means that in normal populations there are more women than men.

Sen's Logic

Amartya Sen photo from here.
Sen argues that in most of Asia (EXCLUDING SOUTHEAST ASIA and JAPAN) and North Africa this natural population bias has been disrupted.  He provides several examples; at the time the article was published the ratios in India and Pakistan were 94 and 90 girls born per 100 boys, respectively.  According to Sen there are a number of reasons for these unnatural disparities, ranging from female infanticide to sex-selective abortion to the neglect of female children, leading to a greater susceptibility to disease and a higher incidence of malnutrition, resulting in a far higher under-age-5 mortality for girls than for boys.  Moreover, a general disempowerment of women creates the social conditions necessary for the aforementioned dynamics to emerge.  In short, Sen argued that male children are preferred.  In all Sen estimates that there are more than 100 million "missing women".  Although Sen has his critics and some have attempted to refute his numbers and logic, there certainly is some truth to his thesis.

This brings us to Merangin district, where I've been doing some work over the past week.  As I was pouring over the socioeconomic statistics for the district, I noticed something strange about the population numbers.  I'll explain further in a moment, but first I want to introduce the population pyramid

Population Pyramids

Year 2000 pyramid for Mozambique from here.
A population pyramid is a graphical tool used by demographic geographers to display the breakdown of a population by age cohort and gender.  Normal population pyramids divide the population into 5 year age cohorts or blocks arranged chronologically with the youngest cohort on the bottom.  The cohorts are further divided by gender, so you can see how many males and females there are in each group.  Horizontal bars indicate the size of the cohort.  The graph is called a population pyramid because that's the shape of a normal growing population, as you can see with the example I've provided to the right.

I can't remember where I got this graphic.  Sue me.
Population pyramids are useful because they indicate whether a population is growing, holding steady, or shrinking.  These trends are important for planning; if you have an aging population then, as a policymaker you probably want to think about putting more public resources into improving healthcare.  If the population is growing, the leadership needs to think more about providing educational opportunities for the increasing numbers of youths.  It is important to remember that not all populations are growing.  Under normal circumstances, regardless of the overall structure of the population, there should be more women than men in every cohort.  Population pyramids can also show us the effects of certain historical events, as you can see from the graphic of the populations of East and West Germany.  Sometimes we see weird anomalies in population pyramids, and it's fun to try and come up with an explanation as to why there might be a weird gender distribution in certain cohorts.  Have a look at the population pyramids below and see if you can come with an explanation for the weird bulges in certain cohorts.  Once you make your guesses you might look at the wikipedia page for each place to see if you can confirm your answer.  I took the graphic from Rubenstein's Human Geography textbook which I use when I teach introductory geography.

The occurrence of war and epidemics can have a pretty significant impact on a population at certain times, which is reflected in the overall structure of the pyramid.  Similarly, the presence of colleges, military bases, prisons, and other facilities can account for demographic weirdness.

Merangin's Missing Women

Returning to my story, as I was going over demographic information I noticed something odd.  Unlike other districts in Indonesia, there are more men than women in Merangin.  At first I thought this might be accounted for by the presence of encroaching farmers that come from other districts to open up new land in the national park (presumably these would be mostly men working seasonally away from their families; I think that this probably accounts for some of the imbalance in the older cohorts), but a quick check of the age breakdown disproved this hypothesis as the disparity shows up among younger cohorts as well as old.  I made the population pyramid below using Excel; to make your own population see this great tutorial.

As I mentioned previously, Southeast Asia is an exception to Sen's observation of the missing women trend in Asia.  As far as I know, there's no evidence of any sort of sex-selective abortion or infanticide in Indonesia, and since the Merangin anomaly doesn't show up in other districts, there had to be some other explanation.  I asked my new friends at the planning office about this, and they were as vexed as I was.  One suggested that it could be explained by a lack of health facilities in the more far-flung parts of the district, but if this were the case boys would be affected as well.  We weren't able to come up with a good answer.  I had a colorful and imaginative conversation with my good friend Agung as we tried to come up with a possible solution, but because the various adolescent myths of the gender-determining merits of various copulative positions we'd heard were at odds (1), we didn't come up with a resolution.  As an open minded scholar, I can't rule out the influence of some hitherto-undocumented environmental factor or even the effects of thaumatology (2).

