Given the myriad of contradictions, spending time in the ancient forests of West Sumatra with Minangkabau people (Minang) is perhaps a challenge for the mind and spirit of any conservationist. Traditionally a people of the forest, the Minang are the world’s largest matrilineal society, with land owned and passed down through the female lineage. They possess a culture centered on protection of the most vulnerable, hold a deep belief in the ancestral spirits, and are historically connected to nature. Yet they could easily be accused of showing little concern for the forest, rapidly depleting its wealth as well as its spiritual and environmental protection day by day.
Walking in the forest with Ramly and Amek, my Minang team, is often akin to walking through a great library hall with gifted orators, exploring history, language, art, and nature as we sample wild foods, follow animal tracks, collect medicinal plants, and discuss the sweet and sour flavors of the forest. By the light of the night fire, the stories come to life, some myth and some no doubt fact, the close encounters with the Harimau (tiger), the Sun bear, or the Orang Pendek, the cryptozoological “little people” of the West Sumatran forest.
Each time we set out to the forest, it seems the edge has retreated a little further, while inside the forest the canopy is slowly being lowered. Every few hours we come to a clearing, often littered with fresh-cut planks or the stumps of once towering trees and the decaying evidence of an old logging camp. Ramly and Amek navigate the forest moving from one of their past logging sites to another. They recall vividly their experience with every tree they have cut and every animal they have trapped. They have a local name and use for almost every plant, animal, and sometimes insect.
As we pass between the towering trees, the conversation is focused on life up to 200 feet above. Ramly points out trees with significant or abundant life supported in the canopy, insisting that trees housing such dense epiphytic life are too valuable to sacrifice, regardless of the timber’s value. His dilemma then follows in the next breath, as he feels that many loggers drifting in from outside the local villages do not pay any attention to traditional law, forcing him and other locals to fell these giant hardwoods before they do.
Like all Minang forest workers, Ramly and Amek talk of the belief system or Adat, which is part of everyday life. These laws allow them to work in the forest safely and protected. They tell me that if they were ever lost or injured, they could tap on the giant Fig tree three times and the Harimau (tiger) would come to lead them to their village. Many of the traditional laws of the Minang are developed to conserve the integrity of the forest, and ensure a constant renewal of forest resources, although it is clear today that not everyone follows traditional law. The men know the forest has its limits and they question the ability of their laws to protect it much longer.
Ramly and Amek loved working with my team as guides. I knew this was more than a job to them. It was a chance to use their skills and knowledge of the forest and get paid without the hard and dangerous side of logging. The benefits are reciprocal, as I came to discover that the two hardened forest men also brought great credibility to my team and thus trust among other forest workers. During one walk, Ramly talked of the tourism project in Nyarai. He said how other loggers were leaving the forest and making money just to walk along an easy trail. Both Ramly and Amek regularly asked how they could bring tourism to their village and work permanently as guides.
Tourism is a new addition to the lives and livelihood strategies of at least one community living on the border of the Gamaran Protected Forest. It started around two years ago, when some of the young men of the Nyarai village decided to set up a small tourism adventure business. Yanda, who has worked with me as a research guide on several occasions, was one of the young entrepreneurs who gave up life as a logger to become an outdoor tourism guide. With some skepticism from the community leaders, the men aimed to bring tourism dollars to their little area of the forest and attempt to stop some of the degradation. Yanda and his friends started charging a fee to groups of visitors to be guided through the forest along a two-hour trail to the magical waterfalls of Air Terjun. The falls were once a private retreat and fishing spot for villagers. They are visually spectacular, beautifully fresh and filled with crystal clear water for swimming among the abundant aquatic life. The falls are situated on the edge of the upper forest, just in far enough to alert all your senses to the deeper jungle, but not enough to hinder the abundant wildlife just beyond the falls as the forest rises to what is referred to on maps as the strict conservation zone.
When tourism began in Nyarai, it was purely a weekend affair for some of the community. The main visitors were young people from the city of Padang, which is around an hour away by car. The young guides were making a little money and enjoying their weekends walking the forest along the narrow trail, swimming with their guests and having fun. Some had stopped logging and depended solely on tourists. They spread the news to older men of the money to be made if they traded logging for tourism. As the numbers of visitors steadily increased, so too more of the loggers turned their hand to guiding. Ramly and Amek remained in the forest cutting wood, fishing, and hunting as always, but continued to talk of working in tourism. They recall several months where the sound of a chainsaw other than theirs was seldom heard and the area exploded in a buzz of tourism fever. Amek now told stories of the tourists who filmed and photographed him as he rode his fresh-cut logs down the rapids past the bewildered hordes.
