Indonesia: Forests in transition


Forests in transition

(Source: Newsletter Down toEarth,No. 61, May 2004)

A recentvisit by DTE staff to South Sumatra illustrates the realities of Indonesia’sdeforestation and the tensions between local communities and the authoritiesover the use of ‘forest lands’ in a rapidly changing environment.


“Whyare you going to South Sumatra to find out about sustainable forest use? Thereis no forest there!”, said people in Jakarta. Even in the provincialcapital, Palembang, staff at the South Sumatra branch of the environmental NGOWALHI were gloomy. Director, Aidil Fitri, argues that South Sumatra is a primeexample of the need for a logging moratorium in Indonesia to allow space todevelop a new paradigm of forest management. By 2001, only 4.4 million hectaresof forest remained in this 11.3 million ha province, and more than half of itwas in a ‘critical condition’, according to official forestry department data.Nearly 2 million ha of this was, on paper, classified as production forest.


Asrecently as twenty years ago, large areas of Sumatra were covered by denselowland forest. The predictions of a World Bank report in early 2000 – thatlowland forests in Sumatra had, at best, 5 years of commercial production left -have proved all too true in this province. Overlogging by timber companies,forest fires, agricultural expansion, transmigration, conversion to plantations,coal mining and land speculation have all played their part. In addition, as inother areas, supervision of timber companies’ activities has been woefullyinadequate and there has been far too little replanting.


Todaymuch of South Sumatra’s forest has been converted into scrub and – increasingly- palm oil plantations. This is hardly surprising since palm oil prices havemore than doubled to around US$550 per tonne since 2001 and are still rising.Furthermore, the lowlands of Sumatra are a particularly attractive option forMalaysian plantation companies as land and labour costs are much lower than inneighbouring Malaysia. Local people too are keen to cash in on the boom. Theyare clearing the remnants of forest, after logging companies, entrepreneurs fromnearby cities and forest fires have taken their toll, in order to set up theirown small-scale plantations. Indonesia’s crude palm oil (CPO) production isexpected to increase from 9.9 million tons in 2003 to 10.4 million tons in 2004,according to the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association (GAPKI).


Localnature conservation officials are worried because much of South Sumatra’s timbernow comes from protected areas. There has been much publicity about ‘illegallogging’ in the mangrove swamp forest of Berbak-Sembilang National Park on SouthSumatra’s east coast and in Kerinci Seblat National Park in the mountainous westof the province. It is all too easy to take illegally felled timber down riverand out to Malaysia through small, unofficial ports. Plantation companiesdeveloping crops other than oil palm are also causing deforestation. Forexample, on Gunung Gempo in the Bukit Barisan range, a tea plantation owned by aJava-based company is gradually extending its tea plantation higher and higherup what were once the forested slopes of the mountain.


A newparadigm?


The paceof change is alarmingly rapid. Yet Indonesia’s forestry officials and loggingcompanies have been very slow to adapt to a new and more complex reality. Vestedcommercial interests and Indonesia’s well-entrenched systems of patronage andcorruption are only part of the story. Generations of foresters have beentrained on a model of forestry that is increasingly outdated in Indonesia: amodel based on logging large concessions of rainforest containing many valuablespecies of tropical hardwoods. But now, in western Indonesia, there are fewlocations left where there are at least 100,000 hectares of mature forestavailable to commercial operations. Local communities are demanding theirrights. ‘Illegal logging’ is taking place on a massive scale.


Someradical forestry experts predict that- at best – the majority of Indonesia’sforests will become a mosaic of agricultural land, heavily modified forests andsmall-scale plantations. Agroforestry provides a realistic alternative tolarge-scale commercial plantations or extensive tracts of ‘critical land’. NGOactivists are working to help local communities reclaim land where forests arebadly degraded, or have been replaced by coarse alang-alang grassland.Conservationists inevitably point out that biodiversity is much lower than inmature forest. But other Indonesian environmentalists argue that agroforests canfulfil many of the ecological functions of rainforest (such as protecting soilsand maintaining water cycles) and, crucially, provide food security forcommunities who once lived in and around forests.


Thedistrict of Musi Banyuasin is an appropriate place to examine these newrealities. Extending up to the northern border with Jambi, it is the richestkabupaten (district) in South Sumatra due mainly to its abundant coal, naturalgas and oil reserves. Even so, there are still areas of real poverty. The mostobvious examples are where transmigration sites were located in placesunsuitable for Javanese-style agriculture – such as swamp forest. Unable toafford to return to Java and embarrassed by the stigma of failure, landlesssettlers turned to illegal logging and prostitution as their only means ofmaking a living.




