Bambang Muryanto, Contributor/Yogyakarta
The morning is still very young but daily chores have already began for people living in Kinahrejo village on the slopes of Mountain Merapi in Sleman.
With a sickle in their right hand, bamboo ropes in their left, and a hat or a wide handkerchief covering their head, the villagers hurry, skillfully climbing the slope of the volcano to cut grass to feed their dairy cows.
For many of these highlanders raising dairy cows is considered the best way to make a living, better than growing beans or other crops.
“Thanks to this work we are now able to send our children to colleges and universities,” a mother said while cutting the grass.
Pringgo said she had six cows and could collect some 40 liters of milk a day that she sold for Rp 1,350 per liter, giving her daily earnings of Rp 54,000 or Rp 1,260,000 a month. Growing beans she would get much less, she said.
Sleman regency’s Forestry and Plantation Office empowerment section head Harjanto said dairy cow breeding in the area had begun between 1982 and 1983, following a government program.
Yet, a support program to grow food for the beasts was not introduced. So although there are plenty of fields planted with grass, demand still far outstrips supply.
According to Harjanto, ideally, a mature milker with a weight of 400 kilograms needs one tenth of its weight, or 40 kilograms, in grass a day.
Grass of that amount can only be harvested from fields about 400 square meters. To generate adequate profits, a farmer needs to breed at least seven cows at the same time, meaning a single farmer needs a 2,800 square-meter paddock.
When there is not enough grass in the feilds, the slopes of Mt. Merapi are used to feed the cows. This explains why many people living in the region have opposed the government’s decision to establish the Mt. Merapi National Park (TNGM), fearing that they would no longer be allowed harvest grass there.
From generations, the slope of Mt. Merapi has been divided into numbered of lots of fields. Each family has the “authority” over a particular lot, ranging from 2,000 square meters each to 35,000 square meters a family. It is from these fields that people cut the grass for their cows during the rainy season.
When the dry season comes, however, grass is difficult to find in this area. Some often climb further up to the volcano for grass. In some places, the slope is cultivated with BB (Brizanta brazillius) grass, a fast growing grass that can be harvested every two months.
While on the hot-cloud burn areas, people usually plant a grass locally known as kolonjono.
Harjanto believed, such a “concession” had made local people voluntarily participate in preserving the protected forest. The periodic cutting of the grass, he said, could as well prevent forest fire due to dried, abandoned grass. The cutting rejuvenated the area, he said.
Some also say the grass has the capability of holding back erosion.
However, Yogyakarta Natural Resource Conservation Office (BKSDA) head Kuspriyadi, however, insisted that turning the whole surface of the slope of the volcano into grass field was not a good practice. Trees and bush were often cleared from areas where grass was sown, he said.
The act of cutting grass could also slow down the rehabilitation process of the forest as small trees were also cut down together with the grass. As the need for grass was increasing in line with the increasing dairy herd sizes in the region, more trees were under threat.
Head of Kaliurang Natural Resource Conservation Resort Sugiman said the grass area had rapidly increased to 400 hectares this year from 290 hectares last year.
“We are looking for a solution to this problem. We look forward to discussing it with other concerned (government) offices. We plan to manage collaboratively,” Kuspriyadi said, expressing the hope conservation of the area and improving the people’s welfare were not conflicting interests.