Business as usual in the Mentawais

Down to Earth No 50 August 2001

Protected areas such as Siberut are increasingly vulnerable to exploitation - legal and illegal - due to Indonesia's prolonged economic crisis, coupled with regional autonomy and the devolution of revenue gathering.

The island of Siberut has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1981 due to its rich forests, unique wildlife and the traditional lifestyle and beliefs of the indigenous people. Nevertheless, local authorities and the Forestry Department have issued a number of logging permits over the last three years. In most cases, timber companies in West Sumatra or Jakarta have set up companies ostensibly owned by indigenous Mentawaians or local co-operatives. They can then get permits for so-called small-scale logging concessions. These, in turn, pave the way for larger commercial operations like oil palm plantations. This logging is coupled with coral reef destruction. Much of Siberut is swampy lowland with no hard rock, so the rich reefs along the east coast are 'mined' to provide building material for roads, housing and base camps.

More and more communities on Siberut are divided: some are attracted by the quick profits to be made from logging as Mentawai society is drawn into a cash economy; others believe their future lies in forest management based on indigenous knowledge and practices. Traditionally, Mentawai people harvest sago, raise pigs and collect rattan to meet their basic needs. Once Siberut's forest goes, so will the unique culture and belief system of the islanders. Meanwhile, the local government, based in mainland West Sumatra, will benefit from fees and taxes. Padang-based contractors and other entrepreneurs are also expected to profit, while local people can only watch their livelihoods disappearing before their eyes. Large logging and oil palm companies prefer to bring in workers from other parts of Indonesia rather than employ Mentawai people who they regard as unskilled. Mentawai groups and local NGOs are campaigning for the cancellation of all logging concessions and are drawing up management plans for Siberut based on sustainable alternatives.

When Siberut National Park was established in 1993, all existing logging permits on the island were withdrawn. However, all official planning maps continued to zone the eastern half of Siberut as Production Forest (142,074 ha) and Conversion Forest (35,074 ha). Now PT Salaki Summa Sejahtera is planning to log 49,440 ha of forests in North Siberut which are the customary lands of Sigapokna, Malancan, Mongan Poula, Sotboyak, Sikabaluan and other villages in North Siberut. This area (part logged by PT Cirebon Agung pre-1993) is a catchment for rivers in the eastern half of the island and borders the core zone of the National Park. Local activists point out the threats to Siberut's wildlife, including endemic species, the potential for soil erosion (given the high rainfall) and likelihood of conflict with and between local communities. The authorities approved an environmental impact assessment in late June, despite strong local opposition, ordering PT SSS to do more 'public awareness' activities to win over the communities. Timber companies also are keen to log inside Siberut National Park where there is much commercially valuable timber. Generating local revenues from natural resources is much higher on the agenda for local authorities than conservation. The forestry authorities in Jakarta claim they haven't sufficient funds even to protect National Parks, especially since the Department of Forestry lost control of the lucrative Reforestation Fund to the Finance Minister as part of IMF-imposed reforms. Moreover, with Indonesia's staggering debt burden, there is no popular support to request new loans from the World Bank or ADB to fund protected area management programmes. National Park head, Sugeng Hariady, complains "Siberut is now like a money making machine because its pristine forests have much highly valuable timber…The Park faces the same fate as Tanjung Puting and Gunung Leuser."

PT Maharani Puri Citra Mandiri is already clearing forest in southern Siberut. The company currently only has a logging permit (IPK) through its association with local co-operative KOSTAM, but its plans for a 17,500ha oil palm plantation are well documented (see DTE 33:11). It is reported to have brought 20 logging tractors to the island. Most local people are strongly opposed to this development (see box), as they still depend on sustainable community-based forest uses. An oil palm nursery was destroyed soon after it had been set up by PT Maharani, so the company tried to persuade villagers with the promise of a road from Taileleu to Katurei and Muara Siberut. A swathe of forest up to 200m wide has been cleared, but in completely the wrong direction. Logging continues in this area and at least 3,000 cubic metres of timber were sold in 2000, but no road has yet been built nor have the mainland authorities given permission for a road.

