Murdoch University Research Repository

Welcome to the Murdoch University Research Repository

The Murdoch University Research Repository is an open access digital collection of research
created by Murdoch University staff, researchers and postgraduate students.

Learn more

The fourth circle: A political ecology of Sumatra's rainforest frontier

McCarthy, John F. (2000) The fourth circle: A political ecology of Sumatra's rainforest frontier. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

PDF - Whole Thesis
Available Upon Request


The Indonesian archipelago contains the world's second largest expanse of tropical forest and is a major world centre for biodiversity. Yet, Indonesia has one of the highest rates of deforestation. Central to this problem is the incomplete understanding of the institutional dynamics associated with deforestation at the district and village levels. This thesis is based on 12 months field research conducted during 1996-99 in Aceh, Sumatra. It examines how local institutional arrangements govern resource use in three communities (Sama Dua, Menggamat and Badar) within the Leuser Ecosystem, one of the richest expanses of tropical rainforest in Southeast Asia. The research focuses on the interaction of local customary {adat) village regimes, de facto district authority systems, and State policy. The thesis also considers the fate of biodiversity conservation projects that attempted to intervene in these areas.

Customary (adat) institutional arrangements have mediated community access and use of a complex array of resources. These adat arrangements have adjusted to the characteristics of natural resources whose value fluctuates dramatically in response to markets elsewhere. The political, economic and ecological influences affecting these institutional arrangements varied with location and time. In each case local institutional arrangements have proved surprisingly resilient and dynamic, rapidly responding to fluctuating economic and political conditions in complex and locally specific ways.

In the Sama Dua case, adat institutional arrangements have continued to adjust to the changing agro-ecological and economic conditions shaping the conversion of forest into productive agroforests. The forest here was less accessible to outside logging networks and local communities successfully maintained control against outside claims. As villagers have moved back to agriculture following the economic crisis of 1997, adat institutions have become more salient. Adat has also remained important in Menggamat. Here logging networks were able to co-opt community leadership and accommodate local customary arrangements by offering village actors a portion of the flow of benefits derived from logging community territory. In the third case of Badar, where villages were recently settled frontier communities, adat arrangements were less well established. Here, villagers formed a "growth coalition" with logging networks.

The networks of political, economic and social exchange and accommodation evidenced in the second two cases eclipse both State and adat authority structures in governing local forest resources. This suggests that the explanation of environmental change necessarily has to focus on the matrices of power relations characteristic of these areas. In such circumstances, neither adat nor State institutional arrangements constitute viable resource management alternatives on their own. It is district webs of power and interest coalesced around logging and reaching out into the wider society that create the most serious obstacle to biodiverstity conservation, leading inexorably to environmental decline.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Warren, Carol and Moore, Susan
Item Control Page Item Control Page