Reducing Deforestation through Social Forestry

During our travels across Indonesia we had the opportunity to meet with a number of different NGOs, government ministries, and individuals who were all working on the issue of deforestation. Through these conversations I saw two key issues emerge: land tenure and the mechanisms through which national policy reaches people living in areas affected by deforestation. One meeting in particular, with Moira Moeliono of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), highlighted this challenging dynamic and offered the solution of community-based forestry or social forestry.

The Food and Agricultural Organization defines social forestry as “…encompass[ing] the management of forest lands and forest resources by or with local people, individually or in groups, and for commercial or non-commercial purposes. [Social forestry] covers a range of activities including indigenous management of sacred sites of cultural importance, smallholder forestry schemes, small-scale forest-based enterprises, company-community partnerships, as well as decentralized and devolved forest management” (2015)

This discussion around how indigenous populations manage land and how that might be incorporated into government planning has been going on since at least the 1960s but has recently gained more attention. A groundbreaking report from Rights and Resources was released outlining the critical role forest dwelling people have in climate change mitigation and protecting the carbon stored up in the worlds tropical ecosystems (2016). Expanding our view of how land is valued beyond simple economic terms and exploring alternative management approaches is an exciting step forward.


Pak Piang Irang, Punan Long Adiu Village Head, inside a communal forest in Borneo. Photo Credit: Andri Tambunan, 2016.

Indonesia, which made significant pledges to reduce carbon emissions in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement (Climate Tracker 2017), has acknowledged this connection and has begun to make an effort to restore land tenure rights to indigenous groups with a social forestry scheme. The program, launched in 2016, has five social forestry designations and has promised to return 12 million hectares of land to local communities by 2019. The government has been establishing legal access for communities living in and around forests to manage forest resources through five different management schemes: Community Plantation Forests, Village Forests, Community Forests, Partnership, and Customary Forests. Through these schemes, community-based forestry management aims to build a legal framework to support local communities and ensure sustainable resource management (Millennium Challenge Account 2017).

I was initially optimistic about the program but two years after its launch there has been little progress made. A recent Mongabay article entitled “Indonesian villages see virtually zero progress in program to manage peatlands,” was critical of the government’s work and highlighted several major shortcomings. As of January 15th of this year, only 10% of the 12 million hectares has been returned to communities and in the particularly vulnerable peatforest ecosystem, only one permit for less than 4 square miles has been issued. The government response has been to shrink their initial target of 12 million hectares to around 4.3 million (Jorg 2018).


A peat forest on Indonesia’s Riau main western island of Sumatra. Photo Credit: Rhett A. Butler.

The issue of social forestry designations is inherently complicated because it requires a very diverse set of groups with different world views to quantify their relationship with nature through a government application process. While I appreciate the ambition to increase land tenure I worry that this effort misses the larger issue of how to appropriately incorporate indigenous peoples into a modern state.

Ethical and philosophical quandaries aside there are some more tangible improvements to be made within the social forestry program as it is currently operating. The first is improving the government infrastructure and NGO support help to handle the large flow of applications and general interest. Thousands of communities are applying and there simply isn’t enough money or manpower to manage the process.

The second is to find a way to check the tremendous pressure the extractive resource industry is putting on the land tenure process. Palm oil and pulp plantations are able to take advantage of weak local governance structures and exert land claims in areas with indigenous populations. If Indonesia is to make serious progress towards checking their carbon emissions, empowering local communities, and meeting their Paris Agreement commitments they need to confront the imbalance between economic development and environmental stewardship.

By Russell King


“Community-Based Forestry.” FAO.Org, 2015,

Jong, Hans. “Indonesian Villages See Virtually Zero Progress In Program To Manage Peatlands.” Mongabay, 2018,

“New Era Of Social Forestry: For People’s Welfare – Millennium Challenge Account – Indonesia.” Millennium Challenge Account – Indonesia, 2017,

Rights and Resources Initiative. Toward A Global Baseline Of Carbon Storage In Collective Lands. 2016.

Tracker, Climate. “Indonesia – Climate Action Tracker.” Climateactiontracker.Org, 2018,



Snapshot from Indonesia: Dancing with the Demons

After our Bali bike tour, Professor Hilde told us there was a Balinese dance performance that night that was optional for us to attend. We were standing in the lobby of Permana Cottage, but with the combined effect of unresolved jetlag and a bumpy bus ride nap on the way back from our bike tour, to me it felt like we were spinning. I decided to go, and I would say it was one of my better decisions this trip.


