Tomohon, ClimateReporter – The morning passed slowly by and then suddenly this forest area of Mount Lokon was crowded. All at once men appeared out of the jungle, some walking, some pushing carts, some by motorbike and some even by ox-cart. One by one they unloaded 25 litre jerry-cans of sap, which they then stacked inside a tin-roofed shack containing a large stainless-steel vat.  The jerry-cans of sap were still warm.  Each helped the other carry the sap into the hut.  Happy faces and laughter broke the silence of the sugar palm forest at the foot of Mount Lokon.

Mount Lokon is an active volcano 1580 meters above sea level and is located near the city of Tomohon, which is approximately 23 km, or about 30 minutes by car, from Manado, capital of North Sulawesi. Because of its mountainous location Tomohon is refreshingly cool, and as well as Mount Lokon it is surrounded by Mount Mahawu and Mount Masarang.  Unfortunately much of the forest at the foot of these mountains has been damaged by fire and erosion. Data from the North Sulawesi Forestry Office, quoted on the website, states that the extent of deforestation in North Sulawesi in 2014 reached 298.571 hectares. An area of 274.786 hectares was categorised as being in a critical state and 23.785 hectares were categorised as severely critical.  So if compared with Sulawesi’s forest overall, 764.739 hectares, 38.8 per cent of the land in North Sulawesi has problems, some of which are found in the Tomohon forest.  In 2015 wildfires alone destroyed approximately 100 hectares of forest in the Tomohon area.  Damage to the forest is having a profound effect on the climate and temperature of Tomohon. The city of flowers is not as cool as it used to be.

Farmers at the foot of the mountains, where previously there had never been a shortage of water, began to suffer from droughts; now because of this threat they can only plant crops once a year.  Even if there is heavy rainfall those living in the foothills are still worried, because a sudden flood may sweep away their settlements.

Another impact of burning the forests is the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  These carbon emissions increase the global temperature by trapping solar energy in the atmosphere; this also changes the supply of water and alters weather patterns, resulting in changes to the growing season for food crops and causing rises in sea levels, threatening coastal communities. Because of an awareness of the importance of preserving the trees the Masarang Foundation, a local community foundation, is engaged in the preservation of the environment in Tomohon, through the replanting of the forest (reforestation).
The forest that was once bare is now green, thanks to the planting of sugar palm trees and frangipani.

According to Yopi Watulangko, an internal inspector and the person who responsible for the sugar palm nurseries, Masarang Foundation conservation has succeeded in preserving more than 400 hectares of forest in several locations, between Mount Masarang and Mount Lokon. “The first extensive planting was started by the local population with seeds we donated as well as some from the local government.  The combined amount may mean we will be able to replant thousands of hectares successfully,” said Yopi Watulango. According to Yopi the early reforestation by the Masarang Foundation started with frangipani trees and was recently followed by the sugar palm. The sugar palm (arenga pinnata) was chosen because it offers more economic advantages compared with other trees, and is now the primary choice for planting. Everything from the palm can be used, from the roots, stem, leaves, the ribs of the leaves, the palm fibre, to the sap.  The sap is especially important as it can be processed into export quality sugar.

“Now the burnt and denuded forests are gradually recovering again.  People who had previously found farming difficult, because the springs had dried up, can now farm again,” he said. One of the conservation points is the location where the palm sugar sap is collected and is about 1.5 km from the village of Tara-Tara in the West Tomohon sub-district. To reach the site we had to walk for about 20 minutes, though we could have arrived by motor using the steep rocky track that followed the contours of the mountain.


The commercial value of sap.

Economically valuable liquid sugar sap is tapped from the palms and then tested for acidity levels (pH) and the sugar content. The tool used for checking the acidity level is called a pH meter and the one for measuring the sweetness is a Brix Refractometer.
The pH meter is dipped into the juice in the jerry cans, and after immersion it does not take long to find the level of acidity. Good sugar sap has a pH level of 7, while the best sap contains 14 per cent sugar when measured with the Brix Refractometer. Checking these levels determines the value of the sap.

Sap that does not meet the standard pH will be rejected because it cannot be made into what are called ‘sugar ants’. Similarly with the sugar content, the higher the level the higher the price. “We buy sugar sap that meets our standards from Rp. 2,000 a litre.  When the sugar levels rise above 14 per cent then for each increase of 1 per cent we pay an extra Rp143 per litre.  On the other hand if it is less than 14 per cent we reduce the price by Rp 143 per litre,” said Dany Rawu, the Farmers Coordinator for the Masarang Sugar Palm Factory.  The factory owned by the Masarang Foundation in Tomohon is said to be the first modern palm sugar factory in the world and was opened by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on January the 14th, 2007.

