Thursday, March 29, 2012

April Showers Bring May Flowers, But What About Bone Dry Marches?

March in the Kerinci Valley has been particularly hot and dry this year.  Though I've only been here about 6 months, a good friend of man that's been working here for approximately two decades remarked to me that March is usually one of the wettest months of the year, and though there are sometimes dry years, this year has been particularly dry.  This is just latest manifestation of what farmers and conservationists alike see as increasingly erratic weather patterns with some folks suggesting a strong relationship between high levels of deforestation in the wider region and decreased rainfall in the valley.  The day after my friend's comment I happened to see an article in Kompas, the "paper of record" for Indonesia, attributing some strange weather in the archipelago to a phenomenon known as the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO).  I'd learned a bit about the MJO in some of the climatology classes I took at UH (1), so my curiosity was piqued.  I'd also learned that when looking at climate patterns and trends, it's important not to jump to sudden conclusions, because what appears to be an anomalous blip in the short term could be a normal part of long-term variability.  Was the abnormally low rainfall for July caused by regional deforestation, or was it part of a larger, regular climate pattern?

The Madden-Julian Oscillation

Graphic from here.
The Madden-Julian oscillation was discovered by a couple of climatologists (guess their names) in 1971.  They noted a 40-50 oscillation in tropical winds, which previously vexed climatologists as too variable to predict.  In many parts of the tropics there are two seasons: wet and dry.  Changes in the prevailing winds, known as monsoons, bring air masses from different directions.  For example, on the Indian subcontinent, the rainy season happens when moisture-laden air blows in from the Indian Ocean.  The dry season happens when the winds shift and air comes instead from the north.  Indonesia experiences this pattern as well.  However, during the wet and dry seasons there is intra-seasonal variation in rainfall.  In other words, sometimes there is a period of dryness in the wet season and rain during the dry season.  Before Madden and Julian made their discovery no one could really explain why this happens.  The climatologists discovered that these fluctuations are driven by pressure waves originating in the Indian Ocean, and that these waves move.  The semi-regularity with which these waves emerge is related to the intra-seasonal variations in rainfall.

Graphic from here.
In the 1980s a lot more research was done on this phenomenon, and it came to be known that this intra-annual fluctuation helps to explain weather patterns in the tropics.  It involves changes in wind, sea surface temperature, cloudiness, and rainfall.  Now climatologists say that the pattern operates on a cycle of 30 to 90 days, meaning that a new wave in the oscillation emerges every 1-3 months.  The MJO begins in the Indian Ocean and moves to the east at about 5 meters per second.  Generally it is associated with the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific region, but it affects weather patterns all over the planet.  In simple terms, the MJO can cause the weather in some places to alternate between wet and dry a few times over the course of a season.  I wanted to see if the MJO has anything to do with the strange weather patterns in the Kerinci valley, so I decided to initiate a little side project in addition to my dissertation: an attempt to analyze the rainfall patterns and compare them to the MJO record.  You know, just for funsies.

To begin my analysis I needed to get 30 years worth of monthly rainfall data to get an idea of cyclical and long term climatological trends for the valley.  This is the basic (but not only) difference between climatology and meteorology; whereas meteorologists focus on day-to-day atmospheric changes, climatologists are more interested in the bigger picture.  A climatologists can't tell you if it's likely to rain this afternoon, but he/she can tell you whether it's likely to be dry or wet in July 25 years from now.  For climatologists the accepted time period for determining general patterns is 30 years.

Getting the Data

Automatic rain gauge at the airport.  They
also have a manual gauge.  
My first stop was the regional statistics agency (Badan Pusat Statistik, BPS) in Sungai Penuh.  The BPS is the government agency responsible for tracking, compiling, and publishing data ranging from demographic and economic indicators to weather information.  Every year (theoretically) the BPS publishes a fact-book about its district, and these are generally kept in the library at the BPS office.  If you are a foreign researcher you need special permission to access the library; fortunately I had already established a relationship with BPS and I know the guys that work there.  Some districts make their data available online, but Kerinci hasn't yet reached this level of sophistication, so you have to personally go to the office. 

The records at BPS begin in 1985, and unfortunately there is a significant amount of missing data.  Since the rainfall data is collected at Kerinci's "airport", I decided I'd go right to the source.  I rode my motorcycle down to Depati Parbo Airport, which sits in the middle of a rice field and is reached by following a bumpy hardened gravel road from Sungai Penuh to the village of Hiang.  The Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics agency of the central government maintains a small station there mainly to collect data for the airport and the farmers of the region.  After receiving a tour of the installation, I asked for the rainfall data over coffee and other refreshments.  My new friend, the head of the station, was happy to oblige.  He even invited me over to his house for coffee, an offer I'll take advantage of next time I'm in his neighborhood.

