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10.Resource use of frontiers and pioneer settlement in southern Sumatra

Sumatra's role in pioneer settlement in Indonesia
Pioneer settlement in the Mountain Zone
Pioneer settlement in the peneplains
Pioneer settlement in the swamps of the eastern lowlands

Ulrich Scholz

Sumatra's role in pioneer settlement in Indonesia

One of Indonesia's biggest national problems is its extremely uneven population distribution. On the one hand there is the over-populated central island group of JavaMadura-Bali, with around 700 people/km2; on the other, there are the huge frontier lands of the scarcely populated outer islands, with an average of some 30 people/km2. It is no wonder that this pronounced demographic imbalance seeks a solution. Apart from the well-known Transmigrasi programme of the Indonesian government, which has grown in the past decade to be the largest voluntary settlement scheme in the world (Hardjono 1977; Arndt 1983), there has emerged almost unnoticed by the public, an even larger flow of spontaneous pioneer settlers, who are estimated to outnumber the state directed migrants by several times.

Among the different outer islands of Indonesia, Sumatra (474,000 km2 and about 30 million inhabitants) has become the most favoured frontier region of both planned and spontaneous settlers. The island is not only located near Java but is also, in economic terms, the richest and most active of the outer islands (oil, natural gas, timber, tin, estates), and it has sufficient land reserves (fig. 1). For these reasons, Sumatra has become known among Indonesians as "pulau harapan" ("island of hope"). The island's southern provinces (Lampung, South Sumatra, Bengkulu, and Jambi) in particular, due to their proximity to Java, have become the major target region. Between 1969 and 1982, the area received more than 1 million people, or 60 per cent of all official transmigrants. In addition, an unknown number of spontaneous migrants are steadily trickling into the region.

Local authorities in Lampung, the southernmost province, estimate the figure to be about 100,000 persons each year for their province alone.

How do all these new settlers achieve their livelihood in their new habitat?

Although it is true that Sumatra contains extensive land reserves (not even 20 per cent of the total area is settled and agriculturally used), it is also a fact that the agricultural potential is gradually being reduced because, quite understandably, the most favourable places have long been occupied by local inhabitants. Such places include the volcanic areas within the mountain zone and the fertile levees along the big rivers in the eastern lowlands. Any pioneer settler who wants to clear a piece of land has to be content with land which the indigenous people were either unwilling or unable to cultivate, or which has been abandoned due to its inferior quality.

According to an FAO-UNDP study (1973), only about 10 per cent of Sumatra's soils can be classified as "good" or "fairly good" for agricultural purposes, whereas 90 per cent are qualified as "moderate," "fairly poor," or "poor" (fig. 1). The main reason for the poor soil quality of large tracts of Sumatra lies in the fact that the entire island belongs to the humid tropics where, through steady leaching by excessive rain and rapid decomposition of the organic material, the soils tend to become impoverished much faster than in the other climatic zones of the world.

FIG. 1. Land reserves in southern Sumatra (Scholz 1980, 21)

On the other hand, the abundant and rather evenly distributed supply of solar energy and water ensures the possibility of a year-round production of a variety of crops. And even the poor soil quality has, to a considerable degree, been successfully compensated for by the introduction of improved farm technologies, with the result that formerly rather worthless regions can now be turned into productive farm land and provide new opportunities for pioneer settlers.

The most crucial issue remains with the selection of appropriate agricultural production systems which are suitable for these critical zones. The age-old experience of local farmers and recent experiments in agricultural research lead to the conclusion that the cultivation of perennial bush and tree crops is probably the most suitable production system for the fragile ecosystem of the humid tropics. Satisfactory, albeit not optimal, results can be expected from cultivation on inundated fields, particularly if these are used for wet-rice cropping. Rather unfavourable conditions generally prevail for annual dry-land crops, especially if one tries to grow them permanently in the same field. In general, the only way to grow such crops successfully is to apply shifting cultivation techniques with slash-and-burn clearing (swidden farming). Most types of cattle husbandry also show only limited returns under humid tropical conditions (Ruthenberg 1971).

Such general statements on the suitability of humid tropical regions for agricultural purposes have to be modified according to the topography of a particular area. In the frontier regions of Sumatra the following three major types of ecosystem can be distinguished, each exhibiting certain constraints but also offering specific opportunities for pioneer settlement: (1) the mountain zone, (2) the peneplains, and (3) the swampy lowlands.

