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The Archipelago

Think about the distance from Myanmar to Japan. That's roughly the span of the archipelago nation of Indonesia, 5,120 kilometers (3,200 miles) from west to east to be exact, ranking fourth in terms of breadth behind only Russia, the United States and Canada. You'd think a country stretching so far would be home to huge diversities in peoples and cultures, fauna and flora, climate and topography. In all of these, Indonesia doesn't disappoint.

  • Maps of Indonesia
  • Sprawled across the equator, Indonesia (the name means Islands of India) can lay claim to various superlatives. The largest number of populated islands of any country; 6,000 out of an estimated total of 17,508 islands, as well as the most populous single island, Java, with approximately 120 million inhabitants. The most active volcanoes, at least 150, (as well as the biggest recorded eruption ever, Mount Tambora off of Sumbawa in 1815) and the largest volcanic lake, Lake Toba in North Sumatra (interestingly, Lake Toba also surrounds the largest island within an island in the world, Pulau Samosir). Indonesia is also home to the largest species of lizard in the world, the fearsome Komodo dragon, and the largest flower in the world, the foul-smelling Rafflesia. In the past it was home also to the species Homo erectus, widely known as Java man, and another possibly unique species, the Homo floresiensis, which takes its name from the island of Flores where it was recently discovered. In addition, in terms of biodiversity and number of endemic species, Indonesia ranks second only to Brazil and Australia, respectively.

    The vast area that Indonesia covers is brought into perspective when considering its geographical extremes. Its westernmost point, Weh Island, off the fingertip of the province of Aceh on the island of Sumatra, lies just to the south the Indian Nicobar Islands. Its easternmost point is the town of Merauke in the province of Papua, which shares an island with Papua New Guinea. The Talaud Islands, near to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, are its northernmost region while Rote Island, only 500 kilometers from the Australian mainland is its southernmost.

    The five largest islands in the archipelago are Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) and Papua  (Indonesian half of New Guinea Island). The last two of these islands provide Indonesia with two of its only three land borders; with Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, respectively. The only other land border divides the western half of Timor island (in East Nusa Tenggara province) from its neighbor, the newly independent Timor Leste. Other significant islands are the Malukus, isolated Sumba, and the stepping stone islands, stretching from Java east towards Papua, of Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores and Timor.

    Sumatra is the sixth-largest island in the world and largest island entirely in Indonesia. It is a lush, mountainous place and plays host to many diverse peoples and cultures.  It is home to the mainly Christian Batak, around Medan and Lake Toba, Malays, in the coastal areas and south, the matrilineal Minangkabau of the west and the people of Aceh in the far north, where a decades-old separatist conflict has recently been resolved. Aceh was also the scene of most of the devastation caused by the giant tsunami of 2004, a brutal reminder of the area's tectonic instability.

    The Sunda Strait, the location of the famous volcano Krakatoa, which erupted catastrophically in 1883, divides Sumatra from Java, home to most of Indonesia's people and historically the regional center of power. This is where Jakarta, the bustling capital city, is to be found and it is home to the two biggest ethnic groups in Indonesia, the Javanese in the center and east and the Sundanese, mainly in the west.

    Densely populated Java has a ridge of as many as 38 volcanoes running along it, the most active of which is Mount Merapi in the center. These volcanoes are both a blessing and a curse, producing the rich soil that makes Java perfect for rice cultivation, but also the frequent eruptions, which threaten its inhabitants.

    A short hop from Java is Bali, Indonesia's resort island famed for its beauty and unique culture. Although parts of it have surrendered to the excesses that mass tourism brings, much of Bali is still the picture-perfect place of terraced rice fields and exotic temples. Bali's sister island of Lombok, home of the Sasak people and a unique form of Islam called Wektu Telu, is similarly verdant to Bali on its western side but drier on the east, a change in landscape which extends to the largely animist island of Sumba to the south, and Sumbawa and Timor to the east.

