Monday, April 23, 2012

The State of Sumatra's Forests, As Per Kompas

Over the past week Indonesia's "paper of record", Kompas, has run several front-page, above-the-fold stories about forests and protected areas on Sumatra, where I'm doing my PhD fieldwork.  These articles are the result of a one-week investigation in various places across Sumatra and highlight many of the problems facing forests and some of the challenges that must be overcome by conservationists there.  Kompas's reporting describes social, economic, and political issues relating to forest conservation on Sumatra (some of this reporting is based on information I gave them on background (1)), and so I'm going to summarize their findings in this post.  Please note that this post is pretty much all summary; I'm not including any of my own findings and am trying to curb my natural tendency to editorialize.  As a researcher, it is nice to see the area I focus on get so much attention, and hopefully the coverage will raise public awareness about the plight of the forests (and the people) of Sumatra.

The Big Picture

The overall issue is that the forests of Sumatra are disappearing at an alarming rate.  Though this has been happening for some time and has gotten a lot of attention in various media and in the academy, the Kompas reporting really ties everything together nicely with some good figures.  They compile data for all the provinces of Sumatra for some staggering annual rates of forest destruction: Aceh 32,156 hectares/year; North Sumatra 44,099ha/year; Riau 191,336ha/year; West Sumatra 37,391ha/year; Jambi 76,522ha/year; Bengkulu 3,337ha/year; Lampung 1,205ha/year; South Sumatra 18,875ha/year; Bangka Belitung 10,070ha/year.  Now for most people, these numbers don't mean that much.  That's why I lifted the graphic below directly from the e-version of Kompas (no I don't have permission), which has dots of varying sizes which will give you an idea of the scale of the problem.  As everyone knows, big dots mean big problems.  To give you an idea of how the rate relates to the actual size of the forest, according to Kompas in Jambi (where I live) there used to be about 2.2 million hectares of forest, but now there's only about 500,000 hectares remaining.  So at a rate of 76,522 hectares of forests destroyed per year, Jambi's forests should be history in about 6.5 years. 

 Another one of the articles ("Taman Nasional Rusak Parah"; National Parks Critically Damaged) focuses more specifically on the national parks of Sumatra (2).  As you can see from the Kompas graphic I shamefully lifted without permission from the electronic edition, most of the island's parks are experiencing a significant degree of forest destruction, with the biggest circle (remember, big dots mean big problems) centering on Kerinci Seblat National Park, the subject of my research.  The graphic refers to "perambahan" (encroachment), but the article also discusses other problems, including the expansion of mining activities in many areas.  The article indicates that there are 40 mining operations in the Gunung Leuser Ecosystem alone (3).  Other pressures include conversion of forest and peat land to palm oil plantations, illegal logging, and illegal gold mining.

Why Are the Forests Being Destroyed?

Kompas describes a number of issues that are all pretty much interrelated, but I'm going to describe the separately.

1.  Intragovernmental conflicts.  As I've described previously in this blog, before 1999 Indonesia had a very strong central government under President Suharto (sometimes referred to as a "dictator" or "strongman"), but when he was deposed the new government decentralized a lot of power and authority to the district (kabupaten) governments.  National parks stayed under the central government's authority, but production forests and other protection forests became the responsibility of the district and provincial governments.  They are supposed to enforce the rules there and arrest people that break the law.  However, according to Kompas, the provincial officials responsible for protecting the forests complain that they don't get enough money from the central government to do the job.  They also say that they get no money to help guard the parks.  At the same time the central government insists that the provincial and regional governments need to do a better job.  In the words of Kompas, the different levels of government "lob responsibility at one another". 

2.  Conflicting priorities between regional and central government.  This problem is related to the first and impacts especially on national parks.  After all the power and authority were decentralized to the district governments, they started making their own decisions and charting their own paths for economic development.  Previously this had all been coordinated by the central government.  Now, though, there are over 400 districts, each with its own idea of how to move into the future.  On Sumatra one of the big issues is roads and infrastructure, as I've mentioned in previous posts.  At Kerinci Seblat National Park, for example, there are at least 33 proposed roads which would pass through the park.  These roads currently are illegal, but many district governments are petitioning to have the roads approved.  The major problem here is that there is no mechanism in place to consider all the roads and the same time within the same decision making and planning framework, and so there is no way to come up with an integrated plan for the whole area (which includes 15 different districts).  At the same time roads are political issues, and anyone wanting to be elected has to promise to support roads through the parks.  As my friend Barlian, who is quoted in one of the articles puts it: "Ada 33 ruas jalan tembus TNKS yang diusulkan kepala daerah di Jambi, Bengkulu, Sumbar, dan Sumsel.  Isu jalan tembus ini biasanya menjadi bulan politik saja menjelang pemilihan kepala daerah atau pemilihan umum". 

Another big problem is that the district and provincial governments want to change the status of protection and production forests so that they can be used for other activities.  Under Indonesian law, even though the responsibility for guarding these areas falls to the provincial and district governments, ultimate authority over them still rests at the national level with the Ministry of Forestry.  Thus the types of activities that are legal in these areas is circumscribed by strict regulations.  The local governments would like to have more freedom to open these areas for other uses, like oil palm plantations.  For example, South Sumatra province wants to change the status of more than 459,000 hectares (about 12% of their total forests) so they can be converted to other uses. 

3.  Corruption.  I have also written extensively about corruption in this blog.  Forest resources have always been a big prize for corrupt business people and politicians in Indonesia, going back to the days of the Dutch colonial regime.  Kompas says that many of the problems stem from the fact that lots of folks in the government are collecting money through bribes and unauthorized charges (pungutan liar, PUNGLI) to issue permits for extractive activities in protected areas, or to turn a blind eye to illegal activities.  According to Kompas, many of the encroaching farmers (see below) are facilitated by corrupt officials that actual help organize illegal encroachment.  Moreover, village heads and members of regional and provincial representative assemblies get a piece of the action. 