Entrance to the temple where the Kecak performance took place. Photo by Wardah Zaman.

The performance was at a temple a few blocks from our hotel, so it was a short walk. The dimly lit stairway entrance was adorned with statues of gods, contributing to a mystical aura. The entrance also had an information desk with programs printed for visitors in many languages, including English and Bahasa Indonesia. In hindsight, it was a good thing I got my hands on one, since the story turned out to be quite complex.

Metal folding chairs for the audience were arranged to leave a large open space in the center where the performance was presumably going to happen. In the middle of the space was a pillar with three goblets holding flames, and it felt like we were in an ancient setting if I mentally blocked out the metal chairs.

There were only bules (foreigners) in the temple, except one woman walking through the crowd, selling beer.

“Excuse me? Bintang? Bintang?”

She held up a lemon Bintang with a toothy smile. I politely refused.

Once the crowd settled, the performance began with a door opening on the side and a stream of men pouring out, all wearing black and white checkered sarongs with no shirts, and all of them chanting loudly. One by one, they seated themselves around the pillar of fire.

Cak cak cak, they chanted.

The chanting was loud and powerful, and it may have been my sleep-deprived state, but it was very easy to give in to the hypnotizing music they were producing and allow your mind to shut off.

Cak cak cak.

The men rocked back and forth as they chanted, some more passionate than the others, each doing his own part to contribute to the acapella. Jackson, the music expert in our group, commented how impressive it was that one person kept the central beat while the others chanted cak in complex interacting polyrhythms over that beat.

Cak cak cak.

Soon the dancers entered and began acting, or rather, dancing out scenes from Ramayana, the Hindu epic that told the heroic plights of Rama and his brother, Laksamana. As the story unfolded, Rama and Laksamana overcame a series of kidnappings and attempted murders. Rama’s wife, who was dressed in ornate traditional clothing (just like the women you see in promotional advertisements for Bali), was also featured in one of the scenes. The evil demon king Ravana attempted to fool her into thinking that her husband was dead, and she effectively portrayed the tragedy through her facial expressions and elegant dance movements.

The final scene showed the intense battle between Sugriva, the monkey king, and the giant demon Kumbakarna. Kumbakarna was finally shot down by Rama and Laksamana, bringing an end to the performance.

I will admit that at times it was difficult to follow the complex story, but even so, the dance had been beautiful enough to keep us all captivated. For me, the night epitomized the magic of Bali: the infusion of strong Hindu culture with the constant smell of burning incense hanging in the air.


The dancers line up after the show to bow. Photo by Munene Ndereba.

By Wardah Zaman

Animals for Food: A Brief Look at the Drivers of the Illegal Wildlife Trade in Indonesia

By some measures, Indonesia is considered the most biodiverse country in the world. [1] Its 18,000 islands are home to rhinos, tigers, elephants, bears, primates, and countless birds. As with rainforests in other parts of the world, Indonesia’s forest creatures are declining in vast numbers–its mammals alone are more threatened than any other country’s, with one third of its native mammals in danger. [2] Mammals are not the only issue; many birds, particularly parrots and songbirds, are threatened as well. [3] This loss is largely attributed to massive deforestation, extreme weather events, climate change, and illegal wildlife trafficking. [4]


A variety of animals, including birds, are trafficked out of Indonesia. Photo by Munene Ndereba.

Wildlife trafficking is increasing across the world, and as of 2014 there were no signs of it declining in Indonesia. Records show that in 2014 there were over 78 filed cases of wildlife crime; this number only reflects criminal acts that were published in mass media, and does not take into account the many unreported or unobserved cases. [5] During our meeting with The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), they discussed how difficult wildlife trafficking is to track, as it often occurs on the edge of the forest, a typically unmonitored area. In addition, trafficking has recently been facilitated by the internet through online advertising. In just one year, there were over 3,640 online advertisements for various wildlife species. [6] The Indonesian government needs to focus on enforcing illegal wildlife trafficking through both more strict local regulation, and by addressing the drivers that lead many local traffickers to engage in the practice.

