Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Emma's Organic Compost: It's Got What Plants Crave

Emma in front of new, high capacity biogas/compost setup

This is my friend Emma.  Emma runs a small non-government organization (NGO) called Lembaga Tumbuh Alami, or "LTA" for short.  Emma and LTA were one of my official sponsors and partners while I was in Indonesia doing my dissertation fieldwork, and over the course of my year there I had the opportunity to work closely with LTA and observe and participate in some of their projects.  Emma and LTA have been administering projects in and around Kerinci Seblat National Park for about a decade now.  LTA focuses on the environment and one of their main objectives is to support Kerinci Seblat National Park (where I was doing my fieldwork), but there is a strong commitment to social justice that plays an important part in LTA's philosophy.  In other words, Emma and LTA believe that the only way the park can survive is to help the people living around the park improve their livelihoods so that their dependency on the park decreases.  LTA's programs attempt to train farmers and other villagers so that they are less likely to enter the park to hunt illegally, cut down trees, or encroach. 

The LTA Organic Compost/Biogas Project

One of LTA's signature projects involves decrease farmers' dependence on chemical fertilizers.  Farmers across Sumatra and throughout Indonesia in general have a pretty heavy reliance on expensive, synthetically-produced fertilizers.  While these fertilizers usually increase yields, they are expensive, in some cases contributing to farmers being mired in a cycle of debt, and there are real questions about the long-term impacts of the fertilizers on the health of the soil.  In addition, there are also concerns about the effects of fertilizers towards the health of people.  Moreover, excess fertilizer running into streams can have very significant impacts on the ecology of streams. 

With all these things in mind LTA began a project a few years ago aimed at replacing at least some of the chemical fertilizers with organic fertilizer produced from livestock manure and the waste left over when rice and other crops are harvested.  The idea was to construct small holding bins and tanks where organic waste could be stored.  Although organic waste will break down naturally, this takes time, so the LTA project introduces an active micro-organism to speed up the process.  After a couple of months of decay and fermentation, the organic compost is ready to be spread on crops.

Organic compost ready to use.
A sizeable quantity of methane is produced from this process as well.  Methane is quite combustible and can be used as a fuel, so the LTA compost project utilizes a system to collect the methane.  Pipes then deliver the methane to a burner or other household appliance, and so in addition to receiving free, healthy organic compost, the participating farmers get enough fuel to operate 1-1 gas burners, which is sufficient to boil water or cook rice, the two primary uses cooking fuel in the villages here.  In many villages the primary cooking fuel is wood, and so the gas has a number of really significant benefits: 1) villagers don't have to spend time looking for firewood; 2) they can save money if they formerly bought firewood; 3) pressure on the forest is decreased because there isn't as much wood being taken for cooking fires; 4) biogas burns cleaner, and since most cooking is done inside the house there are health benefits from decreasing reliance on wood for cooking. 

The compost/biogas project has had significant impacts on the areas where it's been introduced.  Here are a couple of testimonials:

Stove fueled by biogas
Since the "biogas" has been installed in my house I've felt extremely blessed and I've greatly decreased my expenditures, especially for fuel oil and wood.  After the biogas station went into operation, the gas has been used to cook food, sambal, and rice.  I use the fertilizer that results from the "biogas to fertilize the crops in my field and the result has been quite good.  I've been able to cut down on my use of fertilizer by 40% compared with before I had the biogas station.... Agusrianto, Sako Dua Village

In April of 2010 a biogas station was built at my house and just one month after that I had gas.  The gas that comes from the biogas station is used to heat water and cook our food and sambal.  Since then I don't have to look for wood in my land to cook and the fertilizer that comes from the biogas station I use on my rice paddy.  Usually I use 3 karungs (unit of measurement equivalent to 50 kilograms) of chemical fertilizer at 150,000 rupiah (about US$17) per karung every time I work the paddy.  Thus the total cost of fertilizer is 450,000 rupiah (about US$51).  The first year I used the biogas fertilizer I decreased my chemical fertilizer use by 1 karung, in the second year I decreased it by two, and my plan in the third year is to abandon chemical fertilizer all together for my paddy.....Bustanudin, Kemantan Hilir Village

