Hi again! We have just begun our fourth field trip on our ongoing NSF-funded research project, this time to the island of Flores in southeastern Indonesia, in the province of Nusa Tenggara Timor (see this map for location of some of the places discussed below). The previous trips (Borneo, Seram, and Papua) have felt hard to execute and stressful, and I’ve referred to them as “expeditions.” So far (ha!), this trip to Flores has been very enjoyable and almost easy, and so I think it does not yet count as an expedition! I flew into the small, port city of Labuan Baju last Monday with Arief Hidayat, my counterpart from LIPI (the Indonesian Institute of Sciences). We met with a local contact, Ir. Sahudin, from the Labuan Baju office of KSDA (government natural resources conservation department). I had first been introduced to him on a reconnaissance I made here this time last year, and he kindly guided us through the process of gaining permission at this regional level. This is the first time I’ve tried to do research in Indonesia outside a National Park, and I was not sure what reception I would get from the local forestry department who administer the Protected Forest (‘hutan lindung’) where we will be working. But I was very warmly received in every office we visited: forestry, police, and the local government “permitting” office. There was a genuine sense of pleasure that this small, eastern part of Indonesia—a country which is very much run by and focused on its western islands—should attract national and international researchers. As ever, I hope we can respond in kind to this welcome, by contributing significant data and local capacity building.
We then took an exhausting one-day trip to Ruteng and back, where again we were welcomed by the local head of KSDA, who was pleased that we were hoping to include some of his research staff in the project. The trip to Ruteng is a continuously winding four hours of climbing and descending through striking mountainous scenery (many thanks to Pak Tote, our safe and informative driver). From Labuan Bajo, the road rises steeply through dense plantations of candlenut (Aleurites moluccanus (L.) Willd., Euphorbiaceae) or kemiri. Kemiri is used widely in Indonesian cooking as a rich sauce-thickener, although on its own it tastes as the name suggests! After a cool, high point on the shoulder of Mt. Mbeliling, the road then descends to the vast, flat rice-plain of Lembor, before rising again into mist-shrouded eucalyptus plantations (probably Eucalyptus urophylla S.T.Blake) where kids on minimal go-carts dodge thundering trucks on the very steep hills. Ruteng’s elevation is over 1,200 m and as we approached the abundance of ferns in roadside gullies and on cliffs increased, to Arief’s delight. He’s a pteridologist (fern researcher) and has traveled very widely in Indonesia, but this was his first trip to Flores. His personal goal was to make a few collections in the week he was here, which he attained with flair (see photo).
My biggest surprise here has been the extent and the quality of the forests. Before researching potential places to visit, I had always imagined Flores to be so dry that in most of the the lowlands the only forest would be small patches of deciduous woodland occurring among extensive savanna. But while there is plenty of savanna, large areas of lowlands in the west of the island are covered by thick, tall forest. It’s the wet season now, so it’s not possible to assess the extent of deciduousness, but from the species composition I’ve seen so far, I guess that most of the trees are evergreen. And it has been a relief to discover that there are suitable patches of forest for our study within a fairly short distance from Labuan Bajo.
We first checked an area north of the main Flores highway, near the picturesque town of Turlaing. Just off the rutted, but still passable, asphalt road there are nice patches of tall forest on rich dark soil among limestone boulders. The landscape here is very rugged, with steep cliffs, and villages high on ridges above valleys with dry stream-courses. We talked to a village elder in Turlaing, Pak Bone, who said there were decent, unlogged (‘utuh’) areas of forest just a half-hour from the village. Pak Bone was a serious tree enthusiast, growing a whole range of native and exotic species in his front yard as a small but successful business—local villagers frequently buy timber tree seedlings to plant out in their candlenut plantations, for no other reason than to provide a resource for their grandchildren. Wow! The potential of plantations seems to be a key reason why illegal logging of protected forests appears to be a relatively minor problem here. One contact said that he had planted some teak seedlings (‘jati’ Tectona grandis L.f.) about 15 years ago and they were now already 25 cm in diameter. If sold standing, he’d make about US$50 per tree, but if cut into planks and sold in town, he might make US$200. As ever, money does grow on trees, if you have a bit of land and plenty of patience. It is great to see the teak so healthy here. “Teak fever” has long extended to Kalimantan where I live, but the trees are spindly and yellowish, never looking healthy in the ever-wet climate.