The demand for trafficking is not something that is easily addressed, as it arises mostly out of culture and status. Recently, high foreign demand has been seen from Hong Kong, Kuwait, China, Taiwan, and France, ultimately totaling up to an $8-10 billion industry, second only to drug smuggling. [7][8] China has the largest demand for trafficked animals; these animals are often used for food, decoration, and traditional medicines. There are some Chinese traditions involving eating wild meat to gain everything from longevity to sexual prowess. [9] Also, in our meeting with SOCP, they discussed foreign demand for orangutans as pets in the United Arab Emirates.

Local demand is another beast altogether, and is not as easily traced or detected. On local roads across Sumatra, one can find large fruit bats, macaques, and orangutans in cages for sale, either for consumption or to be kept illegally as pets. Although many of these animals are protected under Indonesian law, there is little local enforcement, and much of this activity flies under the radar as a regular part of life. [10] There is also demand for these animals as pets in Indonesian cities. [11] Here, the Indonesian government could potentially step in and increase enforcement, especially in visible areas such as roadsides. Changing something so deeply rooted in culture is difficult. However, having real consequences in addition to disseminating knowledge about changing wildlife trafficking laws is a strong step in the right direction.

Understanding and addressing demand by enforcement only solves symptoms of the underlying problems of poverty that local people engaging in this illegal behavior face. As we have learned on this course, local poachers are often opportunistic rather than full-time poachers. If a farmer is working on the edge of the forest and spots for instance, a baby orangutan, the farmer may take the baby, kill the mother, sell the baby to earn around $500, and then resume farming. [12] Farmers that engage in this activity are often incredibly poor and living hand-to-mouth. Can they be blamed for doing whatever it takes to feed themselves and their family? To make matters worse, the poaching local farmer does not even see most of the profit. After buying the animal from the farmer, the international dealer can sell it for up to fifty times what the farmer received. [13]

Although it is easier said than done, addressing these deeper issues is what the Indonesian government really needs to work on. Unfortunately, this will take time that these species do not have. In the meantime, the Indonesian government must engage in stricter local regulation while continuing to spread knowledge about wildlife trafficking laws and endangered species in order to protect their biodiversity.

By Noah Maghsadi


[1] Rainforest Action Network. “Indonesia’s Rainforests: Biodiversity and Endangered Species.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Planet Indonesia. “Wildlife Trafficking.”

[4] USAID. “Environmental Security: Indonesia.” January 2018.

[5] ProFauna. “Wildlife Trafficking in 2014: A Grim Reflection.” January 2015.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Payton Deeks. “Wildlife Trafficking In Southeast Asia.” SAIS Review of International Affairs, Volume 26, Number 1, Winter-Spring 2006.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. Meeting, Bukit Lawant, Sumatra, Indonesia. 1/11/18.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13]Payton Deeks. “Wildlife Trafficking In Southeast Asia.” SAIS Review of International Affairs, Volume 26, Number 1, Winter-Spring 2006.


Snapshot from Indonesia: Batak, Bule, and Maybe a Hint of Malay — A Combination Drenched in Confusion

“Kita pariban! Tau pariban kan?!”

“We are pariban (cousins)! You know what ‘pariban’ means right?!”


These are the moments I frequently dread when I return to Indonesia. Even more, every time I meet a Batak person and they quickly realize my family is Batak as well. The feeling isn’t necessarily contempt, but rather a mixture of guilt and embarrassment for not knowing enough…

As someone who was born and lived in Malaysia for almost nine years before moving to the United States, I’ve always been self-conscious when asked about my Indonesian heritage. Living outside of Indonesia all of my life has pushed me to explore different cultures, and reflect on what it means to be Indonesian-American abroad. However, being Batak and bule (foreigner) presents a whole new avenue of challenges, especially when you are a woman in a culture where only the men carry the marga (family surname) – a critical indication of someone’s tribe and the region they are from in North Sumatra.

