Forests in transition

Down to Earth No 61 May 2004

A recent visit by DTE staff to South Sumatra illustrates the realities of Indonesia's deforestation and the tensions between local communities and the authorities over the use of 'forest lands' in a rapidly changing environment

"Why are you going to South Sumatra to find out about sustainable forest use? There is no forest there!", said people in Jakarta. Even in the provincial capital, Palembang, staff at the South Sumatra branch of the environmental NGO WALHI were gloomy. Director, Aidil Fitri, argues that South Sumatra is a prime example of the need for a logging moratorium in Indonesia to allow space to develop a new paradigm of forest management. By 2001, only 4.4 million hectares of forest remained in this 11.3 million ha province, and more than half of it was in a 'critical condition', according to official forestry department data. Nearly 2 million ha of this was, on paper, classified as production forest.

As recently as twenty years ago, large areas of Sumatra were covered by dense lowland forest. The predictions of a World Bank report in early 2000 - that lowland 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 in other areas, supervision of timber companies' activities has been woefully inadequate and there has been far too little replanting.

Today much of South Sumatra's forest has been converted into scrub and - increasingly - palm oil plantations. This is hardly surprising since palm oil prices have more than doubled to around US$550 per tonne since 2001 and are still rising. Furthermore, the lowlands of Sumatra are a particularly attractive option for Malaysian plantation companies as land and labour costs are much lower than in neighbouring Malaysia. Local people too are keen to cash in on the boom. They are clearing the remnants of forest, after logging companies, entrepreneurs from nearby cities and forest fires have taken their toll, in order to set up their own small-scale plantations. Indonesia's crude palm oil (CPO) production is expected 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).

Local nature conservation officials are worried because much of South Sumatra's timber now comes from protected areas. There has been much publicity about 'illegal logging' in the mangrove swamp forest of Berbak-Sembilang National Park on South Sumatra's east coast and in Kerinci Seblat National Park in the mountainous west of the province. It is all too easy to take illegally felled timber down river and out to Malaysia through small, unofficial ports. Plantation companies developing crops other than oil palm are also causing deforestation. For example, on Gunung Gempo in the Bukit Barisan range, a tea plantation owned by a Java-based company is gradually extending its tea plantation higher and higher up what were once the forested slopes of the mountain.


A new paradigm?

The pace of change is alarmingly rapid. Yet Indonesia's forestry officials and logging companies have been very slow to adapt to a new and more complex reality. Vested commercial interests and Indonesia's well-entrenched systems of patronage and corruption are only part of the story. Generations of foresters have been trained on a model of forestry that is increasingly outdated in Indonesia: a model based on logging large concessions of rainforest containing many valuable species of tropical hardwoods. But now, in western Indonesia, there are few locations left where there are at least 100,000 hectares of mature forest available to commercial operations. Local communities are demanding their rights. 'Illegal logging' is taking place on a massive scale.

Some radical forestry experts predict that- at best - the majority of Indonesia's forests will become a mosaic of agricultural land, heavily modified forests and small-scale plantations. Agroforestry provides a realistic alternative to large-scale commercial plantations or extensive tracts of 'critical land'. NGO activists are working to help local communities reclaim land where forests are badly degraded, or have been replaced by coarse alang-alang grassland. Conservationists inevitably point out that biodiversity is much lower than in mature forest. But other Indonesian environmentalists argue that agroforests can fulfil many of the ecological functions of rainforest (such as protecting soils and maintaining water cycles) and, crucially, provide food security for communities who once lived in and around forests.

The district of Musi Banyuasin is an appropriate place to examine these new realities. Extending up to the northern border with Jambi, it is the richest kabupaten (district) in South Sumatra due mainly to its abundant coal, natural gas and oil reserves. Even so, there are still areas of real poverty. The most obvious examples are where transmigration sites were located in places unsuitable for Javanese-style agriculture - such as swamp forest. Unable to afford to return to Java and embarrassed by the stigma of failure, landless settlers turned to illegal logging and prostitution as their only means of making a living.


Changing cultures

This central part of Sumatra has a troubled past. Villagers tell how their forefathers left Palembang and fled to the hinterland during the Dutch colonial era. It became a stronghold of the PRRI/Permesta uprising during the 1950s, where some local people fought against Jakarta and the Indonesian army for the newly founded nation to become a federation rather than a republic. In the 1970s and '80s, many transmigration sites were opened up and there was an influx of settlers from Java - both on the government programme and 'spontaneous migrants'. In addition, many local communities were forced to relocate to make way for transmigration sites and logging operations. The result is an intricate patchwork of different communities, each with its own patterns of land use and social relations. Villagers are commonly from several different ethnic groups and people's history in the area may only go back one or two generations.

The group hardest hit by the arrival of new settlers and the conversion of forest to plantations, agriculture and neglected grasslands are the indigenous Orang Rimbo, known as the 'Kubu' by other communities. These people have, until recently, followed a lifestyle which is highly dependent on the forests. Traditionally, they do not live in villages or farm, but set up temporary settlements wherever the hunting is good and there are plentiful supplies of forest fruits and vegetables. They hunt deer and wild pigs with dogs, shooting their prey with blowpipes, and also fish in forest rivers - often using extracts of tubers to stun their catches. As they tend to live on the forest margins, the Orang Rimbo often come into contact with village communities but - apart from matches to make fire or cigarettes - they want little from the outsiders except to continue their way of life in their customary forests.