The reverberating sounds of chainsaws throughout the forest were swiftly replaced by the echoes of people.
The reverberating sounds of chainsaws throughout the forest were swiftly replaced by the echoes of people, as throngs of visitors were now careening along the narrow trails, bringing the bustle of the city to a once peaceful refuge. Yanda recalled thinking that the scales had now tipped, and perhaps the tourism was going to be worse than the logging. Television crews, newspapers, and radio networks all gave attention to the Nyarai-guided walk to Air Terjun. So much so that up to a thousand people each month made the short trek along a single forest trail to plunge into a regularly crowded water hole. Small warungs (shops) sprung up along the trail, as well as on the rocks at the waterfall. The young instigators of the tourism project were struggling to control what they had so eagerly begun. An over-crowded village car park and the discarded litter from the visitors were becoming a burden to the village and visible all along the trail. The trail itself was fast becoming overused and widening by the week.
On occasion, my team and I would walk the Nyarai trail via Air Terjun to enter the upper forest. Late one evening, while using the trail, we spotted Yanda and several other guides waiting for the last of the tourists frolicking in the river below. We sat for a while chatting. First we talked about the forest, which led to deeper discussions of the impacts of tourism that seemed to be weighing heavy on the minds of Yanda and the other guides. They told us how money and litter were causing conflict, and the community leaders were not happy with some of the actions of young tourists coming from the city. I vividly recall Yanda stating, “This is not what we planned, we want to use our skills.” Yanda and the other guides wanted to show the visitors that they were not just escorts, lifeguards, or litter collectors. They were part of the forest and they wanted to use their guiding to tell people of the Minang Adat, share traditional stories, and show them that there is much more to the forest than the waterfall. They wanted to work in tourism using similar skills to Ramly and Amek in our research team. We left the guides with the promise that we would come to Nyarai when we finished in the forest and help them develop a plan or a vision that met the cultural needs of the community, something they could all be comfortable committing to.
As one would expect, the number of tourists flooding to Nyarai began to decline as sharply as it had begun. This caused many local men to revert back to the forest logging and hunting, as the financial risk of waiting to see whether tourists would come each day or not became far too great.
As agreed, we returned to meet with Yanda and the guides in Nyarai village a week later. Yanda had organized the village leaders to meet with us, and together we discussed ideas around harnessing the community’s ecological, cultural, linguistic, economic and spiritual capacity to make their tourism initiative work sustainably. Ramly and Amek were key, as they reminded others of the value of their forest-based education and traditional knowledge. Over the following weeks, we supported the community to develop a framework for biocultural diversity conservation unique to the local area and Minang values. We found that, over a short time and many meetings, the community began to change the way they viewed their tourism potential and value their connection to the forest. We were creating the first steps to a protected area of the mind.
The community focused on ways of giving voice to everyone and everything, including nature’s voice, through traditional stories and the Minang spirit of place, the tangible and intangible. Our part in the process was to develop a pilot training program for the new guides of Nyarai. While this is an ongoing learning process for everyone, we appear to have found a formula that is restoring the link between people and nature, while considering the modern demands of everyday life now present across Indonesia. Today we encourage people to visit the Gamaran Protected Forest and experience the Minang culture, language, stories and nature through the traditional Minang foods or the art of Silat — the traditional martial art of the region sometimes referred to as Silat Harimau, the “dance of the tiger.” Our training in biocultural diversity conservation tourism is now being developed across all the local villages thanks to local people like Ramly, Amek, and Yanda.
Post Scriptum: In good news for biocultural diversity conservation, in October 2015 the Gamaran Protected Forest project was nominated by EXPED for European Outdoor Conservation Association (EOCA) international conservation project support funding. In an online vote, the project went on to win the outdoor category. For more information on Tom’s work, see: www.tomcorcoran.org
Tom Corcoran is an environmental and cultural resource advisor, project manager, biocultural diversity conservationist, researcher, writer, storyteller and National Geographic Society Global Explorer. His current work in Indonesia is focused on reducing deforestation, forest degradation, and biodiversity loss in West Sumatra.
Abdullah, T. (1966). Adat and Islam: An examination of conflict in Minangkabau. Indonesia, 2(Oct.), 1–24. doi:10.2307/3350753.
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MacLeod, D. V. L., & Carrier, J. G. (2010). Tourism, Power and Culture: Anthropological Insights. Bristol, UK.: Channel View .
Stark, A. (2013). The Matrilineal System of the Minangkabau and its persistence throughout history: A structural perspective. Southeast Asia, 13, pp. 1–13.
Zeppel, H. (2006). Indigenous Ecotourism: Sustainable Development and Management. Cairns, Australia: James Cook University.
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