All Posts Filed in ‘Fieldnotes

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WUR and the Great Ape

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orangutan

Blogger Nadya Karimasari read the history report in Resource magazine on the reputation gained by WUR scientists in Indonesia during the colonial era. There is also the lesser-known historical role of Wageningen in the establishment of conservation projects in Indonesia.

Little did people know that scientists of our very own Wageningen were crucial figures in the establishment of conservation activities and research in Indonesia, especially in Gunung Leuser National Park (GLNP) where I am doing my research now.

Ketambe, located in Southeast Aceh, is the oldest and most famous research station of orang-utans in the world. It gained the same level of respect and historical reputation among primatologist as the Gombe in Tanzania, which made Jane Goodall famous studying chimpanzees, Karisoke in Rwanda where Dian Fossey studied gorillas, and Tanjung Puting National Park in Indonesia where Birute Goldikaz studied Bornean orang-utans.

Orang-utans
Herman Dirk Rijksen played a key role in the launch and maintenance of Ketambe Research Station. He was a PhD student financed by the Netherlands Foundation for the Advancement of Tropical Research (WOTRO) to do research on the ecology and conservation of wild orang-utans.

In conjunction with the research, in 1971, the Indonesian Nature Conservation Service (PPA) built Ketambe, the first orang-utan rehabilitation station in the world with modest support from the World Wildlife Fund Netherlands Appeal (WWF). His dissertation (1978) was issued by the Mededelingen of Landbouwhogeschool Wageningen. Later on, with support from IBN-DLO (Institute for Forestry and Nature Research – now part of WUR), Herman Rijksen managed to secure funding from the European Commission on one of Indonesia’s biggest conservation project, the Integrated Conservation and Development Programme in GLNP starting in 1995.

Buffer zone
Nicolaas van Strien also graduated from Wageningen University in 1985 with a dissertation on the Sumatran rhino. Sumatran rhino scientists and conservationists today still solely refer to van Strien’s work in GLNP due to its outstanding reputation. Another name to be mentioned is Jan Wind, an expert of conservation buffer zone in GLNP who currently enjoys his life in Ede as a nature photographer.

Ketambe was inactive for a couple of years from 1999 and was burnt down in 2011. It was rebuilt and reopened in 2015 and attracts quick-visitors such as students, documentary filmmakers, donors, a Hollywood actor – Leonardo diCaprio, as well as yours truly. It feels like visiting a conservation artefact in which I am carrying the torch of Wageningen’s study of conservation in Indonesia, in times when the golden era of primate research in Ketambe has been long gone.

As seen in Resource Online

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A Christian village in Aceh

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An elderly woman was screaming on the street. She ran, stopped, and screamed again. She preached in local language that I didn’t comprehend. “She’s drunk,” said my ‘brother’, “watch it while it last.”

I didn’t quite understand the expression on his face. He was having a slight smile. As if it was completely normal at any given day to watch an elderly woman got drunk on the street. I was reluctant and feeling very uncomfortable to treat her as a spectacle. But everybody else seemed to just let her be.

“Where does she live?” I asked my ‘sister’ (my ‘brother’s’ wife) at the veranda.

“How may I explain? She sold her house and land in this village to buy a land in another province. You know, the land in that province is unclear (ngga jelas). So she returned here and live in a hut in the forest to open a corn field.”

Will I be able to go through what that elderly woman had gone through and not losing my mind? I don’t think so. Will I also be drinking and screaming and preaching?

Some young men were trying to catch her but she kicked them and fight. “Even her husband didn’t get drunk. He’s busy working in the field. If I were her husband I would divorce her,” said my ‘brother’. I didn’t say anything. I knew nothing about her. The woman was still drunk until dawn. Strong tuak (fermented palm wine), indeed.

I came back inside and did the dishes at the backyard. A quick meditative escape to ease my troubled mind. I was washing dishes next to a huge grave tomb with a huge cross sign on top of it. A middle-sized pig was roaming, followed by nine of her piglets. The dark cloud was followed with ashes falling from the sky. Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra had started to erupt again, after several eruption in 2010, 2013, and 2016. The wind had brought volcanic ashes up to this village in Southeast Aceh.