Thiscentral part of Sumatra has a troubled past. Villagers tell how theirforefathers left Palembang and fled to the hinterland during the Dutch colonialera. It became a stronghold of the PRRI/Permesta uprising during the 1950s,where some local people fought against Jakarta and the Indonesian army for thenewly founded nation to become a federation rather than a republic. In the 1970sand ’80s, many transmigration sites were opened up and there was an influx ofsettlers from Java – both on the government programme and ‘spontaneousmigrants’. In addition, many local communities were forced to relocate to makeway for transmigration sites and logging operations. The result is an intricatepatchwork of different communities, each with its own patterns of land use andsocial relations. Villagers are commonly from several different ethnic groupsand people’s history in the area may only go back one or two generations.


Thegroup hardest hit by the arrival of new settlers and the conversion of forest toplantations, agriculture and neglected grasslands are the indigenous OrangRimbo, known as the ‘Kubu’ by other communities. These people have, untilrecently, followed a lifestyle which is highly dependent on the forests.Traditionally, they do not live in villages or farm, but set up temporarysettlements wherever the hunting is good and there are plentiful supplies offorest fruits and vegetables. They hunt deer and wild pigs with dogs, shootingtheir prey with blowpipes, and also fish in forest rivers – often using extractsof tubers to stun their catches. As they tend to live on the forest margins, theOrang Rimbo often come into contact with village communities but – apart frommatches to make fire or cigarettes – they want little from the outsiders exceptto continue their way of life in their customary forests.


Late atnight in a roadside house on the way to Jambi, Pak Nur talks sympathetically ofthe ‘Kubu’. Now a sprightly man in his 70s, he worked in many remote areas ofcentral Sumatra as a medical orderly for transmigration sites. He tells how agovernment Social Department project to settle nearby Orang Rimbo in the late1970s failed because local officials tried to exploit them as unpaid labour toclear the forests. Now they have all left the area. Most moved up to Jambi; afew still live in the traditional way along the River Bengukal. However, hebelieves that the majority of local people in Musi Banyuasin were probablyderived from various groups of these indigenous peoples who had, over severalgenerations, formed settlements and taken up farming. They now call themselvespribumi (native) rather than ‘Kubu’ as they want to separate their identity frompeople whom the authorities stereotype as dirty, uneducated, isolated tribes.


Lack ofadat


The highdegree of ethnic mixing, the introduction of formal education plus the standardvillage administrative system imposed by the Soeharto regime from 1974  have combined to reduce greatly the importance of adat (customary) lawand practices in everyday life in most communities in Musi Banyuasin. Adat isnow largely restricted to people’s cultural history, the genealogy of families,and some social norms.


Fewvillagers we met had any experience of customary laws governing land use ordecision-making today. Local people told how their fathers and grandfathers usedto live by a mixture of logging, collecting forest products such as rattan,resins and honey, and fishing. If someone wanted to clear forest, he would seekpermission from the village head or customary leader (usually one and the same).Parts of the forest were set aside for the future as hutan larangan (prohibitedforest). Cultivated land belonged to whoever cleared it first. Villagers couldfarm areas of cleared forest for a year or so, before moving on in a fifty yearrotational cycle. “We did not look after the forest. There was so much ofit and so few people. But now it is different, especially since the fires…Theforest reserved for the future is now no more than coarse grassland….It wasthe fires, logging and the need for land”, said one community leader.


Pak Nurand his son told us how: “There used to be lots of logging companies, likeAsia Log, but they cut down the forest without replanting it afterwards.Companies such as LonSum, which were given permits to clear conversion forest toset up plantations, actually operated in areas designated production forest andcut down huge commercially valuable trees. Smaller trees were discarded as wastewood and left lying around where they became tinder for forest fires (umpanapi). The 1997 fires were terrible.

Peoplesuffered from the smoke for months. Sometimes it was difficult to breathe andhard to see where you were going, but people had to go out and carry on withtheir normal lives as best they could. But the worst time came after the fires.The rains washed the ashes of the forest into the streams which people drankfrom and many people suffered from diarrhoea and vomiting… There are stillfires every year, but the worst of these are where illegal loggers burn to cleartrails so they can get trucks in to access what forest remains.”




