Seram: In the Indonesian Rainforest – Part 1.

This post covers the first part of Operation Raleigh 10F Expedition to the Island of Seram in Indonesia – The Expedition ran from July to October 1987 as part of a global comparative research programme on the diversity of tropical rainforests.

Sometimes a seemingly random incident, such as walking down a different street one day, or a chance encounter with a stranger can have huge and unforeseen consequences for your life. One such occasion happened on a damp, windy Edinburgh day in 1985, when I was queuing for an automatic banking machine. There were a couple of young ladies in front of me in the queue; they were having a chat about a round-the-world youth expedition called Operation Raleigh, which one of them was shortly due to participate in. I’d already heard vague rumours about Operation Raleigh previously and so I had some idea of what was being discussed.

It all sounded like a rip-roaring adventure – without further ado, I tapped the surprised lady on the shoulder and asked where I could find out more about the expedition. Having gleaned the necessary information, I didn’t need much further persuading – 15 minutes later I’d picked up an application form from a post office around the corner. Then, 2 years after the chance encounter in Edinburgh (and having undertaken a gruesome “selection weekend” and raised the necessary sponsorship money), I found myself in the Indonesian rainforest as a “venturer” with Operation Raleigh.

Operation Raleigh was a four year round-the-world expedition which started from the UK in November 1984. The aim was to involve 4000 young people of many diverse nations in a variety of challenging and adventurous projects of a scientific and community development nature. Expedition 10F of Operation Raleigh ran from July to October 1987 and focused upon the remote Indonesian Island of Seram.

The expedition continued global research on the comparative rainforest programme, which also included Costa Rica and Cameroon, studying variations in altitude on the diversity of flora and fauna on the World’s remaining rainforests. The expedition involved 120 participants and 60 staff and scientists from 14 different countries and was divided into a variety of scientific and community projects.

Even just getting to the island Seram was a major adventure in it’s own right. Seram is located in the Maluku Province of Indonesia. The Maluku or Moluccas, consist of a group of roughly 1,000 separate islands. These are the famous Spice islands which enticed Indian, Chinese, Arab and eventually European traders in search of nutmeg, mace, cloves and other valuable spices.

The flight from Gatwick to Jakarta in a 747 took 20 hours or so including stops – far longer than any air travel that I’d previously undertaken. This was followed by a few days on Java acclimatizing and getting to know other members of the team. The next leg of the Journey to the Moluccas Island’s capital of Ambon was made by ship. We boarded the KM Rinjani, an Indonesian state passenger ferry in Jakarta and enjoyed a very pleasant few days making our way through the vast archipelago of islands which make up the country, stopping off occasionally en route.

The ship was fairly new and so quite comfortable and really it felt like being on a cruise ship. I remember an interesting and somewhat incompatible assortment of facilities on board including a disco and a mosque, with regular calls to prayer (although the 2 weren’t in direct competition with each other). There were even organised exercise sessions on board to get the Raleigh participants into shape, much to the amusement of the other passengers. The food was interesting too and very flavorsome, as long as you didn’t mind the occasional chicken’s foot or head found floating in the soup. During the voyage we made a couple of impromptu stopovers, for example on the island of Sulawesi, where a flotilla of small boats took people ashore from the Rinjani, as the harbour facilities were unsuitable for such a large vessel to dock.

Conditions on the next leg of the voyage from Ambon to Wahai on the Northern coast of Seram were certainly not quite so luxurious. We boarded a small and packed boat for the overnight trip which was weighed down to the gunwales by people and baggage of all shapes and sizes – not to mention any number of cows, goats and chickens. Conditions above deck were baking hot in the blistering sun. This however was the better option, as conditions down below were unpleasant in the extreme with the stink of animal poo, stale urine and diesel fumes mixing together in a toxic brew.

Our arrival in the small port of Wahai was accompanied with great enthusiasm and interest from the curious locals, who staged a welcoming ceremony with traditional dances, official speeches and ritual greetings, especially for our benefit. There was also quite a bit of bureaucracy to process, including permits to enter the Manusela National Park where we would be working and the organisation of porters who would be carrying much of the expedition’s equipment. I didn’t get off to a very good start and had a bit of a fever and a touch of the “Delhi belly”. Consequently my departure from Wahai into the interior of the island was delayed somewhat by such inconveniences.



The island of Seram is split east-west by a range of high, jungle covered mountains, the highest of which is Mt. Binaiya (9000ft). The terrain here is extremely inhospitable, made more so by the intense heat and lack of water in the dry season. There were no roads into the interior of Seram and so we all had to hike to the various expedition camps and research venues on foot – given the tough terrain this was a tall order. Adventure was provided simply by surviving and working in these testing jungle conditions.