“Are you okay? The inhabitant of that grave doesn’t disturb human, don’t worry,” said my ‘brother’. It was my first day at the village and I had told him earlier that I might need more help because I foresaw this village to be the most challenging out of the four villages that I’m studying. And unfortunately I had to leave this last village the second day I was there because of the Sinabung eruption. But I’m looking forward to come back after another weeks of fieldwork in the other three villages.

I foresaw challenges in this village because it’s the most unfamiliar. It was as if I was in Aceh that’s unlike the “conventional” Aceh. The villagers are almost 100% Christian and from an ethnic group of North Sumatra (Batak Toba). Tuak culture, pig rearing, Mount Sinabung, were not the things that would occur in an outsiders mind when they hear the word “Aceh” – a province known for its strict implementation of Islamic Syariah Law. But, as I have been experiencing, Southeast Aceh is a “different kind” of Aceh. It might also be seen as a “marginal” or “marginalized” district from the Aceh “center”, but I am not sure, I mean, can we say it’s marginal but the local elites/local government people here are very well-connected/well-established/having a good foot with/in Banda Aceh (the central/capital of the province). And the thought of a marginal village within a marginal district, the marginal of the marginal … I don’t know – my assumption is very premature.

Initially, this village was not at all in my list of possible case study. But the National Park had chosen this area as their “Role Model” in their current conservation project. I wonder whether the “difference” and “position” of this village and its inhabitants could have played a role in the reason why the National Park chose it as a Role Model, such as, perhaps the people are more submissive and least likely to fight back considering their already marginal position. But it’s important to note that a lot of the land owner here are somewhat “absentee” and live in the city or other villages. There’s another evidence showing that many villagers here are only hired by big capital/elite who actually “owned” the land. The elderly drunk women seems to be an epitome of the layers and layers of marginalization happening to the villagers here.

On the other hand, it was also very important and interesting to revise the judgement of marginality and open my mind to other explanation, in which this village was chosen because it is part of a National Park’s officer’s “Proyek Perubahan” (a personal project assigned to national park officers during short-training, in order for them to get promoted). It happens to be that the officer who propose this village as his “Proyek Perubahan” assignment is from the same ethnic group with the villagers (Batak Toba). I am curious to tease out the rationale of the national park and its NGO supporter to choose this village as their “Role Model”.

People in this “Role Model” village told me about their sense of being marginalized. From my research so far, the repressive tree-raiding act of the previous National Park regime affected all the four villages that I studied. But in the other three villages, the National Park’s officers’ act was quite measured and they’re after specific targets. In this village the officers were most ruthless with the highest number of people being affected. In my ‘brother’s’ field hut, people were telling me that they are being “killed slowly”. One of them asked why were they here but being expelled (diusir-usir)? Why didn’t the government move them to Papua? My ‘brother’ said the (previous) national park officers had more “balls” to treat them that way (repressive) perhaps because they are Christian. I still need to dig deeper – it probably hurts for the project officers to acknowledge the villagers’ voice but would it be better if I concealed their “cry” to keep it unheard?

PS: I should have provide you the brief general introduction of the area and the “Role Model” project etc., – I was hesitant because of my intention to keep everything anonymous, but I will try to do a proper intro in next posts.

 

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Away from the ivory tower

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‘You will only know about your research once you’re in the field.’ ‘We can only know very little before we’ve actually been there.’ ‘You can never be really prepared for your fieldwork.’ ‘Be prepared to be surprised.’

These were words of wisdom that I’ve heard from experienced anthropologists in my department whom I look up to a lot. Sounds daunting for a novice researcher like me, but here lies the beauty and strength of ethnography. Doing ethnography means being flexible and adaptive to situations on the ground. As anthropologist Anna Tsing from the University of California Santa Cruz summed up when we had lunch in Amsterdam: ‘Open your mind and pay attention.’

