Seram: In the Indonesian Rainforest – Part 2.

This post covers the second 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.

In the first part of this story, I covered our work with indigenous people in the “Enclave” area of the Manusela National Park in Central Seram concerning the local use of natural resources from the rainforest. After spending a number of weeks in the Island’s interior, I then made my way down to the North Coast of Seram to continue the “Wild Pig” project there within the small fishing community of Pasahari. This second part of the story picks up from where I left off last time and covers the rest of the expedition up until our departure from the Moluccas Islands.

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During the walk out towards the coast we unexpectedly encountered commercial logging activity. Although the deforestation and it’s impact were alarming and depressing to witness, the logging company were at least helpful to us and provided a lift down to the coast in their truck, which saved a long and exhausting trek.

By comparison with the dust and noise of the logging concession, the idyllic coastal community of Pasahari seemed an oasis of calm, with a palm fringed beach and a laid back community of fishermen and traders. The locals were open and accommodating and we were able to sleep in the community hall located in the center of the village. Unlike in the interior of the Island most of the coastal communities were comprised of Malay settlers who are Muslims.

Although the focus of the project had been upon investigating wild pig and game populations on the Island, we were also interested to look at traditional fishing practices and their impact on the marine resources. In Pasahari we had the chance to spend time with the local fishermen who, every day, were catching impressive specimens, including unfeasibly large and threatening looking saw fish, in their simple dugout and outrigger canoes – no doubt at considerable risk to life and limb.

One of the old village fishermen was particularly keen to show us the ropes. We even managed to secure use of a boat from Operation Raleigh with a powerful outboard, much to the old man’s obvious delight. After we secured the boat, he was out with us every day, showing us the best places to fish, the types of species he caught regularly and all the tricks of the trade.  I’m sure we were the most enthusiastic of apprentices and he was keen to pass on his knowledge of generations.

At the same time we were also looking at what and where the local people were hunting to try and get an idea of the impact of this activity upon the natural wildlife populations. Some locals even gifted us a live couscous (a sleepy, tree climbing marsupial), presumably for our dinner. However, I must confess that nobody was feeling that hungry and we let the poor creature go when nobody was watching.

In general, Pasahari was a very special place and we felt privileged to be there with our own small group. I do remember one strange incident when a plate which was hanging from a hook in the hall started inexplicably  “pinging” away on it’s own accord in the middle of the night. The superstitious locals attributed this seemingly “supernatural” event to their ‘friendly’ ghost, who apparently looked rather like one of our team members. It’s fair to say that the individual in question was treated with above average respect by the people there; so maybe there was something in their story.

In addition, I remember there was an exquisitely beautiful small coral reef lying just off the shore, which was ideal for snorkeling and for watching a myriad of multi-coloured fish swimming amongst the corals. This was a whole separate world in itself and a joy to witness in all it’s colours, forms and variety – there were bright blue star fish, angel fish and grumpy looking moray eels which lurked in holes in the rocks (image below shows a broadly similar looking reef  from a different location). We were able to find some masks and snorkels from the expedition stores and the local kids were certainly really excited to try these out and to experience their underwater world, which had previously eluded them, properly for the first time. It was heartwarming indeed to see the kids being so enthusiastic to experience their local environment from an entirely new perspective.

We were, however, increasingly aware of threats to the wildlife and biodiversity of Seram in the area. Nowadays when I look at Google Maps images of the Island, I can see that a whole lot more development has occurred in the intervening years, with significant evidence of settlement and deforested areas. This is true for Pasahari itself, where there has been a huge shrimp farming development to supply mainly Chinese markets. In the wake of all this, I doubt the beautiful coral reef that we saw has survived, as it appears that the outflow from the aquaculture development is almost in the exact location of the reef. I wonder also how the development has affected the life of the village. Has it created local employment for example, or merely disrupted the traditional pattern of life through creating pollution to the marine environment and an influx of outsiders competing for resources ?