“I coordinate about sixteen people who make up the farmers group and everyday they deposit their sap with us,” said Dany. Following that, after the sap has been checked and the pH and sugar levels recorded, it is tipped into a vat and filtered to remove any dirt that might clog up the pipeline.  Then the sap flows through a pipe until it reaches the foot of the mountain.  There a tanker waits to collect the sap the farmers have produced, and immediately take it to the Masarang Palm Sugar Factory in the area of Mantani Village III, in the Central Tomohon District. “After everything has been recorded, we pay for the sap that was produced yesterday and the sap produced today will be paid for tomorrow after it has been recorded and reported to the factory administration.  So the transaction is completed at the top of the mountain.  The farmers can take home their money without waiting,” he explained.

Before being paid the tappers must first heat the sap to boiling point, he added. This is to prevent fermentation which would make the sap unsuitable to be processed into ‘sugar ants’ of export quality. Sugar ants are like the coarse brown powder often called sugar crystals. The term ‘sugar ants’ comes from the fact the crystals resemble an ant’s nest when in the ground. One of the advantages of palm sugar is that it has a lower calorie content than other sugars making it suitable for those on a diet. “When the sap arrives at the hut it is still hot after the initial cooking, and it is then taken directly to the factory to be made into sugar.
The whole process does not take long, no longer than two hours.  If the sap is not processed quickly it can be spoiled by fermentation,” explained Dany. Meanwhile, Ronald Pusung (39) stood by with a happy expression etched on his face.  His work that morning was paid off, he had collected 175 litres of sap from his palm plantation. “Today I get an average of about Rp 319.600 at the present rate although before I could get more. I was able to reach Rp 800.000 to a million a day,” said the inhabitant of Kayawu village.

The cause of the drop in production is due to several factors. One is that the number of productive trees in the owner’s plantation is getting less because they have been fully exploited.  At present he is in the middle of the process of preparing several new saplings to replace the trees that are too old. The palm sugar farmer admitted that this was now his main work and primary source of income along with hundreds of his colleagues. The activity of tapping sap to be processed in the new Masarang Foundation sugar factory, which has been going for four years now.  Previously Ronald would have struggled to process his sap into rock (raw) sugar.  Furthermore there was the time wasted selling the product through the traditional markets.  Not infrequently the result was not worth the expenditure of energy because sometimes there were so many competitors that the price of sugar plummeted. Apart from that, the time that had to be given up to make rock sugar meant that there was none left for any other social activities.  There was not even time for religious rituals, as processing the sap into sugar took up to seven or eight hours a day.  Besides this there was the time taken to gather wood for fuel to cook the sugar. “It was a full day’s work to tap the sugar and process it on the spot, so we had no time for anything else. It was not unusual for us to have to stay over night.  Also because it was a long process it used up a lot of firewood. Now we use very little wood to cook the sap. So there is no need to cut down trees and destroy the forest,” said the father of two.

The Role of the Factory.

The presence of the Masarang Sugar Factory has certainly increased the prosperity of the farmers and they hope the factory will remain in production and grow even bigger. “We are committed to the care and preservation of the sugar palms, because these trees are our life.  This is the place where we earn the income to support our families,” asserted Ronald. The same sentiment was expressed by Sirilius Turambe (58).  Even though he is now approaching old age Sirilius is still able to earn about Rp 300.000 per day, more than enough to support his family. The villagers of Tara-Tara are grateful for the training and help from the Masarang Foundation that has enabled them to escape the shackles of poverty-
“Yes, it has been a very great help. Before I could only make ‘cap tikus’ (A traditional alcoholic drink). Since the sugar factory arrived I’ve stopped making cap tikus.  As well as the risk of having your apparatus seized making the drink used lots of wood resulting in damage to the forest.”
Now he always takes great care of all his numerous sugar palm trees.  If there are any that can no longer be tapped he will plant new trees in that particular location.  This regeneration of sugar-palm will become a gold mine that will provide extra for their families.


Helping the Climate.

The Head of the Masarang Foundation is Willie Smits an Indonesian of Dutch descent who was born in Weurt, Gelderland, Holland on February 22nd 1957.  When interviewed in his residence in the village of Kakasen, North Tomohon, he explained that the presence of the Masarang Sugar Factory had social aims.  These include helping the local economy and conserving the environment, to help combat climate change. “Because helping the people also means helping fight climate change.”
Why is that?

