Vanishing Rainforest — Sumatra, Indonesia

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)


Wild jungle. Deserted beaches with great snorkeling or surfing. Mountain lakes. Volcanoes. Orangutans. Oh, and did I mention it’s one of the cheapest places on Earth for backpacking? Really, what more could one ask for in a destination?!?

The sad news this week from Sumatra, one of the most seismically volatile regions in the world, has left me wanting to do more to bring attention to this beautiful island and its people. Alas, what follows is but a brief introduction, but I hope that the critical importance of what happens on this, the world’s 6th-largest island, can be better understood as a result.

Take it from the folks at Lonely Planet:

Sumatra is an adventure, the kind of demanding ride that requires a dusty knapsack and tough travelling skin.

Please follow below for a tour of the north of Sumatra, what just may be my favorite place on Earth.

X-posted @ TLP


Take it from the folks at Lonely Planet:

Sumatra is an adventure, the kind of demanding ride that requires a dusty knapsack and tough travelling skin.

For me, it is merely a place that one must go if you like

• Virgin rainforest

• Surreal flora, such as the rafflesia, the world’s largest flower

• Teeming wildlife, such as wild elephants, tigers, and rhinoceros

• Good food

• Friendly people

• Language that is beautiful and easy to learn

• Weather that is generally warm, but not hot, with bright sun and fluffy clouds.

If you don’t care for those things, you might not enjoy Sumatra.


More colorful words from the link above:

Anchored tenuously in the deep Indian Ocean, this giant island is still as wild and unpredictable as the Victorian-era jungle-seekers dreamed. Millennia of chaos erupting from the earth’s toxic core or from the fierce ocean waves create and destroy in equal measure. When the earth and sea remain still, the past’s death and destruction fertilise a verdant future.


Sumatra, like Borneo, is seeing pressure applied to compromise its land devote to preservation.

Control over the country’s 50 national parks, including Kutai, has grown murky in the past decade as authority has shifted from the central government to the provinces as part of a decentralization of power. Local governments, emphasizing economic development over conservation, have seen parks bursting with natural resources as a way to fill their coffers.


At the same time, Kutai National Park, like others, has been losing trees to illegal loggers, at a rate of one to two truckloads a day, according to forestry officials.

In addition to simple logging, the forests are in jeopardy because numerous and – fully legal – cash crops are encroaching upon the protected areas. Rubber, coffee, and other crops grown for export dominate the landscape.

Due to the equatorial setting, there are two complete growing seasons for most of the lush island.



Does palm oil kill orangutans?


There is a virus spreading in the tropics. Its name is the palm farm. In a number of different countries, vast swaths of forest are being hurriedly razed so that palm oil, largely to be used as diesel fuel can be farmed.


All other species must get out of its way or perish. Rainforests be damned. Thy enemy is the palm oil plantation.

There is, however hope and plenty of good news of late on this topic:

The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private arm of the World Bank, has decided to suspend funding in the palm oil sector, affecting the world’s top producer, Wilmar International, pending a review of internal procedures on environmental and social standards…

Also, this recent NY Times article paints an optimistic picture that sustainable farms can be maintained if there is enough public pressure.


In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil formed, representing palm-oil producers; consumer goods manufacturers including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and Kellogg; environmental groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature; and social and development organizations.

Membership in the roundtable is voluntary, and producers must meet its criteria before their oil can be certified as sustainable. The group’s secretary general, Vengeta Rao, said new plantations could not be established on primary rainforest or lands with “high conservation values” like those with rare or endangered species.


However, the news is still mostly not good:

“The expansion of plantations has pushed the orangutan to the brink of extinction, with some experts predicting total extinction within 10 years,” said James Turner, a spokesman for the British branch of Greenpeace. A UnitedNations report in 2007 found that “the rapid increase of plantation acreage is one of the greatest threats to orangutans.”

Greenpeace says the industry also contributes to carbon emissions when producers establish new plantations on peat bogs, which store carbon. Draining and burning peat bogs to establish plantations releases greenhouse gases.


There is a website devoted to encouraging people to boycott palm oil because of its effect on orangutan habitat.