In Pasahari there were also small scale agents based in the village who were involved in the trade of endemic birds (which was discussed in Part 1 of this story). The birds, mainly salmon crested cockatoos and parrots, were collected in the interior of the Island and were then brought down to the coast for onward transit. We saw many parrots being sent off the Island using the regular boat services to Ambon. It seems that most of the profit from this trade ends up with the international dealers, with the value effectively doubling, every time birds change hands. Parrots which were sold for just a few dollars in Seram might therefore fetch hundreds of dollars in the US or Europe.

We also saw evidence of other species being caught and traded, including reptiles such as salt water crocodiles. This was being done on a smaller scale to the trade in endemic birds, however it was also having an impact. It was unclear to what extent this activity was being controlled by the authorities, or whether a blind eye was being turned in some instances.

There were however other threats to the rainforest ecosystem which were operating on a bigger scale. On our journey to the coast and during our initial encounters with the loggers, an engineer from Singapore had offered to show me the work of the company and to provide a tour of their operations (he also gave me a clean T-Shirt as mine must have appeared completely filthy by then !). Whilst we certainly weren’t sympathetic to the commercial aspirations of the loggers, this seemed too good an opportunity to miss, in terms of understanding the over impact of development activities occurring on the Manusela National Park boundary.

Logging was occurring along the Wae Issal Valley in close proximity to the Park Boundary. The logging concession for this area had been granted to a private company which was based on the coast to the East of the Wae Issal river mouth. When we visited, the logging activity had been underway for 8 years and had penetrated about 22km inland. During the first few years much of the resulting deforestation had been confined to the coastal floodplains around the village of Pasahari. In these areas, depletion of soil nutrients and frequent bushfires during the dry season had prevented any new regeneration of the forest. As a result much of the area had been reduced to poor “alang-alang” grassland, which would be unlikely to regenerate to forest again due to long term changes in the local microclimate.

Whilst we were there, logging had stopped in the area around Pasahari and was mainly occurring along the Park boundary as far South as the village of Calloa. Access points for timber extraction had been bulldozed at regular half kilometer intervals along the road with felling of trees being undertaken on a selective basis – only trees greater than 90cm on diameter being removed. In reality however it seemed that many other trees were damaged during the removal process and there were significant impacts of soil compaction and localized erosion as a result. The timber extraction was also causing animal populations to disperse and affecting the hunting activities, forest gardens and lifestyle of the indigenous people.

An annual harvest of 29,000 cubic meters of timber was being removed from the area of the concession which covered 2,250 ha. The plan at the time was to extend this total area of activity to 85,000 ha, covering 35 working units, though issues of the terrain were making this difficult. I understood that the timber company was due to initiate a scheme of replanting following felling, or face significant government fines. It was not clear to what extent this was policed or being managed by the government.

Talking to loggers on the ground themselves, one thing that surprised me was the complete lack any of health and safety equipment that was evident in Indonesia.  Many of the men, who were using chainsaws (as long as themselves) or operating heavy machinery, had little or no protective equipment to speak of. Often they were wearing only flip flops and shorts and had no safety helmets, visors or ear protection. This would certainly have been unthinkable in Europe and one could only assume that there was a correspondingly high accident rate – presumably labour was cheap in the industry and the company assumed little liability for accidents or fatalities that might have occurred.

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That said, the timber extraction technology appeared to be ruthlessly efficient and I was left wondering how much of Seram’s rainforest would survive this onslaught in the future. On a positive note though I have heard that, in recent years, logging has no longer been occurring within this area of Seram. However, I have no means of verifying this, though it would certainly be beneficial if such damaging activity has been stopped altogether, particularly so close to the boundary of the Manusela National Park and it’s fragile ecosystems.

During our stay in the area we also came across people from other parts of Indonesia who had been relocated to Seram under the Government’s controversial Transmigration Programme. This was centered on the Samal Transmigration area to the East of the Wae Issal River. Samal Transmigration area was established in 1982/83 as part of the continuing government policy to relieve population pressure on Java and Bali. Under the overall policy, the Government had relocated 3.6 million people by 1984, over vast distances, to 250 different Transmigration sites on the outer islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Irian Jaya and Seram. Another 20 million had been planned to be moved within the following 2 decades, though this target had been reduced due to a decline in government oil revenues.

