Poverty in the midst of plenty

Down to Earth Special Issue, October 1999

Two indigenous delegates describe the threats to their communities in South Sumatra

Pak Supriyadi was forced to move to Panglero, near the River Semanggis in Musi Rawas district when his village was taken by over by plantations. Now, his community and other indigenous groups have no means of supporting themselves due to logging and burning by PT Musi Hutan Persada (MHP), a subsidary of Barito Pacific – one of Indonesia's biggest timber companies.

"Before MHP came, we never had any problem. We could make a living from the forest, for example collecting rattan. But in 1992 MHP began clearing a 50,000ha concession for acacia plantations. It cleared by burning and most of our own plantations went up in smoke too. We could still have managed as we had 700ha of customary (adat) forest. Then in 1998 CV Hervela moved in. They logged for 9 months and were only stopped by our protests. We now know that the company is MHP's sub-contractor.

Most of the 40 families in Panglero had to move here because of logging. So the government says we have no rights to the land. Panglero was meant to be a 'settlement' for some 30 Orang Rimba, but they didn't want to live there. (These people, also called Kubu or Suku Anak Dalam, are considered primitive forest nomads by the government – Ed.)

We were brought here by the local government social department who said we would be 'helped to develop' . All they built was a hut for an office. There was no housing for us. We had to build our own homes from branches and tree bark. We even built our own school and place of worship. Now 90% of us face starvation and we have had no help whatsoever from the government. The people I feel really sorry for are the Orang Rimba who are totally dependent on the forest. Other villages have received the 'nine basic essentials' support package, but not Panglero. Not since we have protested about the logging.

We have held demonstrations at the local government and the forestry department offices, even at the governor's office. We are demanding that our forest and plantations be restored and that MHP and CV Hervela pay for the timber they have taken and compensation for the damage they have caused. Forestry department officials have measured our land. They want to make it a 'people's plantation' (hutan rakyat), but we don't just want the rights to use the land. We want the rights to own our land.

I am so glad we could come to this Congress, to Jakarta. We are very disappointed by the government. They just dumped us in Pangrelo and left us to fight with the companies. We weren't even allowed to vote in the election. Aren't we even considered part of Indonesia?"

Pak Zakaria comes from Sungai Jambu – a village in the rugged hills near Muara Tiku, also in the Musi Rawas district. For the past two years he and other villagers have lived in the shadow of Barisan Tropical Mining's operations (PT BTM).

(See DTE 41 for more information on this gold mining company).

"BTM has had a bad effect on our environment. Before the mining company came, we used water from the River Tiku for all our needs, but since 1997 this river has become polluted. Your skin itches when you use the water. The water turns yellow or brown and the fish die. Now we have to fetch drinking water from a river 1km away. Explosions from the mine damage our crops. Durian and other fruit trees are unproductive. It is hard to find honey. We have also been pushed off our land. In the old days we used to live off our own land. Now many have become transmigrants or rubber tappers in other villages. A few have become labourers at the mine.

BTM started surveying the area in 1982. There was no consultation with the local community. They took away rock samples and the villagers left them to it. Some local people were paid by BTM as guides. Four years later BTM started small-scale production. It began to take over forested land for the mine and to construct new roads. The company paid compensation for any trees or plants damaged and, at that time, compensation rates were quite high. There were no negotiations: the company offered Rp3.6 million per hectare (around US$500). Nearly everyone accepted because this was such a lot of money.

The real problems began when BTM started full-scale exploitation in 1997 and we saw the environmental and social effects. Then people no longer wanted to give up their land. The company changed its attitude too. Some people, including my uncle, were determined to hold out. The company came to see them time and time again and eventually brought in the police and local government officials.

(When asked whether the local community would want to take over the mining operation, Zakaria replied),"We are not interested. It is true that, for generations, we have panned for gold. By the 1950s some people had accumulated several kilograms. But since the river has been polluted, no-one wants to do this as the water makes your hands all itchy.

We really want this mine to be closed down and for BTM to restore the rivers it has polluted to their original state. Personally, I don't believe this will happen. But there is much more that the company could do to help our communities have a better life. "