Understanding local people's needs vital for forest development
Understanding what really matters to local people is essential for effective
land resource management in forests. Without this knowledge, concerned groups
like governments, development organizations and private companies may have
difficulty tailoring development and regional management priorities to suit
local people's priorities and needs in their efforts to develop a region.
Between 1999 and 2001 CIFOR researchers Douglas Sheil and Imam Basuki
assessed the state of the land resources in the Malinau river region of East
Kalimantan. Their research involved a range of biodiversity, biophysical and
ethnographic data and also compared their findings with the knowledge of the
"Imam and I were very interested to consider how variation in soil and other
land conditions might influence the land-use choices of local people. We treated
this both as a biophysical question and by assessing the views and judgments of
the local Merap and Punan communities." Sheil said.
CIFOR's research clearly demonstrates that most of the region is unfertile and
largely unsuited to sustainable agriculture. Results from 200 sample locations
showed that lands with the potential for sustainable intensive farming and
plantations are found in only a limited number of more fertile riverside
locations, and even these are susceptible to occasional catastrophic flooding.
Beyond these flat riverside areas, low nutrients, shallow soil, poor drainage
and high rainfall limit the development of large plantations. Further, the steep
topography makes most of the land very susceptible to erosion.
In essence, then, some of the areas sampled may be suitable for developing
dry land rice and coconut. But, overall, the region is not suited for
large-scale agricultural activities, such as planting pepper, coffee, cocoa,
candlenut, and rubber or oil palm.
"An especially interesting aspect of the research was learning how local
people have learnt to live in such infertile conditions. The Merap and Punan
people employ a shifting cultivation system in which temporary nutrients are
generated by clearing and burning woody vegetation cover, but even in this
system the farmers consider it important to evaluate the potential of the land
by observing vegetation and soil conditions," Basuki said.
According to Basuki and Sheil, the people who have traditionally lived in or
around the forest know that 'tana tiem', or black soil, found on alluvial plains
and areas still covered by forest, is the most fertile and productive for
farming. Similarly, they know that most swamps and the extensive regions of
steeply sloping land offer little but poor infertile soils.
With their local knowledge and low population density, the people can fulfill
their daily living needs by using the natural resources around them. The Merap
appear to use almost all the limited fertile land available to them, while most
of the unfertile land is left as forest. The Punan, who tend to reside in even
more marginal areas, generally rely on augmenting the produce from their
small-scale swidden agricultural activities by collecting products from the
"In a very real sense, both our research and the centuries old traditional
knowledge of the local people confirm that development possibilities outside the
forestry sector are limited. Apart from using the native forest for small
livelihood activities, the only feasible alternatives for sustainable land are
probably agroforestry, low-impact timber felling and nature conservation,"
It is this combination of hard science and traditional knowledge that can
help policy makers make better decisions regarding forest landscapes and how
they can best support local livelihoods.
"Good research and understanding the local people's perceptions of the forest
are an important part of bringing about effective and sustainable land and
forest resource management in the Malinau region," Sheil said.
Prior to the release of Basuki and Sheil's report, the Malinau Government
signed an agreement in March with a Malaysian company to develop an oil palm
plantation on 40,000 hectares, due to start within the next two years. The site
covers a considerable area of infertile soil covered in natural forest that is
an important source of livelihood for a number of villages.
Says Sheil, "We are concerned the plantation will be established on poor soil
where all our evidence shows that it will not be economically viable. We are
especially concerned this may include areas of forest important to local
livelihoods, and with significant cultural value for the local people. And let's
not forget the important role such forests play in sheltering the world's
biodiversity. We have seen too many plantation schemes used as an excuse to
remove valuable timber, but leaving the local communities worse off."