Friday, June 22, 2012

The "Floating Mass" and the "Aspirations of Society"

Indonesia, with a population of 240 million people, is one of the largest democracies in the world.  It's also one of the world's youngest democracy; real contested elections only began in 1999 after the fall of longtime dictator Suharto, who used sham elections and ineffectual political parties to create a facade of democracy during his three-decade rule.  Now Indonesia has direct elections for all officials from the president on down to the heads of villages as well as direct elections of members of the national, provincial, and district assemblies.  Elections are hotly contested here and dozens of political parties have emerged over the past decade.  Democracy is blossoming, but there have been bumps in the road and the country still faces some obstacles to the development of a truly functioning representative government.  In the post I'm going to try out an idea I had the other night to put one of these obstacles into historical perspective. 

Massa Mengambang....

Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch in 1945 (1), and after a 4-year war it was recognized as a sovereign and independent country.  In the early to mid-1950s Indonesia had a democratic government, but political turmoil and regional rebellions led the country's first president, Sukarno, to suspend most democratic institutions and institute "guided democracy".  In 1965 Sukarno was deposed amidst a failed coup attempt, and Suharto, a general, took over.  Suharto ruled the country from 1966 until 1998.  During the first few years of his reign he focused on solidifying his hold on power and the development of a structure that would enable him to dominate the country for more than three decades.  From this point on the regime's political vehicle would be GOLKAR (Golongan Karya), an association of "functional groups" which began as a federation of non-government organizations (NGOs).  One of Suharto's associates, Ali Murtopo, reorganized GOLKAR into a political party, though the regime and GOLKAR always maintained that the body was not political.  Rather than getting mired in counterproductive political squabbling, GOLKAR and Suharto would focus on economic development and modernization.  Part of this philosophy was the notion of the people as a "floating mass" with no political role.  The floating mass doctrine banned the remaining parties from operating at the village level, which made them powerless to organize at the local level Instead the paternalistic government would carry out the will of the people.  In 1971 there was a general election for parliament in which GOLKAR triumphed over nine other political parties, but the election is universally accepted to have been rigged.  The victory gave GOLKAR the "mandate" and authority to re-elect Suharto as president in 1973.  By this time the fate of Indonesia's troubled "democracy" was sealed; in 1974 Suharto eliminated most political parties with the remaining parties serving as powerless puppets. 

Suharto 1993 picture from Wikipedia
During the Suharto years there were elections, but GOLKAR always prevailed.  The lack of real political contestation allowed the Suharto regime to impose its will on the Indonesian archipelago.  The New Order regime used repression to silence most opposition, and freedoms of expression, including the press were limited.  Though there were improvements in health, education, and economic development, these were accompanied by a high level of institutionalized corruption which still haunts the country.  The New Order was obsessed with the notions of "development" and "modernization" and devoted significant resources to megaprojects, mostly on the island of Java (2).  Many of these large development projects were less than successful, and a number of them resulted in environmental devastation.  The Indonesian idiom proyek mercusor ("lighthouse project") is used to describe these projects which were constructed more to illustrate the prestige of the regime rather than for the advancement of the country.

"Aspirasi Masyarakat"

"Aspirasi masyarakat" means "the aspirations of the people".  Basically it refers to the will of the citizenry in general; it's a general, ambiguous phrase that emphasizes the fact that the government should serve the people.  It is not something that can be measured or quantified, but is frequently used by candidates for office during their campaigns.  It also appears in formal legal documents like laws and regulations.  For example, we can see the principle of "aspirasi masyarakat" codified as the first criteria for the creation of new districts in government regulation 129/2000 (Peraturan Pemerintah 129/2000 Tentan Persyaratan Pembentukan dan Kriteria Pemekaran, Penghapusan dan Penggabungan Daerah):

Regional autonomy is an authority of the autonomous region to regulate and maintain the priorities of local society according to their own initiative based on the aspirations of society consistent with laws and regulations (3) 

We see another example in the first line of the legislation (Law 25/2008; UU25/2008 Tentang Pembentukan Kota Sungai Penuh di Provinsi Jambi) that created the administrative municipality of Sungai Penuh (where I live), split from its "mother district" of Kerinci:

Such that to spur development and progress in Jambi Province and especially Kerinci district and considering the presence of a growing aspiration within society, the must be an increase in the organization of government, implementation, development, and public service in order to hasten the realization of the prosperity of the people.... (4)

The aspirasi masyarakat discourse has long bothered me, but I couldn't quite put my finger on a specific reason why.  Last night though something clicked.  "Aspirasi masyarakat" is very similar to the "floating mass" in that it depoliticizes certain issues, placing them beyond the reach of contestation and placing them within an untouchable realm of universal goals or aims.  What this does is creates the impression that "society" is a homogenous block with easily identifiable goals.  Grad school types refer to this as "essentialization", which basically means simplifying a "group" of people or a complex concept with a few general or stereotypical words or phrases.  As you might imagine this is really useful to authoritarian regimes because it makes it easy for them to portray themselves as the guardians of the people while positioning opponents as "enemies of the people".  On the other hand it is contrary to the notion of representative democracy, which is characterized by pluralism and a multiplicity of ideas and opinions.  Indeed debate and the exchange of ideas is considered by most to be one of the most positive aspects of democracy because it enables "society" to grow.

It occurred to me that "aspirasi masyarakat" might be considered a holdover from the Suharto years.  This has some important ramifications for governance in Indonesia.