After the biogas station went into operation I used the gas to cook and the fertilizer to fertilize my crops.  The fertilizer that results from the biogas, according to my experience, is really good for the crops in my land, like onions, chili peppers, cabbage, tomatoes, and corn.  Since I've been using the fertilizer I can save up to 75% of what I used to spend on fertilizer.  Since I've been using the biogas fertilizer my friends in my farmers' group really want to use it as well but I can't yet meet their needs because I don't produce enough fertilizer.  From the money I've saved I'm able to put away something for my retirement and to buy things we need to improve our living conditions, like a refrigerator, fresh water dispenser, household goods, and other things....Suyitno, Kebun Baru

Though all of these comments are from men, the biogas that results from the process also benefits women, who are normally in charge of the household, including cooking and cleaning.  Interviews with women indicate that on average users of biogas have been able to decrease their expenditures on wood by 50%.  The biogas program is slowly expanding, but like many local NGOs LTA faces limitations in terms of funding and personnel.  Emma told me that she's actually turned down funding that would enable her to scale up the project (I actually witnessed Emma refusing money from a large international donor for another project) because these types of agreements often come with deadlines and timetables.  Emma told me that projects like the biogas/compost initiative require a great deal from villagers; they have to change their mindsets and the way they do things, and that is frequently very difficult for them.  They usually aren't enthusiastic about abandoning tried-and-true methods for new tools and techniques that have yet to be proven, at least, for them.  So there are challenges getting programs like this up and running, and because of this Emma doesn't like to be in a position where she has to rush results.  She also refuses to let her projects and programs be used as political tools, and so there have been instances where she has turned down offers of assistance from the government as well.  

Emma's Organic Coffee

My good friend Jakob, organic coffee farmer explaining the
business in Kayu Aro
Emma also has a "side project" outside of her work with LTA: she provides organic arabica coffee seedlings and training to farmers in Kerinci district.  Though this project is for profit, Emma incorporates principles of ecofriendly sustainable agriculture in her business.  Emma and her partners set up a nursery to grow arabica seedlings a few years ago in Kayu Aro, Kerinci.  Emma employs local women to work in the nursery, and she sells seedlings at slightly below market prices to interested farmers.  These farmers have to agree that they will not grow the coffee in the national park (illegal coffee farming inside the park is a major problem), and in exchange they get guidance and support from Emma and her partners.  Emma also tries to incorporate organic fertilizer as much as possible.  After two years, when the coffee is ready to be harvested, Emma buys the coffee for export.  Most of the coffee grown in this area is robusta and is produced for the domestic market, so many farmers are eager to partake in the greater profits available to farmers that grow the higher-quality arabica.  Emma already has more than 300 area farmers growing coffee for her.

Currently Emma markets the coffee through a consortium because her farmers don't yet produce enough to export it alone.  But the program is rapidly expanding, and Emma has plans to create a Kerinci Coffee brand and market it around the world.  She has already had the coffee graded by a professional taster, and it has achieved very high marks (I've tasted the coffee myself, and though I am not normally very sensitive to these sorts of things, I can honestly say that Emma's coffee is by far the best I've ever had).  So in the near future, you may see Organic Kerinci Coffee at a supermarket (or Starbucks) near you.  Do yourself a favor and have a cup; you won't be disappointed.  And you'll be helping out small-scale farmers on Sumatra.   

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Oh No Not Rice Again!

Today on my second to last day here in Sungai Penuh I decided that instead of sitting around the house waiting for the next thing to go wrong I would go on a little expedition across the expanse of rice fields (sawah) that begins behind the shack in which I currently dwell.  I've been wanting to do this for a long time as sort of an peripatetic ethnographic tribute to the starchy stuff that makes up about 70% of my diet here, but I could never find the time because I was too busy doing my actual project.  So I packed a lunch and a nice refreshing beverage or two and set out.  My plan was to walk across the fields to the next village across the valley, and then keep going, chatting with farmers along the way, until I got tired, at which point I would take an ojek back to my house.  Here in Kerinci Valley you could probably go the 30 kilometers or so from the lake (Danau Kerinci) up to the northern end of the valley just by walking the bunds in the fields; this is a major rice producing region (1) and Kerinci rice is at least locally famous.  It's also fun to walk through rice fields; you can observe people doing the same thing they've done for generations and think about the cycle of life or some other nonsense like that.  The area I walked through has been cultivated for hundreds of years in basically the same way.

