By Stasja Koot, Lubabun Ni’am, Chantal Wieckardt, Roderick Buiskool, Nadya Karimasari, Joost Jongerden
Ecotourism in Sumatra, Indonesia, is driving processes of privatization and commodification. Here we explore how and why this happens by analysing recent ecotourism developments in the buffer zone to the east of the Mount Leuser National Park (MLNP). The close interaction with nature, and some specific charismatic animals, provide for spreading neoliberal values and practices through tourism to otherwise remote places (see Duffy 2013). First, we address privatisation at the Green Life volunteer ecotourism project in Batu Katak and its role in ‘green grabbing’ for conservation. Second, we focus on commodification and how value is created through human interactions with captive elephants in Tangkahan. The blog ends with a short conclusion on the implications of tourism growth more broadly and its potential effects for nature and people. It is based on research that was carried out between February 2017 and April 2020.
The settlements Batu Katak and Tangkahan are both situated adjacent to MLNP, which is the main biodiversity hotspot of Sumatra, consisting of tropical forest. Indonesia has one of the highest rates of deforestation, and Sumatra stands out in this regard. Most people living in the vicinity of MLNP are dependent on the forests for their sustenance and livelihoods, making the conservation of the rainforest highly important for the local population. Tourists are attracted to MLNP because of its endemic flora and endangered fauna such as the Sumatran orangutan, the black-furred gibbon, the Malayan sun bear, the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran rhinoceros and the Sumatran elephant. Ecotourism activities include jungle trekking, wildlife spotting, caving, bird watching, camping, cultural activities and wild water rafting.
Ecotourism and Green Life in Batu Katak
Most inhabitants of Batu Katak live from smallholder farming and fishing, while some residents relied solely on monoculture agriculture such as rubber and palm oil. As a source of livelihood diversification some inhabitants of Batu Katak started to develop tourism around 2010 (Buiskool and Koot forthcoming). Besides international tourists, domestic tourism plays an important role. Most of the activities such as trekking, rafting, or caving are usually done by international tourists while domestic tourists tend to be more interested in daytrips, picnics, and photoshoots at charming natural scenes (e.g., at a waterfall). This makes international tourists more profitable.
Adjacent to Batu Katak an important conservation and ecotourism initiative, Green Life, developed since 2009 on private land. A Czech and an Indonesian NGO are the new owners and managers of the land. Green Life buys the land from local landowners, claiming to give them a very good price for land of little value. As such, Green Life could be seen as a case of “green grabbing”, which is “the appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends” (Fairhead, Leach and Scoones 2012, 238). The project aims to prevent large-scale deforestation by the oil palm and paper industry, to keep the rainforest intact and to curb “the illegal encroachment of poachers, loggers and plantations”. Currently, Green Life consists of 107.3 hectares and there is the ambition to grow to 700 hectares.
In Green Life’s perception ‘nature’ needs to be separated from “the greedy, spiteful, stupid, or characterless people who, around us, commit crimes against nature”. Various Green Life employees and enthusiasts considered people living around MLNP as the biggest threat to nature, especially poachers from the neighbouring villages who “haven’t been confronted yet”. To prevent illegal practices, they have set up an anti-poaching unit, they have started to use camera traps, put up posters and sign boards that list all forbidden activities.
Initially, Green Life barely engaged with the local community. This changed when the project tried to obtain a license to extend the range of the anti-poaching unit and gain authority to patrol against illegal activities inside MLNP. To receive this license, the Indonesian government requested Green Life to involve the surrounding communities. A crucial activity for this is ecotourism, which is presented by Green Life as an income-generating opportunity through guided tours, to ensure that “local people protect nature because it has become valuable to them” (fieldnotes, 13 January, 2018). Ecotourists generate a steady source of income for the project and they support the inhabitants of Batu Katak by creating employment.
Since its arrival, Green Life has been buying up small-scale rubber and oil palm plantations on the border of MLNP, increasingly reducing agricultural opportunities. Although Green Life states that the inhabitants from Batu Katak can buy land that is located closer to the village, inhabitants claim that there is no land available there, or that the price of land has risen since the arrival of Green Life. Furthermore, according to Green Life ‘poaching’ also includes fishing. Yet, many inhabitants from Batu Katak are at least partly dependent on fishing. Access to the rivers has become a sensitive matter between Green Life and the community.
The Green Life ecotourists can go on excursions with local guides from Batu Katak, where people work as tour guides, porters of food, as assistants to do shopping, or as drivers to the airport in Medan. New forms of (irregular) employment have thus emerged from Green Life’s volunteer programme, diversifying livelihood strategies. Working as a tour guide for one day can earn someone a wage that sometimes equals a week’s work on a rubber plantation and is therefore a popular job, but the downside is that these are not a very stable type of employment because they are irregular, and some inhabitants have been able to gain more benefits out of the project than others, thus changing socio-economic structures.
Green Life and its employees have always had an ambivalent relation with community members. Some employees received anonymous phone calls, there have been threats to burn down Green Life’s camps and camera traps and signposts have been damaged and stolen. Such responses by some members of the community obviously undermine Green Life’s conservation practices and goals and are interpreted by the Green Life management as evidence that local communities do not know (yet) how to live with, or protect, nature and are just interested in money. However, the valuation of land and nature by the local community seems to be more complex and is not necessarily valued in terms of money only, but also in terms of livelihoods and intrinsic value. Arguably, in its current form, ecotourism at Green Life is unlikely to establish sustainable relations with the community, necessary for long-term conservation success (Wieckardt, Koot and Karimasari 2020).