Pioneer settlement in the Mountain Zone

About one-third of the total area of Sumatra is occupied by the Barisan Mountains. The majority of the indigenous population lives in the few volcanic parts of this zone as well as at the bottoms of the various mountain valleys. These early settlers use quite intensive forms of agriculture which are usually based on irrigated wetrice cultivation and they thus occupy only about 10 per cent of the total mountain zone. The rest has until recently been covered with primary forest.

Compared to other ecosystems of the humid tropics, the mountain areas usually provide relatively satisfactory soil conditions, a better water supply, and a healthier climate. On the other hand, they are handicapped by steep slopes and limited accessibility. Mountain areas are therefore hardly suitable for big scale state directed settlement schemes, but they are often preferred by individual pioneer settlers.

In the case of southern Sumatra, the bulk of spontaneous pioneer settlement has indeed been directed towards the mountain zone. Up to now mostly the southernmost parts have been affected, particularly the province of Lampung. But the movement of pioneer settlers will certainly proceed more and more northwards, especially after the completion of the Sumatra Highway.

Many of the spontaneous migrants start as seasonal wage labourers in the coffee, pepper, or clove gardens of the local Sumatran smallholders, returning to Java after the harvest, before they decide to stay and live for good in Sumatra. Another type of migrant, especially one from more distant places in Java such as Central or East Java, who cannot afford seasonal commuting, usually goes at first to places where other family members or former village members already live. Often the state directed transmigration projects seem to serve as bridgeheads from which spontaneous follow-up migrants search for jobs and settlement opportunities in the neighbourhood. Thus the official transmigration programme may also play an important role in the process of spontaneous settlement. A third group of settlers consists of successors of the first generation settlers in the old established transmigration projects; the original farm size of two hectares is generally too small to ensure a livelihood for the second generation, which is forced to move and open new farm land in some other area (Utomo 1967).

A common feature of most spontaneous settlers is that they usually arrive without any capital and dispose of virtually nothing but their labour. They are therefore forced to plant fast growing annual dry-land food crops such as rice, maize, cassava, or peanuts. The appropriate production system is shifting cultivation, which requires no capital investment and provides the necessary food without much risk and within a short time. Shifting cultivation is indeed the typical production technique of most of the spontaneous pioneer settlers throughout the tropics, no matter which production system they had been using in their place of origin. This is also true for the Javanese migrants, the majority of whom were wet-rice farmers in their home villages. But shifting cultivation is usually practiced only during the initial phase of their pioneer existence. Sooner or later most begin to mix perennial crops among the annual food crops in their swiddens, precisely in the same way as the indigenous Sumatran farmers do. In the mountain zone of southern Sumatra coffee has been the dominant perennial crop for the past decade. Initiated by the high prices after 1975, a real coffee boom swept over the southern sections of the mountain zone. In Lampung alone the coffee area increased from 53,000 ha to some 129,000 ha within seven years (1973-1980).

The expansion of coffee cultivation, however, took place at the expense of vast areas of virgin forest. The ecological consequences of this destruction are as yet difficult to calculate. There seems to be a considerable threat of soil deterioration and erosion in the first two years of cultivation. After that period, the coffee bushes provide a closed canopy and an extended root system that protect the upper soil layer. The protective effect can be substantially increased by planting shade trees between the coffee bushes as, in fact, is the custom in the southern mountain zone of Sumatra.

It should be pointed out that the coffee bonanza was by no means initiated by the Javanese pioneer settlers alone. The indigenous Sumatran people have also been playing an active part. This is particularly true for the Semendo people, who have turned their experience with traditional slash and burn clearing for swiddening into a profitable business by opening new forest plots each year, planting coffee on them, and then either renting or selling the revalued piece of land to invading pioneer settlers from Java.

Some, but up to now only a few, of these pioneer settlers have been able to accomplish the final step of settlement, namely, the establishment of a sawah field for wet-rice cultivation. The reason this step follows so late is that the construction of terraced fields (sawahs) and, even more so, of irrigation works can only be achieved by joint efforts of rather big groups such as village communities. As the pioneer settlers usually come as individuals, they first have to pass through the long process of community building before they can start with sawah cultivation.

Pioneer settlement in the peneplains

The second type of frontier land is the so-called peneplains, the gently undulating transition zone between the mountain zone in the west and the eastern coastal lowlands.

Until the early twentieth century settlement was almost completely restricted to the fertile but rather narrow levees of the major rivers. There the local people practiced their traditional swiddening with dry-land rice for subsistence. The vast hinterlands of the rivers remained by and large uninhabited due to the low productivity of the prevailing red-yellow podsolic soils (oxisols), known as the '`trouble soils" of the humid tropics from an agricultural viewpoint. The situation changed with the introduction of rubber, which proved to be one of the few crops that could be successfully grown on these poor soils and which could thus considerably increase the agricultural value of the peneplains. It is, however, a purely market oriented and rather bulky product, so rubber planting has been restricted to the proximity of transportation routes such as rivers and roads.