Starting Out...

I set out with my pack and my mp3 player, but about 3 minutes after I embarked on my journey I was besieged by a murder of little kids from the neighborhood.  I'd encountered them before, and because you have to be nice to the neighborhood kids when you are living in a different country, they all like the cool foreign guy and wanted to know what he was up to.  I told them I was going for a walk, and so they decided they'd follow me, which under normal circumstances wouldn't bother me, but since it's currently Ramadan and everyone is fasting, the presence of the aforementioned LBs would make it impossible for me to enjoy the tasty refreshments I'd packed.  I figured they'd get tired after a couple of kilometers and head back, but the LBs displayed amazing fortitude and stayed with me for the duration of the endeavor.  We ended up having a pretty good time together, though, and since most if not all of them are from rice farming families, they were able to tell me the ins and outs of wet-rice cultivation.  They told me about how they like to play in the fields; they have mud wars and play "Majapahit" (2).  They said that even though they are from the "city", referring to Sungai Penuh, they like to play in the country, so I didn't want to do anything to dissuade their outdoorsy inclinations.

As we made our way across the bunds we encountered a number of farmers, all of whom were surprised to see a muddy foreigner trekking across the paddy.  As I've mentioned in the past, though, Sumatrans are remarkably friendly towards foreigners, and they are always ready to take a break and have a chat.  They told me about how the sawah here is organized.  Since it is so productive it is quite valuable, and it generally gets passed down from generation to generation, but there is some buying and selling that takes place.  They have two local measures for the plots; smaller plots are referred to as piring and larger, longer plots are jenjang.  Usually one family owns several pirings, which are about 15x25 feet on average.  From a piring this size the farmer can harvest about 160 kilograms of rice.  Harvested rice is measured in kalengs, which is equivalent to 16 kilograms.  Thus you can get 20 kalengs per year, and each kaleng sells for about 50,000 rupiah, or slightly more than US$5.  They stagger the planting so all the rice is not harvested at the same time, and so this allows the farmers to help one another during harvest time.  Here there is a standard wage of 5,000 rupiah (just more than 50 US cents) per kaleng harvested, and the farmers told me that an able-bodied person can harvest 2 pirings per day, or 20 kalengs, for a total of 100,000 rupiah (US$11) per day, which is pretty good money here although it's hard work.

The Lifecycle of Rice...

I also wanted to document how rice is produced.  The timetable varies depending on geographic conditions like hydrology and climate.  In some places like the Mekong Delta farmers can squeeze out three harvests per year, but here in Sungai Penuh the cycle is 6 months, so two harvests per year.  After two harvests the farmers let the land rest for 1 month, so in 13 months they get one harvest.   There are several stages to the process, which you can see in the pictures below.

The first stage is to plant the seeds.  Farmers generally start the seeds in a corner of one of their pirings, planted very close together.  The seeds grow here for 2-3 weeks and then they are transplanted to where they will grow until it is time for harvest.  I really like thse "nursery" plots because of the deep green color.  The farmers do this so that they are only planting good seeds; after two weeks of growth they know which ones are going to grow and which ones aren't.

When it is almost time to transplant the young seedlings the farmer will flood the dry paddy so that the soil, which is about a meter deep, gets saturated.  Then the farmer will till the mud, turning it over to get it ready for planting.  Locally this process is called bajak.  Some people use a hand tractor for this stage, others use buffalos.  The lady in the picture is doing the job herself.

After the paddy is bajaked the rice is transplanted.  The rice will grow until it's ready to harvest, 5-6 months later.  In the interim the farmer chases off crop pests and sometimes sprays pesticide and applies fertilizer.  Eventually when the grains appear and the rice turns yellow it's ready to harvest.  The picture above is rice at about 3 months, the picture below is ready to harvest.

After the rice is harvested the chaf (jerami) is burned and the plot is left fallow for a bit.  Rice is sold on the market or saved for household use; in the picture in the next paragraph you can see a traditional rice storage shed (lubung padi), but I don't know how frequently these are used these days.

