cseas nl74 Shiodera Satomi Researcher, CSEAS

Working in Indonesia’s Secluded Tropical Forests as a Female Researcher

Fig.1 Peat swamp forest in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

Ecology is a discipline that deals with interactions between organisms and the environments with the former affecting our environments, and the latter the former. One major concern of ecological research is to understand how the characteristics of organisms such as their distribution or population size etc. are affected by biotic and abiotic (that is climate and geology etc.) factors. I focus on forest ecology in the tropics and have conducted research in Southeast Asia region, mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, and work on the validation of anthropogenic forest disturbances and recovery processes in tropical forests; conduct impact evaluations on drainage canal construction in tropical peat swamp forests; and look at the adaptation of tree and leaf traits under various environmental stresses (Fig. 1). Why do I carry out research in tropical forests? One answer can be found close to home. The Japanese archipelago stretches from north to south and it covers a wide climate range: from subarctic to subtropical zones which correspond to subarctic and subtropical forests. In Japan, a clear seasonal climate change effects plant seasonality such as the timing of leaf flush and fall. On the other hand, in equatorial tropical forests, found in Indonesia and Malaysia, seasonal climate change is weak yet there exists higher species diversity and life forms. As such, different forests require significant knowledge to understand varied plant behavior. In addition, while a large number of forests continue to be lost to rapid anthropogenic forest disturbance, clarifying the mechanisms of remaining forests and recovery systems for degraded forests remains an important task. Over the past several years, I have conducted ecological research and been involved in projects that relate to the sustainable use of peat swamp forests in Indonesia.

Fig.2 Measurement of diameter of trees

When considering tropical forests as a place of research, there are a number of restrictions in place when compared to conducting research in Japan. In fact, there are many difficulties. Firstly, we cannot always obtain equipment and chemical reagents to use for research and it can take time to carry samples collected at study sites and bring back to the laboratory. Secondly, we may not be able to keep samples refrigerated and frozen (to examine after collection) as there is often no power for electricity. Finally, differences in how researchers think, local customs and especially laws between countries can prevent research. For these reasons, our research methods are inevitably simple ones. Importantly, when conducting fieldwork, we also have to pay attention to the local social situation in regards to forest disturbance and illegal logging. As such, we need to rethink our approaches when conducting research outside of Japan in Southeast Asia.

Fig.3 Boys crossing the port (Riau Province, Sumatra)

I mainly work in deep secluded forests or mountains, count the number of individuals and species of trees, and measure their size and biomass and sometimes, collect leaf or soil samples to analyze in the laboratory. What do we gain from doing this? Through investigation, we can gain an understanding of the mechanisms inherent in how forests organize themselves, learn about what kind of environments tree species like for their habitats, or whether forests will develop or decline in the future. In recent years, anthropogenic disturbance has become a major issue, leading me to carry out research on the damaged forests and their recovery processes after the effects of environmental destruction. In general, for a forest survey in the tropics, we set up 1 ha (100 x 100 m) plot to measure the diameter of the stems, check the position and identify the species name of all trees within it over a period of two to three weeks (Fig. 2). We also collect stem/branch or soil samples. From this data, we can develop an understanding of what kinds of characteristics the forests have. Continuous research makes it possible to know how the forests will change in the long term. Generally, most natural scientists can conduct their research without learning the local languages and there are two principle reasons for this. The first is that we can communicate and discuss in English with our local collaborative researchers. The second is that the duration of stay in the study area is short, due to the fact that our main activities are to install equipment or collect samples and data. As such, our stay may be no more than a few days. Notwithstanding, ecologists should stay in forests over a relatively long period of time and work with local people who can speak their local languages, which means we are required to learn their languages, cultures and customs. Every time I visit my research site in Indonesia, I go there with my local counterpart who is a researcher or technician of the Research Center for Biology, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (RCB-LIPI) or local universities. This style of research is one which is used in the laboratory I graduated from and the philosophy toward research is that we should conduct research in collaboration with local counterparts, and not only go there to do our own research. Doing so means that research is a collaborative endeavor based on researchers working closely together.

Fig.4 Wedding party in a village (Riau Province, Sumatra)

Working with Other Female Researchers in Indonesia

In Indonesia, the social advancement of women has progressed rapidly over the past few decades. Many women work with government agencies and they regularly occupy high managerial positions. They work very hard as other family members or maids help with housework and childcare for them. Many of the counterparts whom I work with are women with small children who make numerous business trips for meetings, travel to do field research, and work well under the help of others. This gives me the impression that a unique Indonesian lifestyle makes it possible to work in such a way. When we conduct research, we camp out in the forests or stay at a villager’s house. Yet, as we often need manpower to finish our forest research, we hire some villagers to help us. Although the social advancement of women is quite developed in Indonesia, such hard work in the forests is the domain of men. For this reason, we need to work in the situation where all helpers are men, and only myself and my counterparts, all researchers, are women. Under these kinds of circumstances, I always make an effort to become friends with female local villagers, especially with the host families I stay with. As Indonesia is a multiethniccountry, there are a myriad of customs that can vary from place to place. For example, the mother of my host family will advise me how I should behave and remain safe. I have been taught to “not drink too much in public,” “not dry laundry outside” and “not walk alone.” These are similar to what we might be told in Japan, but it’s stricter in Indonesia. In addition, when doing fieldwork, I have to make sure that I bathe quickly (due to the fact that all our team members stay in one house and both water and time is very limited), not bring alcohol to the research sites (sometimes it is construed to be impolite) and be alert to possible dangers at all times and in all places. In everyday life, we must pay attention to the mix of local people. Specifically, I try to speak the local language (not English), to wear clothes which fit in there, and to eat local foods in local restaurants. In this way, it is possible to reduce considerably the probability of encountering crimes that might target us (as foreigners). In my case, I am often seen and perceived to be a Chinese-Indonesian. I see Indonesia to be a country that is home to strong healthy women. It is not unusual for women who are ordinary mothers to also be researchers conducting fieldwork and when compared to Japan, it is easier for them to be able to go on long business trips. As a female ecologist who has to commit long periods of time to working in secluded forests I can all but envy the environment that exists in Indonesia for women.