He explained.  The work of the traditional sugar-palm tappers is very hard.  As well as having to tap the trees every morning to gather the sap that has been produced they must also gather wood every day to make the sugar. At least two hours a day is needed to gather firewood and when this is continuous the wood in their plantations is soon used up. Like it or not they are soon forced to go into the forest to gather and chop firewood.

“This certainly causes damage to the forest, erosion, floods and other disasters,” said Willie.  This is where The Masarang Foundation comes in; they developed a logistics system by which the farmers liquid sap descends from the mountain through a pipeline, so it does not have to be transported manually and does not need to be cooked into sugar.  Now they only need heat up the sap from their plantations until it is sterile so it cannot ferment any more.  Then it is sent through the pipe to the foot of the mountain.  We just open the tap to fill the tanker and take it to the factory straight away.

“Furthermore the whole process takes no more than two hours for the sap to be processed into sugar ants (crystals) for export, using geothermal energy that comes free from Pertamina,” (Indonesia’s state owned petrol and gas company) he explained.
Willie is also developing several innovations that will allow farmers to minimise the use of firewood. One of these is a heating appliance called the rocket stove and pelechef.

Rocket stove and pelechef are devices used to cook the sap using very little firewood, and is completely smokeless. As well as being healthier because of the lack of smoke the heat is perfectly absorbed by the container and rapidly boils the sap.
“Indeed there are very few people in Indonesia who know about these tools.  Well, the tools we are in the process of developing.  Now only a little wood is needed to cook the sap.  As well as that, the farmers do not have to cook the sap until all the water evaporates.  It’s enough just to heat the sap a little to raise the sugar content.  Then it can be moved using our system,” Willie explained again.

But to achieve this goal took a great deal of investment, he added.  However it’s the most effective way to reduce and prevent deforestation, as well as protecting the health of farmers themselves from the ill effects of inhaling wood smoke.
“So the farmers are now working fewer hours while achieving maximum results.  Not like before, when they worked long hours sitting waiting for the fire and having to be exposed to the smoke.  They can now get on with other work and don’t need to spend hours looking for wood and to climb up the mountain to cut down trees, so causing an environmental disaster.  This means that with the help of the farmers the biomass of the forest will increase again. And the forest will start to absorb carbon from the air that is then stored in the roots under the soil. So helping the local population means the same as helping the world’s climate.
“With no more cutting down trees in the forest the risk of fire is automatically reduced.  This is one of the positive effects of planting sugar-palm trees,” he said.

Willie Smits demonstraiting the Rocket Stove.
Willie Smits demonstraiting the Rocket Stove.


Local Government and NGOs

Freddy Kaligis, Head of the Forestry Service in Tomohon said that he fully supported the programme of forest conservation using sugar-palm.  In fact both the police and the local community guarded and conserved the forest against those who encroached on it. “We strongly support the conservation of the forest through the use of sugar palm.  It’s not as though it was a corporation or company doing it, but rather the people who live in the district around the forest,” said Freddy Kaligis when interviewed over the phone.

However continuous social work needs to be done in the hope of raising public awareness of the importance of sustainable forest conservation. Freddy believes that prevention is better than cure.  The Forestry Service, he said, also provided 25,000 free seedlings for the local people who wanted to plant sugar-palm on their land.  They only had to submit a written request to the Department and be provided with a note giving them permission to take their seedlings. “Anyone is welcome, not just groups. Individuals can apply too, but they must specify the area where they are going to plant the seeds.  Because of the worry that if planting is unsupervised the seedlings might be planted in other areas and not in Tomohon,” he said.

Still, continued Freddy, new local laws, regulations, and rules for forest management are not urgently needed in Tomohon, because there are existing environmental laws that cover these things. According to him there was only a need for some rules about forest boundaries.

“We urge people who want to buy land to examine it first and report to the Department in order to determine if the land is within the forest boundaries or not.  If it is within the forest boundary then purchasing licences will not be issued,” he said. In contrast to Freddy, Judi Turambi (54), Environmental Coordinator for Suluwatch, asserted that forest management and conservation in Tomohon must be supported by clear rules in the form of regional regulation (Perda) Perda management and the conservation of forest boundaries belong to the community and it has yet to protect the forests. It should be promoted in the area as a derivation from the legislation.  At present the regulations are only an umbrella for environmental laws,” said Judi Turambi.  Though by using the rules derived from these regulations the boundaries of the forest can be set, and what can and cannot be done relating to forest usage.  If not then the community, or certain parties, will certainly have the courage to encroach on the forest.