Heading Home...

As it turns out it's harder to navigate amidst thousands of acres of rice paddies than you might imagine.  The plots are for the most part small, averaging I'd say about 30x10 feet, and they are divided by small bunds made of mud.  The bunds are in varying states of repair or lack thereof, and so sometimes your route is determined by the condition of the bund.  Moreover, they tend to change direction, and so it's hard to go in a straight line for an extended distance.  So along the way I resigned myself to go in whichever direction the wind blew, or more accurately, whichever way the bunds lay.  We ended up going from one village to another and then another, making a big loop.  We arrived back in my "village" about 4 hours after we started.  By this time I was quite hungry and thirsty, so I went back to my shack where I could enjoy some nice warm water and a couple of packages of condensed milk (the backbone of my Ramadan diet) and bathe with the last gallon or so of water I had from my thrice-weekly collection from the distribution point down the street (3).  I'm glad we got back when we did, because shortly thereafter a storm rolled in and the sky opened up in a way I've rarely seen here.  The downpour was so freakish that there was actually hail; a friend told me she's been living here for 17 years and has never seen hail.  The power predictably went off, and I was a little apprehensive because we were experiencing all the signs of tornado weather, and there's no where to hide here.  But eventually the storm passed, and I was able to collect about 15 gallons of water within approximately 20 minutes.

It was a nice day.  I had fun with the kids, and learned a good bit about the specifics of rice production here in the Valley.


(1)  There are a lot of "major rice producing regions" in Indonesia

(2)  Majapahit was a powerful kingdom based on Java that gave rise to several notable personages that would become national heroes.

(3)  As when I began my fieldwork odyssey, there has been no water in my shack for about two weeks running.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Market Distorting Effects of "Free Land" at Kerinci Seblat National Park

Encroacher dwelling inside KSNP

I just returned from a trip to the field where I visited an area that is experiencing a pretty high rate of forest encroachment.  One of the hypotheses that I had when I started doing my fieldwork is that the park has become a kind of subsidy for the districts around it.  According to this hypothesis, people farming illegally in the park produce commodities that are then sold on the market, which provides income to the district.  At the same time, I assumed that because the park absorbs excess labor, the surrounding districts are under less pressure to spend money for things like job training or other programs that would increase opportunities for those that have none.  Thus I was expecting to find encroachment on the part of small-scale farmers and the occasional industrial plantation that had planted some oil palms or other tree crops in the park on the sly.  I have found both of these, but it is the existence of another driver of forest encroachment that has led me to the idea that I'm going to describe in this post.  In many places around the park where encroachment is rampant I've found that local officials, including district headmen, police officials, army officers, and the higher-ups at the various district offices have actually "invested" in park land; they have opened up land in the park and hired laborers to cultivate it.

The Kerinci Seblat National Park Gold Rush....

Forest encroachment is currently the number one threat to the integrity of Kerinci Seblat National Park.  "Encroachment" means that someone, either an individual or a corporation, clears park land and converts the forest to agriculture.  Thousands upon thousands of hectares of forest land have been lost to encroachment, and the park seems to be powerless to stop the trend.  This has been a problem for a long time, but the trend seems to have increased since regional autonomy laws were passed in the wake of the fall of longtime dictator Suharto in the late 1990s.  These reforms devolved a lot of power to the district governments, which formally had been part of a top-down authoritarian system directed from Jakarta.  Now districts have more control over their budgets and who gets hired to work for the district government.  Also significant is the fact that district assemblies and headmen are democratically elected.

As I mentioned in the introduction, a significant amount of encroachment is indeed done by individuals, and there are some corporations that "cheat" on their concessions (which are often at the edge of the park) by cultivating in the park.  Much of this is because of a lack of enforcement, but to be far the park doesn't have nearly the requisite manpower needed to effectively patrol its 2500-kilometer border.  But I've also found that a great deal of land opened up in the park is "owned" by district officials.  One village secretary in an encroachment-prone area told me as much as 30% of the land was owned by district officials.  These people don't actually work the land themselves; rather they pay laborers to do it.  Sometimes these laborers are other farmers that work the land as a side job, sometimes they are people from outside the region that are attracted to the park because of work opportunities.  These newcomers often become landowners themselves after some time working as laborers.

