Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Puncak Andalas: The Birth of a Province?

Photo from here.
In my last post I starting discussing the very complex issue of territoriality, resource control, and protected areas.  I promised to continue the discussion in a follow-up post.  I'm going to break my promise, though, or at least delay filling it, because I want to discuss a different (but related) issue that I have been thinking about lately.  In this post I am going to try out a couple of ideas I'm formulating which will eventually go into an academic paper for a journal.  The issue today is the formation of provinces in Indonesia, a contentious issue politically.  I'm going to explain and apply some geographic principles to help understand the campaign to create a new province in the area surrounding Kerinci Seblat National Park, where I did my dissertation fieldwork.

West Central Sumatra as it exists today....

New Districts and Provinces in Indonesia...

First I need to review some stuff I've covered previously in this blog.  Indonesia, like virtually all countries, has several layers of government administration.  If you are from the US you are familiar with the federal, state, county, and municipal governments.  If you are from Japan, you know about the national, prefectural, district, and sub-district governments.  Indonesia has five basic levels, starting from the national government down through the province, district, sub-district, and lastly the village level.  When Suharto, the authoritarian ruler that ran the country from approximately 1965 to 1998, was in charge, all of these levels were part of a top-down centralized system controlled from Jakarta, the nation's capital.  However, when Suharto was deposed, the people running the government decided to radically alter the administrative system so that the central government would be far less powerful.  They transferred a lot of authority to the districts, the middle level in the government hierarchy (1).  At the same time, they passed laws so that governors (the heads of provinces) and bupatis (the heads of districts) would be directly elected by their constituents.  Previously they had been chosen by the central government.  And lastly, they passed laws which laid out requirements and procedures for new districts and provinces to be created, theoretically to improve public service delivery and increase public participation and representativeness in the emerging democracy.

After these laws were passed the floodgates were opened.  In 1998 Indonesia had 292 districts, but by 2012 there were just under 500.  Likewise in 1998 there were 26 provinces, but by the beginning of 2013 this number had increased to 34.  Why were so many new districts and provinces created?  An optimistic interpretation would be that the huge increase in regions represents a true flowering of democracy, as under-represented and marginalized groups have been given an opportunity to express their political aspirations.  While this may be the case in a few instances, in the vast majority of cases a more realistic interpretation is called for.  Having a new district or province is very prestigious for local elites, and it also gives them new streams of public revenues from the central government.  In addition, when a new province or district is created it is followed by a mini-building boom, as buildings for the new government seat have to be built.  Politically well-connected contractors pay kickbacks to get these contracts, and so there are certain groups that make a lot of money.  Lastly, new provinces and districts have lots of government offices that need to be staffed, and so they create lots of job opportunities.  The people in charge of the new regions can use these positions as patronage rewards, or can collect "rents" by selling the jobs to people.  As I mentioned in a previous post government jobs are very desirable in Central Sumatra.

You might have noticed from the figures I provided that there are a lot more districts that have been created than provinces.  That's because it is much harder to create a province, and in fact many proposals for provinces have been rejected by the central government, which must approve new districts and provinces.  As I mentioned in the introduction, the local elites in the districts around Kerinci Seblat National Park have a dream of created a new province called Puncak Andalas.  However, on the surface it would seem that this dream has very little chance of becoming a reality.  Let's find out why.

Geographic Regions and the New Provinces of Indonesia

You may have noticed over the years (or maybe from the title) that this blog has a geographic theme.  That's because its writer (me) is a geographer.  In most introductory human geography classes students are taught about different types of basic regions.  These regions are a simple tool used by geographers to help analyze patterns of human and physical activity on the landscape.  The three basic types of regions are formal, functional, and vernacular regions.  I'll explain each of these in turn before applying them to the new provinces of Indonesia.

Formal regions are those areas that have some sort of common feature that unifies them.  For example, the Rocky Mountain region is characterized by (surprise surprise) the presence of the Rocky Mountains.  States (both in terms of the United States and countries) are formal regions.  A wine growing region would be a formal region.

Functional regions are those that are based on some sort of economic or political activity, generally focused on a node (these are also called "Nodal regions").  For example, a pizza delivery radius is a functional region, as is a broadcast area for a TV or radio station.  Airlines and shipping companies have functional regions.

Vernacular regions (also sometimes called "perceptual regions") are those based on peoples' subjective feelings of association.  A common example is "Dixie" or "the South".  For some people texas is part of the South, but for anyone that actually knows anything about the South, there is no way texas would ever be considered part of the South (2).  The Outback in Australia is another vernacular region, as is the Midwest.  Most people have the same general notion of where these places are, but they likely have different ideas about the extent of the region.

Map from here.  They stole it too.

Now, what does this have to do with the provinces of Indonesia?  Simple.  The new provinces that have been approved in Indonesia overwhelmingly fall into one of these categories, with most of them being formal or functional regions.  For example, Gorontalo, a new province created in 2000, is the home of a specific ethnic group (the Gorontalo people) with a distinct history.  They ethnically and religiously distinct from their "mother province", North Sulawesi.  Another good example is Riau Islands province, which was split off from Riau province in 2004.  This is a functional region focused on the export processing zone on the island of Batam.  This region benefits from its proximity to Singapore and the state of Johor in Malaysia.  It is a fairly discrete economic unit.  Moreover it shares historical ties with Singapore and peninsular Malaysia.  Indonesia's newest province, North Kalimantan (established in October 2012) might seem to be an exception, but one of the putative reasons for forming this province is to hasten economic development to a relatively poorer area of the country that is seen to be strategically important because it borders the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.  According to the folks in charge, creating this new province allows for it to be targeted for development which will help to ensure the loyalty of the people that live there and decrease the possibility that they might spontaneously decide that they would be better off as Malaysians.