    Rice Terraces of BaliFlores (meaning flowers), as the name suggests, marks a return to luxuriant vegetation. This mainly Catholic island is extremely mountainous, making travel here adventurous, to say the least. On the archipelago's eastern extreme is Papua, formerly known as West Irian and Irian Jaya, which controversially became part of Indonesia in 1969. It is one of the country's most diverse regions both culturally and in terms of biodiversity. The mountainous, jungle terrain of the interior is home to many unique species and over 200 different groups of people and languages.

    To the north of Java lies Kalimantan, or Indonesian Borneo. Kalimantan's rainforests are the lungs of Indonesia, but are sadly being depleted at an alarming rate. Indonesia's mightiest rivers, the Kapuas and Mahakam among them, snake their way through Kalimantan's jungle-clad interior where most of the indigenous inhabitants, the Dayak live. Across the Makassar Strait is the gangly shaped island of Sulawesi. Like much of the archipelago it is green and volcanic. Among many other groups, it is the home of the traditionally seafaring Makassar and Bugis peoples in the South, the Minahasa in the north around Manado, and the Toraja of spectacular Tana Toraja, whose mix of Christian and traditional beliefs results in fascinating rituals, most famously the funeral and burial rites. Rising sharply out of the ocean between Sulawesi and Papua are the Maluku islands, historically known as the Spice Islands. Along with the Minahasa, the people of these volcanic islands had strong past affiliations with the colonial power, the Dutch, and more recently Maluku suffered deadly religious conflict between its mixed population of Muslims and Christians from 1999 to 2002. Thankfully, it has been relatively peaceful since then.

    Throughout these islands, a fascinating array of distinct cultures and languages has developed, due initially to the natural barriers of the sea and harsh mountainous terrain, which separate their inhabitants. These differences were further defined by the uneven nature of contact with the outside world, bringing with it new goods and ideas (including new religions), and more recently by colonialism. Nowadays, the population of Indonesia stands at around 250 million, making it the fourth most populous country on Earth. Most of the people are Muslim but there are some pockets that are majority Christian, mainly in the east of the country. The island of Bali is predominantly Hindu and there are also significant Buddhist and Confucian minorities. (In addition to these, several other religions not officially recognized by the government also exist, not to mention various religious offshoots or sects, as well as the continued practice of animism by certain groups).

    There are an estimated 350 separate ethnic groups in Indonesia and over 700 languages. The majority of the population is of Malay origin, but in the eastern regions, the indigenous people are of Melanesian origin and noticeably darker skinned. Many islands, however, have been subject to transmigration, a policy whereby people in over-populated Java, for the most part, have been offered incentives to move to other regions. This policy, together with the natural movement of people within the archipelago, has resulted in many islands now having widely mixed population groups, especially in the major towns and cities. The policy of transmigration is perhaps most controversial in Papua where the indigenous people are, according to some reports, now in the minority. It has also given rise to ethnic tensions, most significantly in Kalimantan. Miscegenation among ethnic groups is also widespread, and most big cities are a melting pot of all Indonesia's diverse peoples and cultures.

    The 54,716 kilometers (34,200 miles) that make up the coastline of the world's most populated island country also play host to some of the world's most important and busiest sea lanes including the straits of Singapore, straits of Malacca (between Sumatra and Malaysia), and the Sulu Sea (separating Borneo from the southern Philippines). The last two are almost as notorious for piracy as they are important for trade. The sea has played a vital role in Indonesia's development. It is estimated that Indonesian vessels traveled as far as Africa from the first century and trade links between the archipelago and China, India, Europe and the Arab world, among others, have had a huge impact on Indonesian culture, religion, language and cuisine.

