After the doom and gloom of devastation we witnessed across the lowlands of Sumatra’s Riau and South Sumatra Provinces, we have finally got to visit a vibrant version of heaven on earth.
The journey began from the city of Jambi with a harrowing 12-hour drive through treacherously muddy and mangled roads. The trip was alternately exhilarating and terrifying. Our little Daihatsu 4×4 slid backwards off the steep, slick slopes into ditches more than once. A crude wooden bridge shattered under us as we passed over it. We regularly had to get out into the mud to push. At many points it seemed entirely feasible we wouldn’t make it at all.
But such is the price of paradise found. The remote, highland village of Tanjung Alam (literally, “Corner of Nature”) is a traditional Malayu Adat community of just under 100 families surrounded by the largest block of primary rainforest remaining in Sumatra. The Adat system is a traditional Indonesian-Malay form of cultural organization that guides the social structure, decision-making and dispute resolution practices of its people. In this area, the Muslim faith has long since been integrated into this ancient form of localized government.
Our host Rudi (who works with a RAN-allied NGO named WAHLI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia) could not remember if it had been 3 or 5 years since a Westerner had last visited their village, but judging by the look on children’s faces as we passed by, many of the younger residents may never have seen such a sight in their lives.
Our arrival at the home of the village leader inspired a spontaneous gathering of most of the men in the village. From teens to elders, the house quickly filled to capacity with eager, curious faces. The young men howled in laughter at the strange sound of the English language, heard before only in Hollywood films, being spoken in front of them in real life. We drank tea and smoked cigarettes with the men while Lafcadio charmed the crowd and explained what RAN is and what our purpose there was.
Our visit took place just one week after the federal government approved Tanjung Alam’s application for Hutan Desa status from the federal Forestry Ministry. Hutan Desa (literally, Village Forest) is a process by which rural forest-based communities can apply to the federal government to reclassify areas of the federal forest estate from “Production Forest” (a designation in perpetual danger of being cleared and converted into pulpwood or palm oil plantations) into a community-based management status.
The community of Tanjung Alam is part of a regional Adat network that consists of 53 villages. Seventeen of these have applied for Hutan Desa status, and 7 have now been approved. While not a perfect system or an ultimate answer to the pervasive land conflicts plaguing Indonesia, the Hutan Desa concept is a welcome ray of hope that offers a model that can provide many oppressed and disenfranchised communities a tool to regain a degree of control over their livelihoods while shielding their forest resources from blanket destruction by faceless international corporations.
The community of Tanjung Alam is perfectly suited for implementing a best-case version of the Hutan Desa model. They have deep roots and an established claim to the area, well developed ethics regarding land use and community rights, and an ability to protect and manage the landscape better than any government or NGO body could pretend to. Officially returning stewardship of the forests and watersheds surrounding the village to the villagers who know them best is clearly the socially and ecologically just thing to do, and also serves to protect the water supply of Jambi and other cities downstream.
These mystical, cloud-shrouded slopes are home to the largest remaining population of Sumatran tigers in the world. Located on the buffer zone of the Kerinci Seblat National Park, they also contain five species of monkey and a bewildering cacophony of birds.
The village grounds are an archetype of deep permaculture principles, designed by a people who have inhabited their landscape for dozens of generations. They practice a sophisticated blend of agroforestry that includes hillsides of coffee, elegant groves of cinnamon trees, fields of a leaf they call Niman that is processed into an oil, acres of terraced rice paddies, forests of rubber trees and everywhere a mixture of fruit trees, vegetables, tobacco and other useful edible, commercial and medicinal plants.
The village leaders were proud to take us on a tour of their extensive gardens, displaying first their hand-built wooden water wheel for generating small amounts of electricity through a micro hydro system. We learned how they process the Niman leaf into an oil used in cosmetics and were shown how they harvest, dry and process up to 5 tons of coffee beans per month. Durians are in season in the highlands, and no one heading downhill towards town on foot, motorbike or truck was not loaded to the hilt with the stinky, spiky fruits.
The total picture of a people living well and consciously together, rooted deeply in place, offers a vision of sustainability that resurrects the term from the cynicism often associated with its shallow, trendy ubiquity. As we toured the pastoral beauty of Tanjung Alam’s gardens and groves, our guides pointed across the valley to denuded slopes where a neighboring community had been insufficiently organized and hence not vigilant enough to keep outsiders from plundering for a quick profit.
Our experience in Tanjung Alam complimented and contrasted our other two field visits. The three communities we observed across three provinces of Sumatra are very different and distinct in their composition, their challenges, their needs and their approach to resolving the daunting problems they face. They represent three diverse points along the broad spectrum of the Indonesian forest crisis and each offers its own insights towards guiding the nation past the current quagmire.
One lesson stands out above all others: The fate of the forests, endangered wildlife and our global climate are inextricably intertwined with the fate of the communities who depend on the forests for their survival.
Any real solutions must simultaneously conserve the forests, protect human rights and provide for the long-term livelihoods of the people who live there. Thankfully, the many allies we met on this trip are earnest young activists who understand and embody this reality. Indonesia desperately needs more stories with happy endings like this one, and it will be the savvy, competent and strategic organizers within Indonesia’s extensive NGO community of grassroots groups that will lead the way in that direction. The channels of communication and coordination are open and I look forward to exploring how RAN can continue to build our support and working relationships with these crucial groups into the future.