4.  Lack of community involvement in conservation area planning and management.  Another one of the articles mentions that the plans to change the designation of production and protection forests (see point #2 above) is usually undertaken at the behest of big companies with a lot of money to throw around.  They want the district governments to lobby for a change in status so other activities, like mining, can be undertaken in production and protection forests.  The problem is that the approval process for big business rarely takes into consideration the needs and priorities of the people living in the area in question.  According to Kompas, land conflicts between local communities are increasing (I've discussed this in previous posts as well), and "in every dispute, small communities always become the victim, suffering losses of land, property, and even life".  Moreover, because the people are not involved in planning and management, they have no incentive to use environmentally-friendly farming methods.  There are also many cases in which protected land is bought and sold on an informal and "black" land market, where again it is common for corrupt officials and politicians to get a cut of the action. 

What are the Results?

This is another topic I've discussed in previous posts.  Apart from the obvious, though, there are a number of really negative impacts.  One of these is increased human-animal conflicts.  The protected areas of Sumatra are home to lots of rare and endangered species, including the sun bear and Sumatran tiger.  These species need lots of room to wander and find food, but the increasing forest destruction cuts into their habitat, and so as a result there are more encounters (supposedly) between people and animals.  In one of the Kompas articles HarimauKita ("Our Tigers", an NGO) data is cited stating that between 1998 and 2012 there have been 560 conflicts between tigers and people.  In these conflicts 57 people have died and 46 tigers have been killed (4).

In addition there are all sorts of direct impacts of deforestation and other forms of forest degradation.  Sumatra is pretty mountainous, and much of the land that is protected is that way not only for species protection, but because the slopes are so steep that if you take the trees away it will increase erosion and undermine the stability of the slopes, resulting in increased flooding and landslides.  One of the Kompas articles points to Aceh, citing data between 2007-2010 to come to the conclusion that flooding and landslides are occurring with alarming increasing frequency.  In 2007 there were 46 and 12 floods and landslides, respectively.  In 2008 these increased to 170 and 37; 2009 was 213 and 56, and in 2010 there were 250 floods and 47 landslides.  So Kompas suggests that high levels of deforestation are having immediate and critical impacts on people all over the region. 

Hats off to Kompas for their in depth coverage of these issues.  There is a lot of good information in these articles and they are a good general introduction to what is going on with forests on the island of Sumatra.  If you'd like more information about any of these issues, you can use the search function on the sidebar of this blog, because I've written about most of them in the past and will continue to discuss them in the future.  And if you happen to work for Kompas, please tell the Cincin Api expedition guys to send me my t-shirt. 


(1)  I met the members of Kompas's Cincin Api (Ring of Fire) reporting expedition one day when I was out in the field with my assistant near Gunung Tujuh.  They interviewed me on camera and I told them all about the differences between Hawaiian volcanoes and those found in Indonesia.  I also told them a little bit about my project and findings, but I asked not to have my name linked to anything. 

(2)  According to the Kompas articles, Indonesia has a total of 43 terrestrial national parks, covering 12.3 million hectares.  30% of this coverage is in damaged condition. 

(3)  Gunung Leuser Ecosystem is a larger area that includes the large park, Gunung Leuser National Park, and a significant amount of supporting area around the park, though Kompas doesn't seem to distinguish between the two designations. 

(4)  Though most sources say that animal conflicts are increasing, I have read sources and accounts from decades ago indicating that it would not be abnormal to have 57 tiger fatalities in one year in one province alone.  But remember, decades ago. 

References and For Further Reading

"Hutan Sumatera Semakin Kritis".  Kompas 4/16/12

"'Ngaku' Miskin, Punya Lahan 100 Hektar".  Kompas 4/16/12

"Ahli Fungsi Hutan Lahirkan Konflik".  Kompas 4/17/12

"Taman Nasional Rusak Para".  Kompas 4/19/12

"Lampu Kuning Dari Hutan Bengkulu".  Kompas 4/19/12

"Kerusakan Hutan Terabaikan".  Kompas 4/20/12

"Masyarakat Penyangga Tidak Pernah Dilibatkan".  Kompas 4/21/12

"Hutan Yang Tersisa Pun Terus Tergerus".  Kompas 4/21/12

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Big Earthquake...

Map from USGS.

The other day I was sitting around at the "base camp" of the Kerinci Birdwatching Club, waiting to begin the English conversation class I teach there every Wednesday for the club's members.  As my friends and I were chatting, we noticed a subtle shaking, barely noticeable but confirmed by the shaking power lines just outside the building.  Since this area is pretty seismically active, we all immediately recognized the earthquake.  As the shaking continued, first for one minute, then another, I got more and more worried.  I've been in earthquakes before, but normally they only last a few seconds.  To me the continued shaking indicated a very large earthquake a good distance away.  I thought about the 2004 earthquake off Aceh in northern Sumatra which triggered a massive tsunami that killed more than a quarter of a million people and thought "oh no not again".  I started sending text messages to friends that might have internet or TV access and asked them to send me updates as quick as possible.  I wanted to know where and how big the quake was so I could anticipate what sorts of impacts we could expect at the regional level.  The quake, 8.5 to 8.7 in magnitude (depending on the source), occurred about 300 miles out to sea in the Indian Ocean, which means there is a high potential for a big tsunami.  The first news I got indicated the earthquake was near Aceh and Padang and that the focus was about 18 kilometers beneath the surface (1)(2).  But as we got more information, there was less and less to worry about.  As it turns out, although there were tsunami waves, none of them were particular large or damaging.