Practical Implications

During the time I've spent here doing my PhD dissertation research, I've noticed that the "aspirasi masyarakat" discourse features prominently in two issues that interest me: 1) administrative proliferation and 2) proposed road projects through Kerinci Seblat National Park.  I've discussed both of these issues in previous posts, but there seems to be one common feature in both debates about creating new districts and building roads through the park.  In both of these instances it turns out that there are few practical reasons to institute the policy (creating a new district or building a road through the park), and so "aspirasi masyarakat" is invoked by certain powerful interests that stand to gain from the "project".  But I think this is really, really bad for public policy.

Chart is from a UNDP report on administrative proliferation
in Indonesia
When Suharto was deposed, Indonesia pretty much did a 180-degree turn away from authoritarianism and decentralized most political and administrative power to the (then) nearly 300 districts and administrative municipalities in the country (5).  One important law that was passed (129/2000 which I quoted above) allowed for the creation of new districts and provinces for a number of reasons, among them to fulfill the "aspirations of the people", but also to improve participation in government and to increase economic development.  Administrative proliferation, known in Indonesian as pemekaran daerah spun out of control, and over the course of about 10 years several new provinces and over a hundred new districts and municipalities were formed.  My own research here (as well as that of other scholars in other places) shows that the main motivations for creating new administrative entities are to increase the number of civil servants (new districts need new mayors, planners, teachers, etc) and to increase the amount of money received from the federal government in the form of grants (6).  In addition, although the law requires studies to be done to support the new administrative unit, these studies don't seem to have much impact on the process.  An example of this is the study done when the Sungai Penuh-Kerinci split was still in the planning stages; although the study found that the area wasn't ready for such a split it happened anyway.  When you talk to people on the street about proposed new districts, most of them are in favor of it.  But what really happens is that it fuels corruption, because the many of the new civil servant positions are sold, and increases the total number of people employed by the government, which is usually considered a bad thing.  In most of the new districts the long-term economic outlooks are pretty bad.  Thus from the standpoint of public policy, in many cases pemekaran is bad.

Another example is roads through the park.  National parks are generally protected by federal or national law (hence the name), and in most cases it is difficult if not impossible for lower-level governments (state, province, county, parish, etc) to bypass the national law.  Roads in particular are very contentious and draw criticism from a number of quarters.  For example, in the US roads through parks can be challenged by th 1964 Wilderness Act, the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the 1970 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and the 1973 Endangered Species Act.  In fact, in order to even propose a road through a park the interested government has to complete years and years of studies, including feasibility assessments and environmental impact statements.  For a good example you can google the North Shore Road through Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the US.  

Some of the 33 currently proposed roads that would
cut through the park
Instead here at Kerinci Seblat National Park district governments propose roads without providing data to support the project.  Rather they invoke the "aspirasi masyarakat" doctrine.  Opposition to the roads comes from two sources: 1) a small number of conservationists and environmentalists, who bring up the ecological damage the roads would cause, and the park, and 2) the park itself, which makes the legal argument that the roads are illegal and hence cannot be built.  The district governments then vilify the park as an obstacle to development, which is reflected in the press (7).  Though local conservation NGOs engage in some advocacy and pubic outreach, for the most part there is no counter to this one-sided portrayal of the issue, and so in the eyes of the majority of people the park is viewed as an enemy hamstringing local development. 

I say this represents a failing of public policy because environmental impact assessments, cost/benefit analyses, and other types of studies are essential in order to ensure that the benefits of a project outweigh the costs, both in terms of expenditure of public monies and damage to the environment.  In addition, these types of studies also help to determine whether the project is actually merited and is a legitimate expenditure of public funds.  This is an essential part of a functioning democracy, but it seems to be lacking here.  From the point of view of the park, this weakness opens another potential point of attack against the roads: that the government has not done its due diligence to ensure that "society's" money isn't spent haphazardly or on useless projects like those that were common during the Suharto years.  I know of at least one case in which the park is being scapegoated for preventing a road being built, when in fact even before the park was established the same road was rejected by the provincial government because it would cost too much to build it.  

Thus the roads through the park are not just a bad idea because of the environmental havoc they would wreak, but because they represent a deviation from one of the core missions of a democratic government. My basic point is that while "aspirasi masyarakat" is an appropriate guiding principle for government, but it should not be a primary criteria for policy formation, because it leads to the ignoring of other, very important considerations.  This lack of logic needs to be challenged so that Indonesia's new democracy can continue to develop and grow.  


(1) Indonesia's national day, August 17, commemorates this initial declaration.

(2)  Java is home to the majority of Indonesia's population.  It is the most densely populated island and is the homeland of both Suharto and Sukarno.  The national capital, Jakarta, is located on Java.

 (3)  "Otonomi Daerah adalah kewenangan Daerah Otonomi untuk mengatur dan mengurus kepentingan masyarakat setempat menurut prakarsa sendiri berdasarkan aspirasi masyarakat sesuai dengan peraturan-perundangan..."

(4) "...bahwa untuk memacu perkembangan dan kemajuan Provinsi Jambi pada umumnya dan Kabupaten Kerinci pada khusunya serta adanya aspirasi yang berkembang dalam masyarakat, perlu dilakukan peningkatan penyelenggaraan pemerintahan, pelaksanaan pembangunan, dan pelayanan publik guna mempercepat terwujudnya kesejahteraan masyarakat"

(5)  Now there are nearly 500.

(6)  All districts, provinces, and administrative municipalities receive a couple of big grants from the central government each year.  If you take one district and turn it into two, you are dramatically increasing the amount of funds you get from the central government.

(7)  Though the press in Indonesia is "free", most local and a significant number of regional reporters lack training in journalism.  Moreover it is widely accepted that reporters accept bribes for favorable coverage on political issues.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Bangun Rejo Village: The Posterchild for Conservation?

