From: Jeremy Hance, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published November 6, 2012 01:37 PM

Shocking Number of Squatters Found in Sumatran National Park

Sumatra's Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park—home to the Critically Endangered Sumatran rhinos, tigers, and elephants—has become overrun with coffee farmers, loggers, and opportunists according to a new paper in Conservation and Society. An issue facing the park for decades, the study attempted for the first time to determine the number of squatters either living in or farming off Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the rough census—over 100,000 people—shocked scientists.

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"In some parts of the Park the squatters are so numerous that the area looks more like a Javanese countryside," lead author Patrice Levang with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) told mongabay.com. "Another surprise was the large number of farmers living outside the Park and farming inside."

According to date from 2006, around 55,000 hectares (135,900 acres) inside the park are currently under active encroachment. Evictions of some squatters in the 1980s have left around 8,000 hectares (19,700 acres) of regenerating forest, but still the total encroachment areas account for about 15 percent of the t park, which spans 3,568 square kilometers.

Unlike many other parks that face conflict between human occupants and protected area status, Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park was not historically occupied by significant populations.

"Since the 1960s large numbers of immigrants from Java moved to Lampung and converted the forests into coffee plantations, progressively moving from the east to the west and inside the Park," explains Levang. In fact, around 80 percent of the squatters' families are originally from Java.

"Most squatters have a low education level and limited marketable skills. They are looking for cheap land in order to make a living. They would prefer more accessible locations closer to schools and dispensaries, but as such locations are not available they make do with encroaching in the Park, the best available opportunity for the time being," Levang says.

He adds that squatters are fully aware that by farming, logging or living in the park, they are breaking the law. But in recent decades there has been little action by authorities.

"With the advent of democracy and regional autonomy, many local politicians tend to back the squatters in order to expand their constituency," explains Levang. "Local authorities generally block any coercive action against squatters as such action is considered as 'politically incorrect.'"

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Coffee plantation image via Shutterstock.

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