Thursday, March 21, 2013

Human Territoriality and Indonesia's Kerinci Seblat National Park

Just over a quarter of a century ago an influential geographer by the name of Robert Sack wrote a book called Human Territoriality.  The basic idea behind quintessentially geographic book was to describe ways in which physical spaces are used to control people and resources.  Sack (and other scholars) refer to this as "territoriality"; he defines territoriality as "the attempt by an individual or group to affect, influence, or control people, phenomena, and relationships, by delimiting and asserting control over a geographic area" (19).  In this post I'm going to attempt to apply this concept of territoriality to Kerinci Seblat National Park on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia to see what it can tell us about the viability of various strategies to address the problems I've focused on in this blog and over the course of my research in Indonesia.  These problems include illegal logging, forest encroachment, and poaching.

The Concept of Territoriality

On the surface it seems pretty obvious: those in power, be they governments, the boss, or parents, create certain rules of use or access for different places.  You can probably think of a lot of examples here in Hawai'i, both in terms of the way we live our lives now and in how the Old Hawaiians organized their society.  Military bases are accessible only by certain populations.  There are some beaches where we can fish, others where we can't.  Certain behaviors are proscribed in certain places, like smoking.  These could all be considered territorial strategies.  But territoriality isn't new.  You are probably familiar with the Kapu system, much of which involved control over access to many spaces and the types of behaviors allowed in others.  The Kapu system is a good example of territoriality.  Another remarkable Old Hawaiian example of territoriality is the concept of pu'uhonua, which refers to places of sanctuary and refuge designated by the chiefs.  A person that had broken the kapu could find shelter in a pu'uhonua, where he or she would be protected from punishment and in some instance be given a clean slate upon leaving the pu'uhonua.

Sack's contribution to our common sense understanding was to identify a number of different types of territoriality and then dissect these strategies to understand the underlying assumptions upon which they are based.  Sack called these assumptions tendencies".  The ten tendencies he identified are combined in different ways to control people and resources.  Another important contribution of Sack's work is the understanding that territoriality is always "socially constructed"; this means that it is rooted in and derives its meaning from culture and society.  And because culture and society change over time, territoriality emerges in different ways at different points in history.

The list below describes Sack's 10 "tendencies".  See how many you recognize and how they are manifested in our society.

1.  Classification.  This involves making rules for things based on their location rather than by what they are.  When a youngster declares her room off-limits to her bratty brother she is classifying everything in the room based on location.  If it is in the room it's off limits.  If not, its not off limits.

2.  Communication.  This is manifested in terms of boundaries, signs, uniforms, and any other symbol that signals to people that specific rules are in place.  A "no parking" sign would be a good example.

3.  Enforcement.  This involves the use of power to enforce the rules of territoriality. Enforcement is always necessary because without it no one would pay attention to all the other tendencies.

4.  Reifying Power.  "Reify" means to make something visible or to treat an abstract thing as though it were concrete.  We can't always see power, and so this tendency makes power visible.  To me the Oval Office is a good example of reification.  It is off-limits to all but a very select few.

5.  Displacing.  In certain instances territoriality can distract your attention away from what is actually controlling your behavior.  For example, if you have ever thought to yourself (or castigated someone) by saying "you can't do that here!" then you are illustrating displacement; you are controlling your behavior not because a powerful entity has made a rule, but rather because you have made a connection in your head that certain behaviors are not appropriate in certain places.

6.  Impersonal.  Territoriality helps governance because it makes relationships impersonal.  One of the examples Sack uses is a prison guard who is responsible for a block of cells rather than people.  The guard's responsibility and duty is defined as a specific place.

7.  Neutrality.  This tendency means that the subjects (you and me and everyone else) take for granted the fact that there are different rules for different places, and so we don't really question it.

8.  Container/Mold.  This means that a certain place or area is assigned a particular function or role in society.  Sack uses the example of a city; its authority is delineated by borders, even though in reality the city may extend beyond the borders.

9.  Emptiability.  This allows us as a society to reassign roles to certain places.  Sack's example is an empty lot; you may think of a vacant building.  In reality these places are not "empty," but we see them that way and this enables the space to be assigned a different use or owner.

10.  Engendering more territoriality.  This basically refers to the way that we organize new things.  Using territorial strategies allows us to compartmentalize certain aspects of our society.

According to Sack, these 10 tendencies come together in different combinations to organize society in different ways.  For example, his combination of hierarchy and bureaucracy combines all ten of the tendencies to define pretty much every relationship and responsibility in society.  Magic representations are another combination, this time consisting of reification and displacement.  In the case of magic places, reification makes authority visible, but displacement means that people control their behavior based on what they consider to be the magical properties of the place, rather than because of rules established by some powerful authority.  Sack would say that our informal prohibition against taking sand from the beach here in Hawaii would be an example of this.

Hopefully you can get the idea.  He comes up with 14 different combinations, but these obviously aren't exhaustive.  And we have to remember that Sack invented the tendencies.  I think they are useful conceptual tools though and I will explain why in a moment.  But first I want to reiterate that territoriality changes over time; it is tied to particular epochs or moments in history, so a combination of territoriality that was in place 200 years ago might not still be effective today.  So changes in territoriality can be associated with changes in social conditions.