My first destination was Kanikeh, a research camp which was located in a mountainous area around 800m above sea level, in the “Enclave” located between the mountain slopes of the precipitous Merkele Ridge (which included Gunung Binaiya at 2940m) and the lower Kobipoto Ridge further to the North. The Enclave contained the villages of Kanikeh, Salimena and Manusela which could only be reached on foot from the coast.

The trek to Kanikeh was a hot and tiring 3 day affair. The route largely followed stony river beds which contained a comparatively low volume of water during the dry season, which made travel easier. I particularly remember the endless deafening shrill of cicadas during the trek, the sound of which were a constant accompaniment to our travels on Seram. Many of the group weren’t particularly fit at this stage in the proceedings and there was a huge amount of equipment to carry which slowed things down. Over the duration of the project though, many of us became considerably leaner and meaner after navigating our way across the rough bounds of Seram.

Our first destination, the Kanikeh base camp, was located in a thick bamboo forest not too far from the village of Kanikeh itself. The main building was a very organic structure, based on the design of a local longhouse style with raised sleeping platforms arranged down both sides of a central aisle. It was built by locals entirely out of natural forest products including bamboo and rattan.

It was a marvel to me how the local people could show such ingenuity to produce elaborate structures using on just simple hand tools and locally sourced materials. Clearly there was a lot we could learn from the local people here, rather than vice versa. We did find out, however, that there were limits to the structure’s load bearing capacity. When too many people were inside, the whole thing started to slump downhill at an alarming angle. This usually required a hasty evacuation and some innovative first aid through use of emergency bamboo props to stabilize things.


Kanikeh village itself, comprised of a single “street” of simple houses nestling in the valley under the impressive limestone bulk of Mt. Binaiya. As in Wahai, the villagers here also put on a bit of a welcome ceremony for us with some rather fearsome looking tribal dancing involving flashing and thrusting ceremonial parangs and shields. The tribal people here were at one time headhunters, however within living memory they have practiced protestant Christianity, as a result of the influence of Dutch colonialists and traders. The formal welcome ceremony was followed by great late night revelries, singing, feasting and dancing which went on into the wee small hours. Locals clearly rated festivities to be of high priority within their work/life balance.

I remember on another evening, we were surprised to find all our shoes had all disappeared from outside the village house we were occupying, rendering the journey back to the base camp an impossibility. Later it was brought to our attention that the young men of the village had merely “borrowed” these western fashion accessories to impress the local girls down at the community hall “disco”. Anyway the shoes were thankfully all returned in tact the very next morning, just as mysteriously as they had disappeared in the first place – why any girl of taste would have been impressed by my smelly old trainers was quite beyond me however.

Our main purpose for being in Kanikeh and the Enclave area however was to undertake research. The Expedition aimed to undertake diverse scientific studies which mainly focused upon a study of the altitudinal zonation of plant and animal life in Manusela National Park (MNP) from sea level to the summit of Mt Binayia. This aimed to provide a greater understanding of the biological and geological history of the south-east Asian Region in general. It was also intended that the work would help and inform the Manusela National Park management activity development by the Forest Service of the Indonesian Government.

The research projects, which each lasted for 3 months, were led by specialist scientists. Participants meanwhile switched to a new project at the end of each month, so that each venturer was able to experience two different research projects and also had to chance to assist with community projects. Conditions on the individual projects were such that they tested, endurance, initiative, compatibility and leadership skills.

The scientific research was diverse and included studies of epiphytes, forest gaps, orchids, hymenoptera, butterflies, lepidoptera, birds, wild pigs and bioresources – to name but a few. Additionally, community projects in different villages included work on schools, primary health care, bridge construction and agriculture.

At the time of the expedition, I was completing my degree in Geography at Edinburgh University. I was keen to use the expedition as an opportunity for my dissertation. My plan was to focus on forest management with a particular emphasis on the impact of the indigenous people on the natural resources of the Island. For that reason I wanted to get involved in projects, which entailed working alongside the local people.

I was therefore lucky enough to be able participate in the ‘Bioresources’ project and the ‘Wild Pig’ projects, both of which involved an anthropological approach and which brought me into close contact with the indigenous people of Seram. Because of the nature of our work with these projects, we spent a lot of time in a small group away from the main body of the expedition and in worked in a variety of small communities.

During the first phase, I worked with Dr. Janet Bell on the “Bioresources” team. This involved the Investigation and documentation of the human usage of biological resources within the Manusela National Park through discussion with the local people. The aim of this was to undertake research into ethnobotany in selected villages within the Enclave. Our work started in Kinekeh at the end of July, before moving on to the village of Solumena a week later.