Palm oil is now the most popular vegetable oil in the world, and 85% of it some from former orangutan habitat.  

One in 10 products in your supermarket contain palm oil in some form.  Palm oil is in crackers, toothpaste, margarine, detergents and cosmetics.  Unfortunately, many products will simply list the ingredient as “vegetable oil” so you really have no idea where the oil came from.

It’s worth visiting the site if only to see the adorable baby orang pictured there!

I also recall a group of girl scouts refusing to sell certain girl scout cookies due to the facts about palm oil. Could they have had a hand in this website?

h/t to rossl for his diaries that helped inspire me to research more on the topic of palm oil.

Coffee is another key crop. If we all insisted on shade-grown coffee, we can only wonder how much forest & CO2 we would save each year.


This is what non shade-grown coffee looks like. The the Pacific Northwest, this is what we call a clearcut.

Please insist on shade-grown coffee. (fair trade and organic is good too.)


Rubber is another important crop; trees are planted in rows, then they slice open a long winding gash in the bark & attach cups to catch the rubbery sap that bleeds out. Have a good year!


You cannot explain the smell of raw rubber. It’s like death has a bowel problem.

It is worse than words.


A few more shots of what the dwindling virgin rain forest looks like.





Random Shiny Happy People:





A local woman smiles while she hauls a heavy load on her head.






Muslim woman laugh


Random Animals:


This monkey, sadly being kept as a pet, is on a rather short leash.


These Thomas Leaf monkeys are fun to watch as they do aerial acrobatics in the trees above. They are like watching a 33-rpm orangutan at 78-speed.

Leaf monkeys




Lake Toba: Yes, we can all get along


The mountainous center of Sumatra is home to one of the largest crater lakes in the world. Lake Toba is home to the Toba Batak, people who are historically animist but today are mostly Christian due to the many missionaries that visited the region over the past few centuries.

The thought of the world’s largest Muslim country also being home to more Christians than Alabama, Mississippi, & Georgia combined is surely enough to make wingnuts’ heads explode, no?


This wedding featured peppy music and festive line dancing. Marital Macarena?



On the flip side, a Batak wake features loud music, but no dancing. Funerals go on for 36 hours. People play music and sing to distract the malevolent spirits while the dead finds their way.

indo music

Here is a short vocal performance by a group of local Batak singers:


The temperate climate, surreal views, and peaceful locals make Lake Toba Sumatra’s premiere tourist destination.





Volcanic Panic?: Living beneath monsters



In the shadow of not one, not two, but at least 3 major active volcanoes, the Berstagi valley is a rich agricultural region as expected.


The people seem to be unusually happy for what most would call peasant farmers. Perhaps it is due to the fact that they live in a very temperate climate compared to the sweltering lowlands to the east.


This shot is from the city of Medan, an hour or so away from Berstagi. Thousands of tourists every day wind up the mountain roads to escape the oppressive heat.


Magic Bus: Berstagi Town


Rice is an important crop, but you don’t see as many paddies as your would in Thailand and Vietnam.



Aceh: The war-torn tsunami epicenter


This unique province in northwest Sumatra is where Islam was first established in Southeast Asia in the early 17th century.



This December will mark the 5-year anniversary of the deadly 9.2-magnitude earthquake and tsunami. The tragedy killed 230,000 people in Aceh; about 500,000 were left homeless.

In one of the rare ironies of modern geopolitics, the massive disaster and subsequent relief effort in Aceh actually had lasting political ramifications. Until 2004, there had been a long-standing armed conflict between the rebels of Aceh and the central Indonesian government in Jakarta.

This is just one of the many mass graves that had to be dug in its wake.


An elderly couple chants verses from the Koran, surely in remembrance of their descendants who were lost in the disaster.


The Acehenese rebels, (Free Aceh Movement or GAM), were fighting for more compensation from Jakarta for the bountiful timber, gas, & mineral resources that had been exploited for decades. Their goal was to form a more fundamentalist Islamic state that adhered to Sharia Law.