Bangun Rejo is a jorong (1) in the Sangir subdistrict in Solok Selatan district, West Sumatra province.  It's located about two hours to the north of Sungai Penuh, where I live.  I went there this week because I've heard a great deal about the village; it is trumpeted as a success story in village conservation and is held up as a shining example of cooperation between Kerinci Seblat National Park and local people.  The village has received awards at the district and provincial level for their efforts to protect the environment, and they have received national recognition for their "greenness".  One newspaper account describes the village thusly: "Dense forest blankets the village.  One is immersed in the songs of animals from the direction of the forest; visitors begin to feel a sense of peace.  The whine of the chainsaw is not to be heard as in other areas that border the forest" (2).  I wanted to find out what makes Bangun Rejo different from all the other villages I've visited; what lessons could be learned here and applied elsewhere to improve relations between the park and villagers.  My friend Hendri, who heads the small environmental NGO Winalsa in Solok Selatan, agreed to accompany me to the village. 

About Bangun Rejo

As I mentioned, Bangun Rejo is known here as the "green village" due to an apparent conservation ethic possessed by the villagers there.  They don't cut down trees, they don't encroach into the park, they don't hunt illegally, and they even patrol the park's borders voluntarily.  Recently the citizens of Bangun Rejo evicted 16 families from Kerinci district that had moved into the park to clear land for farming.  Much of this success is due to the efforts of the jorong head, Bejo Suyono.  "Thanks to God all of us here are aware and understand how important forests are for the sustainability of the environment and humanity in general," says Pak Suyono.  The folks at the park are very proud of Bangun Rejo and point to the "success" there as an example of what could be in other villages; one park staffer told me that "we want to make Bangun Rejo a beacon of conservation in West Sumatra". 

But there is another side to the story.  Bangun Rejo is one of more than 300 villages that share a border with the immense Kerinci Seblat National Park.  Between 1997 and 2001 it was also one of 76 villages to receive aid from the World Bank and WWF via a large integrated conservation and development project (ICDP).  The goal of the village development component of the ICDP (which I've discussed in previous posts) was to provide alternative livelihoods to residents of border villages to reduce dependency on the forests in the park.  Unfortunately, as noble and ambitious as the giant project was, it had little impact in most areas.  My friends in NGOs argue that one success story out of 76 ICDP villages and hundreds of bordering villages overall is nothing to be proud of.  At the same time, Bangun Rejo is a favorite destination for aid and development projects, and so there might be a risk of neglecting other places with more severe problems for the sake of glorifying the dramatic example of success.  

Jorong headman Bejo Suyono in blue.
I talked to the head of the jorong and the chairman of the loan association about the relationship between the village and the park, as well as the villagers' ideas on conservation.  They told me that everyone in the village understands the ecological importance of the park, especially for farmers.  They told me that there used to be shifting cultivation in the park area (which existed even before the park was established), but when the ICDP was implemented the village stopped the shifting cultivation and used some of the funds to train people in settled agriculture outside the park, as well as to provide start-up capital for small-scale businesses.  The interesting thing about the loan association, which was part of the ICDP, is that it still exists today, while many of the other projects from the ICDP in the various villages have long since ended, often with poor results.  Loans of up to 2.5 million rupiah (about US$270) for a period of a year, with interest starting at 1.5% and then declining to .8%.  Applications are screened by a committee, which selects the most worthy or feasible projects.  Though they started with 125 million rupiah (US$15,800), the kitty has grown to 400 million rupiah (US$42,100).  After the ICDP ended the villagers continued and expanded the program on their own without any outside help.  They also told me that the village is currently receiving aid from other government bodies as well due to their success in promoting conservation.  I asked if other villagers ever get jealous because of all the attention Bangun Rejo receives, and they told me that "yes, indeed they are jealous.  But if they conserve the forest and protect the park like we do they will get help as well".  The jorong head invited us to visit the "green fence", a row of fast-growing surian trees the villagers are planting to mark the boundary between cultivated land and forest area.

Into the Field....

The next day my friends from Winalsa and I went past the village in the direction of the park, riding over a difficult rock road for several kilometers.  Though the head of the jorong was supposed to meet us, he had some sort of emergency, so we were on our own.  We came to the border of the park and the road forked.  We later learned that we took a wrong turn (go right to get to the "green fence") and soon ended up in the middle of acres and acres of coffee gardens.  We checked our gps units and my field map and found that all of the cultivation is well within the boundaries of the park.  We walked around a bit and met a farmer tending his garden.  I asked him if we were indeed in the park and said that according to his understanding, we were not.  We talked to him for a while about coffee farming and he told us about the civets that sometimes visit his land (TK).  Then the head of the jorong found us and escorted us out of the cultivated area.  I asked him about the crops and he confirmed that they are indeed in the park, but they have an "agreement" with the park.  On the way out I noticed some palm oil seedlings.  I was really surprised because I didn't know palm oil palms could grow this high, but also because the existence of the seedlings represents an investment on the part of the villagers, since they only start to bear fruit after several years (3).  He told me that the seedlings are an experiment, and if they do well the villagers will plant more.  

