Working in the jungle: Field research in Indonesia

December 06, 2010.  

Interview with Grace Villamor, a PhD student at ZEF from the Philippines. Before she started her PhD studies at ZEF, she did her Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Forestry at the University of the Philippines and her Master’s in Tropical Forest Management at the Technical University (TU) Dresden, Germany. Her doctoral research is on land use change and the trade offs of ecosystem services. She conducted her field research in a rubber agro-forest in Indonesia.


How did you get interested in this issue in the first place?

I had to choose between three areas of interest when I had to decide where to do my field research: my own country, the Philippines; Vietnam, or Indonesia. I found Indonesia the most challenging, since it’s a Muslim country, a disaster prone area, no 1. Carbon emitter (through deforestation and degradation) and it has an enormous diversity. These challenges and complexities made me interested. I also had an advantage that I had already established my network in the country and had the opportunity to discuss my research agenda with them. This was highly appreciated and needed by my partners.


Why was jungle rubber so important and what was it being used for in your study region?

Jungle rubber is an agro-forestry system resembling forests. Historically, it was introduced by the Dutch colonialists in the early 20th century. Jungle rubber adapted amazingly well to the climate and soil conditions in the areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan, where it has become today’s dominant farming practice. An important observation is the fact that highly valued biodiversity such as Rafflesia (the biggest flower in the world), the Sumatran tiger, and other endangered mammals have succeeded to survive in this ecosystem.


Jungle rubber is by now the main source of income for the local population: Villagers just tap the white latex from the rubber trees and sell it to the middlemen. Moreover, Indonesia is regularly among the top 3 of the world’s rubber latex producing countries. 40 to 70% of the Indonesian rubber comes from Sumatra, where I conducted my field study.


I wanted to study the role of jungle rubber in Indonesia because of the science and policy myths that have been evolving around the topic in the country. Now that climate change is becoming an issue in Indonesia it is being discussed that people should leave the forests – apparently, because the forest can mitigate climate change only by itself.


Why is jungle rubber being replaced by oil palm plantations?

Jungle rubber is under pressure to be replaced by oil palm plantations because of the potential higher income it could generate for farmers. It is expected to become the economic engine of the province and is, as such, supported by the government. In fact, the villages that I am working on are surrounded by oil palm plantations and rubber intensification or monoculture.


What does that mean for the local people and their livelihoods? Social, economical?

The villages that I am working in are poor villages, so providing a higher income would improve their standard of living considerably. However, it won’t be easy, since there would be a lot of trade-offs, particularly from an environmental and social point of view.


Socially speaking, converting jungle rubber to oil palm plantations would require additional labor power, which means hiring people from outside. Since working in the rubber jungle is mainly a family-business, hiring people from other ethnic groups with different cultural backgrounds would cause conflicts and tensions and have an impact on the lifestyle of the villagers. The villages have strict social norms, and introducing oil palm production and the immigration of laborers would certainly change their culture.


One interesting cultural habit that I learned from the village life is the value of reciprocity. If a durian fruit in the rubber jungle falls on the ground before 6 a.m., you are free to take it, but after 6 a.m. the owner of the farm lot claims the ownership. Another thing that I learned is the issue of land inheritance. Females are responsible to tend the rice fields whereas males are responsible for the rubber farms. Accordingly, only daughters (or matrilineal inheritance) can inherit rice fields and sons rubber farms.


How do they cope and react?

At this moment, the villagers do not have enough resources in terms of labor and finances required for up-rooting or slashing the existing vegetation to replace it with oil palm. They rely heavily on jungle rubber, which also generates other resources such as fruits (i.e. durian, rambutan, champedak, etc), medicinal plants and cinnamon which they can sell to and at the market.


What were the most remarkable experiences you had during your field research?

Working with the villagers is the most remarkable experience I had. Although most of them are busy farmers, who work from 6 in the morning until 5 in the evening on the fields, they paid much attention to my work. Whenever I requested a group discussion, they would come and share the information with me. One example of their positive response to me is when we did a focus group discussion and participatory mapping during the evening: it took us till midnight to finish, but they stayed. They are very hospitable, friendly and patient in spite of my funny Bahasa Indonesian speaking.


I also enjoyed working with different actors during the fieldwork. First, the farmers I worked with are from two distinct tribes – Jambi and Minangkabau. Respect and politeness are the rules of the game. They are relatively shy but I managed to get into contact with them by spending much time in the main mini-store of the village, which is strategically located at the main intersection of two villages. People used to see me there and thus I became part of their everyday scenery. I used to hang out at the store to chat with people three times a day for an hour or so.


The second important set of actors I worked with is an NGO called WARSI. This is an NGO involved in the conservation of Sumatran wildlife. I approached them to discuss and present my research agenda. My aim was to find out whether we shared a joint agenda. It appeared that we did and that we could cooperate on activities in the field such as focus group discussions and participatory mapping. Since the farmers trusted them very much, the NGO representatives became important for me to approach almost all the key decision makers in the villages. Its members were also helping me with translating my limited Bahasa Indonesian to the farmers, whose dialect is quite different from the official language.


Another key actor important to my work in the field was the office of ICRAF (World Agro-forestry Centre), located in Muara Bungo, the capital of the Bungo District. Working with the researchers there, who are very familiar with the place, made my life easy. They helped me to find ways of approaching the farmers via my research techniques (i.e. role playing games), recommended enumerators, and local government people who easily understood the research operations. I was lucky to use their facilities at the field site where I could do a lot of logistical preparations (e.g. transportation, security procedures, and administrative matters). Books and theses related to my research were all accessible. During leisure time, we played badminton or guitar… making the fieldwork refreshing.


But this doesn’t mean that my field work was always without worries. I did a lot of trouble shooting as well. First, I had a hard time looking for a research assistant to assist me during my data collection. For one thing, it’s hard to find an English-speaking graduate student. I sent a call for the position to agricultural universities but I got 3-5 responses only. Once I mentioned where the field work was, they were immediately discouraged. Why? Because the island of Sumatra is famous for earthquakes and tsunamis… and there are wild Sumatra tigers roaming around my field site. However, I finally found two newly graduate field assistants from Bogor who spoke good English.


I also had a hard time working with lazy enumerators and ended up doing almost everything myself to be in time with my schedules. To deal with the tigers and remote farms, I had to come up with innovative strategies (through mapping techniques and Google earth maps) to reach the deep forest without going into it. It caused me a month of delay on my target schedule.


How can science contribute to solving these issues?

We saw already the great contribution of science in our lives, but if used unwisely it can have negative consequences. Since some of the negative impacts are now being felt, we can use science to help us forecasting the future impacts and finding ways to mitigate the negative impacts, especially for the poor people. One example of it is the modeling approach that I am working on at ZEF. We try to incorporate ecological processes into the decisions of farmers on their landscapes. Initial outputs of the work are published now in journals.



Alma van der Veen