What Sort of Region is Puncak Andalas?

Puncak Andalas doesn't fit the bill as a functional, formal, or vernacular region.  It is ethnically heterogenous without a marginalized minority.  There are no real religious minorities.  There is no historical kingdom or distinct culture that unites the area.  And there are no real defined patterns of commerce centered on a node that would define it as a functional region.  In addition, it isn't a really big area and there aren't a lot of people living there (approximately 850,000).  The districts that would become Puncak Andalas would be drawn from three existing provinces (Bengkulu, West Sumatra, and Jambi).  So there isn't really any natural reason to form a new province.  So the local elites, in order to increase their prestige and the financial "opportunities" available to themselves, have to create some sort of regional identity if they ever want to see their dream realized.  The most sensible way to do this would be to foster an economic functional region centered on a node, which would, according to the plan, be Sungai Penuh.  But this is very far from becoming a reality and thus doesn't have a lot of active support, and so for those people that are in favor of establishing a new province, for those that have the most to gain, the best way to go about forming a new province is to take it in stages.  In other words, approach the task as a series of smaller goals.  This makes it easier to mobilize active support, and the administrative (and financial) barriers are much easier to overcome.  So if you wanted to create a new province out of nothing, what would you do?  Let's outline the steps.

West Central Sumatra with Puncak Andalas....

1.  Establish Sub-districts.  Sub-districts (kecamatans) are pretty small and thus they are fairly easy to create.  Most of the work can be done in the district itself.  This is an easy objective to get widespread support for because it increases the "prestige" for the people in the sub-district.  There are also a few new jobs created for administrative positions and more government money flows to the sub-district, so the guy on the street can get behind the idea.  But new subdistricts have two other functions: 1) the head of the sub-district (the camat) is the only official in the government hierarchy that is not elected; instead the camat is picked by the bupati (the district head).  Thus camat positions can be used to reward loyal supporters, and they can be used to create a powerful electoral machine at the subdistrict level that generates votes.  2) You have to have a certain number of subdistricts (that number is five) to progress to stage 2 (creating a new district).  To give you an idea of how easy it is to create subdistricts I'll point to the example of Merangin district, one of the districts that will contribute to our new province.  Merangin went from 9 subdistricts in 2006 to 24 in 2012.

2.  Establish New Districts.  This step is a little harder.  In fact until very recently there was a moratorium in place on the formation of new districts (and provinces).  But as I pointed out before, between 1999 and 2009 more than 200 new districts were established in Indonesia.  The area around KSNP is no exception; when Suharto resigned there were 9 districts around the park.  Now there are 15.  New sub-districts help make the case for new districts, but also popular support and elite coalitions are essential as well.  Currently there are efforts underway in several of the 15 districts around the park to split and form new districts.  For our new province we will need to have splits in Pesisir Selatan, Merangin, and Kerinci districts.  All of these districts have taken the requisite step of establishing new sub-districts, and there are strong movements in at least 2 of the 3 districts to do the split.  So they are ready to go.  These district splits will go a long way for helping us to achieve step three.

3.  Establish New Connections.   Our new province faces a pretty significant obstacle that isn't present in a lot of other places: there is a gigantic national park (Kerinci Seblat National Park) sitting directly athwart the province.  Currently there is only one road across the park.  This is a politically contentious issue I have discussed previously.  The park is seen by local elites as a big barrier to commerce and development.  You can get the idea by looking at the map of the park and roads I've provided.  The park stands in the way of establishing our functional economic region with Sungai Penuh as a hub.  In fact it breaks our potential province up into 4 isolated bits.  The problem for the local elites is that it is illegal to build roads through the park because roads are ecologically devastating.  However, if the local elites succeed in creating the new districts of Kerinci Hilir and Jangkat, it is likely far easier to make the case that national-level exceptions which would allow roads through the park should be allowed.  Have a look at the map below.

You can see the town of Lempur, which is currently in Kerinci district.  With apologies to all of my good friends in Lempur, the town is currently in the middle of nowhere, at the end of the road surrounded by the park.  However, if Kerinci Hilir district was successfully established, Lempur would very likely become the capital.  In this case it would be far easier to make the argument that roads are needed to establish connections with Sungai Ipuh and Penarik in Mukomuko district and also Muara Madaras in what would become Jangkat district (Jangkat would be formed from Merangin district in our scenario).  Likewise, this would improve the case for new roads being built through the park from Muara Maderas to Lempur and south to Bengkulu province.  And if these roads are established, it would increase connectivity between each of these towns, which would eventually make it easier to make the case for step 4:

Note the proposed roads and the relationships between the towns of Puncak Andalas

4. Voila!  Puncak Andalas Province is a Reality!

Granted it is a long shot, but these are the steps that would be required.  And even though it's a long shot, the payoff would be tremendous for certain groups in each of the districts that would become part of the province.

Will Puncak Andalas come to pass?  Who knows.  But there are strong, coordinated efforts currently underway to make it a reality.  Unfortunately for Kerinci Seblat National Park, this new province would undermine a number of conservation goals and would likely spell the end for endangered species like the Sumatran tiger.  Moreover, pressure towards the park in terms of logging, encroachment, and mining would likely increase, as a province has much more influence than a district.


(1)  Why they did this is really beyond the scope of this blog post, but most scholars argue that there were two main considerations: 1) they wanted to hedge off separatist pressures that might lead to strife and violence (and succession) around the country; and 2) they wanted to distance themselves from the previous regime to make sure they would have a good political future under the new leadership.

(2) It likely wouldn't be considered part of the civilized world.

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