Late at night in a roadside house on the way to Jambi, Pak Nur talks sympathetically of the 'Kubu'. Now a sprightly man in his 70s, he worked in many remote areas of central Sumatra as a medical orderly for transmigration sites. He tells how a government Social Department project to settle nearby Orang Rimbo in the late 1970s failed because local officials tried to exploit them as unpaid labour to clear the forests. Now they have all left the area. Most moved up to Jambi; a few still live in the traditional way along the River Bengukal. However, he believes that the majority of local people in Musi Banyuasin were probably derived from various groups of these indigenous peoples who had, over several generations, formed settlements and taken up farming. They now call themselves pribumi (native) rather than 'Kubu' as they want to separate their identity from people whom the authorities stereotype as dirty, uneducated, isolated tribes.


Lack of adat

The high degree of ethnic mixing, the introduction of formal education plus the standard village administrative system imposed by the Soeharto regime from 1974 have combined to reduce greatly the importance of adat (customary) law and practices in everyday life in most communities in Musi Banyuasin. Adat is now largely restricted to people's cultural history, the genealogy of families, and some social norms.

Few villagers we met had any experience of customary laws governing land use or decision-making today. Local people told how their fathers and grandfathers used to 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 seek permission 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 (prohibited forest). Cultivated land belonged to whoever cleared it first. Villagers could farm areas of cleared forest for a year or so, before moving on in a fifty year rotational cycle. "We did not look after the forest. There was so much of it and so few people. But now it is different, especially since the fires…The forest reserved for the future is now no more than coarse grassland….It was the fires, logging and the need for land", said one community leader.

Pak Nur and his son told us how: "There used to be lots of logging companies, like Asia Log, but they cut down the forest without replanting it afterwards. Companies such as LonSum, which were given permits to clear conversion forest to set up plantations, actually operated in areas designated production forest and cut down huge commercially valuable trees. Smaller trees were discarded as waste wood and left lying around where they became tinder for forest fires (umpan api). The 1997 fires were terrible. People suffered from the smoke for months. Sometimes it was difficult to breathe and hard to see where you were going, but people had to go out and carry on with their 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 drank from and many people suffered from diarrhoea and vomiting… There are still fires every year, but the worst of these are where illegal loggers burn to clear trails so they can get trucks in to access what forest remains."


A free-for-all

An increasing population striving to make a living on a reducing resource is a formula for ecological and social disaster. An environmental activist working in Musi Banyuasin estimates that around half the local community still depends on logging - legal and illegal - and has done so for decades. They have little education, no land to cultivate and no farming skills. "You see fifteen year-olds, with a clove cigarette in the mouth, expertly handling chainsaws," said Aris, "But, as the forests dwindle and there is less work, things are getting more and more difficult for these people. They will stab each other in the back in order to get enough to live". He estimated that there were more than 100 sawmills in the immediate area, apparently all owned by 'outsiders' such as people from Jakarta, ethnic Chinese and even Taiwanese.

Now that the majority of production forest has been stripped of its most valuable timber and fires have damaged what remained, loggers have turned to protected areas. 'Illegal logging' in the province is increasing year on year. Official figures show 42,000 cubic metres of timber were seized in 2002, compared with only 16,000 m3 in 2001, but these only represent a fraction of the unofficial timber trade. According to Aidil Fitri, WALHI South Sumatra's director, "most cases are settled outside the law". This causes continued forest destruction and degradation as well as billions of rupiah in lost revenues for local and central governments. Dulhadi, head of South Sumatra's Conservation and Natural Resources Office (BKSDA), says that the only protected areas where any big forests trees remain are Dangku and Bentayan nature reserves, in Musi Banyuasin district - both problematic localities.

The 31,732 ha Dangku reserve was established during the 1980s, but is now a focus of conflict with local communities. Transmigrants from the nearby Berlian Jaya site, settlers from another part of the district now living in Pangkalan Tungkal village and indigenous farmers of Lubuk Nyaru are all encroaching on the reserve because they have no other land to farm. They have little idea which companies have got concessions to operate in the area or where these are - and they no longer care. In 1997 and 1999 forest fires destroyed much of their native rubber plantations. This area, and more besides, has been taken over by the palm oil company, Bumi Sawit Sejati.

The head of the community at Simpang Empat openly admitted that most of the 1,500 inhabitants now depended on kerja balok (logging) for a living. "We are trapped because we can't get permission to use the forest legally. Companies can get permits, but we can't. There's no land for us. The forestry department controls it all and we're not allowed to touch it… But the forestry officials don't stop other people from coming in and taking timber. They didn't look after the forest. So we have started to cut down the trees too. If the government gave us another alternative, we would take it. But we have nothing except 'illegal logging' and we must eat."

