- Introduction

The human consequences of deforestation in the Moluccas

Roy Ellen

In: 'Les peuples des forêts tropicales. Systèmes traditionnels et développement rural en Afrique équatoriale, grande Amazonie et Asie du sud-est.', eds. D. V. Joiris and D. de Laveleye, Special issue of Civilisations 44 (1-2), pp. 176-193, Bruxelles 1997


Compared with other parts of island southeast Asia, little is known of either the forests of the Moluccas (map 1), of indigenous patterns of forest use, or of the threats posed to both forest and people by increasing rates of deforestation. In this paper I attempt to describe the effects of deforestation on the lives of the local population, using the small number of reports which are available. I begin by assessing the historical human impact on the forests of these islands, stressing both the varied patterns of sustainable accommodation reached between people and forest, and the fact that forest as presently constituted is the outcome of co-evolutionary processes of which humans themselves are an integral part. I then examine the main factors repeatedly cited as posing a danger to existing forest and forest peoples: swidden cultivation, plantation cropping, commercial logging and migratory land settlement. Using as an example the Nuaulu of Seram, I illustrate how these factors interact in a particular instance, as well as the various phases which typify a peoples exposure and response to, first, denudation, and then widespread degradation of the forest environment. I indicate that the phasing and character of these responses depends very much on local perceptions of government policy and on the extent to which policy is interpreted by officials and translated into action. The effects of policy vary between different parts of the Moluccas and different population groups, but I suggest that we can expect some convergence as the forested areas diminish in size.


