by Inez Mahony
On Java, across a short stretch of water from Bali, is one of the most remote and fascinating national parks in Indonesia. Alas Purwo could be an enchanting travel destination for tourists and a treasure trove for those in the logging business.
The park, in the far southeast corner of Banyuwangi, covers 43,000 hectares of land consisting of savanna, mangrove forest, beach forest and lowland tropical forest. Indeed, the jungle embracing its beaches appears to have materialised straight from the sea. Alas Purwo is also home to rare and endangered mammals, including the Asiatic wild dog, wild oxen and leopards. Thousands of migrating birds visit its pristine forests each year and turtles come to lay their eggs on its secluded beaches. And for surfers, the park’s coastline boasts one of the best and most consistent reef-breaks in the world.
Alas Purwo is one of Java’s last remaining sacred spaces
But although it hasn’t entirely escaped the scourge of logging, this precious jewel of Javanese legend has not been cleared for timber or developed for tourism like most national parks in Indonesia. According to local followers of Javanese mysticism, it is the park’s sacred power that has saved it.
A sacred space
Alas Purwo is not only a Mecca for wildlife and surfers, as the guidebooks tell us. Followers of Javanese mysticism believe the park has been a sacred space for centuries, drawing mystics from elsewhere in Java to experience its spiritual power.
Kebatinan (traditional Javanese mystical belief), followed by communities in Central and East Java, centres on inner and outer spirituality, and the connection between the natural and supernatural worlds. As its Javanese name suggests, Alas Purwo is the place where, according to Javanese mysticism, the earth first emerged from the ocean.
Followers of Javanese mysticism also believe that spirits inhabit trees, rocks, rivers and springs. And those well versed in ilmu Jawa, or Javanese mysticism, are said to have the ability take on the form of wild animals. So, for followers of Javanese mysticism, Alas Purwo’s rich flora and fauna also makes it a highly revered place.
In Javanese mysticism there is a fine line between the natural world and the parallel dimension of spirits. In Alas Purwo that line is often blurred, and for some it does not exist at all. People have told stories of being lost for days among the overgrown Hindu ruins, bamboo forests and a labyrinth of false trails. There are common accounts of people finding themselves in ghostly villages and encountering mysterious characters, perhaps apparitions, who have shown them the way out.
The parkland is relatively flat but has rolling hills concealing many caves that are used for meditation. Mystics, shaman, or those in search of the inner self (kebatinan) spend days — even years — at a time exploring the parallel world of spirits said to exist in the park. With few personal belongings these seekers of mystical knowledge (and fortune) come under the spell of Alas Purwo’s natural and supernatural elements. Each year during the auspicious Javanese month of Suro, which marks the Javanese New Year, hundreds of people of all religious beliefs make the pilgrimage to the park to meditate, make offerings to Nyai Loro Kidul, the goddess of the South Sea, and to harvest the supernatural energy of the place.
The park has maintained its magnetism in part because it is difficult to access. There are a couple of permanent walking tracks and one bitumen road, but even that has restricted access. It was built for the only available accommodation in the park, the three surf camps at Plengkung. Government rangers patrol the road and only allow vehicle access to a select few, namely the managers of the surf camps. Most guests access the camps via boat from Bali on pre-arranged package deals.
The road runs for about 12 kilometres from Trianggulasi village, on the park’s edge, as far as Plengkung, on the coastal fringe. It was built with tourist development in mind, but has met with considerable resistance — most of which has been supernatural. Inexplicable disruptions and sabotage of the construction took place, hampering its progress and confirming the widely held belief that the park is spiritually protected.
According to mystical lore, access to Alas Purwo depends on an individual’s level of esoteric knowledge. The more spiritually knowledgeable one is, the more ways there are available for them to enter the realm of the supernatural, as well as the natural realm inside the park. Tales abound of people’s attempts to explore the park only to find that each track they take simply goes nowhere or takes them back to the outside again. Other events in the park have also been attributed to supernatural intervention. Some kebatinan followers believe that the state of emergency that occurred in Banyuwangi in 1998 was caused by paranormal intervention in retaliation for a new plan to develop Alas Purwo. Others think that deforestation in the vicinity of sacred Alas Purwo angered its spiritual protectors and believe this brought on the civil unrest. Devout Muslims would disagree with this interpretation. So too might the people who believed that the ‘unnatural’ deaths at the time were caused by sorcery and consequently set out to kill the black magic practitioners (dukun santet) (see box) they believed were responsible.
For whatever reason, there are no further plans for tourist development in the park at present.
Alas Purwo National Park is defined by the Blambangan Peninsula. The area was formerly covered in mixed monsoon forest that joined what is now Meru Betiri National Park. Much of the area in between the parks has since been cleared for farmland and, more recently, teak plantations. Most significantly, the area has been desecrated by illegal logging since the fall of Suharto’s regime.
As much as Suharto and his cronies benefited from the spoils of logging, his authoritarian government did prevent environmental degradation to some degree. The New Order implemented conservation practices in areas such as Grajagan, on the edge of Alas Purwo, where a reforestation program is in place. Local farmers can use plots of denuded forestland to plant their food crops in exchange for replanting that land with commercial timber. When the timber reaches a certain height their land use permit expires and they must move on.
In addition, a number of forested areas remaining throughout Java, including Alas Purwo, were declared national parks or protected reserves during the New Order. Despite persistent small-scale plundering of the parks, the government managed to protect them from mass illegal logging.
Even so, less than 10 percent of Java’s land area is forest, and only one third of that forest is wilderness forest. The rest is commercial teak forest. Many parts of the country’s forests are being logged to plant commercial timbers. Environmental disasters, such as erosion, flooding, landslides and drought, which occur with increasing frequency in Java, are the result of this deforestation.
A bleak future
After the fall of Suharto, the looting of forests began on an unprecedented scale. Illegal logging devastated thousands of hectares old growth forest, including parts of Alas Purwo.
In 2001 President Abdurrahman Wahid tried to address the issue of deforestation with the implementation of reforestation programs throughout Indonesia. In November 2003, President Megawati called for renewed efforts to combat illegal logging. But despite this, deforestation and illegal logging in Indonesia continues unabated. The corruption and greed of powerful illegal logging interests, in collusion with Perhutani (in Java) and Inhutani (outside Java), continues in spite (and some would say because) of decentralisation.
Under decentralisation, district authorities have to find local sources of income. It’s common knowledge that local army and police officials are heavily involved in illegal logging, and that the State Forestry Corporation (Perhutani) has turned a blind eye to the felling of protected old growth forests to plant commercial timbers. President Megawati said as much when she spoke at the launch of a national forest rehabilitation program in Central Java earlier this year, blaming ‘certain elements’ in society for taking part in illegal logging.
So far, although massive areas of forest on the fringes of Alas Purwo as far west as Meru Betiri National Park have been logged, the interior of the park remains relatively unscathed in comparison. But despite beliefs in the power of the forest to resist change, it seems inevitable that the illegal logging will encroach deeper into Alas Purwo. Who knows what supernatural disasters might follow?
Inez Mahony (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Honours student at the University of the Sunshine Coast. She did an Internship with Inside Indonesia earlier this year.