The Tendencies of National Parks

I like Sack's framework because I can see how it can be applied to national parks, which I study.  By now it should be clear to you that national parks are tools of territoriality; they have very clear rules of access and there are certain behaviors that are illegal there.  Moreover, many parks have zonation systems so that certain activities (camping, gathering non-timber forest products) may be okay in some areas but proscribed in others.  But I think we can come up with a unique combination of "tendencies" that are used in national parks (specifically Indonesia's national parks).  Some of these tendencies are obvious, others not so.  I also want to make the point this combination of tendencies is connected to a certain socio-political configuration; in this case, the authoritarian New Order regime of former president Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1966 to 1998.  I will elaborate on this point below.

1.  Classification.  This is pretty clear; it refers to systems of zonation in a park itself but would also refer to a park's place in a large national or global network of parks.  For example, Kerinci Seblat National Park is important because it protects very rare lowland dipterocarp forests as well as rare animals like the Sumatran tiger.  It has a role, a function within a larger network.  The role of a centralized government is important for coordination, which is essential for this type of classification.

2.  Communication.  This consists of uniforms for guards, signs, and border markers.  For a large park like KSNP, which covers a lot of local jurisdictions, central authority is important for coordinating this communication.

3.  Enforcement.  This consists of not only regulations and laws but also forest policemen to enforce the laws.  Again, central authority is important to give the guards legitimacy, or in more vernacular terms "to get their back".  There are also elements of standardization and coordination here.

4.  Reifying.  Some parks are visible reminders or symbols of the power of the state.  They are "national" properties, and symbols of the greatness of the realm or regime.  Thus obviously the nation or central government is key to this tendency.

5.  Displacement.  In US national parks we can say that "good citizens" control their behavior in parks because they respect the park.  But in reality they are following rules imposed by the federal government.  Indonesia (and many developing countries) are different because most people don't perceive the park in the same way as we do in this country.  But I am asserting here that parks have an important displacement function in Indonesia, but it is a different displacement function.  Suharto's rule was extraordinarily corrupt, and the dictator's family and supporters were generously rewarded for their loyalty.  Often this reward came in the form of exclusive access to natural resources like timber.  Thus protected areas (not just national parks) were established to reserve resources like trees for certain people and groups with close ties to the regime.  The displacement function in this case is such that non-privileged people are conditioned to believe that they can't use the resource not because of corruption, but because the resource is important for conservation or ecological reasons.  The role of a strong central government should be obvious here.

6.  Impersonal.  The forest guards, who were quite powerful at KSNP during the New Order, are responsible for protecting a certain territory, rather than for controlling people.  Central control is really important in this case because in many park the park's guards and administrators were brought in from other islands so they didn't have any connection with the people living in and around the park.

 7.  Container/Mold.  Indonesia started to gazette parks around 1980, a time when the global environmental movement was getting into full swing and when concerns about deforestation in tropical countries were gaining a lot of momentum.  Thus the parks exhibit the container/mold tendency because they are a designated place where conservation happen.  Moreover, beginning around the same time international conservation agencies, rich country donors, and multilateral organizations like the UN started making huge sums of money available for conservation projects.  Thus national parks fit the mold of a place where projects like that are implemented; they become a target for international donors.  Here the role of a strong central government is key because these types of agreements need to be negotiated and coordinated, and that is one of the things central governments do reasonably well.

Why is this Important?

This is important because it allows us to see the conditions under which Indonesia's national parks were established and what types of political circumstances enabled the parks to function.  It is very clear that the parks are a product of an authoritarian government.  However, in 1998 Suharto stepped down, and his government ended.  Immediately thereafter those that inherited the reigns of power in the country started to pass laws (which I have described in other posts) which dismantled the top-down centralized authoritarian regime.  Thus many of the conditions that allowed for the establishment of the parks have changed.

Over the past 15 years Kerinci Seblat National Park has experienced huge problems with encroachment as tens of thousands of farmers have moved (illegally) into the park.  While the park had problems before the fall of Suharto, it now faces some threats to its very existence coming from all sides.  And it's not only encroachers, district governments are antagonistic to the park as well because they are not able to legally access the resources within the park.  Thus the national park as a territorial strategy is being fundamentally challenged by many actors that have been empowered by the decentralization reforms.

This is a very important realization because if we understand this we can start to think about why certain strategies that are currently used to control poaching, encroachment, and other forest crimes might not be very effective.  We can also use this new understanding to try to come up with new strategies that might be more effective.  For example, an academic paper I recently read about Kerinci Seblat National Park makes some recommendations for the future.  According to this paper (whose author I have tremendous respect for), enforcement resources should be focused on several (four) key access points in the province of Bengkulu to control forest crimes.  However, this recommendation fails to take into consideration the socio-political changes that have taken place that render the enforcement strategy less than effective.  In other words, this strategy of increased enforcement would be based on the old conditions rather than what is the current reality.  It is fine to say "we should increase enforcement", but given the current circumstances that is much easier said than done.  Moreover the newly-empowered local interests that have been brought into power by the decentralization reforms are precisely the same interests that are coordinating, controlling, and benefiting from illegal activities within the park.

In conclusion, we have to understand the fundamental "tendencies" upon which the efficacy of a national park depends.  In the case of Kerinci Seblat National Park, the socio-political conditions upon which the park was established no longer exist, and so territoriality based on those conditions will no longer work.  The new task, then, is to create a new territorial strategy that is more compatible with the current socio-political realities.  Which tendencies reflect what is actually happening on the ground?  Only by addressing this question will we be able to ensure the long-term survival of the national parks of Indonesia, along with the natural treasures contained therein.


Sack, Robert David.  1986.  Human Territoriality: Its Theory and Practice.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.  256pp.

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