Anincreasing population striving to make a living on a reducing resource is aformula for ecological and social disaster. An environmental activist working inMusi Banyuasin estimates that around half the local community still depends onlogging – legal and illegal – and has done so for decades. They have littleeducation, no land to cultivate and no farming skills. “You see fifteenyear-olds, with a clove cigarette in the mouth, expertly handlingchainsaws,” said Aris, “But, as the forests dwindle and there is lesswork, things are getting more and more difficult for these people. They willstab each other in the back in order to get enough to live”. He estimatedthat there were more than 100 sawmills in the immediate area, apparently allowned by ‘outsiders’ such as people from Jakarta, ethnic Chinese and evenTaiwanese.


Now thatthe majority of production forest has been stripped of its most valuable timberand fires have damaged what remained, loggers have turned to protected areas.’Illegal logging’ in the province is increasing year on year. Official figuresshow 42,000 cubic metres of timber were seized in 2002, compared with only16,000 m3 in 2001, but these only represent a fraction of the unofficial timbertrade. According to Aidil Fitri, WALHI South Sumatra’s director, “mostcases are settled outside the law”. This causes continued forestdestruction and degradation as well as billions of rupiah in lost revenues forlocal and central governments. Dulhadi, head of  South Sumatra’s Conservation and Natural Resources Office (BKSDA), saysthat the only protected areas where any big forests trees remain are Dangku andBentayan nature reserves, in Musi Banyuasin district – both problematiclocalities.


The31,732 ha Dangku reserve was established during the 1980s, but is now a focus ofconflict with local communities. Transmigrants from the nearby Berlian Jayasite, settlers from another part of the district now living in Pangkalan Tungkalvillage and indigenous farmers of Lubuk Nyaru are all encroaching on the reservebecause they have no other land to farm. They have little idea which companieshave got concessions to operate in the area or where these are – and they nolonger care. In 1997 and 1999 forest fires destroyed much of their native rubberplantations. This area, and more besides, has been taken over by the palm oilcompany, Bumi Sawit Sejati.


The headof the community at Simpang Empat openly admitted that most of the 1,500inhabitants now depended on kerja balok (logging) for a living. “We aretrapped because we can’t get permission to use the forest legally. Companies canget permits, but we can’t. There’s no land for us. The forestry departmentcontrols it all and we’re not allowed to touch it… But the forestry officialsdon’t stop other people from coming in and taking timber. They didn’t look afterthe forest. So we have started to cut down the trees too. If the government gaveus another alternative, we would take it. But we have nothing except ‘illegallogging’ and we must eat.”


Thebusiness is not making them rich. These villagers live from hand to mouth. Theyhave no savings and struggle to send their children to elementary school(nominally free) because of the cost of books, uniforms and additional monthlyfees. Almost all food must be bought in. The adat leader was pessimistic aboutthe possibilities of reviving customary law to control natural resource use.Only 30% of the community were truly local; the rest had come from neighbouringLampung or Java – some as long ago as the 1940s – due to plantations and the oilcompanies.


AtBentayan, local people are vigorously contesting the exact location of the19,300 ha nature reserve. Some 2,000 families located in three villages arguethat, far from occupying state land, it is local officials who are behavingirresponsibly and even illegally. They say that the nature reserve wasestablished on their lands without consultation. While they accept the need forforest conservation, and particularly watershed protection, they are angry thatthe boundaries of the reserve do not follow the line on the map. Instead,forestry staff simply put the marker posts along the roadside several kilometresaway.


Thismeans that land used for many generations – as shown by long-established fruittrees like duren, manggis and cempedak  -is now claimed as a protected area from which they are legally excluded.Ironically, the government has provided a primary school within the contestedarea. (It does not help that the protected area straddles two administrativedistricts and co-ordination between the authorities is poor.) Villagers havewritten to the local conservation office, land affairs agency and the governor.Last September they sent a letter to forestry minister Prakosa, explaining theirposition, but there has been no response. They are now planning demonstrationsat provincial and national levels.


A commontheme is that the introduction of roads – mainly for the construction andmaintenance of oil and gas pipelines – have been a major agent of change. Themain eastern road between the provincial capitals Palembang and Jambi dates backto the Dutch era, but from the 1950s until 1988 it was mainly a dirt road. Newdirt roads branch left and right off this – some hardened to give an all weathersurface. These have been made during the last decade: most recently for theTrans-ASEAN gas pipeline. Timber is flooding out of Dangku and Bentayan reserves- all of it illegal. There is a thriving local industry in supplying andrepairing small lorries with heavy lifting gear. Up to 50 trucks per day – eachcarrying around 8 cubic metres of timber – pass along just one of these feederroads at the end of the wet season. In the dry season, there are many more. And,late in the afternoon, the truckers queue on the main road at the local natureconservation office to pay their unofficial levies.


