- A recent commentary piece by Dr. Erik Meijaard provides a comprehensive view of the current situation and conservation actions undertaken in Baluran National Park as compared to time he spent there in the 1990’s
- However, as so often happens with this beautiful park, the focus remained on the well-known part that has earned it the nickname ‘Africa of Java,’ the area surrounding the Bekol savannah in the southeastern reaches of the park.
- If one were to slice the park horizontally in two, right through mount Baluran, and compare the northern and southern parts, a sharp contrast would become visible, a contrast of mooing and ringing bells.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
A recent commentary piece by Dr. Erik Meijaard provides a comprehensive view of the current situation and conservation actions undertaken in Baluran National Park as compared to time he spent there in the 1990’s. However, as so often happens with this beautiful park, the focus remained on the well-known part that has earned it the nickname ‘Africa of Java,’ the area surrounding the Bekol savannah in the southeastern reaches of the park.
If one were to slice the park horizontally in two, right through mount Baluran, and compare the northern and southern parts, a sharp contrast would become visible, a contrast of mooing and ringing bells. Where the savannah’s in the southern area are stocked more and more with wildlife such as Javan rusa, Water buffallo, and, thanks to breeding efforts, Banteng, those in the northern part are stocked with cattle. About 3,000 head of them, mostly of the local Ongole variety. An unknown number of goats is also present.
It is quite an extraordinary sight, as each morning the cattle from the village Karang Teko on the northwestern border of Baluran National Park are let out of their enclosures behind people’s houses and seem to independently find their way to the park’s border, then to their grazing grounds located another six kilometers into the park. And sure enough, as sunset approaches, they all find their way back, some preferring a path through the bush, others taking a shortcut via the local highway that runs parallel to the park’s border.
Karang Teko’s herd accounts for about half the cattle grazing in the park. The other half come from the coastal settlement Merak, located 12 kilometers inside the national park boundaries. The miniature cattle migration spectacle that unfolds here daily along the beach has become somewhat of a phenomenon in Java and was featured in the January 2015 issue of the Indonesian National Geographic. Research from livestock veterinary students has shown how remarkably tough the Ongole cattle in Merak are, making it through the long dry seasons and resulting food shortages in the park without needing supplemental feed. Once back in their enclosures, the grazed cattle also do not have access to shelter, withstanding all the wind, rain, and sunshine nature sends at them. Calls have even been made for official protection of this local cattle variety.
From all the information above, one might think that the Merak settlement has a long history in the area, with cattle selected over generations to create the special kind that exists today. However, both the settlement and the cattle are a relatively recent phenomenon, whose origin can be traced back to 1975. In that year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs provided a 25-year exploitation permit to a company to use the Merak area (about 297 hectare, or more than 730 acres) for plantation purposes. Employees of the company needed a place to stay, as travelling to and from the area can be troublesome. And so the settlement was born.
The problem with this procedure was that the right to allocate land and reborder protected area boundaries, as necessary for the creation of the permit, did not lie with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, but with the Ministry of Agriculture. Despite continous protest of the latter and attempts to reach a settlement with the company, the permit was never revoked and exploitation continued until the permit’s expiration in the year 2000. The conflict was then assumed to be over.
However, former employees refused to leave, claiming rights to the accession areas. The settlement continued to grow and in 2009 reached over 328 families and 1,069 persons. (This short history of the Merak settlement is excellently explained in a 2014 conference paper from Wianti.)
National Park authorities have tried to reach settlements on relocations in the past. However, asking around about why there is still a settlement in the park despite the clear case from a legal perspective mostly produces the response that (1) there is no money for relocation and (2) votes in the area are expensive. The second answer implies vote-buying practices by politicians in the area, who in return provide political back-up to the grazing communities. Instead of actively preventing the grazing, a policy of acquiescence has taken hold, with some lower-ranked park employees even letting their own cattle graze among the herd.
Now park authorities are trying it from a differrent angle, employing cooperation instead of coercion. At the end of 2016 and in consultation with various governmental stakeholders, the former accession area was rezoned as a traditional use zone. This means that the villagers now, for the first time, have the legal right to stay and farm in the area. It also means that villagers could start to generate some income from developing tourism in the area. The mangrove areas nearby are very much worth a visit, if only for watching the long-tailed macaques venturing far out onto the shallow reefs in search of food.
However, that leaves unanswered the tricky question of what to do with all the cattle that move out of this zone to graze in the park.
One option that is being looked into is to reduce the total number of cattle and to start keeping them in more intensive systems, fed with varieties of grasses grown around farming fields and combined with crop by-products. A number of farmers in the area have already taken up this system long-ago, growing their increasingly famous chilli on small plots of land in the dry season and corn in the wet season, combined with elephant grasses around the plots. Next to this, dragonfruit is becoming an increasingly popular planting option, as it benefits from the extended dry season in the area.
The results are positive and farmers like the fact that they do not have to worry about the cattle in the park or paying someone to keep watch. In the truly integrated system foreseen for the future, the manure from the cattle could then be used again as an organic fertilizer for the crops, and biological pest control methods could be implemented. The resulting organic products are envisaged to be branded as conservation-supportive agriculture from the Baluran area.
Much work still needs to be done to ensure the sustainable future of this little-known part of Baluran National Park for both the wildlife and people relying on it. But perhaps a fitting example of how park management and communities are leading the way together here is their cooperation in rebuilding the small access road to the Merak area. Involvement is completely voluntary and progress measures a couple of meters a day, but both parties are committed. As Indonesians say, ”Sedikit, sedikit, lama lama menjadi bukit” – “Little by little, over time it becomes a hill.”
- Wianti, K. F. (2014). Land Tenure Conflict in the Middle of Africa van Java (Baluran National Park). Procedia Environmental Sciences, 20, 459-467.
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