Local autonomy has done nothing to check the threats to Siberut's forests and indigenous people - so far, it is business as usual. Indigenous communities were delighted when the Mentawai islands were granted district status in October 1999, ending decades of administration as part of mainland Padang Pariaman. They had long resented their 'colonisation' by West Sumatra's Minang people with their very different culture and economic interests. The elections for the new district assembly (DPRD), held in December 2000, were declared void by Jakarta. Mentawai assembly members were officially appointed on April 7th after new elections. The DPRD's first job has been to draw up an annual budget for the Mentawai islands which has, until now, been controlled from Padang. The local assembly and district head (Bupati) are still working from Padang; the local government offices in the Mentawai islands (at Tuapejat on Sipora) have no telephone or short wave radio connection to the mainland.

The West Sumatra governor appointed an indigenous Mentawai as temporary Bupati for the new district. Acting Bupati, Badril Bakar, was dismissed back to the mainland in April this year over a tourist tax levied on surfers using the resort on Karamajat island (see DTE 34:5). Mentawaians who hoped their new representative would stand up to the logging companies and other Padang vested interests and fight for indigenous rights were sadly disappointed. Antonius Samangilailai SH was only to deal with day-to-day matters; the governor himself claimed the right to control the Mentawai executive pending elections in the next few months. As in local elections elsewhere in Indonesia, local party politics and financial interests are most likely to determine who will be the new Bupati.

Although Antonius comes from the neighbouring island of Sipora, he has long been part of the mainland administration and is widely believed to be the timber companies' right hand man. As sub-district head (Camat) for South Siberut, Antonius gave his recommendation for PT Citra Mentawai Membangun and KOSUM to move into the Katurei area and for operations by PT Sindo Sakti Jaya, KOSTAM and PT Maharani Puri Citra Lestari in Taileleu and Tiop in 2000. He also approved the Taileleu-Katurei road plan which was, in effect, a permit for illegal logging. His opponents say he took the side of the companies in disputes with local communities and insisted that any negotiations took place at base camps rather than the sub-district office. Antonius' first meeting as Bupati with NGOs and community leaders in Padang in late April was an opportunity for Mentawai logging interests to get together. Mentawai organisations which support indigenous rights were not invited, but report that the representatives of four logging companies (including PT Minas Pagai Lumber, see DTE 44) and a local forestry official were present. Interestingly, Antonius now has a new car, although there are almost no roads in the Mentawai islands.

The issue of logging customary forest in Siberut has come to a head with the revival of the controversial 'Land Grant College' (LGC) project. An LGC concession was granted to Padang's main university, Andalas, two years ago by (then) forestry minister Muslimin Nasution (see DTE 44). The scheme gave logging rights to educational establishments as a means of supplementing their funding. Andalas University rejected the logged-over concession it was allocated on the mainland and lobbied Jakarta for an area of mature forest on Siberut. Fierce opposition to the university logging concession was led by Mentawai students in Padang. The next forestry minister, Nurmahmudi Ismail, eventually dropped the LGC scheme.

Andalas University then used another route to get its hands on Siberut's lucrative forest resources. It established its own timber co-operative and did a deal with a Jakarta-based logging company. It also secretly revised the Environmental Impact Assessment (rejected in June 2000 by the local Environmental Management Agency - Bapedal) and got this approved by Bapedal in Jakarta. A natural forest management permit (HPHA) for a 49,650ha concession in central Siberut was issued from Jakarta by Nurmahmudi the day before he was replaced as minister. The shares are split between Andalas University (20%); its co-operative Koperasi Andalas Madani (26%); and PT Sinar Minang Sejahtera (54%. The university stands to make Rp100 million per month from the deal. Like the PT SSS concession further north, the 'Andalas area' extends up to the National Park border, threatening the watershed and increasing the likelihood of illegal logging inside and outside the Park.

The university and local forestry authorities continued to ignore letters demanding a halt to this logging venture from Siberut communities, NGOs and the Mentawai district assembly. A base camp was constructed using coral from local reefs as hardcore and to create a log pond. On May 21st, the first heavy equipment was landed on the east coast of the island at Subeleng, N. Siberut, with a police guard from Padang. More was to be shipped in from Jakarta. This news travelled fast and within hours about 100 people had gathered, including villagers from the southern part of the island who travelled up to five hours by speedboat to protest. Some had customary rights over forest land at Subeleng; others just felt strongly that Siberut's forests should be protected against exploitation - especially from the mainland. Protestors ordered that the five of the 27 logging tractors which had been unloaded should be removed immediately. When Koperasi Andalas' field manager refused, they burned down the base camp. The boat quickly went back out to sea, returning that night to retrieve the equipment after the villagers went home. The boat anchored the next day at Pokai near to North Siberut's administrative centre, Muara Sikabaluan, where Koperasi Andalas representatives went to see the authorities. However, local people broke up the meeting and, after a day of protests, the boat plus all the logging tractors left for the mainland.

