Indonesia: Megarice

From time to time, I will be posting some of my thoughts from and about my time in Indonesia. Some of them you will have read in my emails, some others I will be sharing for the first time. This is the first email I sent out (30th July): 

Hi y´all. I got the chance to use the internet for a while so I thought I´d send a general email to let everyone know that I´ve survived the bureaucratic hell in Jakarta (that even Douglas Adams would´ve probably found hard to humour) and I´m doing great!
I spent last week away from our beautiful base camp at Sabangau forest, where we are, constantly it seems, surrounded by orangutans, kelasi (red langurs), gibbons, sunbears, birds and cats ( a clouded leopard was seen by staff sleeping in front of our lab the other day!). Trees are in fruit here now so Sabangau is like a small paradise.  

To witness the other side of the story, the one where things go wrong, we left our camp to go to a massive area of destroyed forest. This is Megarice, the horrific dream child of dictator Soeharto, who in the 90s decided to chop down 2 million hectares of peat swamp forest to plant rice and make Indonesia self-sufficient in its production. 

  The Megarice Project: Destruction and degradation

Unfortunately, despite the scientists´warnings that rice doesn´t grow on acidic peat soils, he went ahead with it, selling the timber to companies owned by members of his family and making shitloads of money. During a drought in 1997, the peat dried up and caught fire, burning for months, and then annually until last year, leaving behind a scenery of utter devastation and one of the saddest sights I have ever seen in my life.

The pondok
We went to Megarice to help with forest regeneration studies, orangutan abundance and density surveys and general biodiversity surveys. We slept in rice sacks (the Indonesian version of a hammock) under a tarpaulin for a few nights. A small pondok (wooden hut ) housed our two tiny cooks (aptly named little Aunty Tini and her friend Mini- i´m not making this up) and all the transect cutters from the nearby village of Kalampangan.

The forest there is difficult to walk through, because of all the tree falls and a thorny plant called pandan. It´s more like a jungle gym where you constantly have to climb over and under logs, up and down tree roots, while all the while dodging fire ants. Working in the forest can be physically and mentally draining so I have to be armed with humour and the magnificent Indonesian expression " Tidak apa apa" (It doesn´t matter). Ofcourse being tall and clumsy is a source of endless entertainment for Indonesians, who can at any moment disappear into the forest without a sound or a trace.

Though it is hard work, the people here are always laughing. We came home everyday to a pondok whose logs shook with laughter and it´s hard to be miserable, especially around a tiny woman the size of my leg, dressed in bright fuschia pyjamas, putting a whole room of wifebeater-clad, machete-bearing, Indonesian men in their place with her wit and humour.

We spent the afternoon inside, escaping the (near) equatorial sun and scorching heat, playing chess, dozing off, laughing and watching the amazing sunsets over a wasteland of silhouetted dead trees, just as the local population of orangutans built their night nests, crowded in the remaining patch of forest. 


One lonely nest on the edge of the forest is a reminder that our love of money is bringing other creatures to the edge of existence.

At night, an oil lamp helped us pick out bugs from our food and sing Indonesian pop songs on the guitar, played by a bunch of the Indo guys (who have immaculate Emo haircuts and call themselves Ricky and Jimmy- aren´t teenagers the same everywhere?). Despite working so hard cutting through the dense undergrowth in the tropical heat and humidity for hours on end for a living (mostly spent on cigarettes), an 18 year old will always find the energy to sing a couple of songs about love and dream a little at the end of the day. 

I was sad to leave Megarice and all these people behind, and the lonely tree trunks and the breathtaking starry sky with its splitting lighting and rolling thunder, but I was kind of happy to be back in a dry sleeping bag and mosquito net and solid ground. After a few days squelching in black peaty mud at the camp I´d forgotten I had feet with toes and nails that weren´t stained black. I am now back in the comforts (!) of base camp, reunited with my team of volunteers and Indo staff and our amazing cook, Lis, and our beautiful badminton court littered with fluttering butterflies and our cat, Ballpen, our mysterious and smelly dog, Blacky and all the animals that visit camp from time to time, like the little morning tree shrew, the resident   malaysian brown snake and the vine snake (that drops from the ceiling into people´s laps!), the (really loud) geckos, the troop of curious kelasi or the big male orangutan called Ulysses. And ofcourse all the types of bugs and flies and wasps one could ever imagine that may as well have come from another planet onto Earth on a meteorite.

I could talk about this place forever, but I need to go now! I am back in town and I am dying for an Oreo milkshake (hey,everyone needs their sinful fix of palm oil goodness).   

I love and miss you all! 

Lilia 

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