The difficulties of choosing research sites in Sulawesi

It’s not easy selecting places for new agroforestry research sites when there are many agro-ecological and human factors involved, says Robert Finlayson


Recently, I spent several days in the mountains of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, looking at possible new research sites for the Agroforestry and Forestry in Sulawesi project.

I was part of a group of around 15 researchers and practitioners from a range of disciplines who worked in the three components of the project—environment, livelihoods and governance—along with a number of support staff and government officers. Another similar team was in the province of Southeast Sulawesi.

Map of Sulawesi island

Map of Sulawesi island

The project had been operating for a year in four districts in the provinces of South and Southeast Sulawesi and would begin work in Gorontalo province later in the project’s life. According to the plan, it had to expand into new districts in order to test agroforestry and forestry systems under different conditions and also spread knowledge as widely as possible.

As we left Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi province, on our way into the mountains of Gowa district, I asked James Roshetko, the project leader, what preparations had already been made.

‘We have a research team  in the neighbouring district of Bantaeng,’ he replied. ‘They have been reconnoitering this new district for a few weeks along with our colleagues from Hasanuddin University in Makassar and from Balang, an environmental NGO in Bantaeng. They’ve been talking to farmers and to the staff of the Dinas Kehutanan dan Perkebunan, the Government’s district forestry and estate crops agency’.

The result of that preliminary research was a schedule that would take us to a number of potential new sites.

But first, we paid a visit to the office of the Dinas Kehutanan dan Perkebunan, which was just inside the district border and not far from the city of Makassar. We were met by the head of the agency, Mr Djamaluddin Maknum, and some of his expert staff, who ushered us into a large room and an enthusiastic discussion began over maps about just where might be the best places to visit.

‘The potential sites had to meet some basic criteria first,’ explained Roshetko. ‘They had to be reasonably close to our office in Bantaeng so that the existing sites and the new sites formed a critical mass for the project and we weren’t spending hours every day just travelling. There had to be some kind of agroforestry underway already. Absolutely important was interest in the project by the community.’

Further, he explained, the sites had to address the technical criteria of each of the three components of the project. For example, for the governance component, which was led by the Center for International Forestry Research, there had to be some kind of problem to do with land tenure or access and/or land-use planning that could possibly be resolved through the

Landscape in South Sulawesi, Agroforestry and Forestry in Sulawesi (AgFor) project

Landscape in South Sulawesi. Photo: ICRAF/Robert Finlayson

project’s intervention. The environment component was partly interested in the potential for developing schemes that involved ‘rewards for environmental services’, which typically might require an upland forested watershed providing water to downstream users who might be interested in providing payment or rewards to protect the quantity and quality of the supply. They were also interested in helping assess communities’ vulnerability to climate and market shocks. For the livelihoods component there had to be some kind of existing agroforestry or forestry systems in place that lent themselves to improvement. Community members had to want to prioritize improving the management and productivity of their agroforests, including marketing their products.

All of this was in the context of poor smallholders in mountainous landscapes undergoing a range of land-use changes and subject to global, national and local market fluctuations.

As we drove through these landscapes dotted with upland rice, coffee, teak, gmelina, mahogany, rambutan, mango, cashew, banana, maize, cocoa, jackfruit, bamboo and coconut (amongst other crops) on small plots often on steep slopes, we would stop and talk with farmers in their homes or community houses.

We would be given homemade snacks, tea and excellent locally grown coffee—and on one occasion, locally grown chocolate—and the scientists and farmers would discuss, for example, the types of crops grown in the area, the planting seasons, the rainfall amounts and patterns, the prices of things, whether there were middlemen who bought their products and took them to markets, the farmers’ incomes and expenses, the division of labour and decision-making between men and women in the village, the role of the Government agricultural and forestry advisory services, whether there were any community forestry schemes in the area, the condition of any forests, where their water came from, and where it went, and whether there were any local farmers’ associations.

I was also reminded as we drove through the winding mountain roads that Indonesian wasn’t the only language spoken in South Sulawesi. The other main languages were Bugis and Makassar, while the people of Tana Towa spoke Konjo, which was apparently a mix of both, and yet others spoke Enrekang, which was a dialect of Bugis. While most people, it seemed, spoke or at least understood the national language, it seemed wise to me when we were preparing project information that was meant for farmers we should bear in mind that comprehension of Indonesian might not be at uniformly high levels. And that some materials might be best presented in local languages, depending on the content and intended audiences.

Farmers and scientists discussing the key issues, South Sulawesi. Agroforestry and Forestry in Sulawesi (AgFor) project

Farmers and scientists discussing the key issues, South Sulawesi. Photo: ICRAF/Robert Finlayson

Finally, after many discussions, examinations of farmers’ systems, many kilometres of mountain roads and many cups of coffee we reached the project office in Bantaeng. The researchers then compared notes for several hours, in a systematic fashion, drawing up a comparative table of all the sites they’d seen over the preceding days and listing—and discussing intensely—the conditions at each.

As they expected, the team found that they needed to know more before they could ultimately decide on which were to be the new sites and so sent the Bantaeng office staff back into the field to ask more questions, take more pictures and report back before making a final decision.

Since then, the districts of Gowa and Jeneponto have been confirmed as the areas of the new sites. The final villages and landscapes in those districts will continue to be researched and the final choices made in the middle of this year.

I was impressed at the high level of commitment to ensuring that the sites were rigorously selected. It was important that each site met the criteria so it could ultimately contribute to improving the livelihoods, environment and governance conditions of the smallholders of Sulawesi.





This work relates to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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