Winalsa member Iwan Abu with palm oil
palm seedling.  Around the seedling you can
see upland dry rice.  
On my way back to Sungai Penuh I stopped at the nearby satellite office for the park.  I'd been there before and know the folks working there; in fact there is one talented young staffer there that is currently doing her thesis research in Bangun Rejo.  I wanted to ask for clarification about the status of the cultivation inside the park.  After I met my friends I was greeted by a forest policemen who I'd never seen before.  He first chewed me out because I didn't report to the regional police, which foreigners are supposed to do.  I normally try to avoid this because I consider it to be a violation of human rights (4).  Then he threatened to arrest me if I went into the park again without his permission, despite the fact that I've gone through a lengthy process of obtaining various permissions and have an official letter from the Ministry of Forestry allowing me to enter the park whenever I want.  He then demanded to see all the pictures I'd taken.  After all of this power-trip business, which amused and annoyed me at the same time, he answered my questions (5).  It turns out that the park is planning to "re-green" the cultivated area next year, and according to my new "friend" the people have been made aware of this and given a choice: either they remove their crops or the park will.  He said that the people are aware and are on board with this plan, but the fact that they've just planted a bunch of palm oil seedlings indicates to me that the local folks have a different understanding of what is going to happen in the future.  There is definitely something afoot in Bangun Rejo.

All in all the trip was enlightening but disappointing at the same time.  I learned a great deal about the "real story" in Bangun Rejo.  However, I went in expecting to see a shining example of textbook village conservation, which is probably a myth here.  In my research I see so many problems and difficulties that I was really looking forward to seeing something that would give me hope for the future of the park.  But the fact that the "poster child" for village conservation has many of the same intractable problems of the other villages around the park speaks a lot to the problems facing national park-based conservation on Sumatra.  

A Little Lagniappe...

It's been a week since I had my appendix removed and I can honestly say that I feel 100% better.  My mood has improved and I have more energy.  For the 2-3 months before the surgery I was feeling less than myself; I was tired a lot and just felt a general lethargy, but I thought maybe it was because I've been here too long.  Now I'm convinced that during that time I was suffering from an internal infection, and now that the source is gone I feel like a new man.  I asked the doctor about this, and he said it was very possible.  I also asked my doctor (and 2 other doctors I met in the hospital) about the veracity of the notion that chili seeds cause appendicitis, and they said that this is just a myth.  

Lastly I stumbled upon the scene shown in the video below on the way back from Bangun Rejo.  What you see is a homemade sled contraption loaded with logs heading down the road in the direction of Padang Aro. This is very near the park, but not inside it, so I don't know the source of the wood.  The method of transport interested me though.  I'd seen this sled in operation on a previous visit but didn't think to make a video.  The driver, which you can't see, has sections cut from two tires attached to his feet ("Ho Chi Minh sandals") which he uses as brakes.   


(1)  Jorong is a traditional Minangkabau administrative division roughly equivalent to the desa or "village" found in most other parts of Indonesia.  In the 1970s the authoritarian Suharto regime imposed the desa system, which originates on Java, on all of the islands of Indonesia, erasing existing indigenous systems of administration.  After the fall of Suharto the provincial government of West Sumatra (Sumatra Barat), which is the Minang heartland, reinstated the jorong system. 

(2)  "Hutan belantara seperti menyelemuti desa itu.  Di selingi kicauan fauna dari arah hutan, pengunjung akan merasa semakin damai.  Tak ada suara mesin sinso yang menderu-deru, seperti di kawasan lain yang juga bertetangga dengan hutan".

(3)  Most of the time when people in low-lying coastal areas plant oil palms, they use seedlings that have already grown in a nursery for a year or so, which reduces the time they have to wait to start harvesting.  These trees look to be planted not from starter seedlings but from seeds themselves.  

(4)  See articles 7, 9, 12, and 13 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Also consider the concept of national treatment, a fundamental tenet of international law that goes all the way back to Kant.  In addition, it's a really stupid rule.  Imagine if the US government required foreign visitors to visit the sheriff's office every time they entered a different county.  Plus once you visit the district police and get your letter of recognition (which takes time depending on the district) you get sent to another office called KESBANGPOLINMAS where you have to receive another letter.

(5)  I've heard villagers complain about the excessive arrogance of certain park rangers, but this is the first time I'd experienced it directly.  On the other hand, I've met with at least 50 TNKS staffers and have worked closely with some amongst these and have found their dedication, professionalism, and competence to be superlative.  

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Svetlana the Bear: Human-Animal Conflicts in and Around Kerinci Seblat National Park

This is Svetlana (1).  Svetlana is a Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus; "Beruang Madu" or "honey bear" in Indonesian) and is a temporary border at the headquarters of Kerinci Seblat National Park here in Sungai Penuh town.  Svetlana was caught in a trap near Sungai Asam village at the foot of Gunung Tujuh in the northern part of Kerinci district.  Villagers called the park authorities (though Svetlana was not trapped inside the park), who came, tranquilizered her with a blowgun, and spirited her away to the park office for medical treatment.  Svetlana was seriously injured by the snare in which she was caught, with wire cutting through the skin of her neck into her muscle.  Fortunately park officials got to her quickly, and our local veterinarian, Dr. Dwi, was able to remove the wire and stitch up her neck.  She's currently irritable but recovering at the park office, but she doesn't seem to have much of an appetite.  Dr. Dwi hopes she will start eating again within a couple of days.  In the picture below you can see the damage the snare did to Svetlana's neck.

According to the villagers the snare was set to catch wild pigs, which  are seen as a crop pest here.  