Much of the park's land is quite fertile because it's never been farmed and the soil is volcanic in origin.  High yields draw people in, but besides that the park land is essentially free in most cases for anyone that wants to open it up.  Thus illegal farmers often experience very high rates of return for short periods of time; I've heard that the standard rule is that people expect a 100% return on their initial investment in a period as short as 2 years.  As you can imagine, with so many local government officials gaining from illegal cultivation, there isn't much incentive on the part of the local government to do anything about the problem.  On the other hand, there is a great deal of incentive to make infrastructural improvements, like better roads, to encroachment areas, because this increases profit by decreasing transport times and costs.  Higher profitability will in turn draw more people to the area to open up more land.  

Encroachment and the Market for Land...

Another phenomenon I've noticed in my fieldwork is that the farmers often use relatively unsustainable, inefficient methods to grow crops.  They tend to use a lot of fertilizer and pesticides, and they really push the land for maximum yields, which in the medium and long term will exhaust the soil making it virtually useless.  There is a lot of erosion as well.  When I ask farmers why they do this they tell me that they don't know any other way to farm.  However there is a small percentage of farmers, maybe 20%, that have actual training in agriculture.  The yields as well as the long-term sustainability of these farmers far out-perform those of their less-skilled neighbors.  This has always perplexed me because this is an agricultural society, and they've been farming for hundreds of years.  Thus I expected that there would be a fairly high level of "traditional ecological knowledge" (TEK) which has been handed down from generation to generation.  But this isn't the case.

I think this is because the land in the park is free, and so it distorts the market value of all the land in the districts causing land to be used in less-than-efficient ways.  If you have to pay for land, you will make sure that you get the most out of it.  But if land is free and readily available, you have less incentive to ensure that the land continues to produce over the long term.  In addition, in most places here the rural population is growing.  Now according to orthodox economic development theory, you would expect to see, in a developing country like Indonesia, people leaving the land to move to urban areas.  They leave because there are no opportunities in the village.  While this influx of people into metropolitan areas comes with its own raft of problems, it provides a ready supply of cheap labor for industrialization and economic development in the city.  And according to the orthodox thinking, while most new city residence will experience a certain degree of misery since they live under overpasses or along train corridors and other marginal places, eventually they will move out of these areas as they integrate themselves into the urban economy.  So it's a stepping stone.  While we observe this dynamic in Jakarta on Java, where all the land has been exhausted, it doesn't seem to be happening to the same degree here on Sumatra.  I think this is possibly because protected forests have assumed at least some of the role cities are supposed to have in the absorption of excess labor.  Instead of moving to the city, people just stake a claim in a national park or other protected area.  I believe this has negative impacts not only for the environment, but from a macroeconomic standpoint for the greater economy in general.

Capital Formation and Development...

From the standpoint of economic development, one key determinant in healthy, growing economies is capital formation.  "Capital formation" refers to "the transfer of savings from households and governments to the business sector, resulting in increased output and economic expansion".  In other words, capital formation happens when surplus income from lots and lots of households is gathered together, forming a pool of money that can be used to invest in businesses.  Theoretically banks play a really key role in this process because people save their money in banks, and then the banks loan out the money to businesses or individual entrepreneurs to invest in some enterprise that will bring greater returns down the road.  So if you have a great idea for a business but don't have enough money to get it started, the idea is that you can go to the bank, convince them to give you a loan, and implement your vision.  Stock markets, at least theoretically, are supposed to operate along the same lines.  Thus according to this minute bit of economic theory, savings rates are very important in economic development.  In fact if you look at analyses of the Japanese Miracle period of development in the 50s and 60s when that country was shattering all previous records for economic growth, or at South Korea and Singapore as more recent examples, you'll find that the traditionally high rates of savings in those countries is considered to be instrumental in the high economic growth rates.