Some Graphs and Stuff

The first thing I looked at was the annual rainfall record, which I've illustrated in the line graph below.  The average rainfall over the period for the valley was 1311mm, but as you can see there is a bit of variability.  In general it appears that there could be a downward trend, but without further analysis (which I haven't done yet) it is difficult to tell whether this is significant or not.  Also, I am reluctant to draw any conclusions based on 27 years (with two missing years), because if you go further back you may find that this apparent trend is part of some longer-term cycle, or is within normal long-term variability.  What I did notice, though, is that there doesn't seem to be any clear direct relationship between La Nina/El Nino years and annual rainfall.  Some La Nina years have lots of rain, some have below average rain, likewise with El Nino.  This doesn't mean that there is no El Nino/La Nina effect here because there could be some sort of combined influence with El Nino/La Nina working in tandem with some other pattern (like the MJO).    

I also noticed that this March has indeed been unusually dry, but it's not the driest March on record.  In addition, I also noticed that whenever there is an abnormally dry March, April tends to be wet.  So although everyone, including the region's farmers, are worried about the lack of rain, I think that the dry spell will end pretty soon.  The next step in the project will be to figure out a good, rigorous way to compare my rainfall data with MJO intensity and to see if there is any sort of connection there.  In the picture below you can see the intensity of the MJO spanning a period of more than four decades.  

Chart from here.  
We'll see how my little investigation goes.  It could prove to be beyond my capabilities.  Another possibility is that my wonderful academic adviser sees this post and sends me and angry email admonishing me to get back to work.  


(1)  Climatology is one of the major strengths of the Department of Geography at the University of Hawai'i.

References and for Further Reading

For an excellent source on the MJO check out the Madden-Julian Conversation blog here.  

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Where Does Cinnamon Come From?

Farmer transporting cinnamon near Tanjung Kasri
Cinnamon has been used through the ages for all sorts of things rangingg from embalming to meat preservation.  Now when most people think of cinnamon they imagine the delicious powder that you add to bearclaws and sambuca.  But there are actually a lot of varieties of cinnamon.  The cinnamon you sprinkle on your oatmeal actually comes from a tree, Cinnamomum verum, which is native to Sri Lanka.  This type of cinnamon was first described in Chinese writings dating back almost 5,000 years and was one of the spices that drove European colonization of South and Southeast Asia.  Though Sri Lanka is still the major exporter of this type of cinnamon, another variety, known commonly as Cassia or Cassiavera (Cinnamomum aromaticum) has a wider range, naturally growing from India to Vietnam.

Chart from Mongabay.
Cassia and other varieties of cinnamon are also used in food, but the principal uses are for pharmaceutical products and cosmetics.  Indonesia is the world's leading exporter all types of cinnamon, but the main kind produced here is Cinnamomum burmanii, which is sometimes considered "inferior" to the kind produced in Sri Lanka.  One of the hotbeds of cinnamon production in the archipelago is Kerinci Valley (where I live), which accounts for 40-60% of all cinnamon produced in Indonesia, depending on the year.  The cinnamon produced here also comes from the outer part of a tree, and when you cruise around the valley you will see signs of cinnamon production, as farmers lay out kulit manis (sweet skin) along the side of the road to dry.  If you go into the National Park you usually have to walk through a fairly large area of kayu manis (sweet wood) groves before you get to the real forest.  The Kerinci Valley is ideally suited for cinnamon production, as the tree prefers altitudes ranging from 500-1500 meters and annual precipitation of 2,000-3,000 millimeters.  The cinnamon produced here is exported to be used in drugs and make-up, and traditionally the US has been the largest market.

Cinnamomum aromaticum drawing from
Kayu manis first came here in the 1920s.  The Kerinci Valley, due to its inaccessibility, was one of the last places to fall under the domination of the Dutch colonial authorities.  But when they finally overcame local resistance (1903) to their rule, they quickly recognized the potential of the region, which for centuries had grown surpluses of rice.  The rich volcanic soils and abundant rainfall make the area ideal for agricultural production, but the isolated location in the middle of the Bukit Barisan mountains makes it hard to market products outside the region.  In 1922 the Dutch built a road through the mountains to link the area to Padang, which transformed the agricultural economy of the area.  Before this time most of the farmers grew wet and dry rice for subsistence, but the new road opened the area to the cash economy based on commodities.  Many upland fields (ladang) were given over to tree crop cultivation, and deforestation increased as farmers opened up more fields.  Kayu manis was one of the crops that drove the transformation, and fluctuations in the price of cinnamon have caused waves of deforestation and planting here.