A Tectonically Active Archipelago

As I've mentioned in previous posts, there are a lot of volcanoes and earthquakes in Indonesia.  These are due to the fact that Indonesia sits at the junction of a couple of tectonic plates, which are huge chunks of the earth's crust that "float" around on the aesthenosphere, a layer of "plasticky" mantle immediately beneath the rigid shell of our planet (usually referred to as the "lithosphere").  These plates move around at about the same rate as your fingernails grow and bump into each other with incredible force, which is usually manifested as an earthquake.  The places where these plates come together are called "plate boundaries", and there are three general types of these.

  1. Spreading zones.  This is where the plates are moving apart.  New crust is created at spreading zones as molten rock is pulled up out of the mantle.  When the molten rock cools it becomes new crustal material.  Most of these spreading centers are in the middle of ocean basins, and their existence was only confirmed in the 1960s.  
  2. Transform zones.  This is where two plates are sliding laterally against each other.  The boundary between the Pacific and North American plates in the area of California is an example of this kind of boundary; there is another in the Caribbean Sea.  This makes these areas very vulnerable to earthquakes, but there aren't a whole lot of volcanoes at transform boundaries.
  3. Convergent zones.   This is where plates are coming together.  There are two basic types: subduction zones, where one plate (usually an oceanic plate because the rock that makes up oceanic crust is denser and hence "sinks") goes under another, and continental-collision boundaries, where continental crust from two plates is coming together.  In these places you generally see big mountain chains (the Alps and Himalayas are active examples) because the crust is piling up.  Think of two cars running head on into each other.  What happens?  Subduction zones generally have the biggest earthquakes and they also have a lot of volcanoes, as the oceanic crust that is pulled under and back into the mantle melts.  When this happens some material works its way up through the mantle and crust and comes out as lava.  It's kind of like exhaust; you might think of the volcano as a natural smokestack.  

The above generalization sometimes confuses students because this classification system hides the complexity of these "zones", but I'll explain more about this in a minute.  Everybody was worried about a tsunami because they are frequently generated at subduction zones.  The 2010 Japan tsunami and 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami are chilling reminders of the type of damage these big waves can do; they were both generated at subduction zones.  Thus when the quake happened Wednesday alarm bells went off in a number of countries and people started to implement evacuation plans to avoid a repeat of the colossal devastation of 2004, which was a wake-up call in this region.  After 2004 a lot of money and effort went into preparedness.  Why, then, was there no big tsunami?

Plate Boundaries vs. Faults

This vexed a lot of people.  I was among them until I read that the quake happened along a "strike-slip fault".  What does this mean?  First we need to understand the difference between a fault and a plate boundary (lots of people conflate the two), and that will help us work through the confusion and understand exactly what happened.  There is a fundamental difference between a plate boundary and a fault.  A fault is defined as "a fracture that has experienced movement along opposite sides of the fracture" (Keller and Pinter 2002), which means basically a crack in the earth's crust where the two sides are moving in different directions or at different rates of speed.  The three basic types of faults roughly mirror the 3 types of plate boundaries, and so I think this is where a lot of the confusion comes from.  These three types are

  1. Normal faults, where the two sides are moving apart
  2. Reverse (or thrust) faults, where the two sides are coming together
  3. Strike-slip (or lateral) faults, where the two sides are moving past one another.

Diagram from here.
You can get the idea from the diagram above.  Faults are different from plate boundaries because they describe a more local phenomenon.  There can be a lot of faults in a system, and many of them don't occur near plate boundaries.  These are simply places where some sort of pressure within the earth has caused a rupture.  Sometimes they aren't even clearly visible on the surface, as many faults don't affect all the layers of rock that make up the crust.

Diagram from here.  Site is worth a look.  
On the other hand, plate boundaries are huge systems that normally include dozens and dozens of different faults.  I usually rather forcefully ask my Geography 101 students to imagine a turkey pot pie crust.  When you cut it with a knife it usually crumbles a bit where the knife meets the crust.  There are a lot of little cracks.  This is kind of like a plate boundary.  Because of the complex movement of the tectonic plates (they don't exactly fit together like puzzle pieces; there is a bit of torqueing and twisting in their movement), there are usually different types of faults at the plate boundary.  As an example I've included the cartoon diagram of a spreading center plate boundary.  As you can see, the spreading isn't as smooth as the more general plate diagrams show.  Instead the crust is torn in different places, which results in movement in opposite directions at different points.  So even though this is a spreading center, there are strike-slip faults.  There are two basic types of strike-slip faults: right laterals and left laterals.  You can use an easy rule to remember the difference: if your friend is standing on the other side of the fault and (s)he's moving to the right relative to you, then it's a right lateral.

Normally at subduction zones one plate is sliding under the other.  This isn't a smooth process, though, and sometimes pieces get hung up on one another because there are a lot of rocks and edges involved.  The place where the rocks "snag" on one another is called an asperity.  Geomorphologists use the term stress to refer to the force applied on the rocks; the way the rocks react to the stress is called strain.  Think about when you apply force to two ends of a pencil (like you are going to break it).  The pencil bends a bit, but if you continue to apply force eventually you will exceed the pencil's shear strength and it will break.  You hear a pop and then the two broken ends rapidly snap away from each other.  The sound and the motion are both expressions of the energy that has been built up and is suddenly released.  An earthquake is something like this; when the stress at the asperity gets to be too much for the rocks they will break, and then the two sides of the fault quickly shift positions.  This is where the energy for the earthquake comes from.  At a subduction zone, if you think about it, the rapid adjustment happens in the downward direction, which strong up and down waves, and if there is water on top this will trigger a tsunami.