The vast areas between the communication corridors thus remained unattractive for individual settlers such as the spontaneous pioneer settlers from Java, who, as shown above, preferred to move to the mountain zone. On the other hand, the peneplains are generally quite accessible, and heavy machinery such as bulldozers can be used more readily than in other regions such as mountains or swamps. Altogether they are relatively inexpensive to clear and colonize. Consequently, the peneplains have quickly become the main target zone of the large-scale national transmigration projects.

One of the major problems of these transmigration projects has been the identification of appropriate agricultural production systems for the new settlers which not only cover the basic subsistence needs but also generate some additional cash income. A few of the transmigration projects, particularly some of the older ones, have been equipped with irrigation facilities and are thus based on the cultivation of wet rice. The major disadvantages of such irrigation projects, however, are the immense initial costs and the fact that it takes a number of years of steady siltation of sediments through the irrigation water before the porous red-yellow podsolic soils become thick enough to provide a proper base for wet-rice cropping. Nevertheless, in the long run irrigation projects seem to be worth the high investments. The two biggest sawah-based transmigration projects of Metro (Lampung) and Belitang (South Sumatra) have, after all, been proving a success.

Because irrigation is expensive most of the transmigration projects are based on dryland cropping. From an ecological viewpoint the cultivation of perennial tree crops, such as rubber, would be the most appropriate production system, which is, however, subject to a non-productive period of several years and is therefore hardly feasible for pioneer settlers who have to focus their activities on immediate food production, which, normally, is brought about through the practice of shifting cultivation. But, again, this production system is not applicable due to the small size of the holdings, which generally have been limited to only 2 ha. To perform shifting cultivation successfully, a minimum of 10 ha per farm unit would be necessary. Therefore, at least during the first years of their existence, the settlers in the state directed dry-land transmigration projects have no choice other than to apply permanent cultivation of annual dry-land crops, a production system which is commonly regarded to be the least suited for the poor podsolic soils of the peneplains.

When we surveyed the transmigration projects of Lampung in 1973 (Kötter and Junghans 1974), the following cropping system prevailed: During the first years the pioneer settlers planted dry-land rice mixed with maize (at a ratio of about 4:1) in the rainy season, followed by cassava in the dry season (fig. 2). This rotation worked for a couple of years before decreasing soil fertility and invading weeds forced the settlers to abandon rice and maize cultivation, so that the system finally ended up with monocropping of cassava. The surveys revealed that the average cassava yields had dropped to a hardly tolerable level of five to seven tons per hectare at that time.

Consequently, many transmigrants had to search for additional sources of income, mostly as wage labourers for logging companies or as farm labourers in the coffee, pepper, or clove gardens of the indigenous Sumatran smallholders. Some may also have returned to Java. Thus, the whole system seemed to have run into a dead end.

Since then, however, conditions have been changing in favour of the transmigrants. When we visited the area again in 1982 (Scholz 1983), one could see that most of the settled transmigrants had been able to stabilize their farm economy, thanks to the fact that they now possessed full grown perennials, such as coconut palms, fruit trees, or cloves, in their house gardens, providing additional cash. Almost 50 per cent of the farms had a draught animal (cow or buffalo). In addition, the settlers had profited from the newly introduced intensification programmes for annual dry-land food crops (BIMAS Palawija), including the provision of subsidized fertilizer, improved extension service, access to bank credits, etc. Moreover, the Indonesian Central Research Institute for Food Crops (CRIA, in Bogor) had been developing promising alternative cropping systems, especially by incorporating various species of beans into the standard rotation pattern of dry-land rice, maize, and cassava.

FIG. 2. Transmigration project of the early 1960s in the peneplains of Central Lampung (Way Seputih area)

Despite such improvements, the obstacle of the poor podsolic soils in the peneplains have by no means been overcome as yet, and the average family income of the transmigrants in the dry-land areas is still clearly below that of the average Sumatran farmer (see table 1).

Obviously encouraged by the positive results of the famous settlement schemes in Malaysia, the Indonesian government has recently begun to change the basic pattern of agricultural production systems in the transmigration projects. The former, based exclusively on annual food crops, are now increasingly being replaced by more diversified systems which, apart from food crops, also include perennial tree crops, mostly rubber and oil palm. In addition, the former standard size of 2 ha per holding has been enlarged to 3 to 5 ha in various new transmigration projects to provide enough land for the second generation of settlers.

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