Both the Samal area and another area located relatively close by, were home to around 5000 migrant families from Java, with each site affecting an area of 15 – 20,000 ha of previously forested land. The schemes followed a rigidly prescribed farming model. Each family was given a plot of approximately 4 ha, a standard plywood house and fertiliser to improve soil fertility. Much of the finance for the scheme came from the World Bank along with oil revenue.

Over the years there has been much concern expressed about the environmental and social impact of Transmigration. In addition to the immediate issues of rainforest destruction, there were issues of declining soil fertility and erosion as a result of some of the schemes. By 1987 this was leading to some 43 million ha of Indonesian Forest land being categorized as being in a “critical condition and in urgent need of rehabilitation”. In Seram, land which was previously forested and which had lost it’s fertility, usually degenerated to unproductive grassland and could no longer be used for any agricultural purpose.

There were fears that settlement failure could have significant impacts upon the rainforest ecosystems of the Manusela National Park. The existence of logging roads along the Eastern boundary of  the National Park was increasing the potential likelihood of this occurring.  In addition there were obvious social consequences through bringing in large numbers of outsiders from a different cultural background and the potential impact that this might have upon indigenous populations, including an increase in religious tensions and conflicts over land availability.

Despite being aware of these various environmental and social threats to the Island’s ecosystems, our time in Pasahari was overall a very pleasant and enjoyable part of the whole Operation Raleigh expedition. We spent many relaxed days with the villagers learning about their hunting, fishing and cultivation techniques as well as taking some time out to enjoy snorkeling on the beautiful coral reef and to immerse ourselves in local cultural life.

Our stay on the coast was however marred to some degree, when we learned of a tragic accident which had taken place on another part of the Island. Paul Claxton, a young British photographer with Operation Raleigh, had sadly fallen to his death near the summit of Gunung Binaiya, the highest peak on Seram at around 3000m. Meanwhile, another expedition member, Ashley Hyett (who’d been accompanying Paul at the time) had also fallen, but miraculously had survived, albeit with multiple injuries and the need to coordinate a difficult and dangerous rescue mission. We were all deeply saddened and unsettled by news of the accident, on what had otherwise been a highly successful and positive expedition up until this point.

The Summit Ridge of Binaiya – Photo: Paul Claxton, Operation Raleigh

Unfortunately, our stay in Pasahari was over all too soon. Our small team now had to leave the coast, following the end of that particular phase of the Project. On the next phase I would be based with a different team and in the much larger Solea Camp, which was a major base for many of the ecological research projects which were located within the primary lowland rainforest in the Southern part of the Manusela National Park. This would turn out to be an altogether different experience from the small teams which I had now become familiar with on the expedition, however, it would also be a fascinating one which would reveal new insights.

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In comparison to anything that had gone before, the base camp at Solea was a bustling hive of activity – at times verging on a “Club Med” type party atmosphere, which was muted initially by news of the tragic events on Binaiya. Although all this seemed quite bewildering having been literally out in the sticks for quite some time, I soon warmed to the new surroundings and joined in the life of the expedition camp.

There were some amazing and colourful characters, involved in all sorts of specialist research projects, the likes of whom you would never encounter in an average 9-5 office life. The specialist scientific work involved detailed analyses of the rainforest including documentation of 1 ha plots of forest by taking samples and measurements of trees and shrubs in each plot. Such representative plots were established in all the major vegetation zones within the Manusela National Park including lowland, montane and upper montane forest. The various scientific projects required a huge infrastructure to service themselves, including a fully operational laboratory for analyzing collected samples.

To compliment the collection of botanical and soil samples, there were all manner of fascinating (and sometimes quite scary looking) “creepie crawlies” to discover. Indeed the trapping, collection, sorting and preservation of beetles, bugs and flies for the Museum of Natural History in London was one of the key aims of the expedition. This was something that had always fascinated me; as a student I used to spend ages between lectures walking around the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh looking at the various insect collections on display. Quite often these would be contained in rather bland looking and dusty old display cases – however, the simple act of rolling back a cover would reveal otherworldly realms populated by magical, iridescent blue butterflies, beetles the size of helicopter gunships and incredible stick insects of emerald green.