In this particular case, though, since the earthquake occurred at a strike-slip fault rather than a normal fault, the strong up-and-down movement didn't happen, and so there wasn't a major tsunami.  I tried to find a detailed diagram of all the fault traces around this particular part of the subduction zone, but unfortunately had no luck, so I can't describe the precise mechanism of the quake.  A number of geologists have also expressed surprise at the size of this quake, because strike-slip faults aren't normally this big (many are saying this is the largest strike-slip quake on record).  For example, the 1906 strike-slip quake that leveled San Francisco was "only" 7.6, and the 1989 quake that caused so much damage there was 6.9.  But as big as this quake was, the fact that it occurred 300 miles out in the ocean limited the damage on the land.  

As we got news updates the situation turned out not to be as critical as we expected.  Even though the 8.7 quake qualifies as a "great earthquake", there were no major reports of damages, and according to media reports most of the new evacuation procedures were implemented relatively smoothly.  So in the end everything turned out okay and everyone seemed to be doing fine.  If you want to help, though, we are currently experiencing a critical shortage of beer and tacos.  Any and all donations will be greatly appreciated, and I'll make sure they make it to those most in need.


(1)  Padang and Aceh are pretty far apart, and so it wouldn't be possible to have an earthquake near both of them.  Moreover, we are relatively close to Padang, and so I figured, given the length of the shaking, the big earthquake must have been farther away.

(2)  People often mistakenly use the term "epicenter" to refer to the "focus" of the earthquake.  The focus is where the quake actually originated; the epicenter is the place on the surface of the earth directly above the focus.  18 kilometers is pretty shallow, and the shallower the earthquake is the more damage it usually does.

References and For Further Reading

Keller, Edward, and Nicholas Pinter.  2002.  Active Tectonics: Earthquakes, Uplift, and Landscape.  Second Edition.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.  362pp.

This is an excellent intermediate-level text on tectonics and geomorpholigical processes.  I knew it would come in handy when I had it shipped over from home.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Is this a Problem? The Market for Information in Indonesia

Iron ore picture from here.

Yesterday I made the mistake of asking an acquaintance of mine who works for the district government here if he knew where I could obtain a general map of iron ore deposits for Indonesia.  I wanted the map because last week I received a request via email from someone that was working on a school project for help in procuring such a map.  The person asked me because I can speak Indonesian, and so presumably it would be easier for me to find something like that online.  I agreed to look into it, because I know how easy it is to get information like that in the US.  I figured it wouldn't take too much time, and if it contributes to people in the US learning more about Indonesia I'm all for it.

All I Want Is A Map.....

If you visit the website of the United States Geological Survey, you can find all sorts of wonderful information on a variety of topics ranging from mineralogy and geology to streamflow, all available for free.  They even have a clearly labeled tab for "Maps, Imagery, and Publications" where you can download maps or use the handy tool to make your own.  For free.  It took me about a minute to find a map that provides a general overview of mining and minerals for the United States.  I didn't have to pay anything to get it.  I've included the map (below) so you can get an idea of what I was looking for.  I assumed that it would be relatively easy to find a similar map for Indonesia.

Map from USGS.
As you can see, there is a lot of information on this map.  You can easily get a general idea of where the iron deposits are.  I navigated to the webpage of the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, the Indonesian ministry responsible for mining and minerals.  Although I didn't expect the sophistication of the USGS website, I did expect to find some maps that show the general distribution of mineral resources across the archipelago.  The government here is big on promoting its mineral resources and talks the talk of wanting to attract investment in the mining sector, and so I figured it would be easy to find maps geared towards people interested in possibly investing in the country.  But no such luck.  So I called an acquaintance that works in one of the local offices here to ask if he might know where I could find an iron-ore map.

"Why didn't you say you were looking for mineral information?  I used to work in mining and I have map data for all minerals for all of Indonesia!  Come by my office at 8am."

"Wow, [name], that's great.  I'll be there."  Making a trip to an office was actually more effort than I wanted to expend in this endeavor, but I couldn't really turn down the invitation.

I went to the office the following morning with a flashdisk expecting to leave after a cup of coffee with a jpeg map showing iron over the entire archipelago.  What I got was something completely different, and I left empty-handed.

"You can bring investors interested in mining directly to me and I'll help them out.  That way you can benefit and I can benefit," my acquaintance said.

"I don't think this person is an investor, [name].  I think he wants the map for a school project."  Again, I just wanted a simple map of iron for Indonesia.  I didn't expect it to be that difficult.  Moreover, I have absolutely no interest in getting involved in anything relating to mining here, since, especially on Sumatra, mining folks and conservation folks are often at loggerheads (1)(2).

Evidently not hearing me, my acquaintance continued: "Yeah I've worked in mining all over the place.  I only came to this government office last year; I know how to use radar imagery to identify petroleum traps, coal, all sorts of minerals.  And I have all this map data."  After he showed me his 27-page CV complete with pictures, he loaded a bunch of layers into GlobalMapper to show me all the different kinds of data he had.  I was impressed.  But after 45 minutes I started to grow weary.  After all, I was there as a favor to an anonymous internet person.  There were a million other things I could have been doing with my time.

My acquaintance: "So bring your friend here and we'll talk about all the possibilities for mining and investment around the district.  I've already identified a lot of potential sites."

Me: "So you're not going to give me the map?"  Again, I just wanted a general map of iron-ore, which he could have produced in about 3 minutes.  I wasn't interested in the classified maps revealing the location of strategic minerals he seemed to be interested in.

My acquaintance: "It's better if we all discuss mineral deposits...."

Me:  "Okay.  Seeya."  With that I left the office and headed home.

Money Talks...

I was a little annoyed with this experience because just last week I had been cornered into paying a bribe to get some rainfall data here.  I wrote a few posts ago about how I got interested in the rainfall patterns here because the month of March was particularly dry.  From a purely scholastic standpoint I wanted to examine recent rainfall patterns, but this would require rain gauge measurements.  At first I was content with monthly totals, but then I realized I needed hourly totals as well.  No big deal, I thought, the head of the weather station that gave me the monthly data said he had hourly figures if I needed them.  And in return I'd happily provide him with the results of any analysis.  He'd also invited me over to his house for coffee.