Steps in Cinnamon Production

The first step in making cinnamon is to grow the tree.  The bark can be harvested after 5 years, and the price depends on where on the tree the bark comes from and how old the tree is.  The best bark comes from trees that are between 20-30 years old; trees of this age will yield between 80-100 kilograms of good bark, whereas a tree 6-8 years old yields 15-25 kilograms of lower quality bark.  Thus as you can imagine, kulit manis is a convenient crop because it allows the farmers to wait until the price is most favorable to sell.  In addition, since it is a tree crop it has the benefit of carbon sequestration while it is growing.  Many agroforestry projects promote cassaviera cultivation because of this.  On the other hand there is no day-to-day payoff, and you can't eat kayu manis.  So farmers growing cinnamon generally need another source of income while they are waiting for their trees to grow or for the price to go up.  Many farmers work as laborers, or they may grow wet or dry rice on other land for food.  Some farmers have home-based businesses as well.  In the picture to the left you can see a tree that has had the lower bark (the most valuable) removed; this kills the tree.  Sometimes farmers cut limbs off the trees, which allows the tree to keep growing, but the kulit manis from the branches isn't as valuable as that from the trunk.

After the outermost layer of the tree is removed a special tool is used to remove the bark.  In the picture to the right you can see a husband-wife team of farmers shaving bark near Tanjung Kasri in Serampas, where kayu manis is one of the main crops because it doesn't spoil on the long road to the market.  Like pretty much all commodities, the price of kulit manis fluctuates widely, but currently it fetches around 3,000 rupiah (approximately US$.35) per kilogram.  The next step is to dry the kulit manis.  This takes about 2-4 days, depending on the weather.  As it dries it curls up on itself.

In most places, after drying the kayu manis has to be transported to the market.  There are two basic patterns here.  In some places relatively close to the market a middleman comes to the village to buy the kayu manis directly from the farmers.  The middleman then uses a truck to transport the kayu manis to a market town or a city and sells it to a wholesaler.  In other more out of the way places the farmers have to transport the kayu manis themselves to the middleman.  Cinnamon is a pretty big industry, but the farmers only get between 10-15% of the money.  The rest goes to middlemen and processing industries.

So that's the story on cinnamon.  Next time you're in the market you can think about the spice's long history and the long journey it makes to your kitchen cabinet.

References and Further Reading

Some of the background for this post comes from Sylvia Werner's excellent PhD dissertation which studied the agroforestry of the Kerinci Valley.

Werner, Sylvia.  2001.  Environmental Knowledge and Resource Management: Sumatra's Kerinci-Seblat National Park.  PhD dissertation, University of Berlin.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Road to Rantau Kermas and Hiking "the Serampas Trail"...

This is the third and last post in a series describing my recent field trip to the region of Serampas in the Merangin district on the island of Sumatra.  My research assistant and I made the difficult trek to Serampas as part of my dissertation fieldwork, which looks at the relationship between Kerinci Seblat National Park and the people and district governments around the park in the post-Suharto decentralization era.  I was particularly interested in the villages of the Serampas region because two of the five Serampas villages (Tanjung Kasri and Renah Kemumu) are located entirely within the park, which has created a lot of problems for the people and the park.  The remaining villages, including Rantau Kermas, all share borders with the park and thus also have problems with the conservation area.

Getting to Rantau Kermas

By the time we reached Tanjung Kasri I was pretty well exhausted from hiking, and since transport was cheaper than we'd been told in Renah Kemumu, we decided to hire our new friends Con and Jono to ride us over to Rantau Kermas, about 15 kilometers from Tanjung Kasri.  The road is much better; there is concrete in some patches but for the most part it's hardened gravel.  It took us about 40 minutes to get there.  On the way we saw a young man on a stepthrough heading towards us in quite a hurry.  He stopped on the road to tell us that he had seen a tiger cross the road just ahead of him and so he turned around to flee.  We decided to carry on to Rantau Kermas, but in retrospect this marks the third time in the field I've been within scare-distance of tigers, and so I'm starting to conclude that eventually my number is going to come up and I'll run into one on the trail.  I'm not really looking forward to it.  For a highly endangered species they sure seem to be all over the place.

Sketch map of Rantau Kermas
As I mentioned in a previous post there is a significant difference in material wealth as you go from Renah Kemumu to Tanjung Kasri, which can be explained by transport costs.  In geographic terms there is a significant amount of "friction" the deeper you get into the Serampas region.  The trend continues in Rantau Kermas, which is closer to the main artery than the other two villages and is linked to the "outside" world by an asphalt road.  As I mentioned in a previous post, it costs 300 rupiah (US$.03) per kilogram to transport goods to and from Rantau Kermas as opposed to 2000 rupiah (US$.22) per kilogram to and from Renah Kemumu, farther down the road.  There are more vehicles in Rantau Kermas, and you start to see decorative building materials like the imitation tile roofs you can notice in the picture above.  We also saw tile floors in a couple of houses, which we didn't see in the other two villages.

Like the other villages we had a really productive time in Rantau Kermas.  We also were able to use our cell phones because Rantau Kermas, though out of signal range, has a "mini-tower" which relays the signal and allows you to use your phone within about 100 meters of the village office.  While Tanjung Kasri and Renah Kemumu also have mini-towers, they were out of order at the time of our visit; in Renah Kemumu it had been broken for more than a year (1).  For us this was inconvenient but for the local residents it is a real impediment to doing business.  As an example, without a phone it is impossible to check the prices of various agricultural products in the big market centers, and so the farmers, all of whom are reliant on middlemen to get their goods to market, are completely dependent on the prices quoted by the middlemen.

