Illegal log exports from Mentawai Islands

Down to Earth No. 44, February 2000

The Padang-based NGO, Pakis, has exposed two cases of log smuggling from the Pagai islands, part of the Mentawai chain off the west coast of Sumatra. The shipments totalling over 13,000 cubic metres of tropical hardwoods were worth around US$2 billion on the international market, plus the taxes and levies due to the Indonesian government.

The timber company involved in both cases - PT Minas Pagai Lumber Corps - has a logging concession on North and South Pagai (locally called Sikakap) and its sister company Pagai Forests Products Corps operates a local sawmill. Unlike Siberut to the north, the forests of the Pagai islands are not protected and have been subjected to heavy logging since the 1970s.

Pakis received a tip-off that MPLC had shipped 5,500cu m of tropical hardwood ('kruing') from Sikakap to Malaysia in August 1999. They have photos of timber on the dock by the Panamanian registered ship MV Gunkul 3. According to the official documentation, the shipment, worth US$775,000, was supposed to go to PT Widjaya Triutama's plywood factory in South Kalimantan. When NGO investigators checked, the company in Banjarmasin replied that it did not use any wood from Sumatra and that it had never heard of MPLC. It is now threatening to sue MPLC 'for besmirching its good name'.

It was November before MPLC responded to Pakis' requests for clarification of this discrepancy. The management rejected the NGO's accusations and blamed an intermediary for not delivering the logs to Kalimantan. The company has yet to produce the vital documents which show where the timber did go. The local Forestry Department and tax officials are also keen to see these papers as various taxes and levies have not been paid on the shipment. Meanwhile, local forestry officials have withdrawn MPLC's permits to sell timber so, since October 13th the company has not been able to market its logs.

Before this case could be brought to court, MPLC was accused of a second case of log smuggling. Over 8,000 cu m of timber was impounded before the Burmese-crewed MV Pacstar left Sikakap harbour in late November 1999. This time the logs were supposedly destined for PT Gaya Wahana Timber's mill in Jambi, but here again the company said it had no dealings with MPLC or its brokers.

MPLC is a problematic company in many respects. Controversially, it is not one of the 31 timber companies whose concessions were withdrawn in July 1999 due to connections with the disgraced Suharto family. Its directors have been fighting among themselves, since Suharto's daughter 'Titiek' Prabowo, was forced to return her shares in the company. Members of the Sofian family have issued writs and counter writs claiming ownership of the company and publicly accusing each other of pocketing the proceeds of timber deals. Local newspapers are full of allegations of MPLC's huge profits and various illegal practices including using of foreign labour in its logging concession, supplying 'surplus' timber to its sister company's sawmill (Pagai Forest Products Corp), renting out chainsaws to local people and switching shares between family members.

Furthermore, villagers from Parakbatu on S. Pagai are engaged in legal action against MPLC for illegally logging outside its concession area. This community follows a traditional subsistence lifestyle, growing some crops and using the forest for hunting and to collect forest products. Although nearby villages have given up their customary rights to the logging company, the people of Parakbatu held on to traditional beliefs that timber can only be used for local houses and canoes and must not be sold. Community leader, Eliakim Sapataddekkat, said they had learnt from their neighbours' experience that "selling your forest makes you poor". As soon as MPLC started to log their customary forest in August 1999, villagers made the long journey to the mainland and sought help from the Padang branch of the Legal Aid Foundation. When a local court upheld the Indonesian state's right to declare any land a logging concession, the people appealed. MPLC temporarily stopped logging but continued to survey the area. When the infuriated locals protested and demanded compensation, the company reported the community leaders to the police who held them in detention on the mainland for 60 days.

(Sources: articles in Singgalang, Padang Ekspres, Bijak, Sinar Pagi June-Nov 1999; local NGOs)