I feel lucky and privileged to have the funding and opportunity to perform ethnography for a year, with two months of preparatory trips beforehand and another round of update visits to my research location (thanks NWO!). After months away from the ‘ivory tower’ of Wageningen and deep in rural Indonesia, I am by now pretty sure that ethnography is the best way to do my research. It allows me to capture things that I found relevant along the way. It also allows me to reflect and revise earlier thoughts that have shaped my initial research proposal.

 It is very important to organise the information that I’ve gathered from my research from time to time and contemplate on it.

However, ethnography doesn’t mean that anything goes. The flexibility that comes with doing ethnography means the researcher needs to put in extra effort to organise and contemplate on her findings. Monique Nuijten, my professor at the Sociology of Development and Change group, once told me that it is very important to organise the information that I’ve gathered from my research from time to time and contemplate on it. Otherwise, I will get a whole lot of information with nothing that I can write about, because I have no structure. I definitely do not want that to happen in my research.

Ethnography is slow because it is a continuous process of engaging, with our research subject as well as with our own thought process. Engagement takes time to develop. Rapid assessment or preliminary survey can be helpful in ethnography, but the research doesn’t stop there. Findings are garnered through the researchers’ sensitivity. In other words, ethnography is as much an art as it is research.

As seen in Resource Online

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Is this fieldwork?

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One of the uncomfortable thing about doing fieldwork is the constant feeling of being unsure of myself and my fieldwork. For your information, I am doing fieldwork on a weekly basis*. I am based with my family in the capital of Southeast Aceh, Kutacane, because it is more convenient for my family’s daily life. It provides the proximity to the central market and my son’s daycare (or PAUD) as well as the availability of decent brick house for rent. Not that I am saying houses here are not decent, but the number of houses for rent is very limited, I could count with two hands. Most people here live in wooden houses and those are more rarely being rented out. As I am living with my family, it is a reasonable choice to rent our own house instead of staying with a host family as we need some privacy and we don’t want to depend on a host.

I am doing a “mobile” and multi-sited ethnography, in which I stay in villages that I have chosen as my case studies every weekdays. In this two-plus months initial – and I must say, deep introductory – stage, I stay in one village for a week or two (well, now I am also considering to stay longer) and I come home every weekend. Less frequently so, I also hang out and travel with the national park officers and the conservation NGO, or go six hours away to renew my research permit and sometimes attend meetings at the headquarter of the national park (but not often).

You can imagine how sometimes all of my “moving around” makes me feel like I am all over the place, although I have to say that I’ve quite enjoyed it, actually. Also, I have mentioned that I am at home in Kutacane (almost) every weekend with my family, which brings me the constant switch-on and switch-off of the fieldwork mode, and the constant perpetuation and reminder of how it’s getting difficult to leave my three year-old. I mean, he’s fine but it’s getting difficult for me. Putting that aside, some questions arises on daily basis as I have this nagging “image” or perhaps “fantasy” around fieldwork due to my tendency to absorb the “rumors” and “myths” on fieldwork that makes me wonder whether what I am doing is fieldwork enough because I don’t know if I am immersive enough.

Is this fieldwork? Is this how fieldwork is supposed to be? Is my fieldwork good enough, am I doing enough? Am I wasting my time? How can I organize my fieldwork and my “data” better? Is it fine to blog during fieldwork (er, on weekends?) – not necessarily about my research, or is it a distraction? (hah! what am I doing right now?). I think what worries me the most is when I am feeling overwhelmed with the richness and complexity of the story and I am not sure whether I’ve document and organize it properly … and honestly some nights I was too tired to write my fieldnotes every single day, some nights I’ve only written one sentence, some moments will linger on my mind (fingers crossed) … I confess my self-discipline in journaling is my biggest problem … and whether it is okay to take some time away and braindump and rethink – shouldn’t I be fieldworking?

It is completely healthy to acknowledge these constant state of fieldwork-doubt, but it is also essential to be honest about the occasional feeling of being good enough. The “wow-I-can’t-believe-I’m-so-lucky” fieldwork happenstance, the shocking truth-bombs that were just casually being laid bare before me, and the genuine – yes, genuine, I think this is what I am feeling grateful about the most – relationship that are blossoming with my foster parents and brother.

