Thursday, May 10, 2012

From Illegal Logger to Forest Defender

Barlian and daughter Novi taking a break on the "road".
Note the Ipad.
This past weekend I took a trip down to a town called Sungai Ipuh in Mukomuko district, Bengkulu Province to see Barlian, the head of GenesisMukomuko, a small non-governmental organization (NGO) concerned with a number of conservation and social justice issues.  I'd communicated a good bit with Barlian via Facebook and I knew a bit about him and his NGOs activities, but we never met personally.  In addition to getting to know Barlian, I wanted to pick his brain about some of the proposed road projects that would cut through the national park.  In addition, Barlian was recently profiled in Kompas, Indonesia's newspaper of record, which is pretty cool.  We met in a cafe on the side of the road about 20km south of Tapan.  I found him sitting there fooling around with his new Ipad (which I would come to learn is an essential accessory for Barlian), and after a coffee we saddled up and rode a further 2 hours to his home in Mukomuko.

Barlian's Story

In 1998 what would come to be known as the Asian financial crisis swept like a wave across Southeast Asia, crippling the economies of most of the countries in the region along with that of South Korea.  Indonesia was among the hardest hit, and my friend Barlian, like many others, was seriously affected.  Previously Barlian had harvested non-timber forest products to be sold to cosmetics companies, but the market collapsed.  To feed his family, Barlian turned to illegal logging in the forests of Kerinci Seblat National Park, where I'm doing my PhD research.  Barlian worked as a kind of scout or surveyor for a cukong (1), entering the forest to locate valuable species, like Meranti and Damar Laut which would later be harvested and cut into logs by a chainsaw operator and hauled out by porters.  Barlian told me that a single Meranti tree could yield 15 cubic meters of wood, and that he and his crew could harvest around 50 cubic meters per week.  The pay was very good; in a week Barlian could make what others make in a month, and he suddenly found himself with more money that he knew what to do with.  He even ended up lending a significant amount to neighbors in need.

But then in the early 2000s something happened.  Barlian got involved in a grassroots campaign to prevent the district government from granting a large land concession to a giant plantation company.  The company planned to plant palm oil, which would put a lot of money in the pocket of the local government, but much of the land involved was already occupied by villagers, and so they would lose their land and source of livelihood.  Due to his involvement in the ultimately successful campaign, Barlian's eyes were opened not only to issues of land equity, but he also learned about all the ecosystem services that forests provide to the local people.  He decided to turn away from illegal logging and he eventually founded GenesisMukomuko, which has developed into a highly-regarded organization that carries out educational programs, forest monitoring, and lobbying activities.  GenesisMukomuko works with international organizations like Conservation International (CI) and Flora and Fauna International (FFI).

Barlian also has become an expert at using social media to spread the word about illegal activities or policies that might threaten the national park.  Though Barlian is quick to say he's lacking in formal education (he only finished middle school), he points to his background as an illegal logger (2) as an asset; as we sat surveying the site one of the 33 proposed roads that would cut through the park (Sungai Ipuh-Lempur) he told me that if a helicopter dropped him anywhere in the park's forest, he could find his way out without a compass or map.  Knowing how the illegal logging business works helps in identifying networks and getting the word out.  Barlian also travels extensively; he said he's already worn out 2 motorcycles exploring and visiting different parts of the 1.3 million hectare park.

The Sungai Ipuh-Lempur Road

As I've mentioned previously, the Sungai Ipuh-Lempur road is one of 33 road proposals currently being discussed by various agencies at different levels in the Indonesian governmental hierarchy.  This particular road would join two villages on different sides of the Bukit Barisan mountains, the first being in Mukomuko district (where Barlian lives), the second being in Kerinci district (where I live).  Currently it takes about 6-7 hours to go from Lempur to Sungai Ipuh, but a 40 kilometer shortcut through the park would turn it into a one-hour trip.  Proponents of the road say it would improve cultural ties between the historically linked villages and that it would improve the economy in both districts by increasing trade and access.  On the other hand the road would cut through sensitive ecosystems and the habitat of several endangered species, including the Sumatran tiger.  Opponents of the road also claim that it would make it easier for illegal loggers and poachers to enter the park, and that it would facilitate forest encroachment by pioneering farmers.

Another break on the "road".  Again, note the Ipad.
Barlian and I took a pretty extreme motorcycle tour of the area so I could get an idea of the location of the proposed road.  We had to pass through acres and acres of village palm oil patches using dirt and gravel roads and crossing streams.  Fortunately it hadn't rained in a few days, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to get anywhere.  One of the things that strikes you (literally and figuratively) in Sumatra is the general condition of the roads.  Opponents of roads through the park often make the point that if the district governments can't maintain the roads that they already have, why do they want to build new ones through the park?  As I struggled to guide my motorcycle through the mud this question occurred to me, since poor roads increase the cost of production for village farmers and make it difficult to get their goods to market.

