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Down to Earth No. 44, February 2000

Loggers rush to strip Siberut

Siberut provides a vivid example of the way the powerful combination of Indonesia's economic problems and changes to local autonomy and forestry legislation threaten the future of the country's forests and indigenous people. A UNESCO workshop on conservation and sustainable development for the Siberut biosphere zone brought various conflicting parties together to look for local solutions.

The fact that most of Siberut is still covered with prime forests (unlike the other Mentawai islands off the West coast of Sumatra) owes much to its demarcation as a Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Reserve by UNESCO and the Indonesian government in 1981, and to the establishment in 1993 of a national park covering 190,500 hectares of the western part of the island.

In the early 1990s, the government cancelled all logging permits and made it clear that plantations and transmigration settlements would not be allowed on Siberut. Powerful local figures repeatedly advanced plans to open up oil palm plantations, using transmigrant labour, in the eastern half of the island. These were kept at bay by national and international NGOs and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) which funded an Integrated Conservation and Development Programme in the national park (see DTE 33 & 42). But in late 1998, the (then) forestry minister gave in to pressure from the provincial government. Large plantations on Siberut mean logging as there is so little open, degraded land on the island.

The threats to Siberut

Since then, the Mentawai islands have become a new district, administratively separate from the mainland of West Sumatra. This change is highly significant since Local Autonomy Laws passed last year give greater decision-making and financial control to district officials. Local governments will be allowed to keep the lion's share of revenues, so there is a powerful incentive to 'develop' natural resources. Furthermore, 1999 government forestry regulations intended to promote community forestry and local co-operatives can be exploited by large commercial companies to gain access to indigenous peoples' customary forests. On the other hand, the ADB funding has now stopped and spending on protected areas is low on the list of the Indonesian government's priorities with the economy in its present parlous state. It is therefore harder for conservation authorities to argue their case that the biodiversity of the national park depends on maintaining the integrity of ecosystems on the whole island, especially since the minister responsible for protected areas is also responsible for plantations. In addition, UNESCO's Indonesia office has only a very limited budget to cover the six Biosphere Reserves in the country and the National Sciences Institute, LIPI (UNESCO's partner in the MAB programme) is in no better position.

The result for Siberut has been a flurry of applications for logging and plantation licences as companies fall over themselves to get their hands on over 200,000 hectares of commercially valuable timber which lies outside the national park. Some have already started operations. A few of these are genuine local co-operatives, established by indigenous communities who see small-scale oil palm plantations as a means of generating some income and controlling their own resources. The rest are operations run by outsiders (primarily Minang people from mainland Sumatra) who can only gain access to the forests by supporting local co-operatives. Some maintain a 'local' front by including a few Mentawai people in prominent positions. Most of the forest clearance is done by local labour.

Channels of communication

Around two hundred people attended the two-day UNESCO seminar in Padang, West Sumatra, in early December. This was preceded by a three-day field visit to Siberut for a small group of UNESCO staff and the heads of national parks from other parts of Indonesia. This not only featured the unique culture and wildlife of Siberut which have made it the best known of the Mentawai islands, but also some of some of the destructive outside influences on the island. The workshop participants - including local and national government planning and conservation agencies; national park personnel; NGOs from Siberut, mainland Sumatra and Jakarta; students and academics; companies and co-operatives; indigenous people and some community leaders as well as UNESCO staff represented a wide range of interests and some heated discussions ensued.

The Siberut National Park management and UNESCO representatives came in for some harsh criticism from development planning officials (BAPPENAS), NGOs and some indigenous communities from within the park. Some of this was due to lack of understanding about Siberut's status as a MAB Reserve and about UNESCO's intentions (even amongst some conservation staff). Some was clearly orchestrated by a logging company which had paid for a large contingent of Mentawaians to come to the mainland for the seminar. But some reflected genuine disappointment about the lack of improvement in socio-economic conditions for local communities despite the island's Biosphere Reserve status and the substantial ADB funding for the national park. Community representatives also expressed their frustration at seeing outsiders gain access to their families' land and resources elsewhere on the island, while regulations imposed strict limitations on what people living within the national park could do. More than anything, the indigenous people expressed their deep resentment at the way that, over the past decade and even now, local people were not even consulted about 'development plans' let alone given the power to modify or veto them. All too often, what Indonesian officials called a 'participatory approach' was still yet another top-down decision promoted through 'community awareness' activities. A case in point was the furore over a so-called Land Grant College initiative on Siberut (see box).