The Island of Seram is located within the “Wallacea” region which was named after British Naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace. It was Wallace, who independently and simultaneously with Darwin, came up with the Theory for the Origin of Species by Natural Section – although Darwin as an establishment figure, received the greater part of the credit. The Wallacea is the region where the flora and faunas of Asia and Australasia mix and merge.

Although strictly speaking, the actual Wallace Line is located further to the West between the Islands of Bali and Lombok, the region of the Moluccas is still very much a biodiversity hotspot, dominated by species of Australasian origin. The large range in altitude from sea level to almost 3000m, and existence of land bridges resulting from fluctuating sea levels over geological time, have also helped to create diverse ecological niches which have favoured the development of a whole host of endemic species, which are found nowhere else in the world.

One particularly interesting piece of research was the use of a so-called “fogging machine” which was designed to collect insects from the tree canopy where the bulk of species are actually to be found in a rainforest. This involved the use of a sprayer containing a knock-down agent which was hoisted high up into the tree canopy; once in position, the knock-down agent would be released around a predetermined area of the canopy.

Soon, a steady shower of insects would start to rain down from the canopy, to be collected in a series of buckets laid out on the ground below. The collecting buckets were marked out in a very systematic grid, thus allowing the researchers to estimate the density and distribution pattern of insects at any given location within the tree canopy above.

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The research yielded many incredible species previously unknown to science, thus giving new insights into the complexity and biodiversity of the rainforest ecosystem. The best specimens were taken away for further analysis and for potential display in the Museum of Natural History in London. Although this might seem a draconian approach, only a fraction of species from the rainforests of the world have, even now, been identified and recorded. Through understanding the true diversity and potential value of these forests, it is possible to increase efforts to promote their protection in the longer term as part of global natural heritage and with potential social and economic benefits.

The scientific staff on the expedition were also joined by a team who organised logistics for the expedition, many of whom came originally from a military background. One person who deserves a special mention in this respect was Wandy Swales, the Expedition Leader who did a remarkable job keeping the whole thing running smoothly and efficiently, coordinating the various projects and teams through very testing circumstances and terrain.

This job was complicated in the extreme by the rescue efforts on Binaia and the need to keep people informed of developments back in the UK and other countries. Wandy Swales was supported by an experienced team who included Steve Oliver and Kris Kendall amongst others. Generally the scientists and the logistics professionals worked well together, however on occasions, the different approaches could make for an interesting combination.

It certainly wasn’t all work though and there was quite a bit of partying going down at “Club Med” Solea – including one particular all-night event which, I must confess, I don’t really have much memory of at all. I do remember though that some of the Indonesian press caught on to the Club Med theme and came up with all manner of stories based around the theme of nudist camps in the jungle and other such tabloid sensations. Well sorry to say, that really all was just hearsay really; though I have to admit Solea was indeed quite a sociable and happening place after being out in the remoter parts of the Island. It also shows how cultural sensitivities can become an issue when people let their hair down just a little too much in a different environment – we must all learn to respect.

Anyway just when things were getting just a little too free and easy, it was time to go off on another tough assignment – this time a week’s trek to the Kobipoto Ridge in the Park’s interior to help with rainforest surveys strung out at a range of different altitudes at on the steep mountain ridge. Our work here involved undertaking insect and vegetation transects and collecting soil profiles from various sample plots. This was a considerably tougher assignment than the base camp option, particularly given the fact that there was no water supply on the limestone Kobipoto Ridge and all water had to be carried up in huge plastic drums which just about fitted into a backpack. These wobbled around as the water sloshed about in the drums – most disorientating when trying to negotiate a slippery and barely discernable mountain path in the baking heat!