The Malayan Sun Bear

Map from IUCN.  Visit their site to play with the cool map tool that shows
the ranges of a number of vulnerable and endangered species.
The Malayan sun bear is the smallest of all bear species (2), with females ranging between 27-50 kilograms and males between 27-65 kilograms.  Svetlana is a bit more than 50 kilograms, so she is on the larger end.  The sun bear's range stretches from India through most of mainland Southeast Asia and on down to Sumatra and Borneo.  They are quite flexible and inhabit most altitudinal zones from sea-level peat swamps to upper montane forests, though research indicates they favor lowland tropical hardwood forests (3).  Their snouts are flexible, and they have very long tongues.  Sun bears are omnivorous, meaning that they eat lots of different things, including fruit, plants, insects (the long tongue probably helps with this), and smaller creatures.  One of the first things you notice about the sun bear is its long claws, which allow it to climb trees with ease.  The sun bear has a wide range on Sumatra and is not just confined to protected areas like Kerinci Seblat National Park; they are also occasionally found in production and protection forests as well, though according to Indonesia-specific research they are very susceptible to edge effects and tend to avoid disturbed or degraded forests.  Though some sources say they are aggressive, most of the folks I've talked to here say that the sun bear only attacks if it feels threatened and that it's not likely to attack without reason. 

Close up of IUCN map showing current and former bear habitat in this area of Sumatra.

Across their habitat bears have an important role in the maintenance of ecosystem balance.  Augeri, who did his doctoral dissertation research on sun bears at several Indonesian national parks (see references), found that bears eat a lot of fruit and later spread the seeds in their feces.  This helps with forest regeneration, persistence, and evolution.  Bears also help with soil mixing and aeration, biomass breakdown, and nutrient enhancement when they root around in the soil looking for termite and ant colonies.  

Villagers said that Svetlana was with two other bears, but this couldn't be confirmed by park officials.  Sun bears are not as solitary as clouded leopards or tigers, especially when raising their cubs, so it makes sense.  Authorities at the park say that these kinds of encounters are becoming increasingly frequent because of the diminishing size of the bear's natural habitat.  Although Malayan sun bears are not normally aggressive, they are said to become more dangerous if their habitat is disturbed or if they feel threatened. 

Human-Bear Conflicts

Bear parts seized by authorities in
Malaysia.  Photo from Shepherd &
Shepherd; see citation below
The sun bear is listed as a "vulnerable" species (a step above endangered) on the IUCN's Red List.  Though the sun bear is frequently described as the most under-studied of the world's bear species, the IUCN estimates that the global population of sun bears has declined by more than 30% over the past 30 years and various sources suggest that a total of around 5,000 sun bears remain in the wild.  Illegal logging, encroachment, and other forms of habitat destruction have all taken a toll on the sun bear population in the area and across its range.  The sun bear also faces poaching pressures, as its gall bladder is used for "medicinal" purposes and some people view bear meat as a delicacy.  On Sumatra there are frequent reports of palm oil plantation employees hunting bears to sell to restaurants.  Bear claws and teeth are also sold as souvenirs.    Like all poaching, the trade is completely unrecorded and under the radar so it's hard to get accurate estimates as to the scale of the problem.  The park authorities at KSNP handle on average between 2-4 instances of conflict per year, and most if not all of these can be traced to some form of habitat encroachment or destruction.  Outside the park there is are conflicts reported nearly every month.  In terms of poaching, even outside the park bears are a protected species under Law 5 from 1990 on the conservation of biodiversity.  Regardless of the law, though, Augeri's study found that according to "interviews with regional and village heads and traditional leaders...[there is] concerted interest each year to hunt bears for body parts or meat, to reduce fear of attacks, to take bears for the pet trade, and to kill bears perceived as pests" (285).  One of the main worries is that as sun bears are poached from the Malay peninsula the population will decrease there and then demand will shift to Indonesia, further exacerbating the poaching problem here.   

Here on Sumatra the greatest threat to the bear is habitat loss and fragmentation.  Habitat loss forces more bears into a smaller area, since they tend to avoid disturbed areas.  Augeri found that 92.7% of observed bear activity occurred in undisturbed forest and that tree species diversity, forage abundance, mature stand traits, and forest cover were important variables associated with 97% of habitat use.  Since bears are large omnivores, they don't rely on once source of food and move around to find small animals, insects, fruits, and honey which vary temporally and spatially in their availability.  Food sources are much less abundant in degraded and secondary forests, and Augeri found that it takes 25-30 years for cleared or degraded forests to recover to the point that sun bears feel comfortable there.  Augeri argues that sun bears prefer security over food, and so they are more susceptible to forest loss than a lot of other species.  When habitats are fragmented small sub-populations of bears are created, and these are more susceptible to local extinctions.  This is why habitat corridors are very important in sun bear (and other animal) conservation.  Moreover more bears in smaller areas increases stress and decreases reproductive success and persistence. One might ask why, if sun bears tend to avoid degraded areas, are human-bear conflicts a problem here.  The answer to this question could be that forest loss forces too many bears into too small an area, and so some are forced to raid human occupied areas.  

Protecting the Sun Bear

Augeri presents some interesting recommendations for protecting the sun bear in Indonesia and brings up two key points that will be important in future conservation efforts:

  1. Predicting how biogeography, changing landscape structures, random environmental events, and anthropogenic (people-caused) disturbances like hunting affect bear movements and foraging patterns across time and in increasing patchy landscapes;
  2. Facilitating increased access for bears to available critical resources and habitat over the long term.