Barlian told me that for the most part the people of Sungai Ipuh aren't very concerned about the road (3); conversations with other residents confirmed that most of them could go either way on the issue and that their main concern was indeed the condition of the existing roads.  There doesn't seem to be much substance to the economic development arguments because there aren't really any complimentary products or services between Mukomuko and Kerinci, and the trade that does exist wouldn't be affected one way or another by a new road.  Barlian told me that he can't figure out who is actually in favor of the road on the Mukomuko side, but the real backers are the folks in Lempur, who are relatively wealthy.  Barlian told me that the true motivation is that they want to be able to buy land in Mukomuko that can easily be accessed from Lempur.  This, he explained to me, would increase pressure on the park because the value of land would increase and people would be pushed to illegally cultivate fields in the park.  He predicted that if the road was opened, all the forests in the area would be cleared in 10 years.

Palm Oil: Another Concern

GenesisMukomuko also focuses on the palm oil industry in Mukomuko.  Palm oil comes from a palm tree and is used for all sorts of purposes ranging from cooking to powering vehicles.  It's one of the more valuable crops in terms of yields, and so over the past 20 years there has been a huge increase in palm oil cultivation in coastal areas of Sumatra.  Most palm oil is produced by large corporations, and many of these firms were granted vast estates by the government of President Suharto, who resigned amidst widespread protests in 1998.  During the Suharto years rights to exploit Indonesia's natural resources, especially those of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Papua, were granted to friends and family of the corrupt regime.  A few people got very rich, but the people living around the mines and forest estates enjoyed none of the benefits.  When Suharto fell most of the concessions awarded during his reign remained, which has caused a lot controversy now that power has been decentralized to the provinces and districts.  Local people (and local governments) want to reap the rewards of resources they perceive to be, by right, theirs, but long-term leases and concessions with terms very favorable to the large corporations are still in effect.

This is particularly problematic in Mukomuko, where AgroMuko, a Belgian-owned firm, and other large corporations control approximately 130,000 of around 400,000 total hectares in the district.  Although the palm oil produced by these big firms is by far the largest industry in the district, most of the revenue goes to the national government, and many argue that the taxes and other contributions are far too low.  In addition, the laborers on the large estates are poorly paid, and so very few local people are willing to work there, which means that there are a lot of people from outside the district moving in.  Local people would rather own and grow their own palm oil patches, but the problem is that the best land has already been given to the big companies, and the government has so far neglected to provided the transportation infrastructure necessary to enable the local farmers to thrive.  They also complain that good seedlings are too expensive and so they are forced to use inferior varieties that often fail.

Palm oil and coastal erosion.  The wall and armoring to the
right of the photo were started a couple of years ago.  
On the way down to Sungai Ipuh Barlian and I stopped at the beach, which is just off the road.  I was amazed to see glassy conditions and set after set of perfect 3-7 foot waves coming in over a 2 kilometer stretch (I've already named one of the breaks).  I was shocked though when Barlian told me that just 10 years ago there was a large conservation area protecting coastal marshes where the beach is now.  He and others contend that the rapid coastal erosion that is such a big problem in Mukomuko and other districts on the western edge of Sumatra is caused by the big oil palm estates.  One tree sucks up 800 liters of water per day, and so the idea is that they lower the water table, altering the hydrology of the region which hastens coastal erosion.  Thus this is another way in which the local people are hurt by the big companies; though they suffer all of the environmental consequences they don't share in the profits.  According to people like Barlian, if more of the land was owned and managed by local people, they would use more sustainable methods.

I had a really good time staying at Barlian's place over the weekend and am happy to have made a new friend.  If you'd like to learn more about GenesisMukomuko, you can check out their website by clicking here, though most of it is in Indonesian.  If you have specific questions you can email me at


  1. I found this post incredibly interesting! From the perspective as a young student I couldn't imagine having to risk so much just to feed a family like Barlian did. He is a very inspiring man to take action and respond to the rising environmental issue in southeast asia. Although Barlian was involved in illegal logging it is great that he turned his life around. I had no idea that there was such a threat to national parks such as the one mentioned in this post. Being raised in a national forest in Washington state has made me appreciate the beauty and importance the forest ecosystem has on the people and wildlife living within it. I find it hard to believe that the asian government is not willing to protect Barlian's home but is only trying to reap the benefits. I really appreciate this blogpost and i feel obligated to continue research towards protecting the worlds sacred environments and forests just like Barlian has done.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post on a very interesting man. I applaud Barlian for shunning an endeavor (although illegal) that was supporting his loved ones and neighbors, to fight for something he believes in and greatly effects their environment. It was sad to read about the injustice (once again) of big companies taking advantage of communities that cannot defend themselves.