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Balancing Progress and Preservation: The Ecotourism Journey of Merabu

Merabu’s rich tapestry of natural resources and traditions fuels its exploration of ecotourism, despite facing a series of ongoing challenges.

Text: Rifqy Faiza Rahman
Photos: Deta Widyananda and Mauren Fitri


Balancing Progress and Preservation: The Ecotourism Journey of Merabu
Landscape of the Merabu settlement built on a corner of the banks of the Lesan River. The village, which is home to around 80 families or 200 residents, is now seeing the bright light of community-based natural and cultural ecotourism/Deta Widyananda

Our rented car, driven by Hardi, a seasoned migrant from Bone, turned left at the Kampung Merapun gate intersection 140 kilometers from Tanjung Redeb. After five hours on smooth asphalt, the road abruptly transitioned to dry, compacted gravel. We passed settlements scattered amidst vast oil palm plantations, the lifeblood of at least five palm oil companies.

“The distance from the gate to Kampung Merabu is about 31 kilometers,” Hardi informed us. That day (09/10/2023), the clear sky offered a breathtaking view of the Sangkulirang-Mangkabayar karst mountain range in the distance, a stark contrast to the sprawling green expanse of Merapun’s palm oil landscape.

Merapun is the closest village to our destination, Merabu. The road here is mostly flat with occasional dips and rises. During the rainy season, it transforms into a muddy and slippery path, demanding skillful driving to avoid skidding.

An alternative, faster route to Merabu exists via Kampung Muara Lesan in the north. However, recent flooding damaged the only wooden bridge connecting the two villages, forcing us to take this longer, albeit scenic route. Interestingly, the distance we traveled today is only a third of the journey from Tanjung Redeb to East Kalimantan’s capital, Samarinda.

Balancing Progress and Preservation: The Ecotourism Journey of Merabu
After the wooden bridge connecting Muara Lesan–Merabu was damaged by the flash floods of the Lesan River, this gravel dirt road in the middle of the oil palm plantation became the only access to Kampung Merabu. Seen in the distance, a towering tree is visible against the backdrop of the Sangkulirang-Mangkabawa karst mountain range/Mauren Fitri

Asrani, Merabu’s current headman at 48 years old, reminisced about the significant improvement in road access compared to several decades ago. Back then, while attending school in Tanjung Redeb before the Berau-Samarinda road was built, Asrani’s journey involved a two-day odyssey. He navigated large rivers like Lesan and Kelay on a “ketinting” (traditional wooden boat) until reaching the Segah River in central Tanjung Redeb. Overnight stays amidst the forest were inevitable, requiring tarps to protect from the rain.

Ransum, Merabu’s 61-year-old traditional leader, recalls an even more challenging past. Back then, before “ketintings” and outboard engines existed, he and others embarked on a three-day journey to Tanjung Redeb (affectionately called “Tanjung” by the Merabu people) by rowing wooden rafts. They transported forest products like resin, beeswax, and rattan.

“The return trip could take 19–20 days,” Ransum explained, “paddling against the current. During high water, it could even stretch to a month.”

In Tanjung, as the Merabu people call the capital city of Berau, they earned a meager 10 rupiah per day through trade. “That wouldn’t even cover one meal for six at a food stall,” Ransum shared. “The rest went towards buying rice, sugar, salt, and clothes for home.”

Asrani, the headman, further elaborated during a conversation at his residence: “This Berau-Samarinda road initially served a timber company. Later, it facilitated the establishment of a palm oil company.” He expressed his concern about the lack of government support for the local population, questioning, “Where does the government prioritize building roads?”

Despite its stunning natural beauty, as Asrani previously mentioned, Merabu’s remoteness from both Berau and major cities like Samarinda-Balikpapan, coupled with its adventure-focused attractions, cements its position as a destination not for everyone. It caters to those with a special interest in experiencing and supporting the Sangkulirang-Mangkabayar karst ecosystem.

Therefore, when The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a global environmental organization from the United States (partnering with the Nusantara Nature Conservation Foundation (YKAN) in Indonesia), arrived in Merabu in 2011, their initial focus wasn’t solely on tourism. Researching ethnography and archaeology along the Lesan River and the karst area formed the foundation for their efforts to develop the village’s community-based economic potential.

Recognizing the potential beyond traditional livelihoods like rubber cultivation and bird’s nest harvesting, TNC prioritized building the capacity of Merabu residents. They aimed to introduce a broader economic avenue: ecotourism.