It is my responsibility and it is the most important thing that I am not only “extracting” data from my surrogate parents and brother who are my interlocutors (informants?) and “gate-openers” to the rest of the community. I have to genuinely care about them like they’re my own parents, knowing their families like my own families, reciprocate their trust, and form a life-long relationship that goes beyond fieldwork. What a commitment, and to be honest I don’t find it very easy (but also not impossible), which is why I’ve limited myself and only have three foster families and one foster brother (and I am nervous that one of them is probably withering away). Sometimes, I am so reluctant to get myself into the whole day-to-day familial bonding (and anxieties) because honestly I don’t even get along perfectly well with my “real” family (like my “dynamics” with my parents and siblings). But, when my new foster families trust me that I am and will be there when they needed me, these are the milestones that I treasure the most from my fieldwork. These foundational relationships are my strength and later on hopefully (but I am not too ambitious) the whole village will also be very familiar with me – the weirdo student that keeps trying to do what they are doing and hang out with them for whatever reason and asking basic questions and talking nonsense – as part of their community.

Sometimes, I wonder whether people will think that I am not efficient with my fieldwork or whether or not I am getting my priorities right. But why do these imaginary people even care? I believe every fieldwork is different. I am sure nobody is thinking about how my day-to-day minutae details of fieldwork have to be conducted. I shouldn’t be looking at my own experience through other fieldworks’ “rosy-tinted glasses”. I mean, I shouldn’t compare what I am going through with the imagination of what other “awesome” fieldworkers were going through. I don’t even know for sure what was going on with them back then and how many of the stories are curated versions of their fieldwork the way people these days curated images of their life in their instagram feed. I have to forget about other researchers right now and bring the question back at myself, “what do I think is best for my research?

Which is why, for now, I am bidding farewell to Malinowski or Geertz or Margaret Mead or Jane Fajans, or you-name-it. Goodbye the coming-of-age “badge of honor” of fieldwork that feels like a distant and elusive enigma like heaven and hell in the afterlife. Welcome day-to-day personal questions, awkward minute-by-minute indecisiveness, unsure feelings and uncertainty. Welcome some merciful self-appreciation to keep me being proportional and fair with myself and keep me going.

Welcome fieldwork-acceptance, I have some work to be done.

 

*as suggested and done by other “mom-PhD-doing-fieldwork”, thanks Monique Nuijten (WUR) and Tania Li (University of Toronto). Also thanks to Annet Pauwelussen (Leiden University) for sharing the mom-PhD fieldwork feelings.

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On the Dinner Floor

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When conducting fieldwork, most anthropologists will have to eat with their host. Blogger Nadya Karimasari elaborates why this matter is not as simple as it may sound.

What I like most about my preliminary fieldwork is the interaction that it brought. Eating together is one of the most essential ways to build a relation. Providing food for a new ‘guest’ or ‘stranger’ is not just a simple act of hospitality. Through food, the community that I lived with offered to have a relationship with me. By eating the food together, mostly on the floor, I opened myself up to commit to this new relationship and be more than just a guest or stranger.

The generous act of giving and taking food is not to be taken for granted in every setting. In the first days after I arrived in a remote highland in Aceh, I spoke with a man from the city who worked for a development agency. The first advice he gave me was the following: ‘Don’t eat with them. Bring your own bottle of water and cover the top of your glass.’ Why so? ‘This community still strongly practises sorcery. They will poison you with their food. I immediately got ill after eating their food,’ he explained.

I can’t imagine people like him doing anthropological fieldwork in a remote area. Of course, social research is not only about trying to understand the community, but also trying to understand ourselves as a product of our social context and interaction. If he were a social researcher, he would have to be more aware of the origin of his judgement. For a researcher like me, this small conversation says a lot about the interaction and non-interaction through food.

In my case, I never did get any stomach ache, did not get any food poisoning, nor did I experience any sorcery. I ate whatever they ate. My hosts almost always ‘forced’ me to have some more. The more I ate, the more they felt appreciated. When I was feeling full, they would frown, ‘oh, our food was not tasty enough!’

