Conservation news

Giant pines a tourist draw, cash cow for Yogyakarta farmers

The Mangunan Pine Forest. Image by Nuswantoro for Monagbay.

  • The Mangunan Pine Forest, near the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, has become a major draw for visitors to the region. Local farmers, switching to ecotourism, are cashing in.
  • More than 2 million people visited the site in 2017, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, according to a local cooperative that stewards the area.
  • “For those who pioneered this, who struggled the most, their income has quadrupled,” says the head of the cooperative.

MANGUNAN, Indonesia — Not long ago, people would come to Mangunan only to tap the giant trunks of reddish pine for sap, used as everything from antiseptic to glue. But in only a few years these columns of giant Sumatran pines have become a well-known tourism attraction in selfie-snapping Indonesia.

”From around 2014 it was already getting crowded,” Handoyo, a parking attendant, said outside the entrance to the Mangunan Pine Forest on the island of Java. “Many people started coming here to take photos, there was even a pre-wedding [photoshoot].”

On long weekends the road up to Mangunan, around 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the regional capital of Yogyakarta, roughly in the center of Java, gets jammed with cars and motorcycles. People arrive from morning to night, drawn to photogenic clouds of spooky mist floating between the pines. Indonesian President Joko Widodo came here in 2018 to open a small festival. Barack Obama even strolled through the nearby forest at Puncak Becici a year earlier.

Indonesia lost around 15 percent of its tree cover to deforestation from 2001 to 2017, according to data from the World Resources Institute. The country began devolving power to local governments in 2001, enabling more than 500 of these new regional administrations to issue permits for land-use changes — from oil palm plantations to tin mining. But what has happened in this small pine forest is a different sort of land-use change. A lowland pine forest, protected by law, has become a tourism asset managed by a cooperative of local stewards with a direct economic interest in preserving the land. Widodo is trying to incentivize others in the archipelago to follow suit by promoting ecotourism.

“If we want to look after, nurture and preserve the forest for the welfare of the community, the way ahead is through tourism development,” said Purwo Harsono, chairman of Kooperasi Notowono, an organization set up by original farmers.

Nine homestays have sprung up in the village outside the forest, all run under the cooperative. Koperasi Notowono was established in January 2015, and last year earned 6 billion rupiah ($430,000) in revenue.

Aji Sukmono, head of the Yogyakarta provincial forest management unit, told Mongabay that up to 10 percent of a protected forest area can be used for this kind of tourism.

The area of forest in the Mangunan conservation area, one of 25 such protected zones in the province, spans 574 hectares (1,420 acres). Almost 30 hectares (74 acres) of this is approved for ecotourism projects. For the farmers who switched from semi-skilled agriculture to a higher-value service business, ecotourism, their income has increased dramatically.

“In 2017 [visitor numbers] reached 2,289,559 people,” Purwo says. “In July [last year] we deposited 1.5 billion rupiah in provincial income.”

Some 25 percent goes to the provincial budget, according to a decree issued by the governor, while the remaining 75 percent of the revenue goes straight to the managers in the community. The Notowono cooperative then uses part of this toward reseeding the land, planting a new generation of sappan, banyan figs and alstonia. “We provide nurseries to every operator,” Purwo says.

What started with only a few dozen farmers now counts 295 full members. And the cooperative provides work for 544 people in total. They have drawn up a constitution to put rules in the public domain, detailing, for example, the fixed prices that food vendors may charge visitors.

“For those who pioneered this, who struggled the most, their income has quadrupled,” Purwo says.

Visitors can ride in jeeps through the pine forest. Image by Nuswantoro for Mongabay.

He says there is much still to do to push things further in Mangunan, such as showcasing cultural markers of the old Mataram dynasty that governed much of Java before it split under the weight of infighting as Dutch colonizers consolidated control in the 18th century. A tomb of Mataram royals, in Imogiri, is not too far from Mangunan.

The sun hangs low in the sky as a group of cyclists pedal past the government office. The car park teems with motorcycles and buses. At a ticket kiosk I pay only 2,500 rupiah (20 U.S. cents) and walk up to the familiar sight of hammocks hung from trees and wooden blocks arranged into an amphitheater — a ubiquitous setting for millions of social media snaps. As Indonesia’s tourism industry catches up with those of neighboring Malaysia and Thailand, proper scrutiny will have to be applied to projects to ensure the ecotourism label is not misappropriated by operators keen to cash in.

But in Mangunan, local stakeholders appear to have found a formula that gels with the times. Tapping pine trees for sap might earn a farmer 1 million rupiah ($70) per month, but tapping them for selfies can bring in two to three times as much.

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Banner: The Mangunan Pine Forest. Image by Nuswantoro for Monagbay.

This story was reported in part by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on Sept. 30, 2018.

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