I went over to my new friend's house and he transferred all the data to my flashdisk.  We sat drinking tea and then he told me that I needed to pay him for the spreadsheets.  He told me the money was for "upkeep" of the station.  When I asked him how much he wanted he told me that he had recently charged some company $100 for some meterological data, but he just wanted $25 from me.  By this time I already had the data, and so I couldn't really refuse to pay.  I should have seen this coming, but again, in the US the government makes this sort of data available in an easy-to-use downloadable format free of charge.  So I forked over the money and immediately understood why my friend invited me to his house.  Definitely a learning experience, but if I had known up front that I was going to have to pay for the data, I would have said "Fuck it.  I just won't do the project."

There's No Profit in Scholarship...

These experiences have brought up a couple of questions for me.  The first is, if I have to pay for data, can I ethically use it?  I asked my advisor about this and she said it's basically up to me.  At this point I don't feel any compunction about using the rainfall data; I also don't feel that I'm under any obligation to share the results of my work with the government or anyone else here.  My adviser suggested to me that if you have to pay for data, it's likely you're getting information you're not supposed to have, which to me is a little shady.  Academic research is different from journalism in that way.  Normally you shouldn't pay fees to get access to privileged information, since the academic is motivated by scholarship rather than profit.  Newspapers and other media pay because they in it for the money.  In this case, though, the data should be available to the public.  What's the point of keeping meteorological records if you're not going to use them?  And I think the information probably is available, only like most other things in Indonesia you probably have to jump through a lot of bureaucratic loops to get access to it.  My sense is that my "friend" identified an opportunity to make a little cash, so instead of informing me of the proper procedure, he'd go the entrepreneurial route and cut out the middleman.  I imagine the way this is justified is that it saves the "customer" (me) time.  The practice of accepting gratuities to facilitate licensing, permitting, and other paperwork is actually pretty common here (in Indonesian it's called uang licin, or "slippery money"; like "greasing the wheels") but this was my first direct experience.

The second question is what effect does this Feringiesque approach to information have on society in general?  I come from an academic culture where people collect and analyze data not to make money from it, but (ideally, at least) so the results of the research can be used for the betterment of society in general.  The government makes all sorts of data available to scholars because, generally speaking, the academy is perceived to be the best place to process and analyze data.  That's one of it's roles in society, and that's one of the reasons universities are publicly funded.  And even if the data you want isn't provided by the government, you can often get information from other sources, so long as your willing to cite where the data came from.  This seems not to be happening here, or at least in my little district.  Instead what you have is "gatekeepers" that jealously guard information supposedly owned "by the people", only sharing it if they can gain by doing so.  I think that this must have a stifling effect on scholarship and research here, and that's bad for everyone.


(1)  I have to be honest of my major funders, an organization whose goal it is to promote educational links between the US and Indonesia, receives a significant annual contribution from the giant Freeport mine in Papua.  So I do benefit from mining here.

(2) I get an average of a call a week about mining from someone that has somehow obtained my number.  These people, for some reason or another, are under the impression that I am an executive with some mining concern and can get them a job.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reflections on the Indonesian Bureaucracy (Part II)

Cartoon from here.  
In the last post I discussed some aspects of the Indonesian civil service, which has been much maligned in the media over the past couple of years.  I briefly described the post-independence history of the bureaucracy here as well as its role in politics.  I also talked a bit about why having a large and inefficient bureaucracy is bad.  In the post I'm going to continue my discussion of the Indonesian civil service, focusing on an alarming trend that is especially evident where I live: buying and selling jobs with the government.  My district is somewhat famous, at least regionally, because the people here are willing to pay more to become civil servants than in other places.

The Market for Civil Servant Positions

In the previous post I pointed out how lots of people in my district want to get jobs with the government.  Although I used to have a reflexively bad reaction to this, my thinking on the matter has changed since I've been here.  I think the desire to work for the government is a function of the range of possibilities people perceive for themselves or their children.  I mentioned that this area is primarily agricultural, and although the area is highly commercialized now it wasn't so long ago that people here were basically subsistence farmers.  Thus my defense of the "PNS dream" (1) revolves around the notion that becoming a civil servant is the most familiar, the most feasible way out of agriculture for people here.  However, there is a dark side to this.  Because so many people want to become civil servants, and because the positions are limited, there has emerged a market for the civil servant positions.  I base most of the following discussion on word-of-mouth information, bits and fragments I've gathered from people in conversations and chats since I've been here, because it is difficult to collect hard data on things like this.  I've only recently been making more directed inquiries into this issue with an eye towards future research, so take everything you read with a grain of salt.

Cartoon from here.

Though this is a phenomenon that is found throughout Indonesia, the people of my district are said to be more willing to pay to become civil servants, and thus they drive the price up and distort the market.  I've heard a number of explanations for this; some folks say that there is a great deal of prestige associated with being a PNS, but also it is said that people of this district are relatively wealthier than other districts stemming from the traditionally high agricultural productivity of the district.  Based on my own observations the people in this district do seem to be relatively better off than some other places.

A little Betawi.  Cartoon from here.
There is variation based on the position (more on this in a moment), but the price to become a civil servant here is said to be as high as 150,000,000 rupiah (approximately US$ 16,500).  To put this in perspective, the highest starting salary for civil servants in Indonesia is approximately 1,500,000 rupiah per month (+/- US$165).  This means that it would take approximately 100 months, or more than 8 years just to recoup the initial investment from salary alone.  The price associated with becoming a civil servant varies according to a couple of factors.  The first is the level of education for the applicant.  If you have a bachelors degree and you become a civil servant your starting salary will be significantly higher than that of an applicant that only has a high-school diploma or associate's degree.  The price also depends on what office you want to enter.  For example, a job at the public works bureau costs significantly more than a job at the health office.

