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.  


  1. I like how they didn't add a new road because of the forest. By keeping the forest safe it will keep the animals safe. How long have the people requested a new road? Also, if they do build a new road, will it be safe for the people?

  2. They have been lobbying for a road for at least 3-4 years now. As in safe for the people, it depends on what you mean by "safe". Overall though the rate of traffic accidents and fatalities in Indonesia is higher than in the US.