Based on this Augeri recommends that Indonesia provide landscape-level protection of the largest remaining forests in the region, make a strong effort to restore degraded lands, and implement and enforce stronger conservation policies and protective mechanisms.  Augeri found that bear use of habitat didn't reach consistently high levels until 10 kilometers from disturbed areas.  This is quite a long way and suggests the need for large, effective protected areas like Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra and Kerinci Seblat National Park here in central, west, and south Sumatra.  These are the only two parks on Sumatra that fit the recommended 10,000 square kilometers.  In addition Augeri suggests that these core areas be connected by corridors (at least 8-10 kilometers wide) to other patches of primary forest of at least 200 square kilometers so that fragmented populations can interact and mix.  Another part of this "time-space mosaic" is a buffer zone surrounding the core areas at least 5 kilometers wide.  The buffer zone can be secondary forest, but it must be remembered that a minimum of 25-30 years are required for forests to regenerate to the level where they can support moderate bear populations.  Augeri suggests that agroforestry projects like organic shade-grown tea or coffee can take place in some of the buffer zone but there shouldn't be anything in these areas to attract foraging bears and that garbage and other food should be disposed of in bear-proof containers that can be emptied outside the buffer zone in proper disposal sites.  Below you can see a diagram of Augeri's proposed system of parks and reserves for bears, taken from his dissertation.  

Augeri's plan is pretty ambitious especially given the pressures facing bears here and the current lack of political will in many areas of Sumatra to actually make protected areas work.  Hopefully though Augeri's very thorough research will be of use in future conservation areas.  Meanwhile, bears continue to be affected by a high rate of forest clearance and degradation.  The plan is to release Svetlana back into the park if and when she recovers fully from her injuries, which will hopefully happen in within two or three weeks.  My friends at the park told me that she will be released in the Bukit Tapan area since it is sparsely populated, but it is also a significant distance from where she was found


(1)  I was raised in an era when bears were associated with the Red Menace, hence the Russian name.  The folks at the park office are calling the bear "Manis", which translates to "sweety" or "sweetness".

(2)  Though it's described as about half the size of the American black bear, by which I've personally been chased, my ranger friends say "you think it's small until you meet one in the forest".

(3)  The problem with this is that these are the types of forests that are easiest to log or to convert to other uses.

References and For Further Reading

IUCN Redlist page here.

Augeri, David.  2005.  On the Biogeographic Ecology of the Malayan Sun Bear.  PhD dissertation, Darwin College, Cambridge.  Available online here

Shepherd, Chris and Loretta Ann Shepherd.  2010.  The Poaching and Trade of Malayan Sun Bears in Peninsular Malaysia.  TRAFFIC Bulletin 23:1 pp49-52


Thanks to Julian Bloomer for mentioning Geografika Nusantara as a good source of information in his blog.  Julian has been bicycling around the world since 2008 in support of the Peter McVerry Trust in Ireland, a charity that provides support for houseless people there.  Peter recently passed through this area (though unfortunately I didn't have a chance to meet him in person) and has some pretty interesting stories, which you can read about on his blog.    

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Clouded Leopard's Secret...

The picture to the left is the cover of The Clouded Leopard's Secret, a book for children written by Karen Povey of the Clouded Leopard Project and illustrated by Heather Hudson.  The book tells the story of Bujang, who grew up near the forest and became a wildlife biologist, and his research on the clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), one of the animals protected in Kerinci Seblat National Park (and other places across Southeast Asia).  Bujang uses camera traps, radio collars, and other methods to learn more about the habits of the clouded leopard, which is rarely photographed and almost never seen.  Karen wrote the beautifully illustrated book to raise awareness about conservation issues and to help raise funds to support field projects across Southeast Asia.  She also gave support to a recent project to translate the book into Indonesian.  The translation was done by my good friend (and Kerinci Seblat National Park mapping officer) Iding Haidir and his lovely wife Nanan Hayati.  The first shipment of 1,500 copies of the translated book arrived at the park office last week, ready to be distributed to local children.

The Clouded Leopard

Map of distribution of two species of clouded leopard from
Clouded Leopard Project website.

Two species of clouded leopards are found in the forests of Southeast Asia.  Clouded leopards are genetically related to lions, tigers, and jaguars (they are more distantly related to other leopards) but they are the smallest of the big cats.  Because clouded leopards are quite rare and tend to be solitary, they are relatively under-studied.  Clouded leopards mainly inhabit tropical rain forests, but they've also been spotted in logged forests, mangrove swamps, and grasslands.  They weigh between 35 and 50 pounds (15.8-22.7 kilograms) on average and take their English name from the markings on their pelt.  They have been known to live as long as 17 years in captivity, but in the wild their lifespan would be shorter.  Clouded leopards are excellent climbers and their short legs and low center of gravity enable them to climb up and down trees like squirrels.  Clouded leopards prey on birds, monkeys deer, and wild pigs and do most of their hunting on the ground.  The animal's territory ranges from 20-50 square kilometers, so in order to maintain viable populations a significant amount of undisturbed, protected forest is needed. 

Clouded leopards have the largest canine teeth relative to their body size of all large cats.  I swiped this picture
without permission from Flikr.  The excellent photo was taken by a guy that goes by the handle of Nikographer.  

Clouded leopards are classified as "vulnerable" (one step above endangered) by the IUCN, though the US Fish and Wildlife Service classifies them as endangered.  They The are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement effective since 1975 which aims to end trafficking in endangered species.  Because of limited field research efforts, it is impossible to accurately estimate the extent of remaining populations of clouded leopards, though experts think that their numbers are declining.

