Friday, July 20, 2012

Development Versus Conservation? A False Dichotomy at Kerinci Seblat National Park

Kerinci Seblat National Park (green) and
surrounding districts
One major "dilemma" that frequently crops up is a so-called dichotomy between conservation and development. In simpler terms we can think of this as nature versus the economy. The general notion is that you can have one or the other but not both, and when you have conservation it impedes development. Over the past year I've been doing research around Sumatra's Kerinci Seblat National Park, and I frequently hear this line of thinking when I talk to government officials. This discourse also gets carried in the local press, and so the average person on the street often echoes this reasoning as well. But it's not just limited to government officials; "experts" and "academics" sometimes echo this zero-sum game logic too. In fact, a couple of weeks ago at an international conference during a research presentation a scholar pointed to economic development (and population growth) as the major determinants of conservation failure in Indonesia. I took issue with the assertion, and in this post I'll tell you why.

"Development" and the geography of Sumatra

From BAPPENAS masterplan
There are definitely incompatibilities between conservation and a certain type of development, and this is the root of a lot of problems, at least here in central Sumatra.  To understand this we need to look at the economic geography of Sumatra.  The island is overwhelmingly agricultural, and the majority of people make their living off the land, farming relatively small plots of rice, horticultural products, or tree crops.

But the island is also very rich in mineral wealth; there is a great deal of coal and rich deposits of industrial metals are scattered here and there.  There's also a lot of gold on Sumatra.  So mining, most of it small to medium scale, is a major economic activity here.  In fact, when we look at the national planning agency's (BAPPENAS) long-term "master plan" for the nation's economic development, Sumatra figures in as a key source of raw materials, some to be used in industry on Java and some to be exported.  Extractive enterprises like mining are the key to the future for Sumatra, at least according to official plans.

We can also see this reflected in the regional spatial plans that the districts formulate to guide policy and development priorities.  In order to raise district revenues and increase the "prosperity of society" (kesejahteraan masyarakat), district governments are looking to mining as a key sector.  In addition to this, expansion of industrial plantations, like palm oil, figures in as an important component as well.  District governments try to attract investors to do exploration to gauge the size of mineral deposits which will later translate into more mining and, theoretically at least, more locally-generated revenue to fund government programs.  At the same time the district governments improve or create new infrastructure, like roads, that would make it easier to get mined materials out of the district.

The trouble with commodities...

Amidst the endless acres of oil palms in Mukomuko
There are a number of problems with these primary sector activities, though.  The first problem is with the types of jobs that are created.  These are primarily low-skill labor jobs that don't pay much.  As an example, we can look at Mukomuko district in Bengkulu province, where the district has adopted a strategy of increasing the land cultivated by industrial palm oil plantations.  Laborers on these plantations earn an average of 37,500 rupiah (about US$4) per day.  The average annual per capita income in Bengkulu province (2008) is 8,798,818 rupiah (US$946), and so a plantation laborer needs to work 234 days per year to reach this level.  Subtracting weekends there are about 250 working days per year, not including holidays and vacation time.  Thus according to these very simple calculations, laborers on palm oil estates are making right at the provincial average.  The problem is that Bengkulu is one of the poorer provinces in the country, and the average income there is only 41% of the national average.  The same story holds true for those working in mining.  Thus we see that the jobs that are created aren't really elevating the prosperity of society.

A second major problem is that a development strategy that relies on commodity extraction and agricultural extensification doesn't really address the needs of the people in this part of Sumatra.  As proof of this we can again refer to the regional spatial plans, which describe in detail the weaknesses of the various district economies along with the types of policy interventions that are needed to address those weaknesses.  For example, the spatial plan of Kerinci district, where I live, suggests that the most urgent reforms are needed in regional land management, agricultural extension, and value-added enterprises.  The first refers to the problem of "sleeping land"; land that is useable and zoned for agriculture but is not currently under cultivation for one reason or another.  Here in Kerinci we find that a major reason for not farming land is speculation and investment.  The second refers to a lack of skills on the part of farmers.  For the most part they don't know how to sustainably manage their land for maximum yields, and many are trapped in a cycle of debt whereby they mortgage future crops to pay for fertilizer, seeds, and pesticides.  There are not sufficient training programs and other extension services for the farmers here.  Most farmers here live harvest to harvest and so there is no capital accumulation.  The third problem refers to the fact that there is not much processing of agricultural products here.  For example, a major crop in Kerinci is potatoes.  Farmers sell their potatoes to a middleman who transports the potatoes to market in Padang, 7 hours away.

