Logging and palm oil threat to Siberut

Down to Earth No. 42, August 1999

The resumption of plans for logging and oil palm plantations on the biologically and culturally unique island of Siberut show how current 'reform era' measures still allow powerful elites to profit at the expense of indigenous communities. This demonstrates how greater regional autonomy and the promotion of co-operatives are not necessarily in the interests of local people.

At least 100,000 hectares of forests on the island of Siberut are once again threatened by plantation companies. Most of the indigenous Mentawai population oppose the plans, but local officials have given the go-ahead with the approval of 'reformist' Forestry and Plantations Minister Muslimin Nasution. Locations along the coast and the interior of the island have been surveyed. There are also reports of plans to build an air strip which would further open up the island to 'development'.


Conservation pledges ignored

Following national and international campaigning, all logging licences on Siberut were withdrawn. It was a condition of funding for the National Park, established in 1993, that no logging, plantation or transmigration schemes would be allowed anywhere on the island in order to protect Siberut's ecosystems as a whole. In today's political climate these guarantees, issued by former President Suharto, are completely worthless. The nature conservation agency responsible for protecting the island is administered by the Department of Forestry and Plantation which is allowing logging and plantations to go ahead. Nearly half the 380,000 hectare island is still at risk, with 144,000 ha technically classified as 'Production Forest' and 38,000 ha as 'Conversion Forests'. Ironically, the result may be worse than before 'selective logging' was banned as forests will be clear felled to establish plantations and transmigrant labour imported to work on them.

As early as 1995, the Governor of West Sumatra gave 'permission in principle' to two oil palm plantation companies, associated with Suharto's daughter and his Minister of Employment (see DTE 33). These plans were thwarted by protests from local communities, backed by local, national and international NGOs. Immediately after the fall of Suharto, new Forestry and Plantations Minister Muslimin Nasution wrote to the W. Sumatra governor withdrawing any permits for oil palm plantations on Siberut due to its unique wildlife and its international importance as a biosphere reserve. However, in November, the minister wrote again saying that oil palm plantations would be allowed on condition that 20% of the operations were run by local people through co-operatives; the local community did not oppose the scheme; and the local government supported it.

Local NGOs suspect the whole scheme is a plot by entrepreneurs on mainland Sumatra to gain access to lucrative timber supplies and subsidies for plantations. There are no guarantees that plantations will ever be set up once the forests have been felled; that oil palms can grow on the island; or that the plantations will be economic given Siberut's isolated location. One of the former logging companies may be associated with the latest oil palm venture and at least one of the original oil palm companies is still on the scene.


Developers divide and rule

This time the plantation companies have been more crafty. In recent years, many educated young islanders have had difficulties finding a role in traditional Mentawaian society after returning from schools and colleges on the mainland. Some of these Mentawaians have been encouraged to exploit new regulations and set up logging companies and co-operatives. In March 1999, PT Putra Siberut Sejahtera and PT Pulaingeat Lagai Mentawai formally requested permission from the regional forestry offices to start up logging operations each covering 50,000 hectares of 'Production Forest' bordering the National Park.

This strategy has divided the community. The Mentawaian names of the companies and the presence of ethnic Mentawaians on their boards persuaded some families to hand over their land. There are claims that various underhand methods have also been used. Some tribal elders signed documents they thought were in support of regional autonomy, only to find they had given away their land rights. Others are still strongly resisting, creating perfect conditions for the developers to divide and rule. Leaders of the Mentawai community who oppose the companies are reported as saying "If they carry on, our community will be divided and there may even be clan wars. Also if the forest which we depend on is felled, how can we make a living? Where else can we go? These are our ancestral forests."


Communities take action

The clan system which is an integral part of Mentawai culture mitigates against collective action by the indigenous community. Administratively the island is split into two sub-districts – North and South Siberut - and again by the National Park which occupies the western half. But the local people are beginning to act together to stand up for their rights.

On December 8th 1998, the W. Sumatra authorities held an unprecedented meeting in the provincial capital Padang where 120 leading community, religious and administrative representatives from all the Mentawai islands were invited to two days of presentations from officials on development, forestry and transmigration. This was to include a talk by PT Citra Mandiri Widyanusa on oil palm plantations on Siberut as part of plans to bring 10,800 transmigrants to the Mentawais to work on a nucleus-estate smallholder basis. The meeting was broken up by protests from Mentawai students. In South Siberut, community organisations from 15 villages have formed a network and in May, in North Siberut, 150 people representing all the major clans agreed to form a community organisation and to work with their counterparts in the South. These initiatives may have been facilitated by the participatory mapping work which NGOs have been carrying out in Siberut in recent years.

Groups have been lobbying in Padang and Jakarta to stop the plantation plans, but to little effect since government officials are more concerned with their own futures after the elections. The Minister of Forestry and Plantations has yet to make a final decision. DTE wrote to the Asian Development Bank (which is still funding an Integrated Conservation and Development Programme in Siberut National Park) what action it was taking to protect the rest of the island. The ADB's bland reply was that "we…have expressed our concern to the Executing Agency (the Nature Conservation agency) and requested further information. We understand that the logging concession has been organised by the local community, but we do not have any further details on the resumption of the oil palm plantation proposals" (28/6/99).


Letters calling for the cancellation of all proposed logging (HPH) and oil palm plantations should be sent to:

Muslimin Nasution
Minister of Forestry and Plantations
Gedung Manggala Wanabakti, Blok I Lantai 4
Jl. Jen. Gatot Subroto
Senayan, Jakarta 10270
Fax: + 62 21 570 0226
email: indofor@dephut.cbn.net.id

(Sources: Padang Ekspres, 5/5/99; ADB email 28/6/99; and other sources)