Friday, January 28, 2011

Go Down to the Woods Today: a Small Portrait of Indonesian Bureaucracy

Bureaucrats are killjoys the world over. Such as the other day in Bengo-Bengo near to Makassar. Our plan was to camp in the forest for a few days. We stopped at the outpost of the guard who works there just to check the way to the waterfall we wanted to visit. Unexpectedly (although not entirely surprisingly) he tells us there is a new arrangement where any group wishing to enter the forest, owned by a local university Universitas Hasanuddin must obtain a letter of permission from the university's forestry department first, accompanied by a payment of 200,000 rupiah.

We suppose that there is no reason for this bureaucracy other than the typical practice of public officials, in this case university staff, aiming to add a little extra to their salary. This small-scale corruption is so widespread in Indonesia that it almost becomes seen as legitimate, always taking advantage of positions of authority to impose an extra charge here and there. The final legitimacy, of course, comes from our obedience if we choose the easy life and pay up.

The groundskeeper who we spoke to at the entrance of the forest was apologetic. After all, it was not his scam. He told us that if it would be his house, we would of course be welcome to sleep as guests, but while at work he had to respect the orders of his boss(who's name I belive, is Pak Jay) . In this statement he embodies the curious contrast between two attitudes: the hospitality which is considered normal and expected in Indonesia, and the bureaucracy which continually restricts our freedoms in the interest of consolidating hierarchical power and getting more money. And is also normal and expected.

In the moments of frustration, as we walked away from the forest, looking in the dark and the rain for an alternative place to pitch our tents, I started thinking about what had just happened in the context of the wider problem of forestry in Indonesia. And it struck me that while this particular incident might be seen simply as an annoyance for a few people who wanted to go camping, it can also be understood in the wider context of the forestry problem in Indonesia.

Forests in Indonesia are largely lost to the interests of corporations who pay their way through the bureaucracy. Legal logging depends on all sorts of maneuvering to get permissions, illegal logging invariably has the protection of the police or military. Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission KPK describes the forestry sector as “a source of unlimited corruption” and people who live near the forest know this too. The forest industry becomes out of control, and those who lament the loss of the forests acknowledge ithat the bureaucracy is incapable of saving it. Forestry students at Universitas Hasanuddin get to understand this before they even get to start working as they too are expected to pay to enter UNHAS forest. Small corruptions set the example for bigger ones that make Indonesia the third biggest net emitter of greenhouse gases in the world due to the rate of deforestation.

On the world stage, a few weeks before our adventure in the forest, there was a climate change summit in Cancun, Mexico. Of course the conference was marked by the usual procrastination and lack of will to accept that ecological destruction is inextricably linked, to the growth of capital. But this time a little face was saved by signing an agreement on forests. REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) will be a market-based scheme whereby more polluting countries throw money towards wherever there is forest, supposedly in order to conserve the carbon contained within that forest. While depicted as a good thing by some big NGOs (especially those with conservation programs that will benefit from the scheme), the global peasant movement la Via Campesina and many indigenous organisations strongly opposed it.

Their reasons were many, but a key phrase that was often used was the 'recolonisation of the forest'. The fear is, as has already been shown in trial projects already underway, is that forest will be bought up as an investment opportunity for Western governments and corporations who wish it to be used to offset the emissions they cause from their fossil fuel dependency. Such a development will inevitably marginalise forest peoples and those who rely on the forest for their basic needs, since such unpredictable variables do not fit the logic of markets and verifiable quantities of carbon stored.

The movement against REDD also provides many other reasons to resist it; that REDD fuels corruption and doesn't have any real effect in combating climate change are just two. But all the practical examples of how this scheme will be abused can be distilled into a philosophical objection: REDD fundamentally changes the relationship between human and forest.

A forest can be many things to the people who live close to it: a direct source of food or conserver of the soil for subsistence shifting cultivation, a source of other forest products for crafts, medicines, or building, a regulator of the watershed and the local micro-climate, a source of wonder, inspiration and spiritual strength.

But if forest also becomes a capitalist commodity then each of these other aspects must be accorded a value according to the global market logic. If they have no value, how can they be taken into account?There may be lip-service paid to indigenous people's rights but these rights are also an invention that follow the dominant logic: beforehand indigenous people didn't need rights, they already had the forest.

Who ever came up with the idea that a forest can have an owner? If a forest has an owner it is the monkeys and the ants and the trees and the babirusa and the local human communities that make up a forest and its ecosystem. In the case of farmed land, there is a certain logic of having a system of who can plant on which piece. But forest ownership is an absurdity of capitalism. The loggers, the architects of REDD and the bureaucrats of UNHAS have something in common: they eye up forests and want to make them theirs because they can get money out of them.

Given the desperate situation of the ecological systems globally, we can understand why people may not see it as viable to always be idealistic when it comes to conservation. But a key principle of conservation should be: keep capitalism as far away as possible from the forest. And indeed, resist it when it comes near.

In the case of agricultural land, we can see from across Indonesia and around the world how people will fight to defend their livelihoods as free peasantry, with control to grow what they want on a few hectares of land, enough to make a living. Their enemy more often than not is a more capitalist form of agriculture: plantations that do not produce food, they produce commodities. It is widely acknowledged that the peasant model is more pleasant, more secure, more ecologically sustainable and often more productive. It is a direct relationship between the person, the land and the food grown on it, not mediated by wage labour and global commodity markets. And for this reason it is consistently under threat.

The freedom to farm land is vital, but so is the free access to land! In many ways they are similar, a relationship to land that is not framed by the restrictions of capitalist alienation. Recreation should not just be the privilege of the wealthy. Why shouldn't anyone be able to do as we did, jump on the back of a truck and get to breathe some fresh air in the forest? Given that there is a sensitivity to the needs of all human and non-human inhabitants of the forest, is it not important that alienated city people too get to build our own relationship with the forest that we need as our life-support system? Is the forest not more beautiful when it becomes a vast autonomous zone of life interacting freely with no economic sense whatsoever?

The need for access to land is not a bourgeois demand. In the 1930s the working class, needing some escape after all week locked up in a factory, took back the hills of Northern England. Much of the mountainous areas were controlled by the rich who used them as shooting resorts for a few months each year, and prohibited access all year round. But the workers took direct action in the form of mass trespasses, and effectively gained access to roam wherever they wanted on uncultivated land. More recently, in the Philippines, Kauban, a collective of socially-minded mountain enthusiasts objected to the creeping practice of introducing 'entrance fees' to popular mountains by organising trips which bypassed the collection points. In their campaign they tried to resist the culture whereby an image was created of mountaineers as middle class decadents with spending power, obsessing over the different brands of outdoor gear.

Back in Bengo-Bengo, the next day we wondered what to do. We did ask around a few local people whether there were any alternative possibilities to find a nice piece of forest to hang out in. They didn't come up with any and so we did what anyone with the right disrespect for authority should do, and just sneaked in to the university forest anyway.

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