Sat, 13 Aug 1994

National park policy a conundrum

By Silvia Werner

JAKARTA (JP): Creating national parks will not solve the complex problem of conserving forest areas.

Areas assigned to become national park land in Indonesia are usually already surrounded, although sparsely, by traditional farmers who are seen as a threat to the park's environment.

Unfortunately, the decision to designate an area as a national park is made by national governments without any discussion with local governments or people which inevitably leads to conflict.

Apart from the various difficulties local governments face in establishing and supervising a new national park, what about the people who live in that area? How can we deal with this conflict?

These areas share a few common characteristics. They are usually primary, virgin forests that have little or no infrastructure like roads, electricity or public services.

Agricultural production is mainly limited to the subsistence production of rice, fruits and vegetables while cash production covers mainly goods which can be produced without fertilizer or pesticides. These products must also be easy to transport, sell and store because market access in the area is often very difficult.

In the lowland areas, on red-yellow podsolic soils with low natural fertility, rubber is the main cash crop, whereas in the highlands cinnamon production is frequent. Income might be supplemented by non-timber forest products like rattan, resins and medicinal plants collected by local people from the primary forests.

Because these people depend very much on nature, they generally have a profound knowledge about plants and their uses, soils and their suitability, as well as how to use natural resources without destroying them.

However, since the rigid concept of a national park does not allow human endeavors, the local farmers are an obstacle in the eye of many conservationists and development planners.

The story of the forest-eating shifting cultivator suits park developers well in justifying the decision to uproot and resettle the farmers.

However, this is not the solution to the challenge of national park protection, or even the problem.

In fact, there are many other factors threatening protected forests, and the problem of indigenous small holders living in forested areas is certainly not the major one.

For the moment we shall ponder the reasons why indigenous people encroach on primary forests.

Firstly, there is differences between the government's definition of a state forest (all forested areas are state forest) and traditional (adat) land claims by the locals.

There might be some misunderstanding by the local people, why, for instance, forest concession holders may enter the forest to extract timber along the borders of national parks while they can not even make a relatively tiny rice field or garden in the same forest.

It's difficult for the local farmers to understand, why concession holders from far away can take thousands of logs while they, the original inhabitants, are not allowed to even a few.

Secondly, the concept of a national park may be very abstract to farmers who do not know much about the outside world let alone the meaning of natural resources or biodiversity conservation.

Thirdly, they do not have much choice if they want to survive, except to open up new fields in the forest.

Actually, it has been proved, that the percentage of fields cut in primary forests by traditional shifting cultivators is very small compared to that made in secondary forests.

This is because it is easier to cut down secondary vegetation and fields close to the village are preferred to those far away on virgin land.

Ironically, primary forests become suddenly close to villages, and therefore is easy to cultivate, when roads are created by logging companies.

Which kind of farmer, then, is an threat to national parks and resources?

It is often the market-oriented producer, like those producing cinnamon in the Kerinci-area in Jambi and West Sumatra.

Actually, these people are often not indigenous inhabitants, but market-oriented land speculators. Some of them are from Java.

It is not the traditional farmer who is building large scale commercial plantations encroaching on the forest for several hundred or thousand hectares.

This does not mean that traditional settlements do not pose a threat inside national parks. We can not ignore these people, if only because they often live under such poor conditions.

We must be aware that any infrastructure measures, especially the building of roads, eases the access to forest resources for people who traditionally do not want to enter.

This problems is almost impossible to solve by forest rangers because the park areas are huge and the facilities for efficient patrols are not sufficient.

We cannot totally negate the impact of local farmers on the forests in and around national parks. Nevertheless, politicians and officials concerned with park protection should carefully weigh the different factors which pose severe threats to their forests and focus on the most devastating.

The writer in an geoecologist from the Free University of Berlin, Germany. She recently did her Ph.D research in Indonesia for the Faculty of Man and Environment at the Technical University of Berlin.