The camps on this leg of the trip were amongst the most basic on the expedition and usually involved stringing up a hammock between trees or sleeping on the ground on a stony riverbed underneath a basic tarp. Care always had to be taken to use a mosquito net as there was a high risk of malaria, which a number of participants later succumbed to. This included a friend of mine, Mark Wilson, who had a very serious bout of Malaria which reoccurred for a couple of years after the expedition (sadly Mark died a few years later following a head injury sustained through a rugby match in England). Another hazard were also weeping tropical ulcers, which occurred when small cuts or scratches became infected and then turned septic over the course of a few days. Without treatment, these would simply not heal in the humid tropical climate and could soon grow to become huge open sores oozing puss (most unpleasant indeed !).

Other larger campsite hazards included marauding wild pigs which could become aggressive when disturbed in the night. I remember one night when we all had our hammocks strung up some distance apart – suddenly there was a loud snorting and a rustling in the undergrowth; quick as a flash everyone dashed out of their hammocks and piled into a small hollow, huddling close for security against the unseen pig menace. Other camping hazards included giant poisonous centipedes and snakes; particular the “death adder”, the most venomous snake found on Seram. One night a group apparently also even had stones thrown at them by a group of nomadic hunters, who had probably never seen such white “devils” before in their forest.

After the Kobipoto excursion it was nice to return to Solea for the final leg. I spent a few days there working on a community project to create a hall in a local village. Although the work was fun and progress was easy to gauge, I  must confess that this project was the one which I was most cynical about during the whole expedition. It didn’t seem that there had been much in the way of consultation with local people prior to the project commencing, or indeed that the project indeed satisfied any clear need as identified by the community.

Added to that the fact that the locals possessed very good building skills of their own, it appeared most likely that the project was more to do with occupying the venturers than delivering tangible local benefits. However, I’m sure the motivations behind the community project were good, though I did hear a rumour that the local people had later taken down the structure and reused the materials elsewhere. Therein lies a lesson; thou shalt consult !

We were now coming toward the end of a fantastic and challenging 3 months with Operation Raleigh on Seram. For a final fling, to satisfy logistical requirements of assembling everyone together and (most importantly) for a bit of well earned chill-out time, we headed to the idyllic paradise of Sawai Island, located in a spectacular bay, just off the coast from the village of Sawai itself.

The island was a tiny, sandy, speck of land dotted with coconut palms set in a fjord-like bay fringed by towering limestone peaks. It barely rises above the perfect turquoise sea which is encircled by numerous coral reefs. If ever there was the perfect castaway destination, then we’d surely discovered it here on Sawai Island. Days were spent snorkeling on the coral reefs, drinking fresh (preferably fermented) coconut milk, relaxing in hammocks or just enjoying the splendid company and the setting.

Far better than any exclusive millionaires retreat surely – this was the real desert Island experience. In the evenings we’d sit around the campfire under a roof of a million stars, with party games which would become increasing more boisterous as the evening wore on – eventually degenerating into rowdy and impromptu reggae-limbo dance competitions and other such skullduggery; quite the stuff of “Bounty Bar” adverts.

We also took some short trips across the bay to visit Sawai Village itself. This was a fascinating little place, with houses set on stilts in the manner of iron age Scottish crannogs and a network of small canals behind the houses. Locals used these for all manner of functions including as boat berths, bathing places, cooking and food preparation areas and as social spaces. Like most places on the Coast of Seram, this was a Muslim village, with a rather impressive mosque compared with any others I’d come across on the island. The kids on the pier were also good fun and dependable; with a most irritating plop, I accidentally dropped a skylight filter from my camera lens into the water. Within a minute one of the kids had dived in and retrieved it from the murky depths, a big smile on his face indicating his sense of achievement at the rescue mission.

Our final departure from Sawai Island and indeed from Seram, was as dramatic and memorable as any part of the whole expedition itself, involving a night time rendezvous with the passenger ferry to Ambon at Sawai village on the opposite side of the bay. This crossing from the smaller island under the light of the stars, involved negotiating a treacherous passage between the reefs, in a small boat laden down with people and gear and using a handheld torch to pick our way through the gaps – the paddles of our boat creating beautiful and surreal splashes of bioluminescence amidst the shimmering water, before we could safely start up the outboard motor.