Batu Larong in Lubuk Mentalin, a village
between Tanjung Kasri and Rantau Kermas
We had an interesting conversation with a couple of the village officials.  Usually at the end of my interviews I give the interviewee a chance to ask questions about me and my project, and the village head took full advantage.  Here in Serampas my interviews always turned into informal seminars on topics ranging from evolution to education in the US to Indonesian politics.  It just goes to show you that everything you learn will likely come in handy some day.  I also had the opportunity to chat with the adat (traditional law) head of all the Serampas villages as we sat and watched the young men of the village play soccer.  He told me all about the long history of the Serampas, their culture, and the problems they face in the future.

Rantau Kermas and the ICDP Project

Rantau Kermas also received electricity about a decade before the other two villages, which only got electricity when an NGO built microhydro generators two years ago.  Rantau Kermas was the one of the villages selected to receive development assistance from a massive integrated conservation and development project (ICDP) funded by the World Bank and implemented by the WWF and local NGOs.  The project lasted from 1996 until 2002 and the idea was to provide aid to villages bordering the national park to improve the local economies so that the people would have alternatives to going into the forest to hunt, harvest non-timber forest products (NTFPs), and illegally clear land for cultivation.  In exchange for the grants the villages would sign agreements to cease all illegal activities and help guard the park.  The villagers in each of the 72 villages (72 VILLAGES!) formed committees to select the types of projects to be implemented.  In Rantau Kermas the villagers selected the microhydro generator along with orange seeds, ducks, fish ponds, and a couple of other small projects.  Tanjung Kasri and Renah Kemumu, the other two villages I visited, were not eligible for the program because they are located in the park, and so no one in the World Bank, WWF, or Ministry of Forestry, which administers the park, could decide what to do there.  Ten years after the end of the program it really boggles my mind that the people in charge couldn't find a way to provide electricity to the two neglected villages.  This oversight triggered a significant amount of jealousy between the villages and increased the bad feelings towards the park.

Manau, a NTFP that can be gathered for sale
in some of the forests around Rantau Kermas
but not Renah Kemumu and Tanjung Kasri,
since they are located completely within the
national park.
Unfortunately most of the projects implemented in Rantau Kermas failed.  The experience here was not unique; in almost all of the villages included in the project the results were far less than expected.  This, along with other problems, led the World Bank to pull the plug on the project after 6 years, though when originally conceived the ambitious ICDP program was to have been renewed every 5 years for a period of 30 years.  In Rantau Kermas all the ducks and fish died before the farmers could reap the benefits.  Interviews with the village secretary (a civil servant) and some farmers indicate that the failures were due to mismanagement on the part of the program's implementers; they say the ducks were "sick", as were the fish fry.  This echoes the story I've heard in other villages.  However, I had a chance encounter with one Serampas farmer who participated in the implementation of the program.  He told me that ducks and fish need maintenance every day, which was beyond the experience of farmers that are used to managing tree crops like cinnamon and coffee, which don't need to be tended every day.  He tended to fault the "culture" of the village.  This was an interesting perspective for me because it tells a different side of the story, but before leaping to conclusions it is important to remember that, as a village-level employee of the program, this farmer may have an interest n portraying the ICDP in a certain light.  This highlights one of the important things to remember about doing fieldwork in geography: you always have to "triangulate your data", or see the issue from as many sides as possible.

I have spent a great deal of time reviewing the documents for the ICDP and talking with people that were involved in its implementation.  In the initial stages of my research I felt a bit of schadenfreude deriving from the failure of the project, since, for political ecologists like myself, the World Bank is very often portrayed as a ne'er-do-well villain whose projects have, over the years led to the immiseration of millions and a high level of environmental degradation.  However, as I read through the thousands and thousands of pages documenting the village development project, I couldn't help but be awed by the level of commitment and dedication on the part of the World Bank.  Although some scholars have portrayed the project as a means to increase control and "surveillance" at the village level, it seems to me that the project was noble-minded.

The crux of the problem with the ICDP is that it aimed at "social engineering".  To understand this we really need to think about the history of World Bank projects.  After focusing for a few years on post-World War II reconstruction, the Bank shifted its attention to providing infrastructure to newly-independent third world countries following the logic that megaprojects would lead to economic development.  After a while, though, problems with this strategy manifested themselves in terms of economic, social, and environmental problems.  In the late 1970s and 1980s the Bank started to focus more on environmental impacts and conservation (while still supporting infrastructure projects), but again, problems emerged including human rights violations and the disempowerment of people living around protected areas.  It was reasoned that conservation and environmental preservation couldn't succeed without simultaneously elevating the living standards of people living in ecologically sensitive areas, as the people were seen to be primary stressors on the environment.  In the late 1980s and 1990s the integrated conservation and development project was born as a way to solve two problems at once.  The ICDP implemented at Kerinci Seblat National Park was the first ever in Indonesia and one of the largest in the world, designed to serve as a model for other projects in the archipelago.

