In Aceh, Indonesia, a once-isolated forest hosts local travelers on bamboo rafts

  • In the semi-autonomous region of Aceh, an indigenous community has repurposed the bamboo rafts they use to commute downstream to sell tourism services to nearby urban settlements.
  • The forests of Samar Kilang were once beyond the reach of the Indonesian economy, until road access allowed locals to travel to the highlands.
  • The non-profit Katahati Institute works with women in Samar Kilang to market non-timber forest products and support the community’s ecotourism business.

BENER MERIAH, Indonesia – Until recently, the village of Samar Kilang in Indonesia’s Bener Meriah district, near the northern tip of Sumatra island, was largely cut off from the rest of Indonesian society. The journey here from Simpang Tiga Redelong, the district capital just 70 kilometers away, took at least one tiring day on foot. So farmers growing corn, rice, candlenuts, durian fruit and other products used bamboo rafts to transport their goods downstream to the neighboring districts of North Aceh and East Aceh.

“We collect the selected bamboo from the forest and then string it together with coconut fiber rope or sugar palm fiber,” Aman Tris, a native elder of Samar Kilang, told Mongabay Indonesia.

“To ensure that the agricultural products do not get wet, we have created a platform on the raft.”

A new road was constructed in 2020, making the rafts redundant for agricultural transport. Meanwhile, the road also brought local tourists, who came to Samar Kilang to spend time in nature. Families traveled up from relatively hectic towns on the busy coastal road to enjoy moments of tranquility by the river.

That prompted innovative young people like Alif Mudin, 27, to adapt the community’s traditional means of transportation to a new economy.

“We have prepared seats on the raft,” he told Mongabay Indonesia.

Rafting Bamboo, which Alif runs together with other young people from Samar Kilang, is now open every weekend and on public holidays.

Each raft fits two or three guests, plus a guide armed with a punt to steer the boat around rocks and eddies. Afterwards, chefs in the community will prepare food such as cendola syrupy dessert.

The agricultural expanse of the Samar Kilang community.
The agricultural expanse of the Samar Kilang community. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia.
Rafts are the main mode of transportation for the Samar Kilang community to cross the Kala Meriah River.
Rafts are the main mode of transportation for the Samar Kilang community to cross the Kala Meriah River. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia.

On the road

The construction of roads to forests remains a highly sensitive issue, which has often led to conflict between policy makers and environmental groups.

Data from Global Forest Watch shows that Bener Meriah lost 7,310 hectares of old-growth forest between 2002 and 2023, more than a third of the district’s total tree cover loss during that period.

Research has shown that road construction is one of the leading causes of deforestation, as it allows loggers easy access to previously remote areas.

“This is the case in central Sumatra, where populations of critically endangered Sumatran elephants occur (Elephas maximus sumatrensis), tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae) and other endemic flora and fauna that make the area unique worldwide,” according to a 2019 study.

For example, much of Indonesia’s geothermal resources – a clean and abundant form of energy – are located in protected forest areas, raising complex questions about the trade-offs.

However, anecdotal testimony suggests that numerous forest-dwelling communities in Indonesia turned to tree felling as cost-of-living pressures outweighed growth in emerging cash economies. These remote societies often face unique economic pressures, such as higher fuel costs determined by distance to public services.

This poses a challenge for local administrators responsible for raising living standards and ensuring environmental protection. Often it is small but dedicated nonprofits that step into the gap with innovative ideas to promote economic growth, whether it be agroforestry or ecotourism.

Since 2020, the Katahati Institute has been assisting Samar Kilang in marketing the non-timber forest products produced by the community’s women.

“We also support the activities of Samar Kilang youth who want to develop ecotourism,” said Cut Qorry Dalila, a spokesperson for Katahati.

On a cloudy day in May, Alif and three friends guided four rafts built by the Samar Kilang community. Visitors in bright orange life jackets sat on folding chairs and looked out at the forest rising above the banks of the Kala Meriah River.

“We treat guests to an adrenaline test and a beautiful view of the river,” says Alif.

To guarantee the sustainability of the company well into the future, the landscape around Samar Kilang must remain intact.

“Ecotourism will indirectly protect the forest and the community will protect the forest,” Dalila told Mongabay Indonesia. “Ecotourism really depends on river and forest management.”

Banner image: Bamboo rafting is an activity along the Kala Meriah River while enjoying the beauty of nature. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here to our Indonesian site on June 3, 2024.

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Poor, E.E., Jati, V.I.M., Imron, M.A., & Kelly, M.J. (2019). The path to deforestation: edge effects in an endemic ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia. PLOS ONE, 14(7), e0217540. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0217540

Community development, conservation, culture, ecotourism, environment, forests, indigenous communities, indigenous cultures, indigenous peoples, rivers, traditional people, travel, tropical forests

Aceh, Asia, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, Sumatra