Kerinci potatoes.  I lifted this picture from Antara because
when I was writing this post I realized I have never taken
any pictures of potatoes here.  
Now there are a couple of problems with the potato business here.  The first is the distance to market.  It is a long way to Padang and the roads are bad.  So this increases the transport cost and thus cuts into the profit margin for the farmers.  In addition to this Indonesian potatoes are currently facing stiff competition from cheaper potatoes imported from China and other places, and so lots of Indonesian potatoes end up rotting or being sold for less than the cost of production.  Why don't the farmers grow something else?  Well the answer to this question is tied to the lack of skills I referred to in the above paragraph.  Farmers don't know how to grow anything else, and there isn't any way for them to learn.  I have conducted numerous interviews with farmers and village heads in Kerinci, and these three problems that are highlighted in the regional spatial plan are indeed at the top of their list of complaints.  Moreover, I have observed and interviewed a number of farmers both in Kerinci and other districts with formal training in agriculture, and they experience higher yields and a lower incidence of crop failure than their untrained neighbors.

Instead of addressing these difficulties, though, the district government relies on a strategy of agricultural extensification, seeking to increase the area under cultivation.  But as you might imagine this merely perpetuates and expands the problems of agriculture in the district.  The district government has failed to prioritize training and extension, land reform, and agribusiness.  The reasons for this, according to my observations, are complex but are rooted in local political processes.  Elections for district headman (bupati) are based more on the amount of spending (legal and illegal) rather than actual political platforms.  Thus the guy with the most money to buy votes generally wins.  In order to get money, candidates form alliances with local financiers to form a "success team" (tim sukses).  In return for their support, success team members are often given positions as heads of local government agencies (DINAS) or are given preferential treatment in tendering and bidding for projects.

This leads to district-level offices being run by people whose skills, training, and experience is not consistent with the demands of the job.  In addition, civil servants are often moved from agency to agency for political purposes.  I have spoken with numerous government officials that complain of being moved around from agency to agency every couple of years.  Thus the typical district government office is loaded with people that aren't really suited for the positions they occupy, and many of them are not motivated to address the challenges of the job.  As a result, policy formation and implementation suffers.  We can imagine a continuum of public policy ranging from higher level activities, which require a great deal of coordination, skill, and commitment, to lower-level activities that are rather simple and easy to implement.  Things like land reform and comprehensive agricultural extension would be on the higher end of this continuum.  They are difficult things to implement, but not impossible if you have the right people doing the job.  On the other hand you have things like expanded the land under cultivation, which isn't really that difficult to implement.  My argument is that because of the way politics works here, there is a bias towards policy activities on the lower end of this spectrum.  Making new roads would be another.

A third major problem with this strategy for development is rooted in the logic of the strategy itself.  Since the fall of longtime authoritarian president Suharto in 1998 Indonesia has transferred a great deal of political and administrative authority to the districts as a reaction against the top-down authoritarian structure of the Suharto years.  But at the same time the districts are supposed to generate more of their operating funds, which during the Suharto years came directly from the central government in the form of numerous grants and payments.  The districts want to increase revenues to pay for the activities of government, like education, health, and other services.  But the problem is that regional autonomy has greatly increased corruption at the district level, and so a significant amount of money is "lost" by a variety of means.  Thus more locally generated revenue means more money lost in corruption.  This is related to the political dynamic I described above; people want to be on the team success because it is a way to get control of a government office, where they can enrich themselves through corrupt practices, which further hinders policy making.

What's this have to do with conservation?

