Fri, 05 Sep 2003

Saving wood for legendary 'phinisi'

Andi Hajramurni, The Jakarta Post, Makassar, South Sulawesi

Phinisi boats, traditional vessels from South Sulawesi, are typically used to transport goods around the archipelago. But one special boat is being used as a hi-tech laboratory.

The floating lab was made possible by Osozawa Katsuya, an expert in tropical bio-resources at Ehime University in Japan.

The boat, built by craftsmen in Tana Beru, Bulukumba regency, some 200 kilometers south of Makassar, was christened Cinta Laut (Love the Sea). Weighing 53 gross tons and measuring 27 meters by 5.6 meters, the phinisi was presented by Katsuya to the Boat Institute in order to conduct research on marine biodiversity and coastal community life in the region.

The research ship is furnished with a fully equipped lab, a study and discussion room and a kitchen, in addition to the navigation and engine rooms. Its communication facilities include a satellite telephone and the Internet. The vessel will sail for between three and six months each expedition.

It was Katsuya who had the idea of transforming the boat into a research ship.

"I compared it with traditional boats in other countries like India and Europe, and found the phinisi to be far better. The quality of its construction is in no way inferior to technology- based manufacturing. Its degree of design intricacy is even superior. While ship building normally starts with frame construction, in Tana Beru they build the body first," he said.

Born in Tokyo on Aug. 21, 1953, Katsuya said he admired the skill of Tana Beru's ship builders, which prompted him to further study the process and materials used in making a phinisi, particularly the types of wood.

"They can distinguish the quality and designation of each type (of wood) with a very high degree of accuracy," he said.

However, the materials used for building phinisi are disappearing. Originally, about 80 kinds of wood from the Bulukumba and Selayar forests were used to build a boat, but now only 10 types are left. Most of the wood has to be brought in from other regions such as Southeast Sulawesi, Central Sulawesi, Maluku and Papua.

To research phinisi, Katsuya, a father of three, submitted a research proposal to Japan's Ministry of Education and Science, which was approved. He is therefore entitled to a Kagaku Kenkyuu research grant for a period of three years.

In the first phase, 2003-2004, Katsuya, assisted by several researchers from Japan and Makassar's Hasanuddin University who are affiliated with the Boat Institute, will conduct three studies covering wooden ship materials and forest potential, wooden ship operation and distribution, as well as marine biology, coastal and island community life and their relationship with the dynamics of the sea.

Katsuya recalled he became interested in phinisi when researching sago in Malangke, Luwu regency, in 1983 for his master's degree at Chuo University in Tokyo.

"At that time, I met Mattulada, professor of culture at Hasanuddin University. We had a lot of discussions on the culture of South Sulawesi. The phinisi was one of the most interesting topics.

"I promised myself that some day I would return to South Sulawesi to do research on the famous traditional boat. Though I had to wait for 20 years, I'm now pleased to be able to see my dream come true," Katsuya said.

The research starting in August is focused on the forest potential around Bulukumba and Takabonerate, Selayar, to find wood that can be used for phinisi building. Bulukumba's forestry office has cultivated some species but their seedlings are not yet mature, which is something Katsuya hopes to accomplish.

In his research, Katsuya will involve locals in order to gain knowledge of different woods and to learn the methods of cultivation from the people of Tana Beru. "We believe the Bulukumba people know better so we will absorb their information, knowledge and experience," he said.

Today, phinisi craftsmen in Tana Beru use a lot more wood from other regions and the species are no longer as diversified as they were in the past. Among those now in use are teak, sandalwood and ulin, or ironwood.

According to Katsuya, phinisi builders originally did not use ironwood because it is prone to cracking, but a lack of materials has forced them to utilize the wood. The different woods have their own legends, such as the bitti, which is believed to have descended from the sky.

Apart from the local legends, Katsuya described the cultivation and conservation of the woods used in building the phinisi as imperative in the effort to preserve the region's wonderful traditions and craftsmanship. All the types of wood must be found and studied to nurture their seedlings.

"This must be done now, so that in the next 30 years the species can be used. Otherwise, I'm afraid the phinisi will only be a legend," he said.

The birth of "boat forests" in Bulukumba and Selayar is something that Katsuya is pursuing through his research. The forests will be reserved for the types of wood serving the needs of phinisi builders. He claimed that his plan had gained a positive response from both regencies, but its realization would take time.

Katsuya hopes the presence of the Cinta Laut lab boat will increase the awareness of the people of South Sulawesi, particularly the region's academics, researchers, students and observers, and enhance their love of the sea so as to help in the conservation of marine resources and their utilization for the public's welfare.