|Barlian and daughter Novi taking a break on the "road".|
Note the Ipad.
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.
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 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
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.
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 email@example.com.