Batak is a collective term used to identify a number of closely related ethnic groups predominantly found in North Sumatra. The term is used to include the Karo, Pakpak, Simalungun, Toba, Angkola, and Mandailing, which are all related groups with distinct languages and customs. Marga is a term in Batak societies referring to a clan’s name and is analogous with one’s family surname. The term is derived either from the Sanskrit varga, meaning “company, party, or group”; or more likely, from the Sanskrit marga, meaning “road, way, or path,” referring to a people of “one origin.” In Batak culture the marga is solely patrilineal. Marriage in the same marga is strictly forbidden by tribal law (adat) even between people only distantly related; but it is allowed and often even arranged between cousins of the maternal line (boru). Since Batak marga are patrilineal, the children will inherit the marga from their father, or in my case… not at all.


My parents…

Now, back to being pariban. During my travels throughout Indonesia I have always felt some form of comfort hearing that someone is from Sumatra, especially if they are from North Sumatra or Medan, where many of my family still reside. In fact, I’ll never forget the moment I met someone with the same marga as my mother while interning in Washington, DC. I revealed that not only did my mother grow up in Medan, but she was a Simatupang, and unsurprisingly (although I was definitely surprised at the moment) my fellow Simatupang had me call my mother while we were at lunch and demand to speak with her to say hi. Yes, just to say hi. This is the connection that Batak people have, and the connection they hold when they’re Batak Rantau (Batak but live outside of North Sumatra). The Batak tribe is known for being especially strong and hold their connections to their land, culture, and community at an enormous standard. We’re all essentially pariban. However, while I have always been proud to tell people that my family are Batak, I was unfortunately never taught much about Batak culture. Conversely, none of the reasons have to do with the fact that I am half-Batak, half-Indonesian, or lived outside of Indonesia all of my life. They all have to do with the fact that while my family’s marga indicate that we are Batak Toba, my grandparents were from Asahan, North Sumatra.


…and me (at age 7).

Asahan is a regency in North Sumatra and known for its phenomenal seafood (if you haven’t had satay kerang you’re missing out!). Before 2007, Asahan included the province of what is now Batubara, and the regency currently surrounds, but does not include, the city of Tanjungbalai, its former capital. More significantly though, Asahan is the prior home of the Malay Asahan Sultanate.

Before it became an independent state, Indonesia was formed by various clusters across the archipelago. Numerous areas were controlled by several kingdoms led by sultans or kings – Asahan among them. The Asahan Sultanate, reigning from approximately 1630-1946, was once ruled by eleven kings with the royal center in Tanjungbalai. If viewed geographically, the Asahan region is limited to the North Tapanuli area, famous for being a Batak area. Alternatively, aside from the Batak’s far reach across North Sumatra, the Batak people were, and are still, well renowned for their tough nature – a major problem for those attempting to control the region. The strength and resilient demeanor of the Batak people was therefore an enormous challenge for the sultanate in spreading their Malay customs and religion throughout Asahan. As the spread of Islam expanded throughout the archipelago, the values ​​of Islam (Melayu) were thus gradually blended and frequently imposed onto the traditions, norms, and everyday life of Batak society.


The location of Asahan Regency in North Sumatra.  Image amended from:

In the era of the sultanate, the people of the Batak Toba tribe left their homes for a variety of reasons and migrated to eastern Sumatra, an area deeply controlled by a number of extremely religious Malay sultanates. This forced the non-Muslim Batak society to adapt to local customs, eventually leading to the Malay acculturation in Tanjungbalai surviving from the sultanate era to present day Asahan. Indeed, scholars have recently demonstrated how the reign of the Malay sultanates perpetuated an acculturation between Malay and Batak Toba culture in Tanjungbalai.[1] For example, early sultans in Asahan constituted decrees that “during the reign of the Sultanate, everyone who wants to stay settled and have a place to live (land and house) in this city must masuk Melayu.”[2] The word “masuk Melayu” here is understood as converting to Islam. This was extremely influential for the tribes who came to this area, especially those who were not Muslim. Ultimately, as one of the biggest tribes that migrated to Tanjungbalai, the Batak Toba tribe had to abandon their cultural customs, adopt Malay cultural beliefs when they settled in the town of Tanjungbalai, and finally convert to Islam.

