We spent our first day in Bukit Lawang touring agricultural sites. Unlike the former days, the vehicle we used to travel was a motor bike with a side car, which was the local taxi. Compared to a bus or a car, this is a better way to learn about this place — we could see the fields, trees, and houses directly. And a long queue with ten taxis on the country road was really a grand sight. The first stop was a rice field. Unlike the subak system in Bali, the irrigation system here was less organized. Farmers were planting rice seedlings when we arrived. In each field, they planted rice in rows. They also invited students to join them. Obviously it was not an easy process– our students still need more practice to make the seedlings stand in a proper way.
The next stop was a small tofu workshop. People use soybeans to make tofu and this process contains three steps: prepare, extract, and solidify. We tasted the tofu here and it was a little more sour than what we usually have. Additionally, local people also use the soybean to make another food called “tapan” — it was a common dish in Sumatra.
In this trip, we learned about different kinds of palm trees. The guide told us that there are 250 kinds of palm trees in Sumatra and the well-known oil palm tree was just one kind. The lives of local people rely in part on these trees. The trunks from one kind are made into flour and can be used in making pancakes etc. Another type is the palm sugar tree. This kind of tree is very tall and had fruits on the top of it. Local people also use bamboo trees (which is also one kind of palm trees) planted beside the palm sugar tree, and cut holes every thirty centimeters on it to make it a ladder. They climb to the top of bamboo, cut the fruit of sugar tree open and collect the juice. The farmers boil and solidify the juice to make brown sugar. Without boiling, the juice would become wine after 24 hours. People use another kind of palm trees to make roofs. They twist and string together leaves and then sell them in the local market.
Another crop here is the cocoa fruit. It is hard and has a yellow peel on the outside and sour pulp inside, which tasted good. Neither of these made the cocoa — you had to get the kernel. The kernels have to be dried and pulverized before making cocoa.
We also saw the rubber tree. People cut the bark from the tree to allow the white liquid to flow down drip by drip. They put a bowl under the tree to collect it and wait for it to be solidified into a white and elastic substance. This is a very important raw material. The rubber tree can just live for 25 years and it takes 5 years to grow a new one so it is big enough to provide rubber. This was also a tree that stores plenty of water — people can usually collect water near its root. However, in recent years, people have to dig much deeper in order to get water.
The last thing we saw was the infamous oil palm tree. They have large leaves and their large fruit clusters are used to make oil. Later in the trip, we would get a chance to see many more oil palm trees in huge plantations.
Many of the crops we saw were trees, including rubber, palm sugar, and fruit trees. Planting certain types of crop trees could partially mitigate the harm brought by farming methods dependent on deforestation, and benefit local communities at the same time. And such replanting should be done scientifically. For example, we need to figure out which kind of tree crop is more proper to be planted in a buffer zone between forest and plantations. Also, agroforestry is more recommended than monoculture since it can better adapt to ecological and market changes.