I asked a number of informants where the money goes, and most of them describe a pyramid structure in which the money is distributed to several different recipients.  Payment is never made directly to a higher-level official in the government; rather candidates for public office (Calon Pegawai Negeri Sipil, CPNS) negotiate with a middleman or broker, who later disperses payments to senior officials in the office the CPNS wants to enter, as well as officials within the government office responsible for administering the civil service as a whole.  Informants indicate that elected officials, including the district headman and members of the district assembly, also get a piece.

Cartoon from here.
Why are people willing to pay so much?  So far I've heard a couple of answers to this question.  The first is that a lot of people that pay get money from their parents, who are willing to dish out this money to ensure a good future for their children.  This makes some sense; after all wealthy parents in the US spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to put their kids through the best universities, and so I'm sure there's some truth to it.  The other common explanation is that people know they will be able to make the money back via corruption, which I'll discuss in the next section.  It's important to remember also that not everyone is willing to pay.  I've had discussions with a number of bright young Indonesians who express disgust at the current state of things here.  Many of them tell me that they once thought of becoming public servants to help improve the country.  At the same time, they wonder why they should have to pay money for a job after paying university tuition and fees for 4-5 years.  Thus it seems that the current system is driving many of the best and brightest away from public service.  As a result, the bureaucracy is overloaded with people with little or no qualifications, which in turn affects policy formation and implementation.  In addition, the whole system seems to undermine the public's trust in the bureaucracy.

It's also important to remember that not all civil servants pay for their positions; some are chosen on the basis of their merits alone.  From what I've seen, these people have to work harder because their colleagues that paid to enter the civil service aren't very productive.  I've heard and read wide ranging estimates as to what percentage of civil servants are actually "capable"; one former Home Affairs minister estimated that approximately 60% of Indonesia's civil service was "unproductive", while the chart I included in the last post indicated that only 3,352 of a total 67,058 (5%) civil servants in the province of North Sulawesi are "competent".  Estimates here put the number of folks that pay for their jobs as high as 90%.  I imagine there is a lot of variation in region and department.

The Upshot: Institutionalized Corruption

Like I said there certainly are cases of rich parents spending lavishly to ensure a stable future for their children, but most people I talk to indicate that willingness to pay stems from the fact that people know they will be able to make their money back through graft.  That's why the price to become a PNS varies from department to department.  Indonesians describe different positions and government offices as being "wet" (tempat basah) or "dry" (tempat kering) depending on the availability of opportunities to enrich oneself through corruption.  For example, the public works department gets a lot of money for infrastructure development, and so there are many opportunities to skim money off the top.  This happens in a number of ways; bureaucrats will inflate the purchase price of everything from staples to bulldozers in the annual budget, pocketing the difference.  They can also get bribes for ensuring that a contract goes to a particular company, which in turn skimps on building materials to make up for the bribe  Another form of corruption is pungli¸ which refers to informal taxes and payments for services.  Another common tactic is to take phantom business trips or submit phony receipts for expenses, which are later reimbursed.

Graphic from Padang Ekspres.
The result is a bureaucracy thoroughly infected with graft.  One recent government study found that 50% of young civil servants had been involved in corruption, mostly assumed to stem from fictitious projects and bribes.  Sensational new stories of corrupt officials embezzling millions of dollars from public coffers seem to emerge on a weekly basis, and most Indonesians feel that corruption is the biggest problem the country faces.  President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has attempted to address the problem through the creation of the Corruption Eradication Commission, but their resources are limited and it's said the cases they can get to are merely the tip of the iceberg.  There's also been a backlash against the Commission, which has very broad authority and has been accused of abusing its power.  Most people seem to feel that corruption is such a part of the system that it's impossible to do anything about it.  And although I've had countless discussions on the issue, I still can't understand why people tolerate it.

A Question of Public Morality?

Graphic from here.  
Based on all of this a question occurred to me this past week.  Before I share the question, though, I'd like to propose a few assumptions (2):

1.  People know they have to pay a lot of money to become a civil servant
2.  They also know that there will be chances to get the money back through corrupt practices
3.  By definition they know that corrupt practices are wrong.  They also know that corruption is one of the main problems facing Indonesia today.
4.  Despite this knowledge there are still people lining up to become civil servant in Indonesia.

Based on these assumptions, what kind of statement can we make about public morality here?  I have heard many people say that the system makes people corrupt.  However, if people are willingly entering the system with the knowledge that they will most likely be forced to take part in corrupt activities, can it really be said that the system makes people corrupt?  It seems that they have accepted the rules of the game already; that they have already made their "Faustian bargain".  This would indicate that people have a fundamentally different perception of what the government is for, and that what I've been referring to as "corruption" might be seen by local folks as "fringe benefits".

There are people here that are engaged in a struggle against corruption.  At the national level there are some very strong non-government organizations working hard to monitor corruption and increase accountability in the public sector.  There are some local organizations at work in this district as well.  They investigate corrupt practices and make reports to the Corruption Eradication Commission.  They are vocal in the media and hold public demonstrations.  Unfortunately, it seems to me that most of the time their objections to the corruption inherent in the system seem to stem from resentment that they aren't able to take part in the benefits of the graft.  I hate to say this, and I really hope that I'm incorrect.

My sense is that these facts mean the problem is not merely structural; it's not a question of merely establishing systems of accountability (though this task has proven quite daunting).  Rather it's a question of redefining the role of the public sector in soceity as well as people's perceptions towards the bureaucracy.


(1) "PNS" is short for Pegawai Negeri Sipil, the Indonesian term for civil servant.

(2)  I am at this point referring to the district where I live.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Reflections on the Indonesian Bureaucracy (Part 1)

Picture from here.  I couldn't find a picture of the
awesome pickle uniforms.