While this may seem like a swath of information, the significance and influence of the Malay Sultanate in Asahan is what brings me to a critical point: being Batak is more complex that one can imagine and inherently incorporates many cultures and languages that is not centralized to one set of cultural ideals and norms. Traveling throughout North Sumatra during this course I experienced many different reactions to my Batak heritage ranging from satisfaction that a Batak-Bule still held on to Indonesian culture, to mere disappointment for not speaking any of the Batak languages or knowing more about Batak culture. In hindsight, I have never truly felt that any of these judgements were unpleasant, but  have increasingly understood the significance of expanding my understanding of the Batak culture and what it means to me. After returning from Indonesia this past trip, I realized I needed to learn about the Batak people, beyond what my family could tell me. In doing so, I discovered the history of Asahan, and realized why my grandparents never taught my uncles and aunts a Batak language or much about the Batak culture. My family were Batak Toba Muslims born under a Malay sultanate – a complex identity to have indeed.

Overall, as an Indonesian-American I have had the privilege to witness how the mixing of cultures is a common phenomenon which occurs naturally over time with the introduction of external influences. Presently, this has been through social media, technology, and further access to information. However, through this lens I have also seen the importance of the preservation of cultures so that a history drenched in intricate cultural interactions, such as the Batak people, is not lost, but remembered and appreciated. I have found that by being both Indonesian and American I have had the opportunity to learn and explore other cultures, while continuing to revert back to my own. Being half, or even a quarter, of a particular race or ethnic group should not limit your capacity to learn about your own heritage, nor should it limit one’s ability to be proud to be from a certain place. Although I don’t carry the marga of my grandfather, I’m proud to share the complex story of the people of Asahan, and even more how a Batak-Bule born in Malaysia, who doesn’t speak any of the Batak languages, is continuing to push herself to expand her knowledge and understanding of Indonesia. In fact, the next time someone calls me pariban, I’ll be sure to remember what the significance of pariban means, and treasure being part of a culture that always calls each other family.

By Annisah Smith


[1] Mailin. 2017. Acculturation of malay and toba batak cultural value on malay societies in tanjung balai city asahan north sumatra. Miqot: Jurnal Ilmu-Ilmu Keislaman 41 (1).

[2] Ibid.

Dismantling a Way of Life

On July 21st, 2016, a week after district officials visited Lake Toba to tell the residents to remove their floating fish cages, the Indonesian government sent a force of approximately 600 soldiers and police to dismantle Lake Toba’s floating fish farms (1). This quick response from Indonesia’s government stems from President Joko Widodo’s plans to turn Lake Toba into a major tourist destination (2). After visiting Lake Toba both the President and Vice President Jusuf Kalla saw these floating cages as a deterrent to tourists. At the time of the notice from district officials, there were 12,000 floating cages, each containing 10,000-15,000 fish.  The fish farms were considered to be an ugly sight by government officials, and were viewed as the primary reason for the Lake Toba’s tourism decline (2, 3).

In addition to being viewed as a roadblock to tourism, Lake Toba’s fish farms have contributed to environmental issues. In 2014, the lake was classified as eutrophic, meaning it contained excessive amounts of nutrients and an associated vulnerability to algal blooms (2). High nutrient levels were largely due to the large number of farmed fish and their overfeeding, and contributed to the mass fish die-off in May 2016 that killed 1,500 tons of fish and prompted government intervention (1, 3). With these floating fish cages damaging Lake Toba’s water quality and potential tourism, it seems reasonable for government officials to defend the dismantling of the cages as anti-pollution and pro-tourism, but this ignores the economic importance of fishing for residents of Lake Toba as well as the volatility of tourism (1).

Tojo Photo 1

While on Lake Toba, we had the opportunity to visit one of the smaller fish farms.  Here, a group of a dozen floating cages (supported by the blue buoys and yellow walkways) are worked by multiple local farmers.  Photo by Tom Jones.


Eliminating Lake Toba’s fish farms in favor of tourism will not help the community as predicted. Tourism is a unreliable industry, as evidenced by Bali’s Mount Agung, whose late 2017 multiple-month eruption brought Bali’s tourism industry to a crawl. In addition, investing in the tourism industry doesn’t necessarily mean that locals will be hired to perform the jobs that may arise from tourism. Toba’s fishing industry, on the other hand, provides the jobs and stable income that residents need.

