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.

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