On Monday mornings in my little town I like to sit out in front of my house, which is located on one of the main streets, drinking my coffee, reading, and watching the legions of pickle-green clad civil servants make their way to work (1).  They are everywhere, and this is a reflection of the fact that the bureaucracy plays a fairly large role in day-to-day life in Indonesia.  As a foreigner living here, I've had a good bit of interaction with civil servants here both within the context of my dissertation research and living here in general.  Over the next couple of posts I'm going to attempt to describe the history and role of the bureaucracy in life and politics here while discussing some of the thoughts I've had on the civil-service.

I had my good friend Agung, a civil servant that falls into
the "capable, dedicated, and talented" category, pose for
this picture.  To his credit he refused to change the channel
to a soap opera.  He's watching the news.
My first opinions of the bureaucracy were formed based on the byzantine process I had to go through to get official permission to do my research here.  Before I actually moved to the town (2) I live now, I had to spend several months filling out forms, submitting proposals, and waiting in line at various offices in Jakarta to fulfill all the requirements for foreign researchers.  When I actually moved to the town there was another round of red-tape, because I had to report to all the district-level offices.  One of the things I noticed at the district level was that there usually were a lot of people in the offices, and that most (in some cases 90%) seemed to be occupied primarily by smoking cigarettes and watching soap operas.  Definitely not a good first impression.

Picture of hot civil servant lady from here.
However, over the past 6 months or so I've visited quite a few district-level government offices to conduct interviews or examine documents, and I've met a number of civil servants that I would rank as among the most capable, talented, committed, and knowledgeable people I've met in Indonesia.  It quickly became clear to me that the bureaucracy here is not all bad; though there's a great deal of dead weight, there are also folks that are truly dedicated to their jobs and the future of the country.  There seems to be two bureaucracies working (or not working, in the case of the former) in concert (3).  What accounts for this very clear division in performance and motivation?

A Short History of the Indonesian Public Sector  

The public sector has traditionally been important in Indonesian politics.  Indonesian independence was won by a confederation of resistances rather than a centrally-directed and organized independence movement.  Most of the groups that struggled against the Dutch colonial regime were "locally recruited, financed, and led" (Anderson 1983:481).  The one thing they had in common was a desire for independence from the Dutch.  The result of this was the emergence of a fairly weak state under the leadership of President Sukarno.  There were lot of regional organizations resisting the efforts of the new government in Jakarta to form a coherent, unified national entity.  In order to build national political organizations and strengthen central rule, the bureaucracy was used as a tool to garner support from the masses.  The idea was that if you give people jobs in government, they will be more loyal.  As a result, between 1940 and 1968 the number of civil servants increased from approximately 250,000 to 2.5 million (Anderson, 1983).  One of the problems that emerged was that the government didn't have the resources to pay all of these civil servants, and so individuals began to look for ways to supplement their incomes, and corruption increased dramatically.  Thus the bureaucracy expanded because of political imperatives, but this fostered "rent-seeking" entrepreneurialism on the part of individual bureaucrats as they began to extract payments for services.

Bung Karno pic from here.  
In the late 1960s the Sukarno government crumbled and was replaced by the New Order (Orde Baru) regime of President Suharto.  Suharto was very successful in eliminating opposition and creating a strong, centralized government, but in so doing he also eliminated functioning political parties.  The bureaucracy lost its political role and became an instrument to exercise the priorities of the central government.  In the 1970s the bureaucracy grew by 1.5 million, or almost 400% as the government reaped windfall profits from oil and timber.  All this money enabled the central government to implement sweeping development programs aimed at transforming society.   This growth rate is really striking, especially when compared to other countries in Southeast Asia.  The bureaucracy also grew in Thailand and Malaysia during that decade, but only by 50% and 90% respectively (Hans-Dieter, 1987).  At the same time, the bureaucracy became more technocratic in nature.

When Suharto was deposed in 1998, his regime fell apart as well.  The new government enacted reforms to transfer power to the hundreds of districts that make up the archipelago.  Civil servants and the authority to appoint them, previously held by the central government, was also transferred to the district governments.  At the same time, democracy took root in the districts as regional assemblies and district headmen (starting in 2005) were chosen in general elections.  Political parties mushroomed and once again political power was hotly contested.

Graphic from Manado Post.  Quite revealing.  
This has essentially decoupled the bureaucracy from the mission of development and has introduced a political dimension to the civil service (5).  Whereas during the Suharto years the bureaucracy was part of the pyramid of power, responsible for implementing directives from the top.  Now the civil service is a tool of patronage as well as means for raising revenue.  Unfortunately one of the side effects of the rebirth of democracy in Indonesia has been "money politics".  It costs a lot to get elected here (6), and so people that want to run for district headman have to collect a lot of money if they hope to win.  One way to do this is to promise influential people a job in the government in exchange for their support.  One the new headman is elected, he often appoints members of his "success team" (tim sukses) to high-level positions in the bureaucracy, which allows them to recoup their investment via various forms of corruption.

The expanding the civil service is a key consideration in administrative proliferation, which I've discussed in a previous post.  Ideally the goal of creating new districts is to improve the quality of public service provision and increase public participation in government.  Discussions with public officials, both appointed and elected reveal different motivations, though.  The main consideration cited is to increase the amount of money received from the central government.  Each district receives two types of funds from the government in Jakarta: the general allocation (dana alokasi umum, DAU) and the special allocation (dana alokasi khusus, DAK).  If you have more districts, you get more money.  The second consideration cited by almost all officials I've interviewed is to increase the number of public service positions.