Elephant-based ecotourism in Tangkahan
About 60 kilometres to the North, in Tangkahan, the commodification of nature plays a dominant role: here ecotourism revolves around encounters between elephant handlers (mahouts) and captive elephants and between tourists and elephants. Most of the men living there used to work as illegal loggers and allegedly caused forest destruction; today, they earn a living through ecotourism, working in guest houses and on food stalls, selling souvenirs, and acting as tour guides. Elephant-based activities—consisting of elephant bathing, elephant grazing, and trekking (where the people walk alongside the elephants)—have become the main tourist attractions.
The captive elephants in Tangkahan are managed by the Conservation Response Unit (CRU), who make a clear distinction between ‘captive’ and ‘conflict’ elephants. Conflict elephants refers to wild elephants that were involved in human-elephant conflicts, predominantly based on crop-raiding. Captive elephants are either former conflict elephants that have been captured, tamed, and trained or else the offspring of such elephants born in captivity. At the time of fieldwork in 2018/19, there were nine captive elephants in Tangkahan: six adults and three calves, of which the adult elephants were all former conflict elephants and the calves born in captivity.
Trained to sell encounters with tourists, the elephants of Tangkahan are ‘lively commodities’ in captivity: they must remain alive to gain value as a commodity. The commodity value of lively commodities “is derived from their status as living beings” (Collard and Dempsey 2013, 2648, emphasis in original). No value is produced when the commodity somehow ceases to live, whatever the cause of death (killing, disease, old age, etc.). Meat for consumption, for instance, is thus not a lively commodity, because it is the status as ‘alive’ that is crucial. However, it is not simply the status of being alive that produces value. In Tangkahan ecotourism, it is the human encounter with the living animal that is the commodity. This inter-species ‘encounter value’ occurs among “subjects of different biological species” forming relationships (Haraway 2008, 46). Commodification thus takes place in the encounter. This way, captive elephants take on capitalist value in ecotourism: value is exploited through interactions between captive elephants, mahouts, and tourists. In this case, what is sold as a commodity is not the animal as such, but an experience of/with it, the experience of having an encounter with the encounterable animals. The incorporation of captive elephants is thus a crucial moment in their transformation into commodities as valuable lively beings in ecotourism activities, which is where their monetary value culminates. This way they become financially productive animals (Ni’am, Koot and Jongerden 2021).
An important job for the mahouts is to bathe the elephants by commanding them to enter the river and let them bathe there. They are brushed in the water, and have been trained to lie down at the riverbed so that the visitors can brush the elephants’ bodies comfortably. Elephants are also trained to deliver a performance that increases the encounter’s value by, among other things, spraying water with their trunk over their own back, washing in the river. For a good photographic moment, they face the tourists when they do this, and at the end of the bathing session, tourists take pictures of the elephants and mahouts on top of each elephant. The encounter is a scripted performance: the elephant riverbank washing performance, for instance, is staged next to the rainforest, where tourists wait for the elephants to come out of the trees in an awe-inspiring setting of high, towering trees and the sounds of monkeys, birds, and other animals. When the elephants come out from the forest on the far side of the river, they enter and cross over. It is this carefully orchestrated, ‘authentic’ spectacle (cf. Igoe 2017) that provides the encounter and thus the creation of value.
As part of the script, an introductory talk is given, explaining the history of captive elephants. This is important to clarify that elephant-based ecotourism as performed in Tangkahan is not about the erasure of the animals from their natural habitat but about looking after the elephants that were previously involved in conflicts. The aim is to provide tourists with a sense of contributing to elephant care and conservation. Directly and indirectly, the ecotourism performance aims to incorporate tourists into a narrative of non-exploitative conservation activities, with ecotourism articulated as saving and caring for former conflict elephants. Yet, selling encounters with captive elephants helps to keep them in captivity, under the direct control and care by humans. Ecotourism thus constitutes a transformative activity through which lively commodities generate value and in which this type of value production also produces and maintains captive nature.
Small, remote tourism settlements such as Batu Katak and Tangkahan are often visited by tourists on the same itinerary, which in Sumatra also includes the mass tourism destinations Bukit Lawang (that revolves around orangutan encounters) and Lake Toba, the latter of which is located around 100 kilometres away. Lake Toba has been identified by the Indonesian government as one of three ‘priority locations’ out of “10 new Balis” that they have identified to stimulate further tourism growth. Due to its proximity, MLNP is likely to be affected by the growth plans for Lake Toba, and it remains to be seen how local groups living in the buffer zones of MLNP will respond to this growth of (eco)tourism, providing for the expansion of capitalist values and practices, including privatisation and commodification. As we have shown in this blog, privatization can have serious consequences for local communities, while the commodification of nature is a questionable conservation strategy. Currently at Lake Toba, tourism growth has already led to a legal battle with indigenous peoples who have been evicted for the establishment of luxurious tourism resorts, while farms and plots have been destroyed for this. This does not necessarily mean that this will also happen at MLNP, but privatisation as green grabbing and the commodification of nature expand capitalist values to the remotest rural places and the consequences of this need scrutiny.
Buiskool, Roderick, and Stasja Koot. forthcoming. “COVID-19 and the limits of community-based ecotourism as a sustainable livelihood diversification strategy: The case of the indigenous Karo of Batu Katak, North Sumatra, Indonesia.” In Ecotourism impacts on indigenous peoples, edited by Wayne Babchuck and Robert Hitchcock. Lexington Books.
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