Balancing Progress and Preservation: The Ecotourism Journey of Merabu
A pair of foreign tourists enjoying the view and silence of Lake Nyadeng, Merabu. Nico (right), who comes from Germany, and Maria, who has a Mexican passport, were the first to visit Merabu and admitted that they knew the name of this village from Lonely Planet. They were impressed by its natural beauty which was still preserved/Deta Widyananda

Shifting Mindsets: Embracing Ecotourism in Merabu

Yervina, the 40-year-old treasurer of Merabu’s Lebo ASIK Village-Owned Enterprise (BUMKam), described the initial challenges of introducing ecotourism to the community: “Historically, the community relied heavily on harvesting swallow’s nests from caves for their livelihood.”

The income from swallow’s nests was undeniably attractive. A single overnight trek into the forest, often along the edges where karst caves naturally attract swallows, could yield results in mere hours. A single swallow’s nest could fetch 5-10 million rupiah (approximately $350–$700 USD) at the time.

However, Yervina expressed concern about the community’s lack of long-term financial planning during this period. Many residents, lured by the immediate windfall, failed to manage their newfound wealth wisely. “People believed the abundance of swallow’s nests would last forever,” Yervina explained, “ignoring the inevitable decline of nature if overexploited.” Investing in even basic necessities like motorbikes seemed like a distant thought, let alone saving for the future. Instead, millions were spent quickly on entertainment, gambling and other impulsive behaviors. This unsustainable lifestyle eventually took its toll, leaving individuals vulnerable as they aged and the ability to harvest nests diminished.

While some succumbed to the temptation of instant wealth, a few residents, like the teacher at SDN 001 Merabu, practiced sound financial management. He explains, “Fortunately, when the swallow’s nest market collapsed, I had the resources to transition into tourism. My family used our income wisely, allowing us to invest and build capital for this new venture.”

He, along with his late wife and brother, the previous village head (2018–2021), actively advocated for responsible management of swallow nest income, though their efforts weren’t always met with complete adherence.

Balancing Progress and Preservation: The Ecotourism Journey of Merabu
The TelusuRI team greeted and chatted with Yervina (far left), who that afternoon (10/10/2023) had just returned from teaching at SDN 001 Merabu. Apart from being a teacher, the wife of the late Agustinus also carried out duties as treasurer of BUMKam Lebo ASIK/Rifqy Faiza Rahman

With the decline of the swallow’s nest trade, new opportunities arose. Some residents turned to cultivating oil palm seedlings for sale to companies outside the village, offering another viable source of income.

Yervina, the BUMKam treasurer, emphasizes the importance of diversification: “Everything plays a role. Tourism is crucial, even though we shouldn’t solely rely on it. Oil palm is important as well, but with limitations. If an opportunity arises in our village, I encourage everyone to seize it. For tourism, we need to be prepared, like owning boats, homestays, or transportation options.”

Shifting mindsets, however, proved challenging. Yervina acknowledges, “Opening people’s minds isn’t a simple task. Achieving economic independence takes time.” For example, not everyone is comfortable hosting tourists in their homes. Currently, guests are primarily accommodated by Yervina, Ester, Juari, or Doni Simson— the head of BUMKam.

Yervina encourages residents to explore beyond ecotourism, aiming to reduce dependence on tourist arrivals, especially for ensuring children’s education. She reminds the community not to become complacent with their tourist destination status but to continuously seek diverse opportunities for a sustainable future.

The Desire for Sustainability

While Merabu embraces its path towards sustainability, obstacles remain. Amidst the flow of guests and the need to provide exceptional service, the community faces challenges that demand continuous solutions. One such challenge concerns the village’s Solar Power Plant (PLTS), which fulfills basic needs for residents.

During our visit, Ester, Asrani’s wife and the village head for the 2022–2023 term, informed us that the PLTS has been non-functional since May. A battery malfunction requires replacement, but the necessary skills differ from those of regular PLN electricians, posing an additional hurdle.

This months-long PLTS shutdown, after nearly five years of 24/7 operation, significantly impacts daily life for residents. “With the battery issue,” Ester shared with a light chuckle, “it feels like we’ve taken a step back.”

Balancing Progress and Preservation: The Ecotourism Journey of Merabu
PLTS installation that was donated free of charge by a third party to Kampung Merabu. PLTS operations are managed by BUMKam Lebo Asik through PT Sinang Puri Energy. The existence of renewable energy sources like this is not only crucial to meet the basic needs of the community, but also the management of ecotourism Merabu/Deta Widyananda

Despite its commitment to sustainability, Merabu faces ongoing challenges. One such obstacle lies in the village’s Solar Power Plant (PLTS), which fulfills residents’ basic needs.