In terms of revealing new insights into traditional medicines, our research into natural remedies used in the Enclave villages proved largely unfruitful. This was due to dependence upon western drugs in these areas and a growing disillusionment with traditional herbal cures. In the less westernised community of the Hua Ulu, however, many such remedies were reportedly known and still regularly used. Knowledge of this nature could potentially be of great benefit and could represent an important future resource, both for local people and for use in the pharmaceuticals further afield.

Although the project didn’t yield anything too spectacular from an ethnobotanical point of view, such as a new cure for cancer, it was however very interesting in terms of providing insights into how the local Alifuru population were able to collect forest products such as food, medicines and building materials from their forest gardens, or swiddens, as they are known.


The Alifuru obtained most of their resources from swiddens located within a 4km radius of the villages. The swiddens were cut mainly from previously cleared areas of forest which were often located along the river valley near the settlements. The villages planted a variety of types of food plants including sago palm, bananas, cassava, patatas, keladi and sugarcane.

The use of larger plants such as sago and bananas helped to reduce the impact of heavy rainfall and protected the soil and smaller plants, thereby mimicking the canopy layers and structure of the natural rainforest itself. The forest gardens were rotated and left fallow for over a year at a time to allow the soil nutrients to be fully restored, before again being cultivated for food crops.

The people of Central Seram also gathered most of their timber and non food products from the forest gardens. These included materials for basketry and building materials such as bamboo and sago palm. These quickly regenerated again after cutting. Some other products which were gathered from the forest itself included kamane resin from the agathis tree for fire lighting, bark for bow strings, a range of herbs, climbers and roots for the manufacture of dyes and poisons. These gathering activities had little significant impact upon the forest however because of the small scale they were conducted upon.

The use of larger timbers was only confined to the main supporting structures of buildings. Sago leaves and leaf stocks were used for roofing and wall panels and bamboo was used for flooring and for roof support. The houses themselves lasted for about ten years and usually the main timbers were then reused for the next construction project to reduce labour.

When new timbers were required they were taken from areas of depleted forest immediately adjacent to the forest gardens. These were coppiced in a controlled way to protect the swiddens from erosion and to allow rapid regeneration. Traditionally, a long bladed parang, a type of machete, and a felling axe would be used to cut a large tree, which would take about a day’s work.  The timber would then be moved by hand to the place of use, or sometimes dragged or floated.

Timber extraction and the creation of forest gardens had a low impact overall, as any activity was limited by the traditional technology available, the rough nature of the terrain and the declining population of the villages in Central Seram. In the meantime, however, the coastal areas were becoming more deforested as a result of increasing demand for timber for dug-out canoes and boat building materials for transport and fishing purposes.

After assisting the Bioresources group, I then moved on to work with Dr. Alastair Macdonald of Edinburgh University and Rodger Cox studying the indigenous utilisation of local wildlife for local subsistence needs. This included local hunting and fishing activities. The “wild pig” project involved detailed investigation and documentation of the human usage of the National Park’s pigs, including taking anatomical samples for genetic analysis. It also involved finding out about pig hunts through interviewing local people and through the analysis of jaw bones of pigs retained by villagers from previous hunting activities in the Manusela National Park Enclave.

The ‘Pig’ project in particular was a somewhat maverick crew and we spent a lot of time on the remoter Eastern fringes of the park in the area of Manusela, Elimata and Calloa, where we spent a few days in each location. We worked amongst beautiful palm thatched villages tucked away deep inside the rainforest and enjoyed living with the forest people. They took us hunting, fishing and showed us the remarkable diversity of their forest gardens, which produced much of their food, including the not so palatable sago palm.

There were naturally many difficulties encountered during fieldwork, the most difficult of these was the language issue. All the interviews with local people had to be conducted in Indonesian through local interpreters. Fortunately there was a strong Indonesian contingent on the expedition who could also speak excellent English. This greatly improved matters, although there were still problems of communication between Bahasa Indonesia and the local Seram languages.

There were also problems encountered initially with gaining the trust of local people. At first we were the source of some suspicion, particularly when we started asking the local people about their hunting activities. The problem was further complicated by the fact that rumours had spread that we were somehow there for “big game hunting” rather than to undertake anthropological and natural resources research.


Hunting and gathering activity by local people were characterised by a diverse range of prey species and techniques which effectively maximised the efficiency of the hunters. Activities were controlled by the environmental constraints and the seasonal abundance of game and so hunters avoided high levels of specialisation. Seasonal migration of the larger game animals was an important factor in affecting the type of hunting or gathering activity being practiced. During the dry season when game stocks were at their lowest in northern Seram, emphasis was placed more upon fishing and the hunting of smaller species such as monitor lizards and a small marsupial called the cusscuss. Catching the latter involved the need for good tree climbing skills.

