I am in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, trying to get a feel for how Indonesians themselves perceive the dramatic events of earlier in the year - when students took to the streets to protest against Suharto's presidential regime. I also want to do some research on the forest fires that regularly smog up the long island of Sumatra.
Breakfast with an Indonesian student who is applying to do an MA in our department. I rush off to an appointment 50 miles south of Jakarta at the offices of the Centre for International Forestry Research to try to identify forest fires I might investigate. I come away with a map of Jambi province in southern Sumatra on which satellite technology has identified "hot spots", places where fires broke out. Now I can make my way to specific locations, see the terrain and ask some questions.
We set off from Jambi heading east on a good road, which stops abruptly at a river about a mile wide. We take a small motor-boat up river to the site of one of the densest patches of hot spots. Apparently the area is a logging concession, and the suspicion is that having extracted most of the timber, the concessionaries burn the rest to clear the area for replanting. This has devastating consequences because the area is peat swamp and the fires burn beneath the surface causing a lot of smoke. The concessionaries put the blame on disgruntled small-holders who are envious of the concession.
Three of us set off for an oil-palm plantation where there have been fires. The plantation owners say that it is neighbouring small-holders whose fires got out of hand. Small-holders say the exact opposite. In one nasty incident a mob beat a plantation superintendent to death.
I am moving on to Kerinci, where I did my doctoral research years ago. Tomorrow I have a lot of walking to do, a 40-kilometre hike through the hills where the track is not accessible to motorbikes, let alone cars, and where I want to see the consequences of the fires on the cinnamon and coffee plantations of small-holders.
Bill Watson Department of anthropology, University of Kent at Canterbury.