This leads us back to the problem of social engineering.  While the idea sounds all fine and good, what success requires is essentially changing the entire culture and economy of groups of people.  This altering of livelihoods that have developed over generations and generations is not easy, if not impossible, to achieve within the framework of deadline-oriented development projects.  World Bank and other development projects generally have benchmarks and evaluation guidelines, so for example if "x" number of farmers are not converted from slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture to market-oriented cash crop production within five years the project is deemed a failure.  This type of mentality generally dooms the project before it is even implemented.  This is one of the most valuable lessons I've learned in the field.  My good friend Emma, head of the Sungai Penuh-based NGO Lembaga Tumbuh Alami (one of my project partners) told me that she won't accept external grant money if it comes with performance deadlines like these because they are generally impossible to achieve.

Hiking the Serampas Trail

From our army-prepared topo map;
contour interval is 25 meters.  
If you are into Indonesia and into hiking, the "road" to and through Serampas might be an interesting option for a very off-the-beaten track tour.  If you go I would strongly recommend hiring a guide out of Sungai Penuh or Lempur, because even though the folks are extremely friendly I think it's probably a lot like rural Arkansas; that is, if you show up with a friend from the area everyone will be hospitable, but if you show up on your own people will be suspicious of you.

The trail was tough for me, but I'm not a very experienced hiker.  If you are used to mountain trekking there are lots of beautiful things to see; Serampas is quiet and serene and you will get a glimpse into the lives of the farmers here.  You'll also have the chance to see a couple of ancient (how ancient, I don't know) megaliths and the breathtaking hot spring I mentioned in the previous post.  If you depart from Lempur you can plan on spending 5-8 days, and you can continue on to the district capital of Merangin on the other side of Serampas.

If you'd like more information about guides, routes, and costs, drop me an email at and I'll put you in contact with a good, reliable guide.  You'll need someone that speaks the local language, and you'll need to buy a ticket to enter the park (around US$.50; cameras and video recorders are an additional charge).  If you feel up to it, I highly recommend it.


(1)  On the way back we stopped a second time at the Grao Sakti hot spring.  Coincidentally, the technician sent to explore the problem with the mini-towers stopped by and said they should be fixed in a month or so after he reports back to the main office.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Road to Tanjung Kasri...

This is the second of three posts describing my recent trip to the Serampas region of Sumatra.  My assistant and I hiked from Kerinci district to Serampas last week to visit some villages that lie within Kerinci Seblat National Park to learn about the way farmers cope with living inside a protected area.  The villages of Renah Kemumu (previous post) and Tanjung Kasri are completely located within the park, and so under Indonesian law they are technically illegal, though there is an informal agreement between the park and the village residents.  However, the illegal status prevents district funds from being used to improve infrastructure in and around the villages.  The story is also complicated by the fact that, according to the villagers, they and their ancestors have been in Serampas for 800 years, whereas the park was formally decreed only in the 1990s.

Getting to Tanjung Kasri

I had originally planned to visit Renah Kemumu and Rantau Kermas only, because the latter received a significant amount of development aid from the World Bank back in the late 90s whereas the former didn't, and so I thought it would be interesting to compare the two.  However, when I was in Renah Kemumu I was told that it would cost a total of 300,000 rupiah (approximately $33) per person just to get to Rantau Kermas, and then I would need to think about getting back.  This would have cut into my "buy your way out of trouble" reserve, and so I decided to scrap the visit to Rantau Kermas and visit the next village, Tanjung Kasri, instead.  Since there's a "road" between the two villages, I decided we'd drop our mess kits and other superfluous gear (including the batik shirt I brought for meetings with village heads; I soon learned that in Serampas camo pants and sweat soaked shirts are formal attire) and hump the 15 kilometers through the hills.  How hard could it be, right?

The answer to that question is "pretty %&$#*#$ hard".  The road is much steeper, and at one point I was on a hill that made me feel like I was in some sort of Sisyphan hell designed just for me.  It took me about 5 hours to make it to Tanjung Kasri.  About a kilometer and a half out of town my assistant road by on the back of a farmer's stepthrough and waved at me.  "See you in Tanjung Kasri", he smiled.  Indeed.  By the time I got into town I was beat from the sun and the climb, but fortunately my assistant had a cousin there who we ended up staying with, so I spared him the angry words I'd been preparing in my head as I staggered the last bit of the way.

