Tue, 14 Nov 2000

Dairi farmers struggle to keep 'kemenyan' tradition

By Benget Simbolon Tnb.

JAKARTA (JP): Kemenyan, incense from a plant that is locally known as kemenjen in North Sumatra, is more than a source of income for Dairi people. Its existence has also created cultural values concerned with dos and don'ts toward the environment.

However, as the authorities pay little attention to kemenyan (Styrax benzoin), which is only found in Dairi, North Tapanuli and South Tapanuli regencies, many farmers in the regencies have been long left alone to deal with unfair business practices of irresponsible traders, who manipulate the prices.

The kemenyan farmers have no choice but to continue using kemenyan as their only weapon to survive.

"We and our kemenyan have always been the victims, while the traders have always earned the profits while the authorities do almost nothing to tackle the problem," Martua, a former cultivator of kemenyan told The Jakarta Post by phone over the weekend.

That's why he was surprised to learn of the merkemenjen performance in Taman Mini Indonesia Indah park in East Jakarta. "Is it true. What is their real purpose (of the event)?" asked the 63-year-old man.

The show, which is the main part of Pakpak Cultural Show and Dairi exhibition organized by Dairi administration last Thursday night at the park, explained how Dairi people tap the incense tree resin and how the forest's non-wood production influences their life economically, culturally and environmentally.

It could have been such a situation that created Odhong- odhong, a melancholic folksong, performed during the show. The song is usually sung by Dairi men while tapping kemenyan resin in the forests to express their loneliness, suffering and hope.

"Odhong...Odhong...odhong/Nggo kidah mayak-mayak bon ari i rambah mbellen nda/O turang impal kekelengenku sada-sada/Idike nai ngo dia pekirohmu merembahkan togohku mi rambah nda/O ale impal, aloi aku simelehe nda/Tekka mersodip giam tendimu asa njuah-juah aku mengeluak kemenjen/Udan kessa mo nina ari, tap-tap mo jalu-jalungku, setahun mo aku mencari, tukar poda boi giam bajungku."

(Odhong...odhong...odhong, twilight is creeping into this wild forest/Oh my beloved/From where will you come to bring my dinner?/ Please, answer me as I'm very hungry/ May your soul say a prayer so that I'm always safe in tapping kemenyan/When it is raining, my jalu-jalu (a Merkemenjen tool) soaks/I've been working in this forest for a year but I cannot even buy a new shirt).

Lack of replanting

Once the darling of North Sumatran farmers, kemenyan is now a business in decline as fewer and fewer farmers are interested in its production.

According to EnviroDev Website, in the last 10 years, Styrax benzoin production has decreased almost by half. The website provides no data, only saying that many factors have contributed to the decrease. Among the factors are aging trees and lack of replanting, low prices, aging farmers and lack of interest by young people to join in the business.

According to 1990's data published by Forestry and Plantation Ministry's Aek Nauli Research Agency in Aek Nauli, North Sumatra, there were 22,833 hectares of kemenyaan plantations (in Dairi, North Tapanuli and South Tapanuli) with a total production of 4,388 tons per year. In 1997, the total area increased to 24,511 hectares but total production dropped to 2,151.3 tons per year.

Illegal cutting

Making things worse, cutting by illegal loggers, which is now rampant in the regions, threatens the existence of kemenyan.

"In the next decade we may all see the cultural values that kemenyan brought to the Dairi society are gone. It's a great pity that our grandchildren will have to lose such values," Martua said.

For North Sumatran Pakpak people, kemenyan does not have economic value only. Prior to tapping kemenyan, for example, they will hold the merkemenjen ceremony eating traditional food: pelleng and nditak gurgur. Pelleng is made of softly-cooked rice mixed with turmeric, chili and chicken meat, whereas nditak gurgur is made of rice flour mixed with a bit sugar and salt.

Pelleng is believed to renew their spirits and prepare them for the merkemenjen, while nditak gurgur -- some are eaten and other are smeared on tools to be used for tapping the resin -- is believed to prevent them from harm or accident.

During the ceremony, elders will remind them about the dos and don'ts to the environment -- such as not to force harvesting more that it should be or asking "permission: before cutting the tree as they believe kemenyan trees have spirits and should be treated the way people are treated.

"This custom is something that we should preserve," Dairi's regent Tumanggor told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of the performance.

Actually, he said, kemenyan business has good potential since there is growing demand for the incense, particularly from the European market, as it is used as raw material for perfume, pharmaceutical products, cigarettes and food. Kemenyan is also widely used for religious purposes around the world.

The regent promised the Dairi administration would help the farmers improve their kemenyan business.

"Soon, we'll set up cooperatives that are specially tailored to meet the need of the farmers," Tumanggor said.

"We're also pursuing an intensive effort to attract local and foreign investors to the sector," said the native of Dairi, who has been the regent for more than a year.