Meanwhile the powerful searchlights of our rendezvous vessel swept the rocky headlands of the distant coastline under a still, starry, tropical night. Finally, safely on board the larger boat and the engines rumbled into life. We set course for the port of Ambon and to greet the dawn of the new day on different shores.

After a couple of days in Ambon, doing very civilized things like eating ice cream and drinking beer, we once again boarded the KM Rinjani for the longer trip back to Jakarta – somehow a more mellow and reflective trip than the outward voyage just three months before. The departure from the quay was a bitter-sweet mixture of fond farewells, tinged with a hint of melancholy – a veritable sea of colours, waving arms and familiar faces of friends that we wouldn’t be seeing for a long time to come, if at all.  The Rinjani inched majestically out of the port and headed to the West, the outline of Ambon and Seram soon becoming but a distant blip and a memory on the horizon. Meanwhile more soup with floating chickens’ feet awaited in the restaurant and there was some serious action to be had down in the disco again that evening.

Further formalities awaited us in Jarkarta, before the long flight back to the UK. I remember a final crazy party in the grounds of the British Embassy there where some stuffy embassy officials dared to try and dampen the party atmosphere, by pointing out that the rules didn’t include night time use of the pool – I  distinctly remember hearing the jobs worthy official saying, “If one more person goes in that pool, then this party is WILL HAVE TO STOP….”

Then PLOP …!! as he too, was literally picked up and hauled fully dressed into the water – such was the indomitable spirit of Operation Raleigh Venturers !

I arrived back at Gatwick in shorts and a T-shirt on a chilly October day, with a tribal machete strapped to the side of my rucksack (don’t think that would happen these days !). Nobody had reminded me it could be so cold in Britain, or that people didn’t appear to smile or laugh very much. It was a long, drafty train journey up to Glasgow, but I put on a brave face on things nonetheless; I’d survived Seram and so a little fresh fickle British weather certainly wouldn’t get the better of me.  People dressed in their winter woollies did however give me some decidedly strange looks that day though, as they skulked defensively behind their gloomy British tabloid newspaper headlines, discussed the vagaries of the weather or bemoaned the latest football results…

Postscipt:

There are still a myriad of images etched on my mind from Seram; night time reggae-limbo dance parties on the beach, steaming rainforests, cheeky village kids and giant creepy crawlies; all far too much to do justice to here. At the time there was never the opportunity to process or digest the experience in depth; just to leap straight into the next project which involved finishing my degree and handing in a dissertation which I hadn’t even started  by the date it was due for submission (they did give me an extra week in the end !).

After Seram, life took many twists and turns (some positive, others less). After finishing my degree in Edinburgh I was soon doing an MSc in Natural Resources at Bangor and joined a small student expedition to study the cloud forests and paramos of the Ecuadorian Andes – a very differ kettle of fish altogether from Operation Raleigh. Following a couple of short contracts working for conservation projects, I then joined VSO to work as a Community Forester in Nepal.  Returning home from Nepal, and somewhat disillusioned with overseas development projects, I spent the next 15 years or so, working for environmental partnerships in England and Scotland before, once again, circumstances intervened and sent me over to Europe to begin a new (and altogether different) adventure.

Operation Raleigh taught me many things; particularly not just to accept life as it is frequently doled out to us; with a predictable future clearly mapped out. It taught me to take risks and to not to be afraid to make ‘leaps of faith’ into the unknown without the certain prospect of a safe landing. It made me aware that there are opportunities for exploration and adventure lurking around every corner but so many people are blind to these, or choose to ignore them. Finally, it taught me that people matter too; so much can be achieved with an energetic and dedicated group of like-minded and enthusiastic individuals who share a common purpose.

Further links on Operation Raleigh 10F Indonesia and Raleigh International:

Operation Raleigh 10F

Raleigh International

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.

 

Gallery: some other Operation Raleigh Indonesia moments:

 

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