Yamdena islanders continue battle against loggers

Down to Earth No. 42, August 1999

The indigenous people of Yamdena Island in the Tanimbars, Maluku, have resumed protests against the destruction of their forests after the government withdrew from an agreement to halt commercial logging on the island.

The 164,000-hectare logging concession on Yamdena is held by a joint venture, between logging company, PT Mohtra Agung, and state-owned PT Inhutani I. Local people, national and international organisations have campaigned against commercial logging on Yamdena for many years, to safeguard the livelihoods of the island's indigenous communities and protect its unique fauna and flora. Last year representatives of the islanders successfully negotiated a halt to logging activities on Yamdena and the forestry minister issued a temporary halt to logging. This action had been recommended by the Governor of Maluku - once an avid supporter of the logging - in order, it is thought, to court reformist favour in the months following the resignation of President Suharto.

However, in March this year a meeting was held between Forestry Department representatives, members of the Yamdena Islander's association living in Jakarta (ICTI) and other Yamdena islanders, to discuss the status of the concession. This led to suspicions among the islanders that the government wanted logging to resume and the meeting ended in an atmosphere of confrontation and tension. Sure enough, at the beginning of April, a government decision was issued which permitted the companies to start logging again.

The local community was once again galvanised into taking action. A peaceful protest was organised under the auspices of the vice-Bishop of Tanimbar in April in Saumlaki, where the Inhutani logging office is located. Around 400 people joined the protest from different parts of the island. They were told that their demand - for the company to leave the island - would be forwarded to the company's head office in Jakarta. Further protests are planned to press home this demand.

Words and deeds

The forestry department's failure to stop logging on the island is an indication of how much promises of reform are really worth. In June, Forests and Plantations Minister Muslimin Nasution said his department would encourage a development approach aimed at securing the well-being of the people. According to a report in the Indonesian newspaper Kompas, he said communities would regain access to the forests and indigenous people would be given their full forest management and customary land rights. Indigenous people were considered highly consistent in safeguarding the forests. He also said that the emphasis in this approach would be on eco-tourism, forest products, flora and fauna, as these were of higher economic value than the timber sector. (Kompas 12/6/99)

For the people of Yamdena, and for the many other indigenous communities struggling to defend their forest resources, these words have yet to be translated into deeds.