Fear of the supernatural spares old trees in Indonesia

Godeliva D Sari, The Jakarta Post 23 Jan 08;

Experts say the deforestation of the areas that support the Bengawan Solo River was one of the main causes of the recent floods in Central and East Java.

Most teak forests in the regions that suffered floods have been completely razed to the ground in the past decade. The replanting of these forested areas has been a failure.

Customarily the task of replanting teak forests is given to the communities who live around the forests, in a system called mbaon. The root word of mbaon is bau, which means labor.

The mbaon people are allowed to plant ground crops such as peanuts, sweet potato or maize, and are responsible for the young teak while it grows. When the teak matures and shades the ground, the villagers are supposed to leave and let the forest grow.

After several decades the teak will be harvested and once again the villagers will be recruited to tend the young trees in the mbaon system.

Joned is such a villager and he tends his mbaon plot in the area that a decade ago was an old teak forest that had been standing since the Dutch colonial era. Now the area looks like agricultural land. Joned is planting wet rice on the land that used to support teak.

Forestry officials in this area have decided against a homogeneous teak plantation and have given him seedlings of quicker maturing hardwood trees such as neem, sengon and mahogany. Because he has elected to plant rice he can only plant the forestry's trees on the dividing walls between the plots.

"Officials told me they would come and harvest the trees in eight years," he explained as he spread a concoction of three types of chemical fertilizer on his rice plants.

"After three years the mbaon people are supposed to leave. But usually by that time the young hardwood trees have disappeared," Joned said. This forces the authorities to start another mbaon term, and the forest never matures.

Joned's mbaon plot is not far from Begal, a village that used to be deep in the middle of an old teak forest. This sizable forest once covered the districts of Jogorogo, Kedunggalar and Widodaren in Ngawi regency in the Western part of East Java. Now there are barely any big trees here.

The teak has been carted away, and every other type of tree has been chopped down. With the local price of firewood exceeding Rp 200,000 for a small pickup truck full, any type of wood now fetches worthwhile money.

This is one reason why it is nearly impossible to find a really old, big tree in Java today. Surveying the horizon there is only one tall, lonely tree in the distance.

Joned explained that no one dared chop it down because it had resident spirits called dhemit living in it. By the big tree, a huge kepuh, there is a ruin of an old swimming pool, fed by a natural spring. The kepuh stands by the forgotten pool, unaware that a fear of the supernatural has spared it from the chain saws that felled the thousands of other trees that once dominated the landscape.

The absence of big, ancient, trees becomes noticeable when you start to look for them. Then you notice that every big tree in this region is either in a cemetery or is haunted. There is nothing here to compare with the famous giant redwoods of North America. Trees there are thousands of years old, large enough to cut a tunnel that a car can pass through. Here, a tree that is 50 years old is considered big.

Look up the north side of Mount Lawu and you see whole slopes that have been completely deforested. The ridges of the mountains form a depressing silhouette against the sky: scraggly pines where the forest should be thick. Everywhere there is evidence of careless land use. Steep slopes are planted with flimsy seasonal crops like cassava and maize. Landslides are evident in too many places.

In the village of Ngrendeng in the district of Sine there are two huge trembesi rain trees. Sure enough, under these two beauties there are two graves. Pak Hadi Susanto, the keeper, explains that in one of the graves is a certain Ki Ageng Pasuruan while the other one is where his weapons were buried. Ki Ageng Pasuruan was also known as Pangeran Wirayuda and is supposed to have hailed from the times of Sultan Agung of the Islamic Mataram kingdom. History notes that in the early 17th century Mataram sent a force to annex Pasuruan. If the grave in Ngrendeng is from that time, the trembesi trees there have been growing for nearly 400 years.

Trees in Java are endangered. Economic needs, lack of arable land, and population growth have together caused deforestation and the felling of big trees in non-forest areas. However the idea that spirits haunt certain places, like cemeteries, appears to be effective in protecting trees from the chain saw.

In this respect it might be useful to consider the experience of Thailand, where forest communities have successfully managed and conserved their natural resources. In Thailand, communities found that conservation was much more efficient when spirits were involved. The village of Tam Nai in North Thailand, for example, has successfully conserved its community forest by consecrating the trees to Buddha and local spirits.

The forests of Java are too important to be treated as plantations, expected to produce a harvest of timber. Java needs a complete moratorium on logging. The forests need to be given back to the communities and the local spirits. The local forest communities know that they depend on their forest for their livelihoods and are the most motivated to conserve them. With help from spirits such as the Javanese dhemit we will keep trees standing for longer. Maybe the government should consider recruiting these dhemit.