Replantingor reclaiming?


“Nowwe are replanting the forest”, said a woman from Gresik Belido – ascattered collection of houses about 20km off the main road. What they callforest looks like a sea of elephant grass with a few burnt skeletons of giantforest trees and some shrubby thickets along stream beds. The nearest matureforest (Bentayan nature reserve) is several kilometres in the distance. Thewhole area used to be a local rubber plantation, but this went up in smoke in1997. The preferred practice is to clear the land using three doses of Roundupor a similar heavy-duty herbicide (hand weeding takes too long and isineffective); to grow rice for a few years; and then plant the area with rubberor oil palm. Close to their houses, people plant fruit trees, vegetables, yamsand chillies. Some villagers are experimenting with planting cacao bushes.


Theirworking clothes are torn and faded and their homes are very basic wooden huts,with no electricity or running water, but these are not impoverished people.Many of them came to this part of Sumatra from Java as independent migrantsabout twenty years ago. The land is productive and they work hard. One largeroom of a family house is piled to the ceiling with sacks of rice – the lastharvest yielded 2 tonnes per hectare – and next year this community hopes tobuild an elementary school and employ a teacher with the proceeds of theirlabour. Each family cultivates 1-4 hectares but, if they have more land thanthey can manage, they may contract it out to someone to farm it for them or giveit to another family for the cost of clearing the land (approx $30 for 2ha).


Afurther 6 km along, there are well-established rubber plantations either side ofthe dirt road. The villagers of Suka Damai protected this ‘forest’ against firefor three whole months in 1997. These people call themselves ‘originalinhabitants’, although they moved to this area less than 30 years ago andrelocated the village from a riverside to its present site on the dirt road whenit was constructed in the early 1980s. They see this as their adat land and saythat, long ago, their customary leaders (Pasirah) told them to come and farmhere. Pak Abu Sirih, the customary leader of the village explained that todayland use is governed by co-operatives not adat: they decide by consensus whichareas to clear for farming, what to plant and work together to do this. Hencerubber which, ten years ago, generated good profits has largely replaced riceand bananas. Even now, when rubber prices are low, people are quite well off:the same numbers of people make the pilgrimage to Mecca now as before the onsetof the economic crisis in ’97.


Technicallythis land is state forest, even though it is clearly the result of cultivationand tree planting. Some of the local inhabitants are openly defiant towards theauthorities.  A cheerful young womanwith two children told how – since arriving from Lampung a few years ago – shewas making a reasonable living growing rice, bananas and other fruit trees. Heronly problem was the head of the conservation office who kept requesting a ‘tax’of some of her produce to supplement his meagre wages. “I told him to goand fetch some from the forest himself! We are not allowed to steal! We must notcut down trees. We must not hunt wild animals or trap birds. Why can’t we farm?What are we supposed to eat? I asked him, ‘Do you know who this land belongsto?’ It belongs to the state. And the state should have some responsibilitytowards its people!”


Many ofthese people belong to a peasant farmers action group. The Kesatuan SolidaritasKesejahteraan Petani (KSKP) was founded in 1998 as a local organisation in andnow has over 200 member groups in five clusters in Musi Banyuasin district. Theyare supported by WALHI and LBH Palembang. KSKP is predominantly a solidaritygroup that mobilises when forest farmers face problems such as land disputes orintimidation from the authorities. The majority of its members are migrants.Several thousand people can mobilise for demonstrations at the district ofprovincial government offices to make their point. In addition to protesting,the KSKP is also striving to resolve conflicts over adat land between incomersand indigenous communities. Its most successful case to date has been bringingtogether transmigration officials, transmigrants, PT Pakerin (an industrialtimber estate) and a local community to settle a dispute over use of customarylands. KSKP is also keen to support farmers to manage their land sustainably -through a mixture of tree crops and short-term plantings – once land claims havebeen settled.


There are other localinitiatives too, including the recently formed South Sumatra Indigenous Peoples’Association (PERMASS). Pak Nur – himself a clan leader from another district isinterested in setting up a new adat council in Musi Banyuasin to revivecustomary law and in making the most of opportunities to strengthen theirposition under national and even international law. Meanwhile, his son hadchosen a different route to fight for farmers’ rights. Robi was standing as adistrict assembly candidate for the PNBK party with the slogan “Praise God,think for yourself and keep up the struggle. The revolution is not overyet.”



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