Doni Yusri is at the World Resources Forum in Davos to talk about the role of ecotourism in alleviating poverty in Kerinci Seblat National Park. Located on the island of Sumatra, it is one of the largest parks in Indonesia and is perhaps best known for being home to a relatively large number of Sumatran tigers, which are famous for being endangered.
Yusri, a scholar from Germany’s University of Göttingen, emphasizes that the park’s future lies in the ability of “stakeholders” to collaborate. But who are these stakeholders? “The government and the companies—the hotels and travel agencies,” Yusri says. After a moment of pressing silence, he adds, “Oh yes, and the people.”
Responsible travel that contributes to conservation of the environment and the well- being of the local people—ecotourism sounds great. However, the problems faced by the kinds of ecosystems and communities that ecotourism proponents set out to “save” are often very complex, and seldom are there any quick-fix solutions.
The case of Kerinci Seblat is no exception. On one side are the conservation efforts to save the endangered species that are special to the island. On the other side is further development of the native communities within the park, where people have been known to turn to illegal logging and farming because of increasing economic pressures caused by the country’s rapid growth. In the midst of this are the economic interests of national and regional authorities, as well as the interests of the private sector—“the hotel and travel agencies.” The question is: Does the threat to this valuable ecosystem come from the people living within it or from the people who can profit from it?
Keith Bettinger is a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Hawaii who did his research on the impact of democratization reforms on Kerinci Seblat. He says Indonesian politicians tend to imply that there is a trade-off between conservation efforts and socio-economic development in the region. “Political leaders are able to profit by controlling access to natural resources,” he explains, “and if resources are enclosed in a park, it makes it harder for local elites to profit from them.”
Furthermore, in 1994 the U.N. published a paper describing the “sustainable and equitable management” of “plant resources” by the locals living in the forests of Kerinci Seblat. According to Yusri [Ed note: Attribution added 17 November], these locals, sometimes referred to as the Suku Anak Dalam (which translated from the Malay dialect means “Children of the Inner Forest”), live a nomadic life and sustain themselves through a combination of agriculture and forestry, or agroforestry. The same paper notes how conservation of the park’s flora and fauna has disturbed the locals’ way of living. It notes that “prohibiting use of the forest in the National Park weakens the social ties linking people to it. . . . The forest then becomes a resource that can be abused and depleted.” This point indicates that the degradation of the park is a political and economic problem, not an environmental one.
The Indonesian government is planning several road construction projects that would cut straight through the park and, it argues, contribute to the economic development of the people living there. On the other side of the debate stand the environmentalists, who call for the protection of the 400 Sumatran tigers left today, and of the unique species of elephants and rhinos that depend on the Sumatran ecosystems’ preservation. What a sustainable future for Kerinci Seblat might be seems to be a question of definition, blurred by political and economic interests.
Back in the Swiss mountains, some 15,000 kilometers away, the discussion on how to solve this local conflict continues. Yusri is explaining how a people traditionally reliant on agroforestry could turn to guiding tourists around their inherited home: poverty alleviation through ecotourism. “Do the people living in the Kerinci Seblat National Park want this?” someone from the audience asks. Yusri replies that he is no expert, and that we must ask the people themselves. “Will ecotourism in the park soon expand?” another listener wonders. Yusri answers, “Yes, the stakeholders are very interested.”