- Residents of Pahmungan village in Lampung won a prestigious environmental prize for protecting their dipterocarp forest.
- They have gotten a publicity boost from Jemi Delvian, lead singer of Indonesian punk rock band Hutan Tropis.
- Creating a ‘damar’ grove is no small effort – it takes 23 years.
Jemi Delvian was astonished the first time he stood in the dipterocarp forest of Indonesia’s Pahmungan village. The lead singer of Hutan Tropis, the Sumatran punk rock band that cares about the environment, marveled that a single community could – with little to no government intervention – maintain a 17,500-hectare forest for generations.
Pahmungan residents value their green, shady forest for a variety of reasons. For one, it serves as a habitat for wildlife and a buffer for Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, which spans three provinces just inland of the Indian Ocean. The dipterocarp forest is filled with singing birds and exotic longan, durian, mangosteen, jackfruit and jengkol fruit trees the villagers are free to harvest.
It also provides another commodity: resin. Damar mata kucing (Shorea javanica) is one of a few species of Dipterocarparceae whose sap retails for $56 a pound on the global market. It is a necessary additive for paint, varnish, lacquer, boat caulk and glossy paper.
“This is our customary forest or grove,” said Effendi, a 34-year-old Pahmungan resident who is better known as Bawon. “We indigenous people guard it because the damar forest” – dipterocarp tree resins are known generically as damar – “is our ancestral heritage. We might be damned if we stop tending to it.”
Jemi agrees. “This forest offers the village ecosystem service: it is their water catchment basin and habitat for a number of birds and beasts,” he said. “It’s only fair that Pahmungan won the Kalpataru government conservation award in 1997.”
In the damar forest, only old and fallen trees can be cut down, Bawon said. This comes as no surprise given how difficult it is to cultivate even a single damar tree.
“This species can’t grow elsewhere,” he added. “And when skilled people manage to grow the trees, they can’t get any sap. Even here, there are many steps to growing damar.”
Creating a damar grove is a 23-year process. In the first year, those hoping to grow the trees clear their land and plant it with rice, vegetables and fruit trees. In the second year they plant coffee. Only in year three can they root damar, between the coffee and fruit trees. And once planted, residents still need to tend the mixed-tree grove for two decades before there is any sap to harvest. It’s no wonder, then, that tapping mature damar trees is the exclusive right of the family that planted and tended to them.
Once, during an economically difficult time, one villager tempted by the relatively high local damar price of 15,000 rupiah (around $1) a kilogram tried to cut down and sell a tree. “He was fined by the local people,” Bawon said, “and made to plant new damar trees.”
Bawon’s parents told him that during the 1980s, at the height of former strongman Suharto’s regime, a company started to clearcut the damar forest to make space for an oil palm plantation. Many trees were cut before the people protested. But the plantation was never completed.
When he visited Pahmungan, singer Jemi tried his hand at damar tapping in a community member’s grove. With great effort he managed to scale a tree with a farmer’s homemade lanyard and tap a few pockets of resin. “It looks so easy but this is really hard work,” he said, recalling his exhaustion.
But in Pahmungan, the men and women of the village’s 350 households bear the tough tree climbing and harvesting work equally. Bawon claims that despite the high number of people who collect sap, people rarely fall. “That only happens to beginners, and even then, not from too high up,” he said.
Jemi thinks Pahmungan’s damar forest offers an excellent model for community-based conservation.
The damar sap industry supports a range of local jobs. There are those who tap the trees; those who own and tend to the groves; middlemen; collectors; and exporters.
When a damar tree is ready to be tapped, it is notched three or four times. Sap is allowed to accumulate and set in these notches for a month at a time. Once the sap is thick and not sticky, it is ready to harvest. Each notch yields a quarter to a half a kilogram of sap per harvest. When the price of sap is low, farmers harvest once a week and mix the still watery resin with flour.
A variety of traditional containers are employed in the harvest process. Climbing sap collectors use baskets made from areca palm (Dypsis lutescens) leaves. They then pass the resin to people on the ground with rattan baskets. Once farmers amass 50 kilograms of resin, they pass it on to middlemen, who relay it to couriers and porters, who carry it to the sorters. There are three levels of quality: Grade A translucent yellow damar lumps that measure 3 centimeters or more a piece; Grade B cloudy, 1-3 centimeter-wide lumps; and Grade C 0.5-1 centimeter-wide lumps. Once sorted, the damar gets sent to Jakarta to be shipped abroad.
In addition to damar, Pahmungan residents sell fruit – durian, banana, mangosteen and jengkol. “Not all the yards are bounteous but my garden has great diversity and yields plenty of fruit,” 58-year-old Rodayah said.
“Indigenous communities can live in harmony with the forest,” Jemi added. “And if human-forest connections like this existed elsewhere in Indonesia, our forests could get more protection and sustainable management than any list of conservation regulations would offer them.”
However, Jemi also sees a role for the government. Local and national officials can help ensure stable damar prices and provide other services to the community.
For example, most in Pahmungan have a high-school education, which they pay for on their own. “If the government could provide free education for residents here, perhaps most of these people would have the money to be college educated too,” he said.
Jemi sees a role for Hutan Tropis as well – he plans make damar the subject of an upcoming song.
Taufik Wijaya. “Belajar dari Pahmungan, Adat Terus Menjaga Repong Damar.” Mongabay-Indonesia. 2 May 2015.