The road is through the national park, and so it required special permission to be built, which took a number of years.  Previously it was hardened gravel, but the new approval allows for a paved 2-meter wide road, the theory being that it would improve access while preventing big trucks, which are used for illegal logging, from entering the park.  Currently approximately 10% of the way is concrete (1), but the the steep roadcuts with no buttressing combined with the heavy rainfall has led to a significant amount of erosion and gullying.  It's still tough to make the trip, and in the rainy season it's impossible to pass.  There are a couple of rivers that have to be forded by 4-wheeled vehicles as you can see in the video below, but there are plans to build bridges in the next couple of years.  I made the video on the way back, and my new friend, the village secretary from Renah Kemumu, was out in the middle of the river with a hardhat clearing the way.  The truck is filled with goods for his small store, one of two in the village.

About an hour and a half walking (20 minutes by motorcycle) you can stop at Grao Sakti, a hot spring set right by a nice stream.  The hot spring is designated a "tourist site", but it doesn't get many visitors due to the isolation of the area and the lack of publication.  This is a real shame, because the place is really nice.  Locals say you can bath in the waters and boil eggs, but I wasn't really in the mood.  Still this is the most spectacular hot spring I've seen in Indonesia, and if it were located any place else it would be fully developed with bathing facilities.  As it is there is a "homestay", a shack built across the river for visitors, but from what I understand no one ever uses it.  While we were at the hot spring we saw some guys that had killed a deer ("rusa"), which is technically poaching.  The area is a good place for hunting because animals come for the salt that comes up with the water.  My assistant wanted to go chat with the hunters, but I find it's usually best to leave folks engaged in illegal activities alone, especially when they are armed and you're in the middle of the jungle.  The hunters take the meat for personal consumption or to sell for about 30,000 rupiah (US$3.33) per kilogram, which is much cheaper than beef or goat, which is consumed only on special occasions.

Life in Tanjung Kasri

Being closer to the main transport artery, gas and goods are cheaper in Tanjung Kasri than they are in Renah Kemumu.  In addition, the margin of profit for agricultural products is higher.  All of this is reflected in the appearance of the village.  There are about 110 households in Tanjung Kasri, and 85% of them are coffee farmers.  There is a rule in the village that compels farmers to grow coffee because it is seen as a way to improve the economy of the village and because it supposedly draws less ire from the national park authorities, given that it's a tree crop.  Before coffee was adopted most farmers harvest cinnamon from trees planted over the years.  The folks say that transportation is still the biggest concern, but the new road to Rantau Kermas (see next post) helps.  It costs 1000 rupiah (US$.12) per kilogram to get goods to or from the main road at Danau Pauh, as opposed to 2000 rupiah in Renah Kemumu.  The local folks also resent the park because they have yet to be granted formal control of their land.  The land is very fertile, and the farmers don't use fertilizer or pesticide, so they produce organically.  In other places around the park the fertile land under the forests draws outsiders who clear the trees for cultivation, but Tanjung Kasri has succeeded in keeping outsiders out, in part because of their customary (adat) law.  Most of the people in the village feel that they are due some sort of compensation from the park, since they claim they've been protecting the forest for ages.

Jono, Con, and Chua (RA) at the Batu Larung
If you make it to Tanjung Kasri, you can ask one of the locals to take you to a nearby megalith, called batu larung in the local language.  This artifact is located probably around 5 kilometers from the village, depending on who's fields you cut through.  It's located in the middle of a coffee gardlen and was pretty well overgrown before my new friends cleared away the growth.  The locals don't pay too much attention to the megalith; they don't know where it came from and many consider it to be a relic of the days before Islam came to the area, and so it's blasphemous.  Others say it is a relic of the "battle between the mountains", the result of one mountain attacking another.  It's about 4-5 meters long, and is carved on both ends.  One end has a carving of a man, the other (in the picture), a woman.  On one side it's flat, and so it appears that maybe it was toppled over at one point, possibly by people looking for treasure beneath.  This megalith is one of several scattered throughout the wider region, as you can see from the map below.  I couldn't find any information about what era they might be from, but it looks pretty old.

Map from David Neidel's PhD dissertation; see references.

You can also poach birds from the park if you are so inclined.  All the men in the village carry air rifles, which while not a "man's weapon" (i.e. a Winchester), are sufficient to send birds to their reward.  While songbirds are taken to sell, some are also eaten since there's not much meat around.  I witnessed a significant amount of bird shooting; farmers "hunt" opportunistically while they are working in their coffee gardens and some folks walk the village trails looking for birds.  I witnessed an interesting innovation: the use of cell phones to call the birds.  Some of the folks I have met have bird songs recorded on their phones and when they are walking through the forest they play the song on the external speaker, which attracts their quarry.  I recorded a few of the songs on my voice recorder and made "movies" so you can get the idea.

The first bird is a Murai Batu, which according to my bird expert buddy is Copsychus malabaricus, or Whited-Rumped Shama.  You can see it in the picture that goes along with the recording.

