Struggle against logging goes on in Mentawai

Down to Earth No 68   February 2006

Will legal action help save forests and livelihoods in the Mentawai Islands? The following is adapted from an Indonesian language report by WALHI West Sumatra and interviews with Yayasan Citra Mandiri, an NGO which focuses on Mentawai issues.

The Mentawai Islands, off Sumatra's western coast, are renowned for the unique culture of their indigenous communities and the rare species that have evolved in this isolated rainforest archipelago. They are also famous for the struggle to save all this from being wiped out.

In 1981 the main island, Siberut, was declared a Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, and a decade later, in 1993, the Indonesian government extended what had been a 56,000 hectare nature reserve into to 190,500 hectare National Park, covering more than half the island's land area. Still, logging remains a serious threat to Siberut and its smaller neighbouring islands, despite the many attempts to safeguard its forests. Mentawaians continue to face encroachment by profit-seeking outsiders and major threats to their livelihoods.

Large-scale logging outfits form part of the destructive picture. These include PT Salaki Summa Sejahtera, a company which has a concession (HPH) covering 49,440ha in North Siberut. This indigenous-owned area borders the core zone of the national park and forms the water catchment area for rivers in the eastern side of the island. The indigenous communities have opposed logging in the concession since the central government approved a controversial environmental impact assessment in 2001. The renewal of its licence is currently the subject of a review by an independent review team (see below).

The second large concession (49,640 hectares) slightly further south is held by KAM, a cooperative of Andalas University in the West Sumatran provincial capital, Padang. This development provoked strong opposition from Mentawai students as well as local people. In the ensuing conflict, the company base camp was burned down and protesters forced the contractors to remove heavy equipment and take it back to the mainland. Soon after this action, in 2001, the company was reported to have persuaded some indigenous clans who held land in the concession to hand over their lands for around Rp25,000/sq m (approx US$2.5 at the time). (See DTE 50 for more background on this and other cases in Mentawai). KAM now has plans to extend its operations to Katurei, Taileleu, Salappak, Saliguma and Saibi in South Siberut.

The other large HPH concession (83,330 hectares) is held by Minas Pagai Lumber Corporation, on the neighbouring islands of North and South Pagai.

Other logging companies use the much-abused 'wood use permit' (IPK) system to extract timber. Some of these are these are genuine local companies or co-operatives set up by Mentawai communities. Others are the product of pressure from timber dealers on the mainland. The military are said to be investors in these ventures. The local people who fell the trees get very little benefit - around Rp20,000/cubic metre (approx US$2) for wood which sells at 50 times that amount on the international market. The understaffed forestry department carries out no supervision of their activities, so it cannot challenge the fictitious documents about the amount of timber extracted. According to environmental group WALHI West Sumatra, thirty licences covering 53,183 ha were issued by the district head (bupati) or were in the approval process during 2002-2004. Seven of these permits are on Siberut.


Forest classifications in the Mentawai Islands
Function Size
Protection Forest Hutan Lindung (HL) 3,197.00 ha
Production Forest Hutan Produksi (HP) 273,805.00 ha
Conversion production forest Hutan Produksi Konversi (HPK) 46.276,00 ha
Nature Reserve Forest Hutan Suaka Alam (HSAW) 6.533,65 ha
National Park Taman Nasional (TN) 190.500,00 ha
Other Uses Areal Penggunaan Lain (APL) 93.043,37 ha
Total 613.355,02 ha
(Source: Dinas Kehutan Kabupaten Kepulauan Mentawai, via WALHI Sumbar)


Illegal logging investigation
In 2004, Yayasan Citra Mandiri (YCM) conducted a field investigation into these seven IPK logging operations. Almost all of these licences were in locations officially classified as 'Other Use Areas' (APL), the forests that are indeed allowed to be allocated for IPK licences. However, YCM's investigation found evidence that these 7 IPK licence holders were logging outside their licensed areas. YCM found indications that another 14 licence-holders were doing the same.

The investigation results were submitted to the West Sumatra high court, which responded by sending a team in May 2005 to seize evidence of illegal logging by three logging operations: CV ATN, KSU Simatorai Monga Sioban and village cooperative (KUD) Mina Awera in Berimanau village, Sipora subdistrict. The team impounded 1,100 logs, a vessel, 310 logs still in the logpond plus several pieces of heavy machinery and documents belonging to the three companies.

On May 26, the company heads were arrested on charges of corruption and causing loss to the state. The detainees objected successfully and were released on 9th June, along with the impounded evidence.