Human impact on the forests of the Moluccas before 19001
The ecology of insular southeast Asia has been dominated by rainforest for over 10,000 years, though it has changed much historically and is very varied geographically. One of the most immediately striking aspects of its variability is the significant decrease in Dipterocarp species as we move east and their replacement by dominants more typical of the Australo-Melanesian area. Thus, the forest biogeography of the Moluccas differs from that associated with the classic Dipterocarp forests, of say Borneo or Sumatra, in several features of its structure and composition, resembling much more Melanesia [Edwards et al, 1993; Edwards, 1993; Ellen, 1985: 560-3]. It is this transitional (Wallacean) character that makes it of special interest. On Seram, for example, there are possibly just two species of Dipterocarp (Shorea selanica and one other), compared with 300 species on Borneo; there is just one Eucalypt (Eucalyptus deglupta ) compared with 450 in Australia [Edwards, 1993: 5]. In addition, although most of the primary lowland forest is of the moist evergreen type, displaying little seasonality, in places (most prominently, the west part of Yamdena and south Aru) we find semi-dry monsoon and savanna forest [SKEPHI, 1992: 23; van Steenis, 1958], and patches of semi-evergreen forest on other islands (especially Halmahera and Seram). Along the coasts there are some significant areas of mangrove (e.g. east Seram, Aru). In the low-lying valleys of the larger islands are extensive areas of Metroxylon (sagopalm) swamp forest, while montane forest is found in upland central and west Seram. Indeed, from a scientific point of view, the Moluccas is one of the few places in the Indonesian archipelago where it is possible to find a complete altitudinal sequence of vegetation, and there are few places elsewhere in the tropics which provide a comparable range [Edwards, 1993: 3]. Although there have been a few surveys on Halmahera and Seram, there has been relatively little quantitative study of Moluccan rainforest [Edwards et al, 1993: 63].
There are, however, many ecological similarities between Moluccan forests and those further west in island southeast Asia. Not the least of these has been the role played by human populations. Forests have long been a focus of human subsistence extraction, and human agency has had decisive consequences for their ecology, for example, through the introduction and hunting of deer, the practice of small-scale swidden cultivation, the extraction of palm sago and selective logging and collection for exchange [Ellen, 1985; Ellen, 1987]. The early history of Moluccan forests in human terms is poorly understood, with little empirical research which would shed direct light on the subject. From work elsewhere in insular southeast Asia, the evidence for human impact from 8000 BP onwards has been demonstrated, and although we would not expect this time-depth for the Moluccas, we should anticipate chronologies in terms of thousands rather than hundreds of years. The sub-fossil and palynological evidence in question usually comprises signs of anthropogenic burning and changing species composition reflecting patterns of clearance, cultivation and seed dispersal [Maloney, 1993]. No doubt similar data will eventually be forthcoming for the Moluccas, but despite prehistoric and historic modification, large tracts of Moluccan forest have remained more-or-less intact until relatively recently on the larger islands: that is on Halmahera, Seram, Buru, Yamdena and Sula. This has been due to low indigenous population levels, the concentration of the existing population in more accessible centres and along coasts, general economic peripherality and low in-migration.
At the present time, Moluccan populations exhibit a variety of subsistence strategies focused on differing degrees of forest modification and clearance. Though these patterns of extraction are often associated with separate types of people, linguistically, genetically and in terms of economy, the facts suggest that these distinctions are not hard and fast ones. At one end of the spectrum of techniques are peoples such as the Tugutil of central Halmahera who are engaged in nomadic hunting and gathering, but with some planting and reliance on trade [Martodirdjo, 1988: 15]. On Seram there is a wide variety of combinations of technique, ranging from mainly hunting and gathering with little cultivation (Huaulu, Maneo), through classic forms of swidden agriculture [Ellen, 1978], to more intensive forms of permanent agriculture on the coast. The common characteristic of all these is the pivotal role played by the extraction of and dependence on sago [Ellen, 1979; Ellen, 1988], which has the effect of minimizing the amount of rainforest cut. Crop regimes vary partly in relation to the contribution made by sago. Tuberous starch staples such as yams and taro have probably been important in many areas for thousands of years, and in some parts continue to be so. Grains have been historically significant elsewhere; dry rice in parts of Halmahera since around 1500, and formerly Coix , Cenchrus , millet (Setaria italica ), and Sorghum [Visser, 1989]. Millet is also important in parts of the Kei islands, and Coix and dry rice on a small scale more widely [e.g. Ellen, 1973: 460; Seran, 1922]. Musa (plantains and bananas) are grown almost everywhere. Since the seventeenth century, however, many of these cultigens have been outstripped in importance by introduced maize (particularly in the drier south), manioc (throughout, but especially on Kei), Xanthosoma (in wetter areas) and sweet potato. Rice is now grown more widely (particularly by migrants in both the northern and central Moluccas), and in irrigated fields, but apparently not with a great deal of success.
Apart from the impact of these modes of subsistence, the main changes to Moluccan forest ecology that we can be sure of historically are associated with the growth of regional exchange systems linked to outside trade in forest products. Dammar or copal (Agathis dammara ) resin has been extracted on Seram [Ormeling, 1947], Morotai [Riem, 1913 (1909)], Halmahera [Giel, 1935-5], Bacan [Korn, 1917], Obi [Ham, 1911] and elsewhere for centuries, and involves little destruction of trees. Traditional dammar tapping has recently declined and been replaced by commercial exploitation in some areas [Edwards, 1993: 8-9]. Much the same may be said for the oil of Melaleuca cajuputi (=leucodendra) on Buru, reported as early as 1855 [Schmid, 1914; van der Crab, 1862], production of which, however, continues to rise [Kantor Statistik Provinsi Maluku, 1989]. Of lesser importance are beeswax, kapok floss (Ceiba petandra ), charcoal, and gaharu resin (poss. Aquilaria ) used for incense and known to be collected in central Seram. But of the non-timber plant products, the most commercially important in bulk terms has been rattan [Kantor Statistik Provinsi Maluku, 1989]. Timber itself has been extracted for export from before European arrival, mainly for boatbuilding and fuel [Ellen, 1985; Ellen, 1987: 40-1]. Forest has been additionally modified through introductions, both of domesticates and accidentals, through the deliberate planting of non-endemic non-domesticates, such as Tectona grandis [Ellen, 1987], and through the inadvertent dispersal of seeds from such useful trees as Canarium indicum. However, the most important single factor affecting Moluccan forests during the early period was the spice trade. Early extraction may reasonably be presumed to have been of non-domesticated varieties of clove and nutmeg, and wild nutmeg has continued to be of significance in some parts of the Moluccas and coastal Irian Jaya. The sustained and growing demand for spices, both in Europe and in Asia, led to the appearance of the domesticated varieties of commerce and their systematic planting in particular areas [Ellen, 1979]: clove first on Ternate, Tidore and latterly Seram, Ambon and the Lease islands, and nutmeg always focally on Banda, but less intensively elsewhere. The consequences of this development are taken up below.
The extraction of forest products for subsistence and trade increased during the Dutch period, from the early sixteen-hundreds onwards. In the first place this reflected Dutch pressure to monopolize and maximize spice production. However, with the decrease in demand for spices in the eighteenth century, the Moluccas became a commercial backwater, and this afforded some protection to its forests. The nineteenth century saw an upswing in the extraction of non-timber forest products for the European and Asian markets, and the first significant commercial logging activity on Seram [Ellen, 1985: 584]. It is reported that most of the forests of the Kei islands were clear-felled by a Dutch company in or before 1888 [SKEPHI, 1992: 25].

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Updated Mittwoch, 8. Mai 1996