While the limestone forest at Turlaing may work for us, we have been trying to avoid limestone while seeking sample areas for this project because of the significantly different plant nutrition profile of limestone-derived soils compared to the more acidic soils found on the granite sands and sandstones that have been our general target. The large Mbeliling massif south of the trans-Flores road is volcanic in origin and thus a better fit to what we are seeking. This said, in the complex calculation of logistics, access, permissions, safety, and habitat that make up the process of finding sites to study here in Indonesia, the perfect ecological conditions are often (usually?) unavailable; thus are the realities of fieldwork! But this Tuesday we did access the lowland forests on the western slopes of Mbeliling and were overjoyed to discover a simply perfect study site, up the Sungai (river) Dongkong. Pak Sahudin, to whom I’m deeply grateful for this lead, had brought me here last year; we didn’t have time to enter the forest itself, however, only a look in from the edge of the protected forest over an irrigation dam. The river banks upstream rose precipitously, and, imagining a landscape of razor ridges and sharp-cut valleys, I worried we would never find either a safe spot to camp or a flat-enough place to safely work on forest plots. But as we finally hiked in, up the river bed of very hard, gray (andesite?) rocks, I felt hopeful as more gentle slopes were revealed to the left. The river itself was strikingly beautiful—crystal clear, rushing energetically but not with overwhelming force, sometimes in the sun, sometimes shadily overhung with palms and trees. I was reminded of my favorite river: the granite-bouldered Air Putih, upstream of the Cabang Panti research station at Gunung Palung, in Kalimantan. We then cut up onto the left bank and I was delighted to find that after climbing about 20 m the land flattened into a wide shelf. It seems the landscape is actually composed of rock shelves lying in a generally level orientation, through which sharp river valleys have been cut, and above which residual ridges tower. Ah…here we have what I was looking for: apparently pristine forest, an accessible landscape, and a clean river. I think we have found our spot!
While I’ve only just started learning it, the plant composition is going to be fascinating. My immediate sense was that the forest is not too diverse, based on the rate at which I can refind saplings of taxa that I noted, and on the few number of species I found in some genera that often have high diversity. However, the mix of wet and dry, eastern and western species will be a pleasure to untangle and learn. Of the taxa from Borneo that I know best, I saw Canarium (Burseraceae), Cananga (Annonaceae), Antidesma (Phyllanthaceae), Myristica (Myristicaceae), Syzygium (Myrtaceae), Macaranga(Euphorbiaceae), Amorphophallus (Araceae), Ventilago(Rhamnaceae), Zanthoxylum (Rutaceae), Strychnos (Loganiaceae). But there will be many taxa I’ve never seen before. This is living biogeography! More to come on this process of “knowing a forest.”
Yesterday, Pak Sahudin, Acun (long-term project assistant and parataxonomist), and I returned to meet the head of the ‘desa’ (administrative level) of Golo Pongkor. Pak Anton was very welcoming and helpful, and we made a plan: tomorrow we will meet with a team of five community members who he was to pick, to discuss logistics (and wages). Then on Sunday afternoon he requested that we participate in (and pay for) a traditional and elaborate ceremony (kapok) to be held by the five ketua adat (indigenous law elders) of the village, to pray for a successful, safe and ghost-free trip (more on that soon!). And then we would start moving in and setting up camp on Monday. We also talked extensively about the forest (“watch out for the fierce, giant pythons”), and peoples’ attitude to protecting the forest; I asked if there were people who resented the government’s recent, exemplary and apparently effective efforts to curtail illegal logging in the protected forests here in Manggarai. He again mentioned the comparative attractiveness of growing teak versus cutting and hauling logs from the forest, logs of timber that can no way compete with teak for value. He also indicated the community’s deep awareness that the constant water supply for the irrigated rice fields was dependent on the health of the forest in the river’s watershed. Indeed, I didn’t see a single stump on the survey trip. And he mentioned the efforts by the NGO Burung Indonesia (a local branch of BirdLife International), who seem to have helped create active local conservation clubs. Here we have all the components of an effective conservation effort: “value” of the forest to farmers, alternative income, effective enforcement, local education, and apparently a still-active, indigenous, conservation ethic. For example, I had heard that medicinal plant collectors have an adat rule that they may only collect pieces of bark from a tree if there is no sign of anyone else having cut the bark. Seeing these components working in practice is very encouraging.
So, so far so good! We plan to do a six-day work week, returning to the village on Sunday for a rest and a chance for team members to attend church, so I may be able to update this blog weekly. Stay tuned!