A platoon of soldiers arrived at nearby small port and was quickly diverted to the burnt base camp to prevent any further demonstrations of local anger. (The West Sumatra authorities had sent the troops to the island after a man accused of black magic died and six homes were burned in Sirilogui earlier in May.) The Mentawai administration also sent a team including police and military personnel to investigate both incidents. As many as sixty people have been questioned in connection with the base camp burning, but no-one has been arrested or charged. The university accused local NGOs of orchestrating the protest, but said it was prepared to discuss the whole issue with indigenous communities and NGOs. The Mentawai and West Sumatra authorities met in Padang to discuss opposition to the Andalas concession. Provincial governor Zainal Bakar said the case would have to be settled in court since the university had been legally granted the land by Jakarta. If it turned out that the concession included customary land, this could be excluded. Such statements infuriated Siberut communities for whom every square inch of land is subject to complex customary rights, which cannot be given away by Padang or Jakarta officials. One Mentawai man in Padang told local reporters that "The burning of the university's base camp is a warning to investors coming to the Mentawais that they must take note of local people's wishes."

Several hundred people including Mentawai families in Padang, NGOs and students from the city's three universities held a day of action at Andalas University on May 28th. Eventually, they were allowed to present their views directly to deputy rector Dr Musliar Kasim, who also heads the university's logging co-operative, KAM. The protestors included several indigenous representatives who came from Siberut with protest statements from their communities. Kasim promised that a meeting between the university, the company and local people would be held, but this has not happened at the time of writing. The people of Siberut are clearly less than satisfied with this response. On June 2nd another demonstration was held in Padang at offices of the governor, local forestry department and Bupati, when indigenous representatives presented signed statements completely rejecting all kinds of logging concessions on the island.

A report in the Indonesian magazine Tempo that the indigenous people are prepared to fight to the death to oppose this destructive enterprise may be over dramatic, but several hundred people from 12 local clans supported by communities from the whole eastern part of the island are certainly ready to prevent any heavy equipment moving in for logging operations. Four other clans have been persuaded to hand over their lands in return for payments from the logging co-operative of Rp25,000/sq m (approx US$2.5). The latest news is that they are helping the company to rebuild the base camp.

(Sources: Kompas 27/April/2001; Statement by NGOs and Mentawai students (undated, received 5/May/2001); Mimbar Minang 23/May/2001, 26/May/2000, 20/May/2001; Tempo 26/June/200; WALHI Sumbar statement 4/July/2001.)


The Tiop case

The inhabitants of the small village of Tiop in Southeast Siberut have grown tired of sending statements to the West Sumatra authorities declaring their opposition to logging companies. PT Sindo and its co-operative KOSTAM and PT Maharani Puri Citra Lestari have logging operations on their lands. One clan in the community was initially persuaded to allow logging on 600ha, but now the loggers have claimed 2,500ha. The villagers are concerned that clean water is now hard to find and there is little land close to the village for them to use. They fear for their children's future.

In March, 7 representatives from Tiop came to the mainland to ask the administration in Padang to withdraw all logging permits around their village. The villagers went the rounds of the provincial assembly, governor's office and local forestry authority where they were politely received but, in effect, given the brush off. Each office told them that it wanted to act in the interests of local people; that it wanted to avoid conflict between companies and local people; that it was not responsible for issuing logging permits; and that there should be 'more dialogue'.

Unfortunately for the people from Tiop, the Mentawai local assembly had not been sworn in and neither had the new Bupati been appointed when they made their visit to Padang. The Bupati is now responsible for issuing logging permits, under regional autonomy regulations. It is a sign of the ineffectiveness of Indonesia's sprawling bureaucracy that no-one could or would give the community representatives a clear answer on who was responsible for monitoring logging companies' activities, withdrawing their permits or the correct procedure. Or indeed why logging permits had been issued at all on an island which is a Biosphere Reserve. In these circumstances, it is not surprising if local communities decide to take direct action - such as that at Subeleng (see main text.)