As I mentioned before (and in previous posts), I focus on Kerinci and Mukomuko because these are two of the districts that border Kerinci Seblat National Park.  In fact, more than 50% of Kerinci district is covered by the park.  The district headman complains that the park, which is under the control of the national government, hinders development in the district because farming, logging, mining, and other activities are forbidden there.  Thus the reasoning goes that the district is economically crippled because of conservation, and development options are limited.  The headman is very vocal in his criticism of the park, and his views, which are frequently covered in the local press, filter down to the people of the district, and so there is a general feeling of hostility towards the park.  But the park has become a scapegoat used to deflect attention away from the political leadership's inability to promote real "development" in the district.  Thus we see the false dichotomy between development and conservation being perpetuated.

In addition the bias towards infrastructure projects like roads, which is in part motivated by corruption (infrastructure projects provide numerous opportunities for graft, and so infrastructure development is a favorite of regional governments) place pressure on the park in two ways.  First they have direct ecological impacts, which I've described in previous posts.  Second they have the indirect effect of opening up new areas in or on the edge of the park to encroachment, logging, and other illegal activities.  The districts want to build roads through the park because it decreases transport costs and thus increases the profit margins on extractive activities.  In some cases a mineral deposit that is not worth mining may become profitable if the transport costs are decreased.  And so when road projects through the park are rejected the district governments claim that the park is impeding local development.  Conservation becomes a burden.

This is a big challenge for the park because it can't interfere in district level politics.  Moreover, because these problems are structural in nature, there is no quick-fix.  Meanwhile the park is undermined by the false development-conservation dichotomy while the long-term outlook of the surrounding districts is compromised, because extractive activities and agricultural extensification and the development strategy that relies on them do not take into consideration the ecological costs of these activities, which generally manifest themselves several years down the line.


  1. Your point regarding the types of jobs created by resource extraction is true, but I'd guess that those in favor of it see the low-quality jobs generated by it as temporary; the profits from the industry theoretically being used to fuel development that leads to better employment opportunities down the road. But that's really just a guess.

    You provide a good argument for the falsehood of an economy/conservation dichotomy around Kerinci National Park. However, it only holds true as long as the quality of agricultural production remains low. Should the local government suddenly switch tracks and focus on providing the requisite education for farmers to manage their land effectively as you suggest, the profits from agricultural cultivation will rise. Once farming is significantly profitable, the region could benefit economically by converting sections of the park to farmland. So while it is true that the classic dichotomy does not exist in the districts near Kerinci currently, the solution to their current difficulties will cause it to emerge.

  2. Hi Dustin. Thanks for another good comment. From what I've seen from the people that work in low-paid extractive industries, they really don't think too long term and are more living week to week or month to month. Sure they think about life down the road, but for the most part their planning is constrained. I have never met someone working on an industrial palm oil plantation that tells me something like "well, I'm going to do this for a couple of years until I save up enough to go to tech school" or something like that. It just doesn't happen, according to my experience. As for the quality of agricultural production, it does have a tendency to remain low because there is no investment in increasing the skills of the farmers in general. That is one of the points I'm trying to make here; if the district government was more concerned about the level of human capital rather than extensification, there would likely be an increase in not only agricultural production and income but also living standards as well.

  3. The most interesting part of this entry to be about the lack of skill the farmers have for the area. It would stand to reason that after a couple generations, there would have been an improvement in techniques to increase yield and maximize profitability that could be more sustainable. I would be curious to know if these are a “new generation” of farmers that rely on non-native species grown for profit only or farming people that have adopted new crops in the hopes of cashing in. In either case, it’s disappointing that the local agencies haven’t taken more initiative in educating their people or establishing a broader range of agricultural products.

  4. Local governments in South-Eastern Asia never seen to invest in training to increase the skills and knowledge of local farmers or even other matters. It's the main reason the economy is low in most southeastern Asian countries. Politics there have some degree of financial power but they do not use it for the peoples needs because majority of the politicians don't even have the right amount of skill or are just unfortunately greedy.

  5. I find the level of corruption and inability of the government to expand regional development to be disturbing as well as unacceptable. Extractors companies are inevitable in an area as rich as this one in minerals, but the government needs to take bigger precautions in controlling these companies and expanding the local economy to allow for a more higher skilled labor force through more liberal government policies and training regimens. Im curious on the progress of this park, please keep us updated.