It would be easy to draw a comparison between the economic potential of a region and the blooming of a flower, especially in a fertile and green regency such as Kabupaten Lebong on the southwest of Sumatra island. But there is a specific reason why this part of Bengkulu province can lay claim to such an analogy. Not only are the slopes of its forest-covered mountains home to many variations of wild orchids, but they are also home to the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia Arnoldi. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and botanist Joseph Arnold first discovered the extraordinary flower, which has a diameter of 3 feet and can weigh up to 15 pounds, when the famed founder of Singapore was appointed Governor-General of what was then Bencoolen. Both British and Dutch rulers of the region came and went, but the Rafflesia continues to grace the regency to this day.
Naturally a flower does not an economy make, especially since it only blossoms for up to 15 days in the months between September and December. For economic prospects the recently elected Bupati Dalhadi Umar is looking towards a much more valuable commodity. Three million tons of pure gold deposits are contained in the earth beneath these Rafflesias. It was extracted by the Dutch right up to their departure during the second World War, and since then, some local tribes have been only marginally sifting for the precious metal. “The 33 kilograms of gold on top of the National Monument in the capital Jakarta actually comes from Kabupaten Lebong,” states a proud Umar.
The deposits are far from depleted, but the structure to coordinate private mining had not been in place before local governments were given greater control of their regions. “Now we have full support from the Governor in Bengkulu,” says Bupati Umar, “to make sure that with all the limitations we had, we will do our best to help investors process licenses in a short term, and that they need not pay for everything until they start their operations.” The provincial capital’s port at Bengkulu is capable of becoming an appropriate transshipment gateway for Lebong’s mining activities. Lebong also boasts deposits of granite stone, for which interested parties from Japan and Korea have conducted special surveys. The Bupati points out that state oil and gas company, Pertamina, is also looking into the possibility of developing a gas extraction and thermal power plant in the region, which could meet the energy needs of local businesses and citizens.
A formalization of Lebong’s mining sector would supplement its agricultural activities, on which 89 percent of the population is dependent. Robusta and Arabica coffee are the most cultivated commodities and make up 60 percent of all agricultural production in Kabupaten Lebong. Other crops include tea, young bamboo, chili, corn, and potatoes as well as avocados, pineapple, bananas, and oranges. The regency is seeking domestic or foreign partners to upgrade its farming and harvesting techniques, aiding the diversification of current crops and plantations.
The province of Bengkulu has a population of around one million. In the early stages of its history, Bengkulu was home to the Kingdom of Selebar, which served as a vassal state for the Javanese Kingdom of Banten. It was a main source of pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and coffee, commodities upon which Banten thrived. On July 12, 1685, Selebar signed a treaty with the British East India Company according to which the British had the right to establish a fortified trading post at Selebar. Thus the birth of Fort Marlborough, famous for being the second strongest fort in Asia after Fort George in Madras, India. Built between 1713 and 1719, it served as the seat of British power and influence in the western parts of the archipelago until 1825, when, under the terms of the Treaty of London, England handed over the territory to the Dutch, ending 139 years of British rule in Bengkulu. Restored in 1984, Fort Marlborough is now a popular tourist attraction.
Lebong has what it takes to expand upon Marlborough and take off as an alternative tourist destination in its own right. Its Bukit Barisan mountain range is home to the Rejang people, an ethnic group whose spiritual connection with their environment has transcended far beyond Sumatra, and even formed the basis of various literary works. The Rejang have their own language and alphabet (Kalui), and still practice a form of animism that is a central part of their daily lives. They believe that potent spirits live in the lakes of the surrounding mountains, ones that even visitors might be able to encounter, if they believe strongly enough. One particular spirit named Masumai is able to take the form of a tiger or a man. The use of magic and silent power in this unseen world serves a great range of purposes, ranging from ritual oaths to divination at holy shrines. This proximity to nature is said to safeguard man’s passage through life, leading him in the right direction. For Bupati Dalhadi Umar, that prosperous destination will always be Lebong, whether it is reached through agriculture, mining, or tourism.