My town provides a good example of this job-generating aspect of administrative proliferation; in 2009 the town, which used to be the capital of the surrounding district, was made an independent administrative municipality, which, in Indonesia's hierarchy of government, puts it on the same level as the district.  Now there are two districts where there used to be one, and so all the offices responsible for running the government have been duplicated.  A recent newspaper article indicated that the town should have 5711 civil servants (for a total population of around 80,000), but there are currently only 3,043, and so they need to recruit 2,668 new public servants.  This is big news in an area where the job prospects are slim.

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

When you ask people here about their ambitions for themselves or their children, most people will tell you that they want to become a civil servant.  Whenever a new round of recruiting comes up, there are always far more applicants that available positions (4).  When I first started working here I was really distressed by this, because people seem to think that it is the government's responsibility to create jobs, rather than implement policies conducive to private-sector job creation.

Cartoon from here.
This last statement may lead some readers to label me a "neo-liberal".  Briefly this refers to a certain philosophy of politics and economy that insists the government should get out of the way and let the economy develop by itself.  Neoliberals tend to believe that the private sector, motivated by the collective creativity of millions of individuals, is the best engine of economic growth, and that government interference can only get in the way of progress.  The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other multi-lateral agencies are often characterized as neo-liberal.  The problem with the neoliberal philosophy, according to critics, is that it doesn't work.  They say it leads to all sorts of bad outcomes, including the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the disintegration of the social safety net.  As proof they point to the past; in the 1970s many countries in Latin America were facing economic crises.  In exchange for aid, the IMF forced the countries to agree to dramatically reduce the number of people employed in the public sector and to privatize government-owned enterprises.  The result of these "reforms" was a long period of high unemployment and stagnant economic growth.

Though I don't consider myself a "neoliberal" (I feel like the government needs to have an active role in the economy), I do think that a bloated bureaucracy has adverse effects on society in general.  It appears to me that in the case of Indonesia, the bureaucracy is really constraining economic growth.  And it's not just me that thinks this.  When you look at media accounts and public policy statements, the bureaucracy is often portrayed as one of the major impediments to growth in Indonesia.  President Susilo Bambang Yodhoyono has cited the bloated bureaucracy as a key factor stalling economic progress here and has even gone as far as issuing a moratorium on hiring new civil servants.  A simple google search reveals hundreds of articles detailing examples of how the bureaucracy has fubared things here.

A large inefficient bureaucracy hurts the country in several ways.  It makes it harder to do business; according to World Bank's annual "ease of doing business" survey, Indonesia ranks 129th out of 183 countries (7).  It also means that a large percentage of government spending goes to its own maintenance; in other words, rather than functioning to improve the lives of the people, the bureaucracy becomes an end in itself.  Also if people rely on the government to give them jobs, they are less likely to identify opportunities on their own.  There is a stifling of the entrepreneurial spirit that has proven essential for economic growth (at least at the local level).  Based on all of this you might understand my initial alarm at the thought that being a civil servant represents the apex of the hopes and dreams of the people here.

Ease of Doing Business 2010 map from here.  

Rethinking the Orthodox Thinking....

However, as I started to spend time in villages my thinking on this changed a bit.  Growing up in the west, where we take a diversified economy for granted, we also take for granted an awareness of the multitudinous possibilities of career choices.  "I want to be an astronaut/lawyer/doctor/architect/fireman when I grow up".  But here the economy is overwhelmingly agricultural, and, in the villages especially, almost 100% of the people work as farmers.  So there is no exposure to the diversified economy and people don't grow up observing other possibilities.  Thus it might be beyond the experience of folks here to imagine their kids growing up to be doctors or lawyers, because they don't ever see doctors or lawyers; moreover there isn't an obvious niche or need for doctors and lawyers here.  The one non-farming profession that people do come in contact with on a regular basis is the civil servant or administrator.

People in the village know that farming is hard.  It requires physically demanding labor, and the results are never certain.  There are very limited possibilities for advancement.  Most of the farmers I talk to say they want something better for their children, and they see work in the public sector as a good choice.  Public sector employees don't have to break their backs farming, they have a steady and guaranteed income, and there are all sorts of other benefits.  The children of civil servants have better access to educational possibilities.

Thus I've come to the conclusion that here the bureaucracy might be considered a stage in the "development process".  I suspect that the children of civil servants, because they have broader experience and exposure than the children of farmers, are more likely to go to college or pursue some other post-secondary education, and thus they would be more likely to find other employment.  They would be less likely to want to work as civil servants (though I would have to do a survey to prove this; it's just speculation at this point).

But this still leaves a lot of questions unanswered.  In the next post I'll discuss the "market" for civil service positions and how the politicization of the bureaucracy has opened the door for an increase in corruption.


(1)  Monday is uniform day here.

(2)  I will avoid referring to my district by name in this post and the next one I write.

(3)  As I thought about this Janus-faced organization I was reminded of a saying the Japanese have: "mado giwa zoku", or  "people by the window".  These are the folks in any organization that aren't particularly capable, motivated, or creative, and so they are given desks near the windows with no real work to do.

(4)  From what I've seen the ratio ranges from 10:1 to 50:1.

(5)  Please remember that I am a geographer and not a political scientist, so this has undoubtedly been formulated elsewhere.  Also remember this is a blog and not an academic paper, so I don't really care.

(6)  I will discuss this in a future post.

(7)  For the sake of comparison, Singapore was #1, Thailand #17 and Malaysia #18.

References and For Further Reading

Anderson, Benedict.  1983.  Old State, New Society: Indonesia's New Order in Comparative Historical Perspective.  Journal of Asian Studies 42:3 pp477-496.

Evers, Hans-Dieter.  The Bureaucratization of Southeast Asia.  Comparative Studies in Society and History 29:4 pp666-685

Kristiansen, Stein, and Muhid Ramli.  2006.  Buying an Income: The Market for Civil Service Positions in Indonesia.  Contemporary Southeast Asia 28:2 pp207.