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No humour, not this time - 26th of April 2011

Three words,  usually accompanied by a sigh on the part of the speaker and, frequently, pursed lips and glazed eyes (‘there she goes again’) on the part of the person addressed, are liable to inspire dread. 

The words are, of course, ‘I remember when…’’ and in England invariably refer to the Good Old Days when you could have a slap up meal for two for 30p, a million quid on the Pools was a  lot of money  and an Afghan coat was synonymous with hippy travelers and not suicide bombers.

In Sumatra, if the words are spoken by a conservationist, the phrase almost invariably precedes grim comments about forest and biodiversity loss. Not in the distant past when Big Brother was just a bossy sibling but over the last 10-15 years which has seen natural forest cover reduced by almost 40%. 

I have to try and button my lips when driving along the west coast highway in one park-edge district to the west of the park so that I don’t, yet again tell my patient TPCU colleagues (who are generally rather younger than me) how I remember stopping my jeep in 1996 while a herd of elephants crossed the road in front of me. 

Now that same road, is fringed by endless miles of oil palm plantations and tigers and elephant are a distant memory.  The oil palm is a thirsty tree and so I have to try not to comment on now dry stream beds – streams where only a few years ago a villager could fish for seluang for his supper.  The larger rivers still flow but the water is now rarely clear but reddish, discoloured, by sedimentation from forest loss in the in the hills above. Many villagers complain of flash floods and that their wells run dry after only a week or two without rain. 

Kerinci Seblat National Park’s buffer zone forests, mainly former logging forests intended as a land bank for future generations and for non-timber forest products for local villagers have, as in national parks all around Sumatra, all but disappeared.  

But the park itself, albeit rather tattered around the edges due to encroachment has remained intact and patrols and monitoring advise tiger populations in some areas have increased.  We have more tigers in this national park than in Nepal and more than in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China combined. 

There is a good reason for this over and above the hard and sometimes dangerous work of the tiger protection and conservation team and our loyal donors who support them. The park covers just over 5300 square miles or almost 14000 sq km, runs along a length of almost 375 km of the Barisan mountain range, but is bisected by only four roads.   

Roads aren’t good for tigers or any other wildlife. Roads aren’t good for forests which means, in a mountainous park like this, they aren’t good for people, millions of whom depend upon rivers whose source is high in the mountains and protected by national park forest.  

Unfortunately roads are rather good for politicians and unscrupulous government officials.  Just one problem: they can’t – in theory – be built through the core zones of a national park….unless…woooooh, hang on a moment - Disasters!  Disaster Mitigation and Evacuation from Disasters!!  It’s not economic infrastructure this time!  It’s to save lives of people!! 

And so now, Jambi and Bengkulu provinces have put together proposals to build three ‘disaster evacuation routes’ through core tiger habitats in the national park crossing districts and provinces,  a fourth cross-park road proposal from West Sumatra province is expected this week.  Three other districts haven’t even bothered to mention natural disasters anymore, it’s a case of let’s join the others and build roadsss$sssss. Lots of roadsss$ssss. 

They haven’t bothered to talk to forest edge communities of course, not least because they would be told – we don’t want new roads, we want good roads, we want roads without potholes, we want roads where we can drive at more than 30 kms an hour and get our produce to market and back home again without another broken axle. 

Of course everything depends upon the Minister of Forestry and the Indonesian Parliament since these proposals would require changes in protected area law for all these roads to be built. But the roads building lobby smells big bucks and has been everywhere, lobbying ministers and parliamentarians alike. 

Local NGOs around the park – who until last week had understandably assumed the Ministry of Forestry would reject the proposals out-of-hand are already working with local community leaders declaring ‘No New Roads, Repair and Improve the Old ones!’ 

More than 350 conservationists from dozens of different national and international NGOs have already joined forces to combat plans which would fragment Kerinci Seblat National Park into a motley collection of forest blocks where neither tigers nor their habitat can be protected effectively and which, if approved, open the way for roads building in every protected area in Indonesia. Join us please. Join us on Facebook.  The page is in Bahasa Indonesia but your support is so important. Follow proceedings too through the Harimaukita Sumatran tiger conservation forum on http://www.harimaukita.org/ and post support to the group so the Minister of Forestry knows he has worldwide support to reject these plans. 

Please write, nicely, to the Indonesian Ambassador in your country expressing your dismay at these politically-inspired proposals and urging the national government to stand firm by the best principles of protected areas management and instead of new roads, fund better roads and training for natural disaster preparedness and prevention including education for villagers…and roads builders!

Perhaps sense will prevail over the big bucks of the roads building lobbyists but today, just five months after the euphoria of St Petersburg and the Tiger Summit and the declaration by 13 tiger range states that core tiger habitats must be ‘inviolate’ I find myself wondering,  must I now start to practice saying ‘I remember when there were tigers’.  

So sorry if you logged in to this much too long blog to have a good laugh but sometimes things are so serious it is difficult to see the funny side. 


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