The following week, a West Sumatra civil society grouping, People Against Illegal Logging (MAIL), held a demonstration at the provincial police headquarters, pressing the police to deal with illegal logging cases on the Mentawai Islands. The police initially argued there was insufficient evidence, but eventually did start to take action. When they returned to seize the evidence originally impounded in May, only 310 logs were left. The boat that was to transport them had been grounded in a freak storm, and the other 1,100 logs plus the heavy equipment had disappeared.

At the time of writing, the heads of the three operations (CV ATN, KSU Simatorai and KUD Mina Awera) were alleged to have sold the illegally felled timber through companies in Medan and Jambi. They are being charged with corruption and illegal logging. Two local forestry officials are also accused of falsifying documents.

The Mentawai governor reluctantly stopped all logging under IPK licences from April 2005, following a government clampdown on illegal logging. The dilemma now is how can communities which had become dependent on logging develop more sustainable livelihoods. Unlike previous generations, people in the Mentawai islands now need cash to send their children to school and to pay for transport and medicines. In Siberut, sago stands still provide families with sufficient food and people can make a living by selling rattan and making handicrafts. However, the half of the island outside the national park is still officially zoned as 'production forest' so there is the threat that small logging operations could be replaced by larger ones.

In Sipora and Sikakap, the situation is even more serious as there is less natural forest and people had neglected their fields in favour of a ready income from timber operations. They are now looking at cultivating coconuts, rattan and cocoa, a new crop for the islands, but are also asking for training for alternatives to farming. Tourism has obvious potential, especially for surfing, but this brings its own problems.

WALHI West Sumatra says the struggle against illegal logging and the fight to stop the government issuing large-scale logging permits and maintain indigenous rights to the forests, goes on. They point to the need for some legal framework to control resource use at the district level as a means of resolving the legal conflict between local and central government. On the one hand, the department of forestry has used the 1999 Forestry Act to prevent local authorities from issuing logging permits. On the other, regional autonomy legislation (No32/2004) gives the regions the authority to use local resources to generate revenues. Forestry - via IPK logging permits - was intended to raise Rp2.5bn (approx US$250,000) for local government coffers in 2004, (though the NGO coalition reckons that only a fraction of this amount was realised due to non-payment of fees and corruption).

At the same time, there is another threat to Siberut's forests, in the form of large-scale oil palm plantations. West Sumatra's governor has already given the all-important 'permission in principle' to oil palm plantations on Siberut. The head of the company involved is rumoured to be a relative. The use of Siberut's forests has been the subject of a study set up in late 2004. The independent team, headed by Indonesia's research body, LIPI, included members of the Forestry Department, YCM and the indigenous community, has concluded that the project should not go ahead. Even more controversially, it will recommend that large-scale logging should be reduced by 70%. The report was due to be presented in mid-December 2005 to an expert panel which includes former environment minister, Emil Salim, but no news has been received at the time this newsletter went to print.

(Adapted from: Segera! Selamatkan Kepulauan Mentawai, by Prasetyo Dan Saiful (Walhi Sumbar). Additional source: Gaung AMAN XI. See also YCM website



Ten years ago, if you had said to Kortanius Sabeleakek that he would be a leading member of the local government, he would have laughed. But now, he is the leader of the Mentawai district assembly (DPRD). Korta (as he is usually called) played a leading role in the campaign for Mentawai to become an administrative district in its own right, rather than part of mainland Padang-Pariaman. He was a founder, and for many years director of the Padang-based NGO Yayasan Citra Mandiri (YCM) which worked to support Mentawai communities. (Citra Mandiri means 'Vision of Autonomy' in Indonesian). When the new district of Mentawai was created in 1999, Korta felt that the way to bring about real change was to enter the world of politics full time. He stood for the local assembly (DPRD Mentawai) in the 2004 elections on the Local Unity Party ticket (Partai Persatuan Daerah) and won.

His supporters attribute Korta's success to work he had done with Mentawaian communities in Siberut and Sipora, as well as on the mainland, over many years. YCM had been doing political education work in the Mentawai islands since 2002. Korta also kept good links with his NGO roots in the run-up to the election. Local people knew him and his record and voted for him personally, rather than for the party. He is planning to stand for election as bupati (district administrator) in 2006.

Since the downfall of Suharto, a growing number of activists have decided to stand for the local or national parliaments and there is talk of setting up an Indonesian Green Party. So, over the past year Korta has shared his experience of the campaign trail and his position in the Mentawais with others, including members of WALHI's national network.

Interviewed soon after his appointment in 2004, Korta said "The money in the local budget is the people's money. So the main issue is how to use that money is the best possible way. That's the key - all local government programmes and projects must be based on their benefit the community." (Gaung AMAN XII at