Why is this important for Kerinci Seblat National Park?  Well, I believe there is a strong possibility that the "gold rush" I described above undermines capital formation at the local level.  Since so many people are "investing" in land within the park, there is less capital available to entrepreneurs and other enterprises.  In addition to this, the high rates of return on illegal cultivation skew people's expectations about returns on investment.  Remember, we are talking about a 100% return on investment within 2-4 years.  However, when you invest in a bank the best rate you are going to get is somewhere around 3%, which leads to a 100% return on your investment in a bit more than 23 years.  With the stock market the best you are going to get is 10%, and that's really good, but you only double your money every 7 years at that rate.  So as you can see, it makes more economic sense to invest in park land as long as you can get away with it.  In addition to limiting capital available for economic development, I think the easy availability of free land also probably stymies local creativity; instead of trying to identify a new way to make money people that have a surplus simply open up new land.  At the same time capital formation makes money available to local governments in the form of bonds.  In the US, when a municipality or county government wants to make improvements to say, the sewage system, they probably don't have enough tax revenue to pay for the expensive improvements all at once.  In this case they will often sell bonds to the public, which is essentially a loan.  Thus they can raise a lot of money all at once to pay for infrastructure improvements.  People buy the bonds because there is an interest rate and so they get a return, and because the bonds are issued by the government they feel reasonably confident that there isn't going to be a default.

In Indonesia, at least in the places I work on Sumatra, they don't use the bond system.  Rather to fund projects most district governments, because they aren't able to raise very much money themselves, rely on grants from the central government.  But these funds are directed from the top down; in other words the district government doesn't get to decide what the money is spent on.  I've heard many district officials complain about how funds from the central government aren't consistent with local needs.  And because the money comes from outside the district there is usually a pretty high level of corruption involved (skimming money off the top, inflated budgets, etc).  I think that relying more on bonds would have two positive effects: 1) it would allow the district governments more freedom in deciding how money is spent, and 2) since the debt would be "owned" by local people there would be more accountability in how the funds are spent.  People aren't likely to buy bonds if they know a good bit of the money is going to be wasted on corruption.

This is my current thinking on the structure of encroachment at the park, and though there are a lot of assumptions this model seems to fit all the data I've gathered in the field and everything I've seen and heard while on the ground.  There is a lot going on here, and it will take me some time to really analyze my data to see if I'm right.  In addition, though I have some passing knowledge of everything I've described in this post, much of it, including the parts about capital formation, are outside my expertise as a geographer.  So when I get back to the University of Hawai'i and start writing my dissertation I'll have some work to do to bring myself up to speed on these issues.  But as a working model I think this is pretty good because it goes to show how complex the encroachment problem actually is, and how to really understand it we need to see it in the context of the bigger economic and social picture.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Hooray It's Ramadan!

Here in Sungai Penuh, where I'm doing my PhD fieldwork, we're two months into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.  Ramadan is the most important month of the year for Muslims as it is a time of prayer and fasting (puasa).  During the entire lunar month of 30 days Muslims are required to fast from sun-up to sun-down.  It's also a time to fulfill the religious obligation of zakat  to make contributions to those that are less fortunate.  The month ends with the holiday Eid-Al-Fitr, when most people return to their families to celebrate.

Man I'm Hungry...

In Indonesia the Ramadan fast is called puasa, but in Arabic it's referred to as sawm.  Because the period of daily fasting depends on the sun, the times to start and end vary from location to location.  Since Indonesia is right on the equator we get about 12 hours of sun per day with little year-round variation, so the fasting period is relatively constant.  As you move away from the equator, though, the amount of sun varies increasingly the closer you get to the polar regions.  This is caused by the tilt of the earth.  You've probably noticed this yourself if you are from the US or Europe; in the northern hemisphere summer the days are much longer than in the winter.  Since it is currently summer in the northern hemisphere, the sun is out for longer and so the Muslims that live in these places are obliged to fast longer.  Conversely, since it is winter in the southern hemisphere the days are shorter, and so the fast is shorter.  In predominantly Muslim areas the length of the fast is normally listed in the newspaper, but there are also websites and other resources that provide this information for other places.

In order to prepare for the daily fast, most people get up very early in the morning (again the time depends on where you are) to eat a meal before the sun starts to rise.  This meal is called sahor in Indonesians and suhoor in Arabic.  Here this is usually around 3.30am.  Most of the time people go back to sleep afterwards.  During the day people are not allowed to eat, drink, consume medicine or smoke, but if you happen to be sick you are allowed to violate this prohibition as long as you add compensation days at the end of the month.  The daily fast ends when the sun sets with buka puasa, literally "opening the fast" in Indonesian (iftar) in Arabic, a meal that starts around 6.30pm here.