Larger game animals hunted included two species of wild pigs, deer and the cassowary, a large flightless bird. These were hunted in the forest on excursions of up to 4 days in duration, with such trips generally being made to areas of primary forest within 10km of the village. The hunt was usually conducted by groups of one or two men who used up to seven dogs.  The dogs are kept hungry and given stimulants such as kaikena, halia and betel nut to improve their hunting performance. These were also though to have magical properties and were administered through simple rituals. Generally the hunter did not preselect particular species to hunt but instead just hunted what he could find.

Most villages also used snares and spring traps, in addition to hunting with dogs. In the latter, an arrow was shot into the prey after activation of a trip wire. These were obviously dangerous for those unfamiliar with the terrain of Central Seram, however, for the duration of our visit the traps were deactivated. The hunters made their own weapons including bows, spears and arrows by hand using the local forest resources. The hunting bows were made from hardwood and the string was made from bark which had to be replaced each year. Because of their substantial size, they were only effective as a close range weapon.

Arrows and spears were made from bamboo and had detachable heads. The simple nature of the technology and low population density did not permit excessive overhunting to take place and locals hunted purely for their own domestic needs rather than for any kind of “sport”. In times of difficulty, the head man of each village, or “Bapa Raja”, possessed the right to ban the hunting of certain species, although the locals told us that this situation had not occurred within living memory.

The locals in the Enclave were also expert fisherman. They produced goggles to allow underwater vision using small pieces of glass retrieved from old bottles, which were then sealed into place using tree resin. The fish were then speared under the water using hand made harpoons with detachable heads. The fishermen had to be extremely patient to guarantee a good catch, however, they also had a very good understanding of the morphology of the rivers and the most promising spot to locate themselves where fish were likely to be found.

Conducting the fieldwork was also really pleasant in general. It certainly wasn’t all hard work; we also had time to swim in forest rivers and to study the wonders of the rainforest all around us. Many evenings were spent listening to villagers strumming hand made guitars, singing and telling stories around the fireside until the early hours of the morning.

During our time spent with the project we certainly became aware of some changes occurring in the forest communities of the Enclave. Exposure to Western consumer goods on the island was creating increased demand for items such as radios, music players, generators and even televisions. Practical items such as tilly lamps, torches and chainsaws were also highly prized by local people.

Traditionally, the little money that was needed within the community was made from the sale of spices such as nutmeg or cloves. The income from these was small but was sufficient to buy practical metal goods such as parangs, arrowheads and axes. Any excess money was then used for purchase of prestige items such as Ming china plates which were an important status symbol and which were handed down through the generations.

Apart from spices, the villagers of the interior lacked diverse exchangeable commodities for trading purposes. The trading of perishable goods and game meat was generally prevented by the distance and poor communications to markets on the coast. The simple foodstuffs of the Alifuru people were also not in great demand as export commodities for the outside world.

The situation had begun to change significantly in the years prior to our visit, however, through the sale of exotic birds such as salmon crested cockatoos and purple naped lorikeets. The trading of these species had been practiced since the colonial era, but only on a very small scale. However, international markets for rare species had grown significantly and agents had established themselves in coastal settlements.

Birds were caught using multiple snares of nylon line which hooked around their claws, thus preventing them from flying. The snares were left in a strategic position and near to bait such as a fruit bearing tree. Sometimes a live female bird was used to lure males of the same species.

Captured birds were traded through networks of international dealers, with a doubling of the trade occurring over just the first few years of the 1980s. Much of the growth of this trade was accounted for by parrots from the Moluccas Islands including Seram. Although the Manusela National Park had set agreed targets for the number of birds that could be caught, these did not appear to be enforced to any extent, putting the bird species under threat.



The impact of the bird trade was small scale however compared to changes to the rainforest habitat that we witnessed shortly after. One of my lasting memories was entering a village after several weeks spent in the cool of the forest to be confronted by bulldozers and logging trucks of a multinational timber company. All around were the sounds of chainsaws and heavy machinery and the air was filled with choking red dust. It was entirely by accident that we stumbled upon the logging activity by the village of Calloa.

I remember some rather disturbing scenes, as a group of local forest people, on their way to trade a captured cockatoo to coastal merchants, stood dejectedly by the dusty track surrounded by the bulldozers and the infrastructure of industrial logging. Seemingly a clash of worlds – both with completely different value systems and technologies.

From Colloa we continued on our journey down to the coastal village of Passahari, through areas of rainforest heavily affected by logging activity. Despite the apparent scenes of destruction there was much to learn and many adventures still lay ahead of us on the Island of Seram.

The story continues in: “Seram: In the Indonesian Rainforest – Part 2.”

A note on photos: Anyone with an interest in the expedition is welcome to download or copy photos made by myself for personal, educational or non-commercial purposes. Please credit any photos to myself if reproduced in any format (this does not include photos by any external parties, as indicated). Please contact me if you wish to use any images commercially.

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