In the aftermath of the tragic tsunami, there was a hastily drafted peace accord signed on August 15, 2005 by leaders of both sides of the conflict in Helsinki, Finland. The cease-fire has been tenuously maintained for over 4 years after decades of bloody war in Aceh previously.

Smiling faces abound in Banda Aceh



I don’t think this fish got there via tsunami.

To me, this shot says: The town has at least begun to recover.


A view from town northward at sunset where you can see Pulau Weh in the distance.


And if the other photos don’t convince you they are on the rebound, this one, from the inside of a fast food place in Banda, will:



No Way: Pulau Weh



This tropical oasis can be reached by a short ferry ride north of Banda Aceh. It serves as a welcome place of respite for the hundreds of international reief workers who have lived in the region for years helping rebuild.


The diving is sublime. I was fortunate enough to see rays, octopi, sea turtles and much more in just the few short days I spent underwater there. Sorry, no underwater photos. For that, I suggest subscribing to Haole in Hawaii.




Best for last: Bukit Lawang


For those who are patient, I’m rewarding you for sifting through the words & photos above with the shots of the village of Bukit Lawang, my favorite place on the island.


Schoolchildren destroy their uniforms on the last day of classes. Capitalism is alive and well in Indonesia.


Tubing down the river is surprisingly fun.


I broke Sharia law by talking with this woman in a burqa-type gown. BUt I made her laugh so it was worth it.



The saddest news about this lovely village came in 2003.

A flash flood hit Bukit Lawang on 2 November 2003.[1] The disaster, which was the result of illegal logging,[2] destroyed the local tourist resorts and had a devastating impact to the local tourism industry in the area. Around 400 houses, 3 mosques, 8 bridges, 280 kiosks and food stalls, 35 inns and guest houses were destroyed by the flood, including 239 people (5 of them were tourists) were killed and around 1,400 locals lost their homes.[3]

I could never even bear to research what happened to the animals in cages when this disaster struck. It is heartbreaking for me, to say the least.



The Jungle Inn, one of the establishments that endured the flash flood, makes the best fruit salad in the world for around $3.



Trekking; Machete Required:



The Bohorok Orangutan Centre at Bukit Lawang

Since it opened in 1973 more than 200 orangutans have been released. It is wonderful when rehabilitated females conceive and give birth in the forest. It means the centre has increased the orangutan population as well as giving the infant a chance to grow up in a protected forest area.

Although the Bohorok Centre no longer operates as a rehabilitation centre, Bohorok’s staff remain responsible for approximately 35 ex-captive orangutans who are free to come and go into the surrounding forest.


Surely they would be happy to have any donation you can offer. A few bucks buys a lot of bananas for this baby orang & her mama, my friend, Pesek.




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  1. riki

    Again, I posted here as a preview because I love you guys. It will appear on the GOS tomorrow morning, if anyone goes there.

    • Inky99 on October 4, 2009 at 08:17

    Wow, I never thought I’d want to go to Sumatra, but you’re changing my mind.  Granted, I never really knew anything about it except for the Orangutans.  

    What strikes me the most about your piece here are the smiles on the people’s faces.

    Recently I was watching “Bizarre Foods” on The Travel Channel which is one of the few shows on TV that is actually watchable, and he had a piece on Uganda.  The people he showed living in what we would call “dire poverty” seemed to be the happiest people I’d ever seen.  

    The smiles you show here are astounding.

    If only I could go through my day and see those kinds of smiles.  

    • Miep on October 4, 2009 at 09:38

    I agree with Inky; the looks on people’s faces are so striking. No one looks pinched. Even the elderly look calm.

    And all this and active volcanoes, too.

    Thanks so much for posting this here.

  2. didn’t mean to reply at the top, but post a comment.

    so… just beautiful. thanks. I sent you an email yesterday but it bounced back. I’ll try again in a few.

    • TMC on October 5, 2009 at 02:21

    It is great to see the pictures of Aceh. It is hard to believe that it is already 5 years. Sometimes it seems like yesterday that I was flying up the coast to villages isolated by the tsunami. Someday I hope to return for a visit with some of the many friends I made there. They even smiled like that then, too.  

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