The only thing I've been able to come up with that makes any sense is that maybe encroaching farmers tend to bring male children with them to help work their newly-opened land, but I'm still looking for a definite answer to the mystery of Merangin's missing women.  If you have any ideas, drop me a line.

(1)  Most likely due to the fact that Agung is a product of the southern hemisphere, whereas I come from the northern hemisphere, and so the coriolis effect probably has some sort of influence.

(2)  The dark arts.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

An Application of Central Place Theory: Merangin District, Sumatra

Map from here.  Note Jambi Province 

This week I'm down in Bangko, the capital of Merangin district for some research work.  Merangin is just east of Kerinci district, where I live.  It's one of the districts of Jambi province, which you can see from the map to the left.  One of the things I'm interested in is the long- and mid-range planning documents from the regional planning authority (BAPPEDA).  These documents have all sorts of information about the socio-economic aspects of the district, as well as information concerning the policy orientation of the government (i.e. what are the problems facing the district and what are the steps the government needs to take to address the problem).  Knowing these aspects of the district, which has about 20% of its territory covered by Kerinci Seblat National Park, helps me to understand the roots and context of current and potential conflicts between the people and institutions in the district and the park.  And, as a geographer, I like to look at the plans because they have all sorts of cool maps.

One section of the district's long-term (15 year) development plan describes the hierarchy of cities in the district.  As I read through the description, I was reminded of one of the classic models of geography: Walter Christaller's Central Place Theory.

Central Place Theory

Awesome GIF from Wikipedia
Walter Christaller was a German geographer active from the 1920s until around the 1950s(1).  He is most known for his Central Place Theory, which is a staple of introductory geography textbooks.  Central place theory is a model that attempts to describe (and predict) where and why cities of different sizes will be found on the landscape, and how they relate to one another.  The model has some basic assumptions, like most simple geographic models (recall my explanation of Von Thunen's model in a previous post).  It assumes that the world is an isotropic plain and that resources and people are distributed equally.  All people make rational decisions, and they will go to the closest place offering the goods or services they need.  Since the landscape is an isotropic plane, they can take the shortest distance to their destination.  

Christaller divided goods and services into different categories.  Simple or lower order services include things like markets and gas station and can be found in a lot of locations.  More specialized  or higher order services like universities are fewer and farther between.  Directly related to the order of service are two concepts which Christaller pioneered: threshold and range.  Threshold refers to the minimum population required to support a certain type of service.  Think about a minimarket, for instance.  They are everywhere because it doesn't take too many customers to keep a minimarket in business.  The threshold is low.  Range, on the other hand, is the maximum distance people are willing to travel to avail themselves of a service.  Returning to our minimarket example, you're probably not willing to travel too far to find a Circle K.  So the range is low as well.  However, there are some services, like movie theaters, ice skating rinks, Ikeas, etc, that you are willing to travel farther to access.  At the same time, these services need a lot more folks to keep them in business.  So the threshold and range are both high.  Cities or towns that provide only simple services are low order settlements, whereas larger cities that offer a more comprehensive range of services are high order settlements.  

Diagram from Hofstra University's excellent website.

Christaller's basic idea is that in a given region, there will only be a few high-order settlements, but there will be lots of lower-order ones.  What's more, settlements will be spaced equidistant from one another, and higher-order settlements will be surrounding by a number of lower order settlements, which rely on the bigger city for rarer goods and services.  There are several levels in the hierarchy, from huge metropolises on down to regional cities, towns, villages and hamlets.  You can see a diagram of the arrangement of the various classes of settlement to the right.  Each of the different types of settlement has a different market area; large (higher order) cities have bigger market areas.  Remember that people will go to the place closest to them offering the desired good or service; this accounts for the regular spacing (2).  In addition to this market principle (known in the theory as the k-3 principle) Christaller also described transportation (k-4) and administrative (k-7) functions, but we don't need to go into those here.  

