Pak SutomoJavanese Teak Farmer

Pak Sutomo:
Javanese Teak Farmer

Pak Sutomo was born in 1956 in Sragen, one hour east of Solo, central Java. The son of a farmer, the oldest of eight children, he grew up in Karang, a farming village 24 km northeast of Sragen. Pak Sutomo started working in teak (jati) forests when he was eight years old. He has always made his living in one way or the other from the land, growing rice, cultivating crops and taking his cows into the forest to feed. He has never been to Jakarta, but has visited his two daughters in Kalimantan. Pak Sutomo is the proud owner of a 20-meter-high teak tree, the largest in the district on high ground at the top of the village.

What is your job in the teak wood plantation?

I clear and plant trees for the purpose of reforestation (reboisasi). I prepare saplings several months before the rainy season starts in December, so that they are ready to be planted quickly at the start of the rains. After planting the saplings, we plant corn and cassava in between the trees before each wet season for four years. After the trees reach five years of age, we can no longer plant crops underneath because the large leaves of the teak trees block out the sun. When the trees reach maturity in 10 to 15 years, they are cut in August or September while the ground is still dry which makes it easy to use cranes and extract the cut wood on trucks.

How many species of teak trees grow around here?

Two kinds. Super Jati, which originates in the Kediri area, and Jati Lokal, the variety grown naturally in this locality. Super Jati grows straight with few branches, has beautiful white wood and reaches maturity in only 10 years. If not mature, you can only use this type of teak for furniture inside the house. Jati Lokal is wild teak with wood of a reddish color. It grows at angles with more branches and becomes mature in 15 years. Jati Lokal is higher quality, can last 100 years and even if it’s not mature the cut wood can be exposed to all kinds of weather.

How are teak trees harvested?

One month before harvesting, the bark is first stripped off around the base of the trees. This dries out the wood and makes the trees easier to cut and haul away in trucks. A srekel field milling saw (sensor in Indonesian) and a truck are driven to the plantation to cut down the barked trees. Balok (planks) are cut as long as possible, right up to the first branch. The longer the planks are, the more money you can get for each plank. We Javanese don’t use any nails in the construction of our wooden limasan and joglo houses, except for the reng (roof tile supports). Carpenters don’t want to connect (sambung) lengths of wood together, but prefer to use just continuous long planks in building because they stronger and nicer looking.

Who owns the teak trees in this area?

Tegalan are small private land holdings (tanah pribadi) on high, unirrigated ground. The trees are planted 3-6 m apart, so corn, beans, sugar cane, cassava and peanuts can be cultivated underneath. A perkebunan is a privately owned commercial plantation where only jati trees are grown with one m of space between trees. A perhutanan is a government-owned plantation up 30 sq. km like the one 30 minutes east of Sragen, which we call Hutan Sragen. After 5 years of growth, no other plants can be grown in between the rows of trees in all of these types of teak forests because of the shady leaves.

Are teak trees guarded?

Because teak trees are so valuable, thieves working in teams on the perimeters of plantations are always trying to cut down the most precious trees that are over 10 years old, usually in the very early morning. A forest staff (mandor), living temporarily in a shack in the forest, patrols the plantation 24 hours a day in night and day shifts. If the mandor catch a thief, they turn him over to the mantri, the head of the staff, who takes him to the police.

How do the thieves work and what do they do with the trees?

Thieves don’t strip the bark off single trees they want, but just cut the tree down and take the trunks away noiselessly on their shoulders. If the land is wet, they hide the trunk in the mud or in the middle of a sugar cane or corn field and come back at night to fetch it. Trees are sold to house builders at a very low price. The low price is the way that you know that the wood is stolen. I’ve seen armed thieves while planting but I walk away. It’s dangerous and not my job to try to apprehend them. My brother-in-law, while he was guarding a government teak forest, was almost killed in 1974 by tree poachers wielding axes. He bears deep facial scars to this day.

Do teak trees bear fruit?

Teak trees don’t have very pretty flowers, but the seeds from the teak’s fruit are used for planting new trees. The tiny sprouts grow for two months, and then the saplings are replanted in dry soil just before the rainy season so there’s no need to water. The Javanese don’t use plastic but use teak leaves for wrapping raw spices, turmeric, chilies at the market, as well as meals like nasi campur, nasi pecel, etc.

Besides teak, what other high quality woods are grown in Java?

We Javanese are accustomed to only using teak for building houses and making cabinets, shelves, tables and chairs. Mahoni (mahogany, Swietenia macrophylla), which is susceptible to termites, is inferior to jati and is only used to make inside furniture. Mahoni is not used to build houses because the wood expands during the rainy season and shrinks in the heat of the summer. The only wood that can compete with jati is the rare – yet cheaper – anti-termite hard wood sonokeling (Indian rosewood, Dalbergia latifolia) whose color is even more attractive than jati. The drawback is that sonokeling takes 25 years to grow!

Are teak trees subject to disease?

Teak trees are not attacked by any diseases here, but caterpillars (ulat jati or the Hyblaea puera moth) attack the leaves of young trees during the first rains. These caterpillars actually do not cause the trees any harm and, in fact, stimulate growth and ultimately make the tree grow faster and taller. The larvae of ulat jati are fried in oil with some chili and garlic and eaten by the villagers. Delicious!

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