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The future for Indonesia’s Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park: Farmers and coffee plantations or forest, tigers, elephants and rhinos?

The future for Indonesia's Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park: Farmers and coffee plantations or forest, tigers, elephants and rhinos?The Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park covers an area of 356,800 hectares in the south of Sumatra, Indonesia. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to tigers, elephants and Sumatran rhinos. But recent research found that more than 100,000 people are farming inside the National Park.

The research, published in Conservation and Society includes the first attempt to determine how many people were living or farming inside the National Park. No real census is carried out of the people living in and around the National Park. The researchers used satellite imagery and asked locally to determine how many people were involved.

The paper’s lead author, Patrice Levang, an agronomist working with CIFOR, explains in a CIFOR video that about 80% of the farmers come from Java. “These numbers are incredibly high,” he said.

“Around 60,000 hectares opened by squatters, and all over the place, if you count all the people depending on this, working inside the Park, it’s up to, more than 100,000 people.”

This research has clear implications for REDD. The aim of REDD is to make forests worth more standing than logged, by putting a price on the carbon stored in forests’ trees and soil. This apparently simple solution could perhaps play a role, at least in theory, but in practice, REDD has made no difference to what is happening at Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park.

In the Conservation and Society paper, Patrice Levang and his co-authors Soaduon Sitorus, David Gaveau and Terry Sunderland look at the history of deforestation in southern Sumatra and trace the start of migration to Lampung province back to the Kolonisatie projects carried out by the Dutch from 1905. These projects were an attempt at “correcting the demographic imbalance between the islands of Java and Sumatra”. Kolonisatie was renamed Transmigration after Indonesia’s independence. Transmigration accelerated under the Suharto regime (with the support of the World Bank).

The Dutch created the South Sumatra 1 Nature Reserve in 1935. This became the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in 1982.

Under the Suharto regime (1967-1998), migration to the forests in western Lampung increased as former members of the Barisan Tani Indonesia (BTI), a mass farmers’ organisation linked to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), fled to the mountains to escape violent reprisals (both the BTI and PKI were banned under Suharto). Military logging companies operated in and around what is now the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park.

Levang and his co-authors describe a peak in the price of coffee in 1977 as a “major turning point” that “triggered spontaneous mass migration” to the mountains of southern Sumatra. Between 1976 and 1982 about 195,000 hectares of forest were converted to coffee plantations. By 2000, all easily accessible protected forests to the east of the Park were converted to coffee plantations. The forest area of the Park was reduced by 63,726 hectares.

From 1982 to 1985, authorities carried out an eviction campaign from the National Park, with the help of the military and the police. Park rangers patrolled the southern area of the Park discouraging newcomers from entering the Park.

The Asian financial crisis meant less money was available for national parks and patrols were reduced. The crisis started with a 400% devaluation of the Indonesian rupiah against the US dollar. High local coffee prices prices were a huge incentive for farmers to open up new plantations and many evicted farmers returned to the Park either to existing plantations or to create new plantations.

Local politicians blame inefficient and corrupt Park rangers for failing to deal with encroachment in the National Park, but at the same time they oppose any attempt to evict farmers from the Park. During election times, Levang and his colleagues write, suspicion of politicians’ backing for farmers inside the Park “gives way to absolute certainty”.

The paper is titled “Landless Farmers, Sly Opportunists, and Manipulated Voters: The Squatters of the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (Indonesia)”. The authors explain that the term “squatters”, which they use to refer to people “illegally farming plots inside the Park”, should not be considered pejorative. They explain that,

“The overall purpose of this paper is to investigate whether landlessness (poverty), opportunism, or social networks of power (backing by political elite) are the driving forces of deforestation in the Park.”

The researchers found that a group of village elite were pulling the strings behind the deforestation. Referred to as preman in Indonesian (from the Dutch for “free man”, meaning someone free of legal constraints), these influential people are involved in money making through business. Illegal activities, such as illegal logging, are very lucrative and therefore attractive. Often preman are getting involved in local politics.

The authors conclude that,

If nothing is done to evict the squatters, the present trend will become irreversible, and the Park will be converted into plantations. The number of squatters is regularly on the increase.

However, they also write that,

Law enforcement is necessary, but not sufficient. Villages in the vicinity of the Park must also be involved in its protection. These villages generally host present or future squatters. Their village leaders are key to the protection of the Park. The management of the Park must therefore secure their support…. the Park must support the village leaders by providing them with adequate and alternative incentives: job opportunities for villagers (as guards, guides, and ecotourism), scholarships and training opportunities, or other payments for environmental services. In short, the Park must be perceived as more than a simple opportunity to open a coffee plantation.

In the CIFOR video, Levang describes this situation in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, as “A typical case of either/or.” He explains that, “You cannot have conservation and development on the same spot. If you let the people come in, they convert the forest into coffee plantations. They make quite a good living with that, but there is no room any more for the wild animals.”


UPDATE – 17 January 2013: Corrected the spelling of Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park.

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