During the month of Ramadan markets spring up in most places here offering ready-made food for people preparing to break their fast.  Here in Sungai Penuh dozens of temporary stalls have been erected along one of the market streets, and they will stay up until the end of Ramadan.  The stalls open at around 3pm, and by about 5pm the place is a madhouse as people scramble to buy dinner.  Then there's an amazing transformation as people make their way home to eat, and by the time the special "EAT NOW" siren goes off at around 6.30pm the place is a morgue.  You can get anything you want (that is normally available in town) at the Ramadan market, and it's convenient because you can shop with your eyes and stomach and everything is located in one place.

After the siren goes off, most people begin breaking the fast with a sweetened beverage with chopped fruit served over ice (if available).  This provides ready energy, and then people get on to the regular meal.  The folks I've been around here can eat and eat and eat at this point and there is no keeping up with them.  Though most restaurants are closed during the day, they generally stay open later during Ramadan so that people can eat well into the night.  It seems like lots of people stay up until the morning meal, but I haven't done any kind of structured survey to support this.  What is clear though is that during Ramadan patterns of behavior and commerce change.

People don't have to follow the fast, but there are some social pressures here to follow the norm.  As mentioned in the past, I don't follow the fast because I don't have the desire to, but I avoid eating or drinking in front of other folks as a courtesy.  Normally they will tell you they don't mind, but I feel uncomfortable eating or drinking in front of others that are abstaining.  When I lived in Malaysia a few years ago I did attempt to fast to see what it's like, but after the fourth day I was quite ill so I had to stop.  Since then I don't really have any curiosity about it; my body is not built for it and I don't have the religious conviction that makes it a realistic endeavor.

Plan for Ramadan...

This will keep you 8 hours or so on the road.
But if you are in Indonesia during Ramadan, and especially if you are in a rural area, you will be affected by Ramadan.  If you are a newcomer it's an interesting and enriching learning experience, but it's different if you've been through it before.  First of all, as I mentioned above all the restaurants close down, so you have to prepare yourself before hand and stock up on provisions.  I am used to eating out because my kitchen consists of a single hobo-stove, one wok, and a small kettle, so I have to get creative in preparing one-dish meals.  I don't have a refrigerator either, so I can't keep ingredients before I cook and I can't save food after I cook.  But you figure out work-arounds.  On the same note, if you have to be on the road during Ramadan it will be very difficult to find anything to eat on the way, so you should take provisions with you.

Next, if you have to be involved in any sort of group activity, it's advisable that you wake up or stay up and eat the early meal.  In many cases even if you want to sleep you won't be allowed to, as people will wake you up.  For the most part, at least in rural Sumatra, people won't understand any resentment you have to getting up, nor will they understand if your just not ready to eat that early, so it's best to just go along with it rather than make a fuss.  When I was sleeping in the barracks of the tiger protection team last week the guys, god bless 'em, played cards all night while I was trying to get some shut eye.  Sumatrans seem to have a much greater tolerance to noise and flashing lights than your average Westerner, at least when it comes time to sleep, so bear this in mind.

Lastly at the end of Ramadan everyone wants to go visit their families and so all flights are booked months in advance and the price of tickets for transportation that are available increase significantly.  If you are going to be in Indonesia during Ramadan take this into consideration, because if you don't you risk getting stuck someplace.  Likewise, count on people being away from the office (or count on them coming in late) at least towards the end of Ramadan.  At this time pretty much everything shuts down, so if you have to schedule meetings or get work done, it's not likely to happen during this period.  Moreover, if you have to get some sort of official document or anything else from a government office, your likely to face a delay, so when thinking about extending a visa make sure to take this into consideration.

Anyway, remember that Ramadan is the most important and sacred part of the year for Muslims.  It's pretty interesting, if inconvenient, and you can learn a lot.  People are very friendly and are willing to tell you all about it, and folks will invite you to buka puasa with them, which means a big deal to them.