The second bird is Cucuak Daun, or Chloropsis sp.  One of a variety of leafbirds found in the area.

The last bird is Copsychus saularis.  Locally known as the kacer, this is an oriental magpie robin.  I'm not sure if the hunting of these birds or the rusa mentioned earlier makes a dent in the natural populations, but they are all supposed to be protected by the park.  Most populations can stand some hunting for local consumption but problems arise when the creatures are sold in outside markets.

I had a very productive experience in Tanjung Kasri and met a lot of people.  This is a town that only sees foreigners every couple of years or so, so everyone was very curious about me.  After two days here we continued down the road to Rantau Kermas instead of heading back to Renah Kemumu because we found that transportation is actually a lot cheaper than we were told in the first village.  But that's Sumatra for you; anything to do with prices, times, or distances is highly subjective here.  In the next post I'll talk about the village of Rantau Kermas.  


(1)  Like most infrastructure projects in Indonesia, a significant amount of the money allocated for the road was skimmed by politicians and contractors, and so the whole things hasn't been completed.


Neidel, David.  2006.  The Garden of Forking Paths.  History, its Erasure and Remembrance in Sumatra's Kerinci Seblat National Park.  PhD dissertation.  Yale University.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Road to Renah Kemumu...

Over the past week or so my assistant and I undertook an expedition to visit several villages located inside Kerinci Seblat National Park.  Along the way we stopped for a couple of days each in the villages of Renah Kemumu, Tanjung Kasri, and Rantau Kermas, all of which are part of a cultural group referred to as the Serampas.  Over 8 days we covered approximately 100 kilometers, between 50-60 of those on foot, through the Bukit Barisan mountains.  Though the trip was grueling, we gathered an enormous amount of data through interviews, observation, mapping, village walks, focus groups, and just being in the area.  Over the next three posts I’ll discuss various aspects of the journey.

Where is Renah Kemumu?

Map from David Neidel's dissertation; see references
Renah Kemumu is part of the Serampas region of Sumatra.  Serampas is in an isolated area of the Bukit Barisan mountains, and Renah Kemumu is particularly interesting from the point of view of my dissertation research because it is actually inside the national park, and thus the legal status of the village and its farmers is ambiguous, which has led to a significant amount of conflict between the people and the park.  The Serampas people are also interesting for a number of other reasons; they have been in the region for hundreds of years (they claim at least 800) and they have a very strong adat or customary law system.  They also have a language all their own.  Over the past several hundred years the Serampas region was known for its strong magic, and people would come from far and wide to consult with traditional healers and other seers.  Now, though, Renah Kemumu and the other villages of Serampas are far removed from the nearest markets, which is reflected in the price of goods and the cost of transporting agricultural products to market.  For instance, in Renah Kemumu, the cost of gasoline is 12,000 rupiah per liter (US$1.33) as opposed to 4,500 rupiah (US$.50) at the pump.  Moreover, the cost of getting goods from Danau Pauh, located on the main road to Bangko, the district capital, to Renah Kemumu is 2,000 rupiah (US$.22) per kilogram.  This greatly alters the economic calculations of farmers and limits the options of marketable, profitable crops to choose from.  Moreover, the "road" to Renah Kemumu, as we will see in future posts, is difficult to pass in the dry season and impossible to traverse in the rainy season.

For me this is remote.  I refer to Renah Kemumu as "five steps out", which refers to how far away from my home in Hawai'i it is.  To get there you must:
  1. Fly from Honolulu to Jakarta, the national capital.
  2. Fly from Jakarta to the closest provincial capital, Padang (about 1.5 hours)
  3. Ride overland from Padang to the regional capital, Sungai Penuh (7 hours)
  4. Take public transport from Sungai Penuh to the nearest market town, Lempur (about 1.5 hours)
  5. Walk from Lempur to Renah Kemumu, about 8 hours.  
In my experience, each step takes you a little further out of your comfort zone, and it helps to have a couple of days to adjust.  For me just the feeling of knowing that it would take about 3 days just to get back to Hawai'i is sometimes pretty daunting.

To Renah Kemumu

Making camp along the trail.  
Our first leg took us from the village of Lempur in Kerinci regency to Renah Kemumu in Merangin regency.  Though it’s only 18 kilometers from Lempur to Renah Kemumu, there is no road and the footpath traverses the rainforest of the national park, crossing steeply sloping terrain bisected by several rivers.  I wanted to walk the trail for a couple of reasons.  The first is that it’s the fastest way to get to Renah Kemumu; although it’s only 18 miles from Lempur, because Renah Kemumu is in the park to drive there you have to travel around the periphery of the park, which takes approximately 20 hours.  The second reason is related to the first; the people of these villages and the wider area in general have been pressuring the government for years for a road through the park, which would help people in Serampas get their goods to market.  It would also provide an easy route to the regional center Sungai Penuh (where I live), which would provide access to a variety of goods and services currently only available in Bangko, the capital of Merangin, which is about a day’s drive away.  I wanted to experience the walk as a sort of participant-observation to help me better understand the difficulties faced by the residents of Renah Kemumu.  