During our visit, we learned from Ester, the village head from 2022–2023, that the PLTS has been non-operational since May due to a battery malfunction. While the problem seems straightforward, skilled technicians are required for repairs, and their expertise differs from that of standard electricians.

This extended PLTS outage, following nearly five years of uninterrupted service, significantly impacts daily life. “The battery issue,” Ester shared with a light chuckle, “feels like a step back. We’re relying on generators again, but not everyone has one.”

Diesel generators, a temporary solution, come with their own challenges. Expensive fuel, costing two to three times the usual price, forces Ester to limit her generator’s use to dusk until midnight. Similarly, larger generators on the PLTS grounds aren’t activated daily due to limited fuel availability.

The PLTS, acquired in 2015 through a collaborative effort between the Millennium Challenge Account-Indonesia (MCA Indonesia), Bappeda Berau Regency, and PT Akuo Energy Indonesia, represents a crucial step towards sustainable development. With an investment of 20 billion rupiah and a capacity of at least 300,000 VA, the PLTS is managed by PT Sinang Puri Energi, a business unit under the village-owned enterprise (BUMKam) Lebo ASIK. This unit, led by Franly Aprilano Oley (village head from 2012–2017) as chairman, with Aco as operator and Ester as administrator, works in conjunction with the village’s backup generator.

The communal PLTS plays a vital role in supporting ecotourism development in Merabu. It fulfills essential needs like pumping water, powering refrigerators and other electronics, and providing lighting for homes and schools – all crucial for residents and visitors alike. Optimal PLTS operation ensures a smooth experience for tourists, allowing them to recharge devices and utilize the village’s Wi-Fi provided by the Ministry of Communication and Information.

According to Doni Simson, there are plans to transfer ownership of the PLTS installation from PT Akuo Energy Indonesia to PT Sinang Puri Energi. However, battery repairs remain the immediate priority. “Only technicians from Akuo Energy can fix it,” he explained, “because their expertise is specific.”

With renewed and efficient energy infrastructure, as experienced between 2018–2022, Merabu is poised for further progress. The village’s journey towards sustainable ecotourism holds the potential to surprise both residents and outsiders, transforming Merabu into a unique destination, not only for its natural beauty and cultural heritage, but also as a “natural laboratory” attracting researchers and fostering a collaborative future.

Balancing Progress and Preservation: The Ecotourism Journey of Merabu
Gary (left) watches the excitement of grilling river fish with Natanael, a Merabu youth, in the narrow yard in front of Yervina’s house. The independent videographer based in London has stayed for almost a week in Merabu to take several stock photos and videos. Language is one of the obstacles that must be overcome immediately if foreign guests come to visit/Mauren Fitri

For Merabu to thrive, community synergy and cohesiveness remain key. The support of institutions like The Nature Conservancy (TNC), YKAN, Indecon, and other civil society organizations has undoubtedly accelerated the village’s progress. However, the future of Merabu’s ecotourism sector ultimately rests on the unwavering commitment of its residents.

Merabu’s journey is far from over. It will inevitably face new challenges and hurdles that could hinder ecotourism development. The potential of natural treasures like Bloyot Cave, Nyadeng Lake, Ketepu Peak, and others, meticulously nurtured throughout the process, must not be neglected due to inadequate maintenance.

Despite the potential obstacles, Asrani, the current headman, holds onto unwavering hope. Asked about Merabu’s aspirations in terms of recognition, he expressed a clear vision: “We want Merabu to be recognized both domestically and internationally. We are not just about cultural heritage; we also have a rich forest ecosystem.”

“We envision a future where visitors not only explore our breathtaking natural attractions but also immerse themselves in our vibrant culture and experience the warmth of our people,” he concluded. (*)

Translated by Novrisa Briliantina


Cover photo:
Silhouette of Pak Cay, a local guide as he entered the main entrance of Bloyot Cave, which is famous for the paintings of palms on the cave walls. The discovery of caves and prehistoric traces was the beginning of the development of ecotourism in Kampung Merabu/Deta Widyananda

In September—October 2023, the TelusuRI team visited Sumatra Utara, Riau, and Kalimantan Timur on the Arah Singgah expedition: Bringing Harmony to Human Life and Nature. Our trip report can be followed at telusuri.id/arahsinggah.

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