Riau: a customary leader's fight to save the forest

Down to Earth No 53-54  August 2002

The following is translated from 'Patih 'Pak Garang' Laman', an article by Edi Petebang, Kalimantan Review no. 55/March 2000

Patih Laman is a traditional leader of a Talang Mamak community - an indigenous people who live in the forests of Riau and Jambi, Sumatra. Some, but not all of the Talang Mamak's customary forests lie within Bukit Tiga Puluh National Park. The Talang Mamak follow a traditional way of life, practising rotational use of the forests. They clear some forest to grow rice and vegetables and use the rest to collect non-timber forest products including fruits, rattan, wild rubber and various gums and resins. They also fish and hunt. Maintaining the balance of nature is an important part of their culture which is based on animist beliefs.

For the last 25 years Patih Laman has used every possible means to protect his community's adat land in the Indragiri Hulu district of Riau. "I'd rather die protecting the forest than kill myself trying to make enough money to buy a burial plot", says the 74-year old. His community's problems began in the mid-1970s when the large-scale exploitation of forests began. Roads became dusty and streams were cloudy and began to dry up as the forest was opened up by logging companies. Patih Laman led Talang Mamak delegations to all levels of the local administration, but the officials simply ignored their complaints. At the governor's office, the villagers were accused of belonging to the (banned) Communist Party. "How can we be Communists when we can't even read or write?", countered Patih Laman. Fed up with being ignored by Riau officials, community representatives went to Jakarta to protest to the minister of forestry, the National Human Rights Commission, Parliament and the President. With support from other adat figures in Indragiri Hulu and a few local government officials, Patih Laman and his people have managed to save 11,679 ha of their customary forest.

Several times the community has taken direct action to protect their forest lands and way of life from loggers and plantation companies. In 1981, they drove out PT IFA who had entered the area illegally and fined the logging company 6 tons of rice for cutting down jelutung trees. In 1996, they stopped PT Partiadi from logging and the company was fined Rp4.7 million (then US$2,000). Transmigrants who were illegally logging had their chainsaws and the felled timber confiscated. The state-owned company PTPN IV claimed 500ha of the adat forest for an oil palm plantation, but some of this land was returned after Patih Laman and others protested to the minister and to parliament. Around 100 members of the community, armed with traditional weapons, prevented another oil palm plantation company, PT Regunas, from clearing their forest. They also fined PT Mega Nusa Inti Sawit Rp30 million for felling a trees where wild honey bees nested.

Patih Lamang hopes the community will continue their rotational forest use and their traditions, while preserving 1,500ha of forest completely intact as a source of non-timber forest products and a reserve for the future. He has refused all forms of government 'assistance' for the community, including resettlement, funding for the poorest villages (IDT) and oil palm schemes. "The government never discusses anything with us, because it thinks we are ignorant. For example, it just hands out licences to companies even though we - the indigenous community - are the owners of this land and the forests", he said. He explains that he is not 'anti-development', but believes that development should respect nature and benefit the poorest of the poor - not just power brokers and the business community.

But Patih Lamang is old and there are not many people like him. Meanwhile, another company, PT Surya Duami Industry, has plans to convert a considerable area of the Talang Mamak's forest into an industrial tree plantation to supply pulp mills in Riau.