Of course, I wanted them to be sure that I fully enjoyed their meal and our little moments of feast together. But I also needed to be careful not to let my stomach become too full, because it would mean that I would have to go to the nearest river… and, let me assure you, this ‘river’ thing is not any less complicated.

 

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Research in conflict

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In the last days of her preliminary fieldwork, blogger Nadya Karimasari entered a contentious area where she needs to be extra cautious about her relations with both conflicting sides.

In a couple of days, my preliminary fieldwork will be over. The last place in Northern Sumatra that I am currently visiting is also the most contentious area. The farmers here have been protesting against the national park that has destroyed patches of farmers’ plots scattered over different villages. According to the national park officer, those plots were located inside the national park, but the farmers have a lot of evidence to disqualify that claim.

The farmers are strongly organised and on 15 February 2017, their candidate has won the local election at district level without any support from large, conventional political parties. The farmers’ organisation was very welcoming and supportive of my research. They brought me to meet five farmers who were leading the protest and had been imprisoned for 22 days. They brought me to their partially destroyed fields, and more.

I spent more time with the farmers and their families, because they are more diverse and complex than the national park bureaucracy, who have more of an official and uniformed version of what happened. The national park also asked me to stay at their barrack and observe their day-to-day office work, but I was afraid that the farmers would think I am a spy who works for the national park, no matter how hard I tried to explain.

As a social scientist at the beginning of my research, I tried to cover both sides to get a general overview. But there are different advices in social science about conducting research on conflicting parties. Some argued that if the researcher is trying to be neutral, she will only get superficial information from both sides.

I must make choices and along the way, I have made and will keep making mistakes. I should do what is right according to my judgement at that given moment. Instead of feeling afraid to make an imperfect decision, I should remember that mistakes are the best teachers. I learn through mistakes. Instead of trying to stay perfect and be a perfectionist scientist, I will try to be forgiving of my shortcomings and embrace what I learn from them.

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When in the field (2)

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Awkward, unexpected, and extraordinary things happened during fieldwork. Blogger Nadya Karimasari shares a list of such events.

For approximately 10 days, my co-promotor Dr Stasja Koot visited me in Medan, together with my promotor Prof. Bram Buscher, who visited me for 5 days. Some funny and memorable things happened during my supervisory team’s visit that made us laugh; looking back:

  1. My promotor and co-promotor, both frequent world travellers, stayed at the transit airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for a while, not realizing that their connecting plane to Kualanamu airport, Medan, had just left.
  2. When they arrived, they wore the exact same white, light, v-collared T-shirt. I thought they were twins.
  3. On multiple occasions, my promotor and co-promotor ordered the same menu. They took turn each day on who was the copycat and who was the original.
  4. Bram accidentally bit off a whole chunk of super-hot small chilly. Fortunately, no tears were shed.
  5. ‘Black coffee, no milk, no sugar,’ was Stasja’s key sentence. People in Indonesia tend to put sugar or condensed milk in the coffee they served in such a way, that the coffee tastes exactly like liquid sugar.
  6. A giant frog in the cottage room in Bukit Lawang that suddenly just … vanished. ‘I’m sure it’s in your suitcase, Stasja,’ teased Bram.
  7. A waiter at the Bukit Lawang cottage speaks Dutch in a very old-fashioned way – because he learnt from his grandfather, he told us. He also sings hilarious, old-fashioned Dutch songs, this time bringing tears of laughter to Bram and Stasja’s eyes.
  8. Earthquakes in North Sumatra. Quite a lot of small earthquakes while we were there.
  9. Two sleepless nights for Bram, three for Stasja.
  10. Quite a lot of semi-wild orangutans during our short trek in Bukit Lawang.
  11. One flat tire on our way back from Tangkahan to Medan.
  12. How best to tip local people who helped us. Researchers need local people a lot and it is common to tip them, but tips are not exactly something that comes with an invoice.
  13. It took some time to adjust to the Indonesian currency; you can easily be a ‘millionaire’, but one million rupiah is actually very quickly.

All set, a couple of weeks to go and so many research ideas to bring back to Wageningen.