SUCCESS STORY: Regaining paradise in Lombok

Posted: 27 November 2003

Author: Jeff Sayer

A slump in the travel industry has left many on the Indonesian island of Lombok without employment. Forced onto the land, they have illegally cleared large swathes of forest in order to grow food - threatening the forests as well as the island's water supplies. But now the farmers are replanting trees, helping to protect the natural forest and at the same time improve their livelihoods, as Jeff Sayer reports.

Gunung Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia.© WWF / Widodo Prayitno
Gunung Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia.© WWF / Widodo Prayitno
Gunung Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia© WWF/Widodo Prayitno
Rising majestically from lowland rice paddies to a height of 3,726 metres, Gunung Rinjani dominates the Indonesian island of Lombok. It is Indonesia's third-highest mountain and second-highest volcano. Clothed in tropical forest and often shrouded in cloud, the upper slopes of this still-active volcano are home to rare birds, black ebony leaf monkeys, barking deer, leopard cats, and palm civets.

crater of Gunung Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia. © WWF / Widodo Prayitno
crater of Gunung Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia. © WWF / Widodo Prayitno
The crater of Gunung Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia© WWF / Widodo Prayitno

The crater contains a spectacular sapphire lake with its own mini volcano, and in the early morning, the summit affords a view across the numerous islands of the Flores Sea to the volcanoes of Bali and Sumbawa.

The mountain was a key attraction to the tourists who once flocked to Lombok, widely regarded as a travellers paradise. A few foreign tourists still do come. But the economic downturn, security concerns, and the recent SARS scare have left the island's resorts largely deserted.

Hard times

As a result, the local Sasak people have fallen on hard times. A large part of their income came from work in hotels and restaurants, and from producing the beautiful handicrafts for which Lombok is renowned. Lack of cash employment is forcing them back onto the land. And with 2.9 million people crowded onto this 5,000 km2 island, it's hard to make a living from traditional agriculture alone.

Rice paddies in the forest, Lombok, Indonesia. © WWF / Widodo Prayitno
Rice paddies in the forest, Lombok, Indonesia. © WWF / Widodo Prayitno
Rice paddies in the forest, Lombok, Indonesia© WWF / Widodo Prayitno

Pak Madé used to sell trinkets to tourists on the beach. He's now one of over 750,000 poor people living on Rinjani's slopes. "With no tourists I had to return to my village," he says. "But I didn't own any land for rice paddies, so I had to clear some land in the forest reserve. It's illegal so I had to give money to officials to arrange things - but what choice did I have?"

In theory Gunung Rinjani's forests - the only ones left on Lombok - are legally protected. But the Forest Department finds it difficult to enforce the laws when they cannot offer any alternative to the poverty stricken farmers. Illegal logging and land clearing for agriculture have reduced a large swathe of forest on the lower slopes to scattered trees, scrub, and grasses. Fires originating in these degraded areas are beginning to eat into the rich forests higher up the mountain.

This has implications for the entire island. Rinjani's forests act as water-collectors for all of Lombok. Water flowing from the misty upper slopes irrigates the highly productive rice cultures of the plains and supplies domestic water to the towns and tourist resorts.

Watershed woes

But now the rice farmers in the lowlands are complaining - there is not enough water for their crops in the dry season, and an increased number of floods when it rains.

In response to the crisis, Lombok's provincial government has linked up with WWF and the UK Department for International Development to devise a strategy that can protect the forests and their vital watershed functions and still provide land and employment for the people.

One approach has been to parcel out the most degraded forests to poor people, who can use the land on condition that they plant trees.

Pak Saonah on his land. © WWF / Jeff Sayer
Pak Saonah on his land. © WWF / Jeff Sayer
Pak Saonah on his land.© WWF/Jeff Sayer

Pak Saonah used to eke out a living as a worker in the rice fields, but was also involved in some illegal logging. Now he has been allocated 0.1ha of degraded land near his village of Sesaot.

"I'm only allowed to grow field crops for the first 4 years, until the trees grow. But in the first year I planted chilli peppers between the tree seedlings and made 3 million Rupiah - enough to buy a small motor bike. Now I am producing mangoes, papayas, durians, jackfruit, custard apples, rambutans and salak fruit. I sell these to traders from Mataram and I am making between 300,00 and 500,000 Rupiah a month - more than some of the rice farmers. I have to pay 20,000 Rupiah a month to the forest department and I have to keep the ground covered with trees, but it's worth it."

Community forestry

Tri Agung Rooswiadji of WWF, who leads the planning team, sees hope in the social forestry programme.

"We want to create a buffer of small community forest projects all around the lower slopes of the mountain," he explains. "The trees protect the soils and the water supplies and the people earn a good living. It's not as good for wildlife as the natural forests, but it's the best compromise. If we don't do this we are in danger of losing all of the forests."

The isolated hillside villages have few social services and the people's lives are still precarious. So Tri Agung is planning to improve conditions by getting people in the lowland towns and rice paddies to pay a little more for their water.

"The people in the lowlands are richer and the rice farmers are making money out of the water that flows from the mountains, so it's only fair that they pay something," he says. "We are negotiating that they will pay a small tax, which will be used to build clinics and schools and improve the roads. But the hillside people will only get these services if they stick to the agreement and only grow tree crops. They can't grow tobacco, cassava, or other annual crops that are bad for soil erosion and don't conserve water."

Pak Mardi has also been allocated a small piece of degraded land.

"Things are better for us now," he says. "I have improved my house and my children attend school. I chose to put in lots of jackfruit and macadamia - they produce valuable fruit and nuts and their timber is the best quality for the curio carvers in Bali. I have two daughters and their weddings will cost a fortune, but by that time my trees will be big enough that I can sell some logs to pay the bills."

The situation in Lombok, where valuable natural forests exist alongside poverty stricken people desperate for more land, is typical of many developing countries in the tropics. The reforestation projects on Lombok are part of WWF's global Forest Landscape Restoration work, which aims to both conserve forest biodiversity and help improve people's livelihoods.

"WWF's Forest Landscape Restoration work doesn't simply aim to replant trees," explains Mubariq Ahmad, Director of WWF-Indonesia. "Instead, it's about restoring the goods and services that forests provide for both people and nature. This in turn makes people more willing to support forest conservation."

"Rinjani National Park is one of Indonesia's most spectacular natural areas," adds Tri Agung, "but there is no way that we can protect it if we have thousands of poverty stricken, land-hungry people living around the base of the mountain. Giving people rights to some areas of degraded natural forest will help save the national park."

And hopefully it won't be long before the tourists return and the economy improves.

"In the meantime," says Pak Saonah, "at least we can keep our families supplied with food and send our children to school."

Jeff Sayer is Forests Conservation Advisor at WWF International

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