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In late 2011, epidemiologist, writer and adventurer Elizabeth Pisani granted herself a sabbatical from the day job and set off to rediscover Indonesia, a country she has wandered, loved and been baffled by for decades. She was on the road and the high seas for a year, covering dozens of islands in 27 provinces. This site records photos and musings from that journey and beyond. See more about the project


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A requiem for Indonesia's national parks

A honey tree, abandoned by its bees, rises from an oil plam plantation in Sumatra

The photo above is of a honey tree. The Orang Rimba, who have for centuries hunted and gathered their way around the forests of what is now the Sumatran province of Jambi, have been collecting honey from this tree for as long as anyone can remember. (If you squint, you might be able to see the pegs they have driven in to the side of the tree to climb its great heights.) “Now the bees don’t want to come here any more,” said Gentar, a Rimba man who currently stays with his family under a nearby palm tree. “There’s nothing for them to eat in a palm oil plantation.”

The area where Gentar lives is at the edge of the Bukit Duabelas national park. Or it should be, but the edge of the park keeps moving, shrinking back towards the core as people hungry for land on which to grow rubber and oil palm take their chain-saws to the “protected” area. These people, incidentally, include Orang Rimba, who increasingly need cash to buy things that the shrinking forest can no longer provide (food, treatment for previously unknown diseases). They also need cash to buy things that help them generate cash more quickly, most notably chainsaws, motorbikes and handphones. Cutting down trees because so many trees have been cut down: a particularly vicious vicious circle. (An aside: I try to avoid the monk-on-a-cellphone type of cliche, but I did do a double take at the well-formed man in a loin cloth riding a Honda.)

Indonesia’s laws related to national forests are confused. I need to do more homework around this, but my understanding is that under conservation law humans aren’t allowed to live in national parks, while under human rights law, indigenous communities are allowed to use national park land in ways that maintain their customs and traditions. One of the customs and traditions of Orang Rimba is clearing patches of forest to plant subsistence crops such as cassava. But does that extend to clearing forest to plant a cash crop such as rubber? Does a tradition from the era of the axe hold in the era of the chainsaw?

The bulk of the deforestation comes not from Orang Rimba themselves but from people who clear land in large quantities and and parcel it up to sell to smallholders who want to plug in to the commodity boom that is fertilising the rococo mansions that now sprout around plantation areas. I rode for an hour on Gentar’s motorbike from the place where the original 2004 National Park boundary marker used to be (it has now disappeared) to the first sign of any primary forest. The last few hundred yards were littered with the skeletons of trees that had been felled in the previous few days. In four days in and around the park I did not see any indication that the National Park was being protected in any way. No forestry patrols, no rangers, no boundary markers, not even any of those futile “Clearing of land prohibited” signs. Also, no bees.

For those interested in the challenges faced by ancient hunter-gatherer cultures seduced and/or assaulted by modernity, I recommend Butet Manurung’s The Jungle School, an account of her struggle with the notion (and practice) of educating Orang Rimba children. Including Gentar.

Forbidden pleasures: What Elizabeth eats for tea

Giant clams hung out to dry in front of a fisherman's house in Pulau Banyak, Aceh

Giant clams hung out to dry in front of a fisherman's house in Pulau Banyak, Aceh

Indonesian food is varied and generally wonderful, though in out of the way spots like Pulau Banyak, off the West coast of Aceh, the choice for travelers is not extensive. I eat whatever is on offer on any given day at the one food stall in town — usually indeterminate fish in a yellowish or a reddish gravy. Yesterday the gravy was yellowish, and the first mouthful took me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. I was eating clam, of a very, very delicious sort. The cook’s husband, seeing my pleasure, rummaged behind the stove and came out with a clam shell about a foot across. “This is it’s shell”, he said. “They’re getting harder and harder to find.”

Turtle eggs for sale in Banda Aceh market. One pile sells for under two dollars.

Turtle eggs for sale in Banda Aceh market. One pile sells for under two dollars.

I don’t think giant clams are officially an endangered species, but I still wondered if I should feel guilty about eating one. Getting moral about what we eat presents us with so many dilemmas. I’ve always been surprised by moral vegetarians who happily eat fish. That’s the one thing that we still hunt in the wild, despite their getting harder and harder to find — surely that makes fish more morally problematic that meat which is bred for consumption? Giant clams are probably a no, though they are widely available here (and so very, very delicious). Turtle eggs are a definite no; there are even regulations against selling them, thanks in part to the work of conservation NGOs such as Yayasan Pulau Banyak. But that didn’t stop a young neighbour of the NGOs pleading with me to bring some back for her from the turtle breeding island of Bangkaru: “I’m pregnant. It’s my duty to eat things which are good for me”. And it doesn’t stop the traders in the main market in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, selling them quite openly. A clutch of seven goes for just 20,000 rupiah, about US$ 1.80. I have no moral dilemma at all over turtle eggs; I don’t eat them. Though that may be because the only time I’ve ever tried them, in this very province some 20 years ago, I felt like I was eating slightly fishy snot bombs. If they were very, very delicious, I might be more conflicted.