Christaller used Central Place Theory in his role as a planner for several evil regimes in Europe.  Since the introduction of his theory, scholars in geography have attempted to apply it to other instances as well in order to prove or disprove its merits.  It has also influenced the discipline of regional planning, as we'll see below.  

Central Place and Merangin District?

The capital of Merangin district is Bangko.  Bangko is surrounded by a number of smaller towns, which in turn are surrounded by villages.  The district is mainly agricultural but there is some industry as well (most of which centers on the processing of agricultural commodities).  As you can imagine, there is a natural ranking of services in the settlements of various size in Merangin.  For instance, every village has a place to buy instant noodles or cell-phone credit.  Larger towns act as transportation hubs, and the capital city functions as an administrative, management, and financial center.  That's all common sense, and in my mind Christaller doesn't deserve much credit for describing the natural way that markets work.  

What is remarkable, though, is that way that the planners have adapted Christaller's ideas in their development planning.  Within Merangin district there are 9 subdistricts (kecamatans).  One of the problems the planners are hoping to solve, though, is an imbalance in the level of development and economic opportunities between subdistricts.  They are also hoping to develop a district-wide system where each subdistrict develops according to the resources located in the subdistrict; for instance, the subdistrict of Jangkat has lots of land with good soil and not many people, so the planners are hoping to increase the amount of palm oil and rubber plantations there.  Likewise, each subdistrict should be part of a larger system with the district capital (Bangko) at the top.  

In order to facilitate this vision, the planners have created a hierarchy much like Christaller's.  In the district system Bangko, the capital, is referred to as an Order 1 (Orde 1) center.  It is a center of transportation, located on the main overland route to the provincial capital at Jambi as well as the roads to other districts (Sarolangun, Bungo, and Kerinci).  It has the most complete economic facilities and is also a center of banking, trade, management, and communication.  In the words of the planning document, it is the Center of Regional Activities (Pusat Kegiatan Wilayah, PKW).  Beneath Bangko in Kota Rantau Panjang, the capital of Tabir subdistrict.  Rantau Panjang is an Order 2 (Orde 2) town in the district framework and is a center of local activities (Pusat Kegiatan Lokal, PKL).  It has good infrastructure and provides subregional services.  Then at Order 3 (Orde 3) we have Sungai Manau and Pamenang.  Both of these towns are about equidistant from Bangko.  In the planning framework they provide lower-order services to their hinterlands and are supposed to spur development in the areas immediately around them.  Lastly we find Muara Siau, a smaller town at Order 4 (Orde 4).  The quality of infrastructure is lower, and it provides still lower-order services to the mainly agricultural hinterlands surrounding it.

The planners of Merangin district use this framework to help plan what sorts of projects need to be developed in various places.  For example, they are working to develop higher-order transport facilities in the district capital, but in the lower-order centers they plan smaller-scale projects aimed at improving specific aspects of the economy in those places.  This helps them to distribute resources, like money and equipment, in a more efficient manner aimed at developing the district as a whole.  You can see the results in the map below, which divides the entire district into development zones, each with its own set of projects and targets.  I've labeled the various centers along with their order.  The spatial arrangement somewhat mirrors that predicted by Christaller, but more important, at least to me, is the function of the various centers.

We can see from this example that geographic models not only help us understand spatial distribution and organization from a theoretical perspective, but they are also important tools in policy making.  Central Place Theory has clearly influenced the planners in Merangin district and has helped them to formulate a development plan that specifically addresses the strengths and weaknesses of each subdistrict.


(1)  Christaller was not only a NAZI, but a COMMUNIST as well.  I faced something of a moral dilemma when writing this post....I am still somewhat ambivalent about describing a theory that was used primarily for organizing hostile occupations and oppression

(2)  Christaller adopted hexagons rather than circles because hexagons nest together perfectly without any overlap or gaps, unlike circles.

(3)  I am basing this on the 2006 long-range plan; in 2008-9 the authorities experienced a frenzy of new district creation, and now there are 26 kecamatans.