    Wallace's Line (named after naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace), which runs between Bali and Lombok, then further to the north between Borneo and Sulawesi continuing northward between northern Sulawesi and the Philippines, is considered the boundary between two zoogeographical regions, Asia to the west and Australasia to the east. As one travels eastward from Bali, the change in the fauna and flora is clearly noticeable. Species endemic to the western part of Indonesia include the Sumatran orangutan, elephant, tiger and rhinoceros as well as the Javan Rhinoceros (all, unfortunately, endangered) while in the eastern part, in addition to the Komodo dragon, the beautiful Bird of Paradise, tiny nocturnal Tarsier and odd-looking Babirusa (pig-deer), among many others species, can be found.

    Indonesia's climate is tropical, that is steamy hot and often wet with temperatures ranging between 29 to 32 degrees Celsius. In most parts, there is a marked rainy season although the timing of this differs according to the area. In the eastern part, the differences in season are more pronounced and generally the dry seasons longer. Each island is a law unto its own, though, and regional variations abound. If you've had enough of sweating, cooler climes are to be found in the highland areas of the islands. These include the Karo highlands of Sumatra, the Dieng plateau of Java and the Toraja and Minahasa areas of Sulawesi.

    The numerous volcanoes that stud the landscape of many Indonesian islands play an important role in the ecology, agriculture, as well as the mythology of the region. Some, like Mount Bromo (East Java) with its otherworldly landscape, and to a lesser extent, the three colored lakes of Kelimutu in Flores are both tourist attractions and national parks, as are Kerinci Seblat (Sumatra) and Rinjani (Lombok), with its extraordinary lake caldera. Mount Bromo is also an important spiritual site for the Tengger people, who live on its slopes. Mount Agung, in the east of Bali, is considered sacred by the local Hindu population. The highest peak in Indonesia, not a volcano, is Puncak Jaya in Papua, which often sees snow. Other notable national parks are Gunung Leuser in Sumatra, Ujung Kulon in Java, Tanjung Puting in Kalimantan and Lore Lindu in Sulawesi. There are 50 official national parks in all in Indonesia. Scattered between the many volcanoes, the valleys and plains of the islands have been used for centuries for the cultivation of not only rice but also corn, coffee, tobacco, cotton and other crops, while the coastal areas of the archipelago are home to most of the big towns and cities, as well as many fishing communities.

    There is a huge amount of marine biodiversity to be found in the seas of Indonesia, with lots of different species of fish, sea mammals, birds and corals. Many parts of Indonesia are well known as exceptional diving spots, including Weh Island off of Sumatra, Bunaken and the Tukang Besi islands of Sulawesi, as well as the Komodo national park and the seas around Papua. Also, many surfers bring their boards to the archipelago to take advantage of the great breaks around Nias in Sumatra, the southern coast of Java, Bali, Lombok and Sumbawa.

    Indonesia is rich in natural resources. Large reserves of oil and natural gas are to be found in and around the seas of Sumatra, Papua and Kalimantan. Kalimantan also is a source of timber and coal while extensive tin, copper and gold deposits have been exploited by multinational companies in Sulawesi, Sumbawa, and Papua, respectively.

    All of this human activity has naturally taken its toll on the environment. Heavy (often illegal) logging and the conversion of forest into oil palm plantations are resulting in the rapid deforestation of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

    A related problem, not only for Indonesia but also for its neighbors, are the huge fires, lit to clear the forest, from burning peat swamps, which lead to a choky haze spreading out over thousands of kilometers. Overfishing is depleting fish stocks while coral reefs are being destroyed by careless fishing practices and silt deposits caused by soil erosion into rivers - also a consequence of deforestation.

    Water pollution due to waste from the mining and oil industries is also a concern and, in general, there is an immense amount of pressure being put on the land and ocean by the large population, primarily on Java. All of these issues, coupled with the susceptibility of the archipelago to natural hazards like earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, floods and droughts, should demand more attention from the authorities than is perhaps the case. Many experts decry the lax and selective enforcement of regulations designed to protect the environment and call for stricter implementation of the rules, as well as more aggressive prosecution of those who break them.

    Contributor: Nick Aarons

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