Saving Sang Macan Dahan

Photo from CLP
Karen Povey, who also works at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, told me in an email that the goal of the Clouded Leopard Project (CLP) is to raise awareness of clouded leopard and other wild cat conservation issues in Southeast Asia.  "So many of these species are unknown to both local folks and people around the world that we are committed to raising their profile," she said.  The CLP has programs where interested folks can "adopt a camera trap", which enables researchers to deploy more active-sensor cameras in the field, which allows them to gather more data about the habits of the elusive cat.  You can also adopt a wild clouded leopard, with proceeds going to support CLP projects.  Karen told me that the clouded leopard is one of the flagship species at her zoo and that the zoo also has outreach efforts and works in partnership with the CLP.  One of the best things about CLP's approach is that it recognizes the importance of involving researchers and conservationists from countries that have clouded leopards, and they provide funds for projects run by local researchers, as well as support to attend conferences and seminars.  This is really important in places like Indonesia, because often times there isn't enough money in the government's budget to send protected area staff to these events, but in many cases these are the folks that know the most about the clouded leopard (and other animals) and the challenges facing conservationists.  

Another clouded leopard picture I lifted without permission from the net from this site.  

In addition to Iding's translation of The Clouded Leopard's Secret, the CLP organized a mural competition here in Sungai Penuh (where the headquarters of Kerinci Seblat National Park is located).  Twenty groups of two participants each took part in the event, and they were allowed to pick their own themes and genres.  In addition to this competition the CLP provided support for a teacher training workshop here in which local educators learned how to use the Indonesian Wild Cat Teacher's Guide in their classes.  The teachers were also taken to the Temedak Customary Forest (Hutan Adat Temedak) in Keluru here in Kerinci district.  Here they learned about local uses of non-timber forest products.  I myself have personally been to this adat forest and can attest to it being a great example of sustainable forest use by a local community.  

Iding, who has extensive field experience and formal training in conservation, told me that the clouded leopard is one of his favorite animals (the golden cat being the other) because it's still relatively unknown.  He told me that he wants to increase the clouded leopard's profile at the park, because now KSNP is known mainly for its tigers.  He also said that there are occasions where clouded leopards attack goats and other domesticated animals, but tigers get blamed.  This is problematic because the steps taken to mitigate conflicts could be different for tigers and clouded leopards.  Iding hopes that KSNP will become a center for clouded leopard research and is actively working to bring more researchers, both from Indonesia and abroad, to the park.

Iding also explained his philosophy on successful conservation to me.  He said that there are three key elements:

  1. Science-based management backed up by valid research;
  2. Effective law enforcement
  3. Awareness and action on the part of people living in and around the conservation area.  

He said that the first is pretty well developed at KSNP, and while the second is somewhat lacking it's the third area that is most in need of improvement.  He said his goal with the book translation project (and other outreach activities) is to foster a sense of ownership among local people and to make them proud of having the clouded leopard in the park.  He told me that his third point requires the "translation" of scientific and enforcement language into local terms so that villagers can become an active part of conservation.  I asked Iding how he explains the importance of the clouded leopard to villagers, and he said that it is "the front door" to introduce people to the importance of ecosystem health and environmental services.  He explained that in nature there is a balance between predators and prey, and this relationship is part of the larger ecological relationships that exist in the forest.  If this is upset then bad things happen; one of the clearest examples he uses is an increase in deer and wild pig populations, as both of these animals are farm pests but at the same time are food for the clouded leopard.  He told me that Indonesia in general has a lot of vulnerable and endangered species, but this isn't something to be proud of.  Lastly, he situates the clouded leopard in the context of Islam (the people in this area are overwhelmingly Muslim).  He tells them that all creatures are part of Allah's grand design, and even if we don't understand the purpose of a particular animal it is our duty to respect and protect it.  

I really like the story in The Clouded Leopard's Secret because it describes the issue from the local perspective.  Karen made her biologist Indonesian, and so hopefully local kids will be turned on to a new possible career path and start to see the forest and its occupants as a resource and asset.  If you'd like to obtain a copy of the book, you can get it (US$8.95) though the Clouded Leopard Project's website.


Many thanks to Iding Hadir and Karen Povey for chatting with me about clouded leopards and to the Clouded Leopard Project for permission to use information and images from their website.  

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Road to Renah Pemetik: When Getting There is Half the Fun

If you look at the map I've included to the left you can see Kerinci Seblat National Park.  The enclave in the middle there is the Kerinci Valley, where I live in the town of Sungai Penuh.  If you look closely you can see a small arm of land that stretches up to the northwest and then north out of the main Kerinci Valley that isn't covered by the park.  This is Renah Pemetik, and there are a few (maybe 5) villages with some rice fields and coffee, tobacco, and pepper fields up there.  The total population is probably somewhere between 3-5,000 people.  I went up to Renah Pemetik twice over the past week with my field assistant to look around and talk to folks because this is the site of one of the 33 or so proposed roads that would go through the park.  This particular road would link up Pelompek (where Gunung Tujuh in previous posts is) to Renah Pemetik and then continue over to Bungo, the next district to the east.  As I've mentioned previously, conservationists abhor the idea of roads through the park because of the ecological impacts, whereas local governments are adamantly in favor of the roads as a way to improve the economy.  The Renah Pemetik road is probably going to be a hot issue in the coming year because the current district headman, who is up for re-election next year, has said that he wants to make the Renah Pemetik area the "lumbung padi" (breadbasket) of the Kerinci region, and part of that plan is the road to Bungo, which he's declared several times he will build.  The problem is that any road through the park requires approval from the Ministry of Forestry, and they've already rejected this particular road once.  The headman's recent statements make no mention of the park or the legal obstacles; only his intention to build the road.  We had a pretty good time fooling around with our compasses and GPS units, and the local folks gave us all sorts of interesting information.

