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Arnold Arboretum

Masihulan, a conservation success

November 26, 2012 by Cam Webb

We rode a dump truck back up the coast road to Masihulan, to a spot just below where the new highway improbably climbs up and over the precipitous limestone mountains. A roomy park office “information center” stands just inside the park boundary, and we moved in there for the next 10 days to work on a plot in this lowland forest (albeit 300 m ASL) on limestone. While I had been trying to avoid limestone if possible, it was more important to find a site where the plants would experience drought stress in the dry season, and this Masihulan site was suitable and convenient for a team beginning to run out of steam.

Om Demi shooting down leaves with a catapult; one of the fig’s “trunks” is visible in the background.

The hard limestone weathers to a three-dimensional landscape of boulders and cliffs, and our plot included several caves. Straight lines are fundamentally incompatible with this place, and our initial survey of the 50-by-50 meter plot was a challenge. The canopy was high and unbroken, but felt thinner, or lighter than at the previous site. A giant, strangling fig stood in one corner, and I used it to impress upon Endro and Acun the vital importance of looking carefully at the leaves through binoculars and not just the leaves on the ground. The fig turned out to be two individuals of two different species, inseparably twined into one plant, with several “trunks” (actually roots for these hemi-epiphytic figs). As they looked more carefully, they saw two distinct leaf types, and noted that the bark “slash” on different trunks produced latex of different consistencies. I was using this plot as a training site; while Endro and Acun had been involved in collecting fallen leaves and making specimens at previous plots, they had not been directly responsible for the morphotyping (the discovery of how many distinct species are in a plot). I wanted them to become competent in this fundamental activity, for their own development and to expand their capabilities for times that I may be unable to accompany them in the field. They rose to the challenge, putting in the extra work in the afternoon and evening to sort the fallen leaf images on the computer into morphotype folders and update the database. Within three days, I was comfortable to leave them to to it. It gave me a great sense of accomplishment to have trained them over the past months and years to this level, and I know they feel greatly empowered by their skills and plant knowledge. We’ve talked often about ways in which they might be able to apply these rare skills in the future, developing careers as forestry and scientific consultants.

Fragrant flowers of tree E051, an alternate-leaved Apocynaceae, possibly Cerbera

It turned out that a much higher proportion of tree species were shared between this drought-prone Masihulan site and the flooded alluvial site at Toluarang than I expected; probably a product of the relatively low species diversity in Seram (and therefore possibly wider ecological niches) and a testament to the amazing plasticity of many plant species. Both the important pioneers Octomeles sumatrana and Duabanga moluccana were present, though the gorgeous, stately Eucalyptus deglupta was missing. The extremely common Canarium of Toluarang was replaced by another Canarium, one of the amazing species with turpentine-like sap so volatile that it will burn immediately when the flame from a lighter is brought close.

One of the pleasures of staying in the information center, apart from staying dry during the afternoon downpours, was enjoying the sight of the rushing stream across the road, in a steep ravine. The water has carved a series of bowls in the limestone, while the dissolved calcium carbonate has created smooth mounds of rock in the stream bed, like outdoor stalagmites. The water was cold and crystal clear, a shock to the system, but much more cleansing than the olive green, crocodile-filled river of our previous site.

PD, our gifted camp cook, kept turning out excellent meals during our stay. PD is himself from Masihulan and so was able to go home to church on Sunday. Masihulan is one of those rare places in Indonesia where eco-tourism, NGO work, and contact with students and scientific researchers seems to have contributed significantly to village income, and helped reinforce the existing pro-conservation outlook of many villagers. PD said the village had recently and unequivocally turned away both an oil palm concessionaire and a logging company: while the short-term financial gains of liquidating their forest resource would be substantial, the long-term availability of clean water, building materials, food, and their sense of identity as forest-loving people was far more important. It was clear from what PD said that the international knowledge of and respect for Masihulan and its people contributed to the community’s sense of self-worth. In optimistic moments, I can imagine a future where international respect touches down all over the globe, galvanizing forest peoples to take a long-term perspective in their choices. Of course, the prerequisites for such a future are limited: international knowledge of the back-waters of the world, travel funds, and, most seriously, national land-tenure arrangements that give the right of self-determination to forest peoples. But at least it is good to see it working somewhere. Go Masihulan!


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