A more beneficial approach for the community might be for the government to support sustainable aquaculture techniques, which many residents have begun by reducing the density of fish in their floating cages to 5,000 fish (2). However, significant progress on returning Lake Toba to a mesotrophic body of water, with only a moderate nutrient load, requires investment from the top. Many of the floating fish cages are not owned by local residents; the locals work cages owned by outside entities. With each set of four cages costing 500 million IDR, or $37,500 USD, owning floating cages is beyond the reach of most Toba residents. Therefore, it is the owners and the government that will need to put forward the money to invest in sustainable practices.

One corporation has already begun to invest in more sustainable fish farming on Lake Toba. PT Suri Tani Pemuka, which farmed 4,000 tons of fish in 2015 from Lake Toba, began using machines that vacuum waste and dead fish at the bottom of their floating cages (2). They also added broadcast feed machines that are preprogrammed to distribute low-phosphorus food pellets at certain times in order to curtail overfeeding (2). All of these actions can help reduce the increased nutrient input associated with fishing farming on Lake Toba.  The company has even hosted a workshop for fish farmers to educate them on sustainable practices, such as setting their floating cages away from the shoreline to allow the current to carry waste and excess nutrients away. Unfortunately, PT Suri Tani Pemuka’s technology was imported from Norway and is not economically feasible for most farmers. However, with assistance from owner companies and district and national governments, sustainable fishing on Lake Toba can be realized and allow for the preservation of a reliable source of income for locals while improving lake conditions to attract tourism.

By Tom Jones


  1. Danaparamita, Aria. “Military sent to clear fish farms in Indonesia’s Lake Toba.” Mongabay, 22 July 2016,
  2. Danaparamita, Aria. “Why did millions of fish turn up dead in Indonesia’s giant Lake Toba?” Mongabay, 30 Aug. 2016,
  3. Bakkara, Binsar. “How Pollution is Devastating an Indonesian Lake.” Yale Environment 360, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 26 Oct. 2016,



Away from Palm Oil, Towards Rubber? A Governance Solution

Indonesia has the largest area of rubber production land in the world and is the second largest rubber exporter after Thailand.1 Although palm oil issues dominated conversations, we also explored the rubber industry’s place in Indonesian agriculture, economics, and sustainability through on-site exploration, candid conversations, and one long drive back to the airport…

Our group sat on the bus from Lake Toba to the airport in North Sumatra, chatting, laughing, and looking idly out the window at speeding vehicles and groups of pedestrians — familiar scenery. Even the rows of rubber trees we passed were recognizable to us. Earlier that week, our guides, Dani and Dede, had taken us on a tour of Bukit Lawang and neighboring communities where we were introduced to oil palm trees, tofu-making, and the small-scale rubber production process.


Smallholder rubber farm near Bukit Lawang. Photo by Ariana Scurti.

On the bus, seconds and then long minutes passed as we gazed out the window at the blurring rows of rubber trees. “How long is this going to go on for?” inquired an exasperated voice from the back. The answer was over ten non-stop minutes of driving through mesmerizing rows of thin, leaning trees. One could not see to the indistinguishable end of the rows that edged both sides of the road. I finally turned to Dani and asked just what it was that we were looking at.

His answer did not surprise me: a rubber plantation owned by an international corporation. From a couple rows back, someone said, “Did you see that sign? It said ‘Bridgestone.’”

The trees were systematically lined up as the rubber collection point aligned at the same exact height on each tree. This was a departure from the small-scale production site we visited, where the collection points seemed to be haphazardly placed from tree to tree—at least to my untrained eye. We did not see any workers from the bus, but the labor needed to maintain such precision was obviously substantial. (Later research showed that Bridgestone had about 6,000 employees at this location in 2010)2.

At one point, we passed a small, roadside community. What were these houses doing in the middle of the rubber plantation?

According to Dani, rubber companies house and financially support families of four (note: if you grow your family beyond this, you do not receive additional funds) and provide a school and hospital, among other services, in the company town. Interestingly, a search of Bridgestone’s 2016 Corporate Social Responsibility report does not specifically mention such communities in Indonesia.3 In fact, the only mention of Indonesia in their report refers to a vocational training facility and a program in which they provide technical assistance to smallholders.

As rubber prices continue to fall from 2011’s highs, Indonesian rubber producers (80 percent smallholders) also face low productivity as rubber trees age and industry re-investment remains limited.4 Although Indonesia exports about 85 percent of its rubber, the country is grappling with tougher competition from Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. In contrast to the Thai government’s efforts to establish free trade agreements with trade partners, Indonesian smallholders receive little government incentive and support.