Siberut award

A young Mentawaian was one of five researchers and environmentalists to receive a Man and Biosphere Award from UNESCO for their outstanding contribution in their field of work. Juniarto Tulius conducted research on the traditional medicines of the Mentawai people on Siberut.

                                                                                (Source: Jakarta Post, 27/Jan/99)

The crux of the matter is that Siberut is being drawn into mainstream modern Indonesian life. Most Mentawaians attach great value to their traditional beliefs which seek to maintain a balance between the human, natural and spiritual worlds. But some younger members of the community educated on the mainland want a more modern lifestyle and are more receptive to government models of 'development'. Mentawaian communities want money to buy clothes, travel to the mainland or to send their children to school and university, whereas their ancestors lived at subsistence level and bartered goods with outsiders. Unfortunately, the local people are deeply divided as to the best way of improving their lot. Some community leaders are actively in favour of logging and plantation co-operatives, while others vehemently oppose them.

Promising signs

The UNESCO workshop was an eye opener in many ways since it provided an opportunity for people with very different views to express their opinions openly. The authorities are now aware of the depth of local feeling on many issues and indigenous communities and NGOs realised the extent of outside interests in the island as a whole, rather than at the village or clan level. It also resulted in some concrete recommendations and proposals for tackling existing problems. The final workshop report has not been published yet, but there are already positive signs that the authorities are taking some of the comments and criticisms on board.

For example, head of Siberut national park, Zuwendra, has appointed several more permanent staff on the island (instead of just in the Padang office) and has made clear to the park guards that it is their responsibility to control logging operations by the newly formed 'co-operatives'. Local people are to be more involved in the management of the park and developing village development plans. Park and UNESCO staff are working with villagers to develop ecologically and economically sustainable alternatives to large-scale commercial exploitation. One possibility is growing cinnamon, coffee and cocoa on small plots of abandoned agricultural land.

Another promising example is in Rogdog, South Siberut, where the village head is reviving the traditional council so that representatives of various clans can plan future development work together, take collective decisions and represent community interests to local government, companies and other outsiders. Pak Selester is also an enthusiastic advocate of participatory mapping to help Siberut communities hold onto their customary lands. He has encouraged neighbouring villages to do likewise and dreams of developing a modern version of the parurukat punutugut uma (tribal council) throughout Siberut to strengthen the indigenous community.

UNESCO plans to hold another workshop in the near future to follow up progress since the Padang meeting. The intention is to hold the next meeting on Siberut so that more indigenous people have chance to participate.

Land Grant College

The Land Grant College scheme was one of former forestry minister Muslimin Nasution's innovations. Since 1999, Islamic schools, universities and other higher education institutions have been able to apply for logging concessions. The policy has several purposes: to limit timber barons' vast concession holdings; to appeal to populist elements by returning private concessions to public institutions; and most importantly to provide these institutions with an independent means of generating income in the face of impending government education spending cuts. The concept is borrowed from the USA where, 150 years ago, native peoples were stripped of their lands by agricultural colleges to set up commercial farms courtesy of the government.

History is about to repeat itself in Indonesia. The minister of forestry has given Padang's main University, Universitas Andalas, 48,000 ha of forest on Siberut. Local people only discovered the plans when Mentawai students and local NGO staff attended a meeting at the university in November. By that stage the university had agreed to operate the concession with PT Sinar Minang Sejahtera, a timber company from the West Sumatran mainland and had submitted an environmental impact assessment to the Forestry Department in Jakarta. It was revealed that the university had been offered a 'Land Grant College' concession on the mainland, but rejected this as the area consisted of logged-over forest.

The rector of the university and the head of its Environmental Study Centre tried to defend themselves by saying that the scheme is at an early stage and they are only just starting to 'socialise' it. They stressed the value of the concession for academic research and 'human resource development' (a popular concept in Indonesian government circles these days) but were at a loss to explain the benefits to the indigenous community of having part of their customary forest logged or turned into a study plot. They stressed that the university would only be managing the forest and would have no ownership rights a fine distinction once the commercial valuable timber has been extracted.

Mentawai people and NGOs working with them are understandably outraged that despite the Indonesian government's proclamations of reform and democracy such decisions can be made without any consultation with the indigenous community. As one Siberut villager put it: "This is just another form of colonialism."

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