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.  

1 comment:

  1. In my opinion, it is unfair to give most of the developmental loans to Bangun Rejo Village. I think the money should be dispersed evenly among the other villages. It also seems like since the other villages are not getting these loans and help, that they have decided to start planting palm oil palms and coffee inside the park with disregards to the rules to sustain what they can.