From Bali to North Sumatra to Pulau Weh

We’re now in Pulau Weh, an island (the word pulau) in Aceh province off the northern tip of Sumatra, on the Andaman Sea. It’s an island still recovering from the effects of the devastating 2004 tsunami.

Following our first week in Bali, we’ve just spent the past week in North Sumatra exploring Gunung Leuser National Park, home to Sumatran tigers, endangered rhinoceroses, elephants, and many other animals, including the threatened Sumatran orangutan. The goal of that part of the trip was to contrast the remaining wild ecosystems and habitats with the broad swathes of land that have now been overtaken by palm plantations all over Sumatra (and Kalimantan, in particular). It’s a contrast in values, or perhaps in degrees of complexity of values. Should we move full bore towards converting land towards purely economic uses and prioritize values of productivity and efficiency? That’s what oil palm represents and it comes with rapid deforestation, forest degradation, loss of peat lands, and a significant increase in carbon emissions due to burning and the loss of forest carbon sinks, not to mention a one-dimensional economy dependent on commodity pricing. Or should we see economic values as only part of a larger array of values that include those of conservation, community, and so on, as we saw so intricately woven together in the Balinese subaks? In a country and region with significant poverty, where people struggle to earn incomes sometimes amounting to ten dollars a week, the answers aren’t immediately clear.

Practically speaking, oil palm and timber harvesting are rapidly taking over the remaining forests of Indonesia, one of the final three great remaining forest systems (along with the Amazon and Central African forests). Oil palm revenues are distributed very unevenly and most people in the industry remain in poverty, but work in the industry can nonetheless represent a small boost in income.

All of this, however, is why Bali’s subak system remains such a fascinating case of balancing economic, environmental, community, and spiritual values, epitomized in both the concrete and in terms of the philosophy of tri hita karana. Furthermore, it’s a complex adaptive system that has withstood environmental and economic disruptions because of the very nature, the resilience, of the system. The main threat today is the economic impetus of growth, which in Bali means growth in the tourism industry and the concomitant overuse of resources as well as powerful incentives to sell off rice farming land to hotel developers. Growth comes with a very high price in Bali.

Now, in lovely Pulau Weh, we’ll discuss a system of environmental/economic/community management similar to the Balinese subaks: the Panglima Laot system of marine management. Panglima Laot doesn’t have the ancient lineage of the 1000+-year-old subaks, dating back a few hundred years and revived more recently. But it is comparable in the sense that it is a system of indigenous communal law (adat) and community- based environmental management that has yielded better results where “better” is consistent with local and even global values of sustainability that are often lacking in larger-scale resource management approaches. More soon on Panglima Laot after we meet with leaders and fishermen tomorrow.

T. Hilde

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