Motorbikes carrying coffee bags out of Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Photo courtesy of Patrice Levang.
Sumatra’s Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park—home to the Critically Endangered Sumatran rhinos, tigers, and elephants—has become overrun with coffee farmers, loggers, and opportunists according to a new paper in Conservation and Society. An issue facing the park for decades, the study attempted for the first time to determine the number of squatters either living in or farming off Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the rough census—over 100,000 people—shocked scientists.
“In some parts of the Park the squatters are so numerous that the area looks more like a Javanese countryside,” lead author Patrice Levang with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) told mongabay.com. “Another surprise was the large number of farmers living outside the Park and farming inside.”
According to date from 2006, around 55,000 hectares (135,900 acres) inside the park are currently under active encroachment. Evictions of some squatters in the 1980s have left around 8,000 hectares (19,700 acres) of regenerating forest, but still the total encroachment areas account for about 15 percent of the t park, which spans 3,568 square kilometers.
Boundary stone of the National Park hidden under Imperata grass in a deforested area. Photo courtesy of Patrice Levang.
“Since the 1960s large numbers of immigrants from Java moved to Lampung and converted the forests into coffee plantations, progressively moving from the east to the west and inside the Park,” explains Levang. In fact, around 80 percent of the squatters’ families are originally from Java.
“Most squatters have a low education level and limited marketable skills. They are looking for cheap land in order to make a living. They would prefer more accessible locations closer to schools and dispensaries, but as such locations are not available they make do with encroaching in the Park, the best available opportunity for the time being,” Levang says.
He adds that squatters are fully aware that by farming, logging or living in the park, they are breaking the law. But in recent decades there has been little action by authorities.
“With the advent of democracy and regional autonomy, many local politicians tend to back the squatters in order to expand their constituency,” explains Levang. “Local authorities generally block any coercive action against squatters as such action is considered as ‘politically incorrect.'”
Turning a blind eye to the situation by authorities, has led to increasing boldness by some locals. For example, the study reports a recent rise in illegal logging run by local village elites, known as preman.
“Preman generally own capital and equipment (cars and trucks), lead a small team of henchmen, and are active at networking local authorities. Considering preman as gangsters would be an exaggeration, though the distinction is sometimes tenuous,” the scientists write. Many of these preman have successfully run for local positions, which has “blurred” the distinction between “preman, gangster, and politician.”
The slow whittling away of Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park has been closely linked to coffee prices. In 1977 a peak in coffee prices “triggered spontaneous mass migration to the mountainous areas of southern Sumatra and led to the development of a major deforestation front on the eastern fringe of the Park,” according to the paper.
Housing of a recent squatter inside Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Photo courtesy of Patrice Levang.
“Devaluation raised local coffee prices to a record high in 1998, while international coffee prices remained low. This sudden increase in local coffee prices attracted new migrants to the area, while many non-farmers who saw their purchasing power decrease turned to part-time farming to generate cash,” explains co-author David Gaveau, also with CIFOR. “Overall, these results indicate that high producer prices for agricultural outputs accelerate deforestation because farmers who grow export cash crops act to maximize profits, and highlight that rising costs of agricultural commodities are likely to be detrimental to tropical forests.”
Past research by Gaveau has also shown, however, that law enforcement can be effective in deterring deforestation in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park—at least to a point. Economic opportunities, outside of farming, and better education could also help mitigate deforestation in the long run, according to the 2009 study.
But Levang says that there is no win-win solution to the conflict.
“Balancing human needs and preserving the Park is not an option. At least if human needs means converting the forest into coffee plantations, and preserving the Park means safeguarding tigers, elephants and rhinos. We are not taking sides, but one has to choose between squatters and tigers. The two cannot live together.”