MAN OF THE TREES © Duncan Graham 2006
When Djauhar Asikin took over as director of Purwodadi Botanical Gardens he found it was off-limits to some young children.
Here was East Java’s most prestigious government park, designed to conserve species, conduct research and educate the public. Yet some strict Muslim families had imposed a ban on visits.
For the park also had another proclaimed purpose which Djauhar ranked below the other priorities. However the teenagers disagreed. For them the prime reason for Purwodadi was recreation, which in their minds meant smooching with the opposite sex.
So instead of entering the gardens to view an exotic display of orchids the impressionable kiddies were seeing erotic displays of … Well, you can fill in the dots yourself.
That was two years ago, but the children are now back in thousands. The visitors even include Islamic schools educating their charges about the pilgrimage to Mecca by using mock-ups of the Holy City on the park’s open areas.
“It’s the only large space the teachers could find,” said Djauhar. “We’ve been promoting the gardens and visitor numbers are increasing. Last year we had 150,000. That means privacy for romance is now limited.”
So lovers beware: If your intentions are amorous rather than arboreal steer clear at weekends when crowds are densest. Weekdays? You can always try your luck amongst the creepy-crawlies in the leaf litter, but with 180 staff pruning, potting and planting across the 85 hectares, the chances of a peeping Tom or Tomasina are high.
Purwodadi is one of four government-run botanical gardens, known as Kebun Raya. Bogor is the biggest and most famous. The other two are in Cibodas (West Java) and Eka Karya (Bali) – a recent addition.
The first three were established by the Dutch with Purwodadi created just in time on 30 January 1941. The following year the Japanese were in control and preserving the archipelago’s botany was not on their agenda. The park was used to grow plants that could produce oil for the invader’s war machine.
After Independence the park’s original purpose was revived and Purwodadi now specialises in dry area species. At 300 metres above sea level it’s classified as lowland, and with five or six rainless months it’s grand for hardy plants.
The collection of 15,000 specimens covers almost 4,000 species. Not all are from Indonesia. There’s a prickly Mexican section with cacti. Although trees dominate there’s also a wide range of bamboos and bananas.
Djauhar took a masters degree in horticulture at Reading University in England. His previous job was head of planning at Bogor. He conducted The Jakarta Post on a two-hour stroll of his rolling tree-clad spread, with deciduous and evergreens – quite unlike the manicured geometry of lush Bogor.
What are your roots?
I was born in Malang where my father was a civil engineer. I didn’t like the harshness of that profession. I preferred nature and loved gardening, so I became a horticulturalist.
When I came back here from Bogor I was surprised how few knew about the park, even though it’s on the main road between Surabaya and Malang. I suppose that’s because people are racing to their destination and don’t notice us.
I think that with more visitors we’ll get more money to better pay the staff and improve facilities, like toilets.
Purwodadi is great value compared to other recreation places, like tea plantations and safari parks. Our entrance fees are only Rp 3,500 (US 40 cents) and on weekdays you can bring your car and drive around for an extra Rp 6,500 (US 70 cents). To celebrate our 30 January birthday I made entrance free and we had about 20,000 visitors.
Never again! The rubbish was everywhere. Maybe our one-day limit is about 10,000.
Why do people litter such a beautiful place?
It worries me. If there are three classes, the rich, the middle and the poor it’s the latter that usually don’t care about the environment. Their priorities are surviving from day to day.
So lifting the nation’s economy and with it education is important. Our employees are constantly reminding visitors to use the bins.
Do you see any changes in public attitudes?
Yes, there’s better understanding of the need for conservation. I think recent landslips in East Java, which have caused dreadful damage and loss of life, have made people realise the need to plant and preserve trees.
We have the capability to produce thousands of seedlings for reforestation, but usually not the species that people want. When we’ve planted mahogany the trees have been cut for firewood.
We need fast growing species that don’t produce good burning timber. We need the public’s cooperation.
Has the park been changed since the Dutch era?
We’ve altered some of the layout but the broad avenue leading from the entrance to the Bougainvillea is as originally planned. We’ve built new houses for orchids and the plants we collect from the wild every year in field trips to Kalimantan.
An area near the river has been allowed to return to its natural state. There’s now access from the park along a footbridge across the river to a 300-hectare forest next door.
We’re doing research on the medical benefits of some plants.
Sadly there’s not much East Javanese culture to be found here – unlike the gardens in Bali.
What’s your main ambition?
To get more and more people to enjoy Purwodadi and appreciate the environment. The potential is huge. Unlike Bogor we don’t get travel agents organising tour groups, and very few foreigners – maybe only 100 a year.
Promotion isn’t easy. We have a budget of Rp 500 million (US $55,000) a year – Bogor has Rp 5 billion (US $550,000)
For 11 years in Bogor I was in the office with computers and meetings. I had to use my mind. Here I can use my heart. No more headaches! Here I can get out and do my own thing – which is to make the gardens better and better.
I really don’t like to be called ‘director’ because that puts me apart from the staff. This is my job – and my hobby. I love it.
(Purwodadi is open daily from 8 am to 4 pm. It’s on the east side of the main highway from Surabaya to Malang, and 65 kilometres south of Surabaya.)
(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 September 2006)