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

At Bentayan, local people are vigorously contesting the exact location of the 19,300 ha nature reserve. Some 2,000 families located in three villages argue that, far from occupying state land, it is local officials who are behaving irresponsibly and even illegally. They say that the nature reserve was established on their lands without consultation. While they accept the need for forest conservation, and particularly watershed protection, they are angry that the boundaries of the reserve do not follow the line on the map. Instead, forestry staff simply put the marker posts along the roadside several kilometres away.

This means that land used for many generations - as shown by long-established fruit trees 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 contested area. (It does not help that the protected area straddles two administrative districts and co-ordination between the authorities is poor.) Villagers have written to the local conservation office, land affairs agency and the governor. Last September they sent a letter to forestry minister Prakosa, explaining their position, but there has been no response. They are now planning demonstrations at provincial and national levels.

A common theme is that the introduction of roads - mainly for the construction and maintenance of oil and gas pipelines - have been a major agent of change. The main eastern road between the provincial capitals Palembang and Jambi dates back to the Dutch era, but from the 1950s until 1988 it was mainly a dirt road. New dirt roads branch left and right off this - some hardened to give an all weather surface. These have been made during the last decade: most recently for the Trans-ASEAN gas pipeline. Timber is flooding out of Dangku and Bentayan reserves - all of it illegal. There is a thriving local industry in supplying and repairing small lorries with heavy lifting gear. Up to 50 trucks per day - each carrying around 8 cubic metres of timber - pass along just one of these feeder roads 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 nature conservation office to pay their unofficial levies.


Replanting or reclaiming?

"Now we are replanting the forest", said a woman from Gresik Belido - a scattered collection of houses about 20km off the main road. What they call forest looks like a sea of elephant grass with a few burnt skeletons of giant forest trees and some shrubby thickets along stream beds. The nearest mature forest (Bentayan nature reserve) is several kilometres in the distance. The whole area used to be a local rubber plantation, but this went up in smoke in 1997. The preferred practice is to clear the land using three doses of Roundup or a similar heavy-duty herbicide (hand weeding takes too long and is ineffective); to grow rice for a few years; and then plant the area with rubber or oil palm. Close to their houses, people plant fruit trees, vegetables, yams and chillies. Some villagers are experimenting with planting cacao bushes.

Their working 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 migrants about twenty years ago. The land is productive and they work hard. One large room of a family house is piled to the ceiling with sacks of rice - the last harvest yielded 2 tonnes per hectare - and next year this community hopes to build an elementary school and employ a teacher with the proceeds of their labour. Each family cultivates 1-4 hectares but, if they have more land than they can manage, they may contract it out to someone to farm it for them or give it to another family for the cost of clearing the land (approx $30 for 2ha).

A further 6 km along, there are well-established rubber plantations either side of the dirt road. The villagers of Suka Damai protected this 'forest' against fire for three whole months in 1997. These people call themselves 'original inhabitants', although they moved to this area less than 30 years ago and relocated the village from a riverside to its present site on the dirt road when it was constructed in the early 1980s. They see this as their adat land and say that, long ago, their customary leaders (Pasirah) told them to come and farm here. Pak Abu Sirih, the customary leader of the village explained that today land use is governed by co-operatives not adat: they decide by consensus which areas to clear for farming, what to plant and work together to do this. Hence rubber which, ten years ago, generated good profits has largely replaced rice and 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 onset of the economic crisis in '97.

Technically this land is state forest, even though it is clearly the result of cultivation and tree planting. Some of the local inhabitants are openly defiant towards the authorities. A cheerful young woman with two children told how - since arriving from Lampung a few years ago - she was making a reasonable living growing rice, bananas and other fruit trees. Her only 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 go and fetch some from the forest himself! We are not allowed to steal! We must not cut 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 belongs to?' It belongs to the state. And the state should have some responsibility towards its people!"

Many of these people belong to a peasant farmers action group. The Kesatuan Solidaritas Kesejahteraan Petani (KSKP) was founded in 1998 as a local organisation in and now has over 200 member groups in five clusters in Musi Banyuasin district. They are supported by WALHI and LBH Palembang. KSKP is predominantly a solidarity group that mobilises when forest farmers face problems such as land disputes or intimidation from the authorities. The majority of its members are migrants. Several thousand people can mobilise for demonstrations at the district of provincial government offices to make their point. In addition to protesting, the KSKP is also striving to resolve conflicts over adat land between incomers and indigenous communities. Its most successful case to date has been bringing together transmigration officials, transmigrants, PT Pakerin (an industrial timber estate) and a local community to settle a dispute over use of customary lands. 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 have been settled.

There are other local initiatives too, including the recently formed South Sumatra Indigenous Peoples' Association (PERMASS). Pak Nur - himself a clan leader from another district is interested in setting up a new adat council in Musi Banyuasin to revive customary law and in making the most of opportunities to strengthen their position under national and even international law. Meanwhile, his son had chosen a different route to fight for farmers' rights. Robi was standing as a district assembly candidate for the PNBK party with the slogan "Praise God, think for yourself and keep up the struggle. The revolution is not over yet."