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.  

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