Over the Hills and Through the Trees

Like many places on Sumatra, getting to Renah Pemetik is something of an ordeal.  Although there is a new road directly over the hills from Kerinci Valley via Sungai Tutung, it has not yet been surfaced and so we took the old route through the villages of Hiang and the Pungut area.  Once you get passed Pungut Hilir village the road becomes a lot more difficult.  Though the regional government has recently widened and "improved" the road, this one also hasn't been surfaced and so there are some hairy spots, especially after it rains.  In the picture you can see my assistant pushing his motorcycle through one of the muddy spots.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, when the local government builds roads through the Bukit Barisan mountains they normally make really steep cuts through the hills.  If you've ever passed through the Appalachian mountains you've seen steep road cuts, but the difference is that those mountains are made of granite and other hard rock that doesn't collapse easily whereas the hills here are composed of a high percentage of soil and saprolite.  As a result landslides are a frequent occurrence here because the roads aren't engineered with slope stability in mind.  Have a look at the picture for an example.  This particular road will most certainly collapse at some point in the future.  In the picture below you can see another problem with roads through forests and mountains that doesn't normally make the common lists of ecological impacts: the debris from road cuts or landslides can block up streams creating an artificial marsh.  As you can see from the photo the water is really muddy and it is killing all the trees in the flooded area. 

The Rice has Already Become Porridge

The road to Renah Pemetik is supposed to thread the needle through that narrow neck of area that connects the valley to the larger Kerinci area.  I had heard some concerns that the new road goes through the park, but I'd also heard that it doesn't, so along the way I took UTM coordinates and compared them to my map.  As it turns out, the road does indeed go through the park (I've indicated the approved route and the true on the ground route in the picture below; the approved route is indicated by the black line whereas the actual route is shown by the red line.  The park boundaries are depicted by the green lines with circles which show the locations of border markers), so evidently the regional government disregarded the warnings of the Ministry of Forestry and decided to go ahead and construct an illegal road.  It's easy to see why the would do this; there isn't really much monitoring and there don't seem to be any consequences.  Who do you hold accountable?  Who do you arrest?  And by the time the road is constructed the damage is done and there isn't anything you can do about it. In the meantime, pioneering farmers move in and clear land to the left and the right of the road, which has happened in this case.  We saw a lot of new coffee plots on the edges of this road inside the park.

Illegal cultivation of coffee along the illegal road.  Note
the road cut, which will eventually collapse.
This is part of what I've termed the "nasi sudah menjadi bubur" strategy.  This is an Indonesian idiom that means "the rice has already become porridge", and is similar to the French-cum-English expression "fait accompli".  It means that something has already come to pass and that you can't turn back time.  Thus when a road is built, be it legal or illegal, it's really hard to do anything about it.  You can see this in the Renah Pemetik case.  In addition the regional government has obviously made a pretty significant, with drainage culverts along the side of the road as you can see in the picture.  The road is pretty wide as well, and though there are sections that are hard to pass, for the most part traffic can flow pretty freely.  The local government has built this road in anticipation of the construction of the aforementioned road to Muara Bungo.  What this seems to do though is to increase immigration into the area (1) and so the population of the area increases, as does the land under cultivation.  More people creates more demand for services like schools and electricity, but also it creates a stronger voice for further infrastructure improvement.  More farmers making more produce adds to the demand (and economic rationale) for increased connectivity.  So from one perspective the argument for the new road through the park gets stronger.  I'm not ready to definitive call this an intentional strategy on the part of the local government to undermine the park, but I'm leaning in that direction.  

Working it out

We use a technique called "triangulation" to get a rough estimate of the location of forest encroachment and cultivation that we are either unable or too lazy to get to.  Basically this involves making a big triangle with three points and then figuring out the angles and lengths of the sides.  To triangulate a position you have to have two known points and you have to know the distance between them.  If you have a good map with landmarks on it you can use those, or you can take coordinates with your GPS (if it's pretty accurate) and then use a mapping program or trigonometry to determine the distance between them.  My field assistant and I generally determine the distance with pace counts, which is less accurate but quicker.  We've pre-measured how many steps it takes us to traverse 10 meters and 20 meters, and so in the field we pace off the distance between our two known points.  If you are on a road and trying to determine the location of a place off the road, this works ok.

Next you use your lensatic compass to take an azimuth to the unknown point from each of your known points.  You also need to take an azimuth from one known point to the other (it's better if you do a back azimuth as well).  With these readings you can figure out two angles of your triangle, and since all the angles of every triangle add up to 180 degrees, you can figure out the third angle.  By this point you should have three angles on one side measured, and so you can use the Law of Sines to figure out the remaining two sides.  That gives you a rough estimate of how far away the unknown point is.  Obviously the more care you put into taking your measurements, the more accurate you're results will be.  You can see the technique illustrated in the diagram above this paragraph.

The people in the area are all in favor of the new roads from Pelompek and then on to Muara Bungo.  They all support the current district headman, who has visited the area 4 times over the past 2-3 years to mingle with the people.  It is also reported that he (along with other local leaders) has acquired a significant amount of land in the area.  Most of the folks that have moved into Renah Pemetik over the past few years are from the headman's home turf as well.  They also told us how the newly improved road south out of the area has improved their lives.  It is easier to get agricultural produce to market and the cost of goods and transport is cheaper, so they have more money to spend on their children's educations.  Most people in the area portray the park as an obstacle to local development, but then again many of them moved into the area knowing that land is limited and that cultivation within the park is illegal.  Moreover, there is often a tendency to portray the road issue as a trade off between local livelihoods and conservation.  But in this particular case it seems like the existing road could have been built without going through the park.  The mushrooming of illegal cultivation along the road strengthen the argument of conservationists that, if a new road were to be built, it would lead to a sharp increase in forest crimes and habitat destruction.  


(1)  I don't have numbers or stats to back this up; just information gleaned from interviews.