We set out at about 2.30 in the afternoon due to delays in transportation from Sungai Penuh (about an hour and a half from Lempur by bus), each of us carrying about 20 kilograms of gear (PhDs get porters, PhD candidates carry their own stuff).  We hiked until just before sundown and made camp between a couple of streams in a “shelter” that had been built by folks that frequent the trail.  My assistant tried to make a fire but failed since all the wood was damp from recent rains (and due to the fact certain members of the party didn't seem to understand basic principles of combustion; I decided not to advise how to make a fire since, after all, part the job of assistant is to be a “forest guide”, and I didn’t want to insult his competence).  We cooked instant noodles on a kerosene stove and settled in for the night.  Fortunately for us it started raining about 3am, otherwise we wouldn’t have experienced the full affect of the rainforest.  

Large, fresh tiger print from previous outing; I've been asked
not to reveal the location of this one.  
The next day we broke camp and set out on the trail.  One of the first rules you learn in the forests of Sumatra is that you never directly use the Indonesian word for “tiger” (harimau) since locals believe that will call the beast.  Rather you refer indirectly to the top predator using terms such as “king of the jungle” (rajo rimbo) or “the old one of the forest” (yang tuo di rimbo).  There are other forest rules to avoid tigers as well; for instance you don’t pee standing up.  We had previously had a close-enough encounter with a tiger, and so I’m always diligent about adhering to the local beliefs.  I'm not the kind that is eager to see a tiger; for me the further away they are the better.  Thankfully we didn’t see any tigers on the trail, but we did see some neat birds (2).  

We finally arrived in Renah Kemumu around 3:30pm, tired and exhausted.  We met a local farmer whose brother we knew, and he was happy to put us up for the night.  After bathing in the river we had a walk around the village, which has about 134 households.  Most of the people here make their living farming coffee or harvesting cinnamon while wet rice is cultivated for household consumption.  We stopped by the local shop, which carries instant noodles, motor oil, and sardines.  At night people watch TV with electricity provided by a microhydro generator in the nearby river, which was furnished by an NGO about 2 years ago.  

Dinner was rice and leafy vegetables, which would be the staple for the next week.  As my new friends chatted I tried to keep up, but the Serampas language is very different from the Indonesian I know, and so I only picked up bits and pieces here and there.  After an interview with the secretary of the village we went to bed for some well-earned sleep.  The next day we wandered around, mapped the village, and talked with residents.  They told us about the difficulties of living in the park, and they all felt like the park constrains the options available to them.  This would be a theme that reappeared in the next to villages we visited, which will be described in upcoming posts.  One of the most important points was about education; there is a primary school in the village but the teachers are perceived to be low-quality.  The nearest middle school is in Tanjung Kasri, about 15 kilometers away (see next post), but this school has similar human resource issues, so most families send their kids to Lempur or Bangko for middle school, which requires money for transportation and boarding, which is beyond the reach of most families.  The closest high school is about 70 kilometers away, but again, most people that are able send their kids to Lempur or Bangko for high school.  The village secretary told us that only about 25% of elementary school graduates go on to secondary school, and the poorer families almost never send their kids out for education.  So there is a vicious cycle here whereby the poorest don't have access to education, which would improve the economic opportunities, and so they are locked into a life of farming on the periphery of Indonesian society.


(1)  This was before the proposed increase to 6,000 rupiah per liter.

(2)  On the way back we did encounter fairly tiger tracks, a mother and cub, which followed the footpath for around 4 kilometers.  Tigers often follow human-made trails and sometimes ambush prey along the trails.  The presence of the tracks caused consternation in both me and my assistant, who made sure that I was walking in front of him so that I would encounter the tiger first.  I consented, my parang at the ready, because I knew (unlike my assistant), that if tigers attack they generally approach from the rear.  Fortunately we didn't encounter the mother and cub, but we did find the footprint you see in the picture to the left.  As you can see, there is are distinct toes and a heel, approximately two and a half times as long and twice as wide as my assistant's foot.  The creature that made this footprint is a likely never-before seen nor described hominid approximately 20-30 feet in height.  As the first discoverer of this monstrous beast, I reserve all naming rights.

References and For Further Reading

Some material for this post and others comes from the outstanding dissertations of David Neidel and Bambang Hariyadi, both of whom I am also indebted to for personal communication and guidance as well.  If you'd like to read more, you can find their works online.

Hariyadi, Bambang.  2008. The Entwined Tree: Traditional Natural Resource Management of Serampas, Jambi, Indonesia.  PhD dissertation, University of Hawai'i.

Neidel, John David.  2006.  The Garden of Forking Paths: History, Its Erasure and Remembrance in Sumatra's Kerinci Seblat National Park.  PhD dissertation, Yale University.