Smallholder rubber tree near Bukit Lawang. Photo by Ariana Scurti.

For this – and many other reasons – there has been a massive movement towards palm oil production. According to a study by Shwarze, et al. (2015), rubber production is highly labor intensive, especially for smallholders, while palm oil production is less so.5 However, as Dani explained, rubber production can be a long-term, sustainable income source for rubber farmers. While oil palm trees are only productive between the 5th and 15th years (severely damaging the soil and water table level in the process, and absorbing significantly less carbon than rubber trees), rubber trees last 30-40 years producing around 70 kilograms of rubber a week. At the weekly market, farmers can get up to 7,500 IDR per kilogram of rubber or 525,000 IDR a week – a modest income in Indonesia (approximately 37 USD) .6 Yet, government involvement remains low in rubber production with limited to no training programs, capital investment, or resources provided to rubber smallholder farmers.

By Ariana Scurti



  1. “Overview of the Rubber Sector.” Global Business Guide.
  2. “Bridgestone to Partner with the World Agroforestry Centre to Assist Rubber Tree Farmers in Indonesia”.
  3. Bridgestone 2016 Sustainability Report.
  4. “Rubber (Natural).” Indonesia Investments.
  5. Schwarze, S., et al. “Rubber vs. oil palm: an analysis of factors influencing smallholders’ crop choice in Jambi, Indonesia.”
  6. Conversation with Dede, Sumatra guide. Near Bukit Lawang. 11 January 2018.

Snapshot from Indonesia: The Jungle Trek (Part II)

My colleague Zachary Segal outlined our first day of jungle trekking and the path that brought us orangutans, ankle-deep mud, and finally to our terminus at the riverside oasis we called home for that magical night in Gunung Leuser National Park. Both literally and figuratively following in his footsteps, I shall endeavor to describe our departure from this tropical wonderland and the equally exciting path we took to return to our hotel.

I grew up playing in rivers. Water was a big part of my childhood and I have fond memories of family vacations with rafting trips. I began whitewater kayaking when I was 14. When I learned that the second day of our jungle adventure was going to be a float trip taking us back to Bukit Lawang, I was thrilled. I was ready to talk shop with our guides–compare the finer points of river gear, scouting rapids, and general whitewater shenanigans. But I quickly learned there is no “shop” in the jungle.


The start of our rafting adventure. Photo by Florencia Sánchez Zunino.

Instead of the neoprene and fiberglass I was expecting, we were greeted with patched up truck tires and large sticks. As I write this now- dry, connected to WiFi, and safe behind the screen of a laptop, the selection feels natural considering that North Sumatra is home both an ample supply of rubber and sticks. But in that moment when I realized there were no paddles, life jackets, or actual rafts, I’ll confess that I felt a small pang of anxiety.


Some strangers from the internet on Sumatran Inner tube rafts! Photo Credit: Trip Advisor.

I’m happy to report that as I watched our flotilla come together all of my fears were assuaged. Each “raft” was comprised of four large inner tubes tied together in a line with an ample supply of rope. On either end sat our fearless guides armed with navigation sticks, easy confidence, and an impressive repertoire of jungle-themed songs. The middle two inner tubes were home to baggage and bule (read: UMD students).

We set off chanting the “Jungle Trek” song (sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells” of course) while trying to convince our Sumatran counterparts to stop splashing us with the freezing river water. I was unsuccessful in my anti-splash campaign and quickly resigned myself to enjoying the stunning scenery we floated through. For portions of the trip we traveled through green canyons as the trees towered to either side, offering only a strip of daylight directly above. As we came closer to town I admired stylish hotels along the river bank and the daring pathways carved out of the rock wall or snaking out over the river on precarious board walks.

My only issue with our second day of trekking was the length. In some kind of perverted jungle math our 5-plus hours of strenuous hiking/crawling came out to a leisurely 45 minutes of river travel. Despite the disheartening reality that we hadn’t really gone that far when we pulled up at the beach in front of our hotel, I can only echo the praise that Zack had for the experience. Sometimes the expectations unmet are the easiest to exceed–I’ll never think of raft or a truck tire the same way again.

By Russell King (as part of the Bowtie Bule Chronicles)