Enter the Petungkriyono Forest in Central Java and you are immediately immersed in the shade of hundreds of towering trees. Among them are mranak (Castanopsis acuminatissima) and puspa (Schima wallichi), nagasari (Mesu ferrea) and wuru banyu (Litsea umbellate). If you are lucky, you can meet the endangered Javan gibbon (Hylobates moloch), a tailless primate with long arms that swings swiftly from one branch of a tall tree to the next.
The forest is one of the gibbon’s last strongholds. Other primates living there include the Javan langur (Trachypithecus auratus), the long-tailed monkey (Macaca fascicularis) and the Javan surili (Presbytis comata). All are threatened species. Pressure is mounting on these animals and their habitat because of local economic development. But that is set to change, with plans to designate the Petungkriyono Forest as an Essential Ecosystem Area. The move could help to conserve wildlife while ensuring local people can sustain forest-based livelihoods, from sustainable coffee production to ecotourism.
The forest, in the southern part of Pekalongan Regency, covers about 7,683 hectares between 600 and 1,200 meters above sea level. Although settlements now cover 16% of its original area, the forest is still very natural and rich in biodiversity. According to Fransisca Emilia, Young Expert Forest Ecosystem Controller at the Environment and Ministry of Central Java Province, Petungkriyono has at least 112 species of trees, 46 species of epiphytic orchids and 30 species of ferns, as well as its endangered primates and other wildlife species.
For the past five years, the Pekalongan Regency Government has been promoting tourism development in Petungkriyono’s mountainous landscape of forest, rivers and waterfalls. The Regent, Asip Kholbihi, says that by improving infrastructure, his government has changed Petungkriyono from an area that was considered to be isolated, and even haunted, into one crowded with tourists.
“In the past, there were zero tourist destinations,” says Kholbihi. “Now Pokdarwis (village-based tourism awareness groups) manage dozens of nature-based tourist destinations.” But the rapid development of tourism has not always taken into account conservation and ecology, and in several places natural habitat has been disturbed.
Arif Setiawan, a researcher from the Swara Owa Foundation who goes by the name Wawan, has mixed feelings about the development of tourism services in the Petungkriyono forest area. On one hand, he says, it is an opportunity to improve local and regional economies. He says the good quality roads make tourist sites easily accessible and that this should help to attract investors.
Wawan points out that many speculators have already bought [farmland and community forest] land above Sokokembang Hamlet from local people, and are waiting for investors to whom they will re-sell it. But if tourism is not carefully managed, he warns, the forest could be destroyed.
“If left unchecked, it could shift the presence of the gibbons,” he says. “We have begun to see this in our monthly monitoring of gibbons, which used to be easy to find on the roadside, but now are rarely seen.”
Wawan adds that while most of the Petungkriyono forest is officially protected as state forest, in reality many people clear trees to create fields and gardens or to expand settlements.
The threats posed by increasing economic activities are particularly acute for Javan gibbons, which are shy creatures that will move away when they see people. They depend on high quality forest. At the same time, the forest depends on the gibbons, which as fruit-eaters are important seed dispersers of many tree species. But the International Union for the Conservation of Nature categorizes the species as ‘endangered’, with a 50% chance that it will become extinct within the next decade.
Sofian Iskandar, a researcher at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s Center for Research and Development of Forest Products, says the Javan gibbon’s habitat has shrunk by 96%, from 43,274 km2 to around 1,608 km2. This loss of habitat is largely due to the expansions of settlements and agriculture as a consequence of very rapid population growth. It means the gibbons are now mostly confined to patches of forest in West and Central Java.
While some of these areas are protected for conservation, others, like Petungkriyono, are not. Conserving endangered species that live outside of conservation areas is difficult when local people also use their forest habitat. At the same time, it would be difficult to designate the Petungkriyono forest as a conservation area, because of local people’s economic interest in it.
But a solution is on the way.
In 2019, following input from stakeholders including local communities, the Environment and Forestry Office of Central Java Province proposed that 5,173.8 hectares of Petungkriyono forest should become an Essential Ecosystem Area (EEA). This is a relatively new land designation intended to protect areas of high biodiversity that are outside of conventional conservation areas such as national parks and wildlife reserves.
A middle way
Having already been approved by the Provincial Governor, the EEA proposal is now with Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry for final approval, says Widi Hartanta, Acting Head of the Environment and Forestry Office of Central Java Province. He says that making Petungkriyono an EEA could maintain the sustainability of the forest ecosystems and Javan gibbons in it, without changing the landscape or hindering the community’s local economic activities.
This is because land with EEA status is managed by a multi-stakeholder forum determined by the governor. The idea is that by bringing together representatives of government agencies, communities, civil society organizations and others, the forum will make decisions about the forest’s management that reflect the needs of different groups and ultimately harmonize conservation and economic development.
“For example, what should the Environment Agency do, and the police because there are protected animals there,” explains Widi. “Then how to optimize ecotourism services, without changing the landscape and harming the environment. And also discussing the role of universities we regulate, because Petungkriyono is a research forest.”
Soegiharto, Head of the Watershed Management and Natural Resources Conservation Division of the Environment and Forestry Office of Central Java Province, says the EEA is a management instrument that can balance the needs to protect biodiversity and improve the local economy.
“The community will not be harmed, because the designation of this EEA will not change the status of their land,” says Soegiharto. “For people who already use the forest [such as coffee farmers and tourism awareness groups], access will be regulated according to EEA rules.”
“The principle is that the community can still take advantage of the forest, but must also maintain it together,” he says. “If the forest is not good, the tourism services will definitely decline. The two are interconnected.”
Pekalongan’s Regent, Asip Kholbihi, says that the development of tourist destinations in Petungkriyono forest cannot be done arbitrarily and must maintain forest sustainability. “As one of the last areas of natural forest that is still left on the island of Java, tourism must be developed there,” he says. “But it must be managed carefully. Do not develop it carelessly.”
Dr Muhammad Alif K Sahide, a lecturer at the Faculty of Forestry of Hasanuddin University (Unhas) in Makassar says EEAs are urgently needed to conserve forest ecosystems outside of conservation areas. But he says they can be challenging to implement.
“Unfortunately, EEAs have not yet become priorities in regional management,” he says. “This of course has implications for EEA funding, which has not been explicitly stated in the regional revenue and expenditure budget. In addition, the nature of EEA, which is managed collaboratively, makes planning and management efforts quite complex, so it takes quite a long time to reach an agreement.”
There is also a communication challenge, according to Wawan, the biologist who has shown how coffee production and gibbon conservation can work hand-in-hand in Petungkriyono.
“It is undeniable that the concept of proposing Petungkriyono to become EEA has not been fully understood in the community,” he says. “Because for some community members, the terminology of the EEA is still unfamiliar.”
Even so, Wawan sees the EEA as a means of protecting gibbon habitat by bringing together different parties with an interest in Petungkriyono to engage in collaborative forest management. He has high hopes that Petungkriyono’s EEA status will add value to local people’s products, such as the coffee they grow in the forest.
He looks forward to the day when consumers can say: “Oh, this is a gibbon coffee product from a forest area with conservation value. It was produced by paying attention to forest sustainability.”
Hartatik and Isnawati produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published in Indonesian by Suara Merdeka on 9 July 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.
Banner image: The landscape of the forest area in Sokokembang Hamlet, Kayupuring Village, Petungkriyono District, Pekalongan Regency / Credit: Isnawati via suaramerdeka.com.