In an attempt to achieve the Perda regulations, the matter has been frequently raised in the DPRD (house of Representatives) and with local government. Despite efforts to explain the obvious importance of Perda it has not yet achieved a response.
“At present the majority of politicians do not have a basic understanding of the environment.

Although they may be vocal about environmental issues it’s only a formality to make a good impression,” she said sarcastically.  According to Judi the presence of the Masarang Foundation in helping the conservation of forest is greatly appreciated.  However there must be synergy between the foundation and the local government for them to work together effectively.
“The Government must not be allowed a free hand.  They must also involve the public in the protection of the forest. If they don’t then the effort for conservation will not be maximised,’ she said.

The Director of Friends of the Earth (WALHI) North Sulawesi, Theo Runtuwene said he would be seeking to work together with The Masarang Foundation and local government to spread the idea of the importance of sugar-palm in forest conservation.
“We strongly support the conservation work done by Masarang.  In future we will try to work together in raising public awareness about the importance of preserving and caring for the forest,” said Theo.

According to him, in the context of climate change the sugar-palm is the most appropriate tree to plant in areas of damaged forest, because the sugar-palm offers more advantages compared with other trees.

“It’s not simply about people planting trees.  Later on the trees that have been planted will a high economic value,” he explained.
As well as sugar-palm the sago palm offers a good alternative.  However to extract the sago for food the tree has to be felled, so it is not suitable for conservation as the principle of forest conservation is to avoid felling trees.


Garden not Forest.

Environmental analyst and academic at Sam Ratulangi University, Martina Langi who graduated from the University of Queensland, said that the phrase ‘sugar-palm forest in Tomohon’ is not accurate. Because an area can only be called ‘forest’ if it has the status of National Forest.

“Actually, Tomohon is Sugar-palm plantation not sugar-palm forest, because the area is owned by the villagers.  In order to be called forest it must have at least an SK (Decree) from the Minister of Forestry.” Said Martina Langi when we met in the Rektorat at University Sam Ratulangi.  Because the status is not National Forest there is no guarantee the sugar palm plantations will be preserved. According to her most of the palm-forest is controlled by the people, even if many were already certified.  Nevertheless, if the people then want the land they own to be reforested in the common interest, then the area could be designated People’s Forest or Community Forest.  This could be one environmentally sound approach.

“Any attempt to improve the environment must be multi-dimensional.  If it were only about the environment, for a country like Indonesia, this would not be attractive to the general public. Everything must be assessed for its economic value whether it is viable or not.  If it is economically valuable then the people will be interested in that kind of farming,” she explained.
To achieve this end an effort must be made so that conservation also is economically attractive to involve the community.  So in future we would hope the system would be made to embrace all parties. “As for the preservation of the environment using sugar-palm as is done in Tomohon, we academics see it as positive.  Initiation of local government policy and support from the local population allows the possibility of a multifunctional approach,” she said.

Sugar-palm trees are very good for the environment.  Their function is to bind water and earth and prevent flooding and landslides. As well as that they preserve the existing water sources. “On the environmental front the sugar-palm is excellent.  Already from the production underway, palm sugar and traditional drinks are being made.  From an economic aspect this is very significant for the local population.  Things like this are much needed in Indonesia,” she explained.  The conservation effort and utilisation of the palm by the Masarang Foundation of Tomohon could be an example for projects in other areas, according to this alumna of Bogor Institute of Agriculture.

Dr. Langi ended her speech with a reminder of our interconnectedness:
“Here in Tomohon conservation and economic benefit go hand in hand. Systems like this are usually long lasting. Hopefully it will go on rising from regional level, to national until it is international. It was there that we started to talk about the Earth as something interconnected which must be preserved to prevent global warming”

Click here to read this article in the Indonesian Language.

This report was written by Ferry Susanto Arsyad,, Bandarlampung, September 29, 2016.
The author is a participant in the Workshop Covering Third Regional -Fourth Cohort (MDK IV). Ferry got the assignment to go to Tomohon, North Sulawesi, from August 24 to 28, 2016.
The workshop was organized by the Dr. Soetomo Press Institute and the Embassy of Norway, August 23 to 31, 2016.

Editor Warief Djajanto Basorie