Orang Asli in Malaysia confront the curse of palm oil

Scene from the video “The Curse of Palm Oil”

This is not a video that I’ve shot but it is such an excellent way of showing a landscape and presenting the voice of Peninsula Malaysia’s Orang Asli.  I want to make sure that it has as much exposure as possible.

WIt is particularly important that the Orang Asli, the Indigenous people, are heard.

The Curse Of Palm Oil from Contrast VR on Vimeo.

My current project

I presently working with a colleague on a resource that covers some of the issues raised in this video.  We will be going a little deeper than this video but in a different medium.

This project began as fiction, as a fusion of the problems confronting a variety of Indigenous people in Sumatra. As we’ve gone deeper into the project it has tended to focus more on one group, though the issues they confront are similar to the issues confronted by Indigenous people all over the world. Ultimately we want to visit the Indigenous people we are writing about.

The myth of emptiness

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the myth of emptiness. The myth was doctrine termed Terra Nulius by Australia’s European colonisers. Whatever the specific terms employed by a nation-state it is predicated on the failure to recognise prior customary rights to land. Both before and after independence Indonesian governance was preoccupied with the problems of the densely settled core, Java, Madura and perhaps Bali, and saw the empty spaces beyond as ripe for resettlement.

Peninsula Malaysia

In peninsula Malaysia, where this video is set, the development of the rubber industry in colonial times and the subsequent development of the oil palm industry in post-colonial times, showed insufficient regard for the customary rights of the Orang Asli.

It’s pleasing to hear their voice, but I suspect that in this case there remain few opportunities for them to enjoy the closeness to the land and nature that gave rise to their culture.

Asia, environment, geography, indigenous, Indonesia, Oil Palm Plantations, peatlands, Riau

Unregistered Plantation in Riau Encroaching on Giam Siak Kecil Biosphere Reserve

Figure 1: Clearing on the margins of an unregistered plantation in the Siak Kecil area of Riau Province

When I first saw this image it saddened me. I had already travelled through the region, not precisely this spot at 0° 59′ 54.9996′ N, 101° 53′ 3.0012′ E, but further to the north and west.  Travelling by helicopter afforded an excellent view of the numerous forms of natural habitat destruction that is such a feature of Riau Province.

Years earlier, Indonesian friends had insisted that Riau Province was the most corrupt province in the country. Now, this was a big claim and I took it on board as somewhat of an exaggeration but after visiting the place, I’m not so sure. Now back to the main point of this post.

Locating the image on Google Maps.

As a first step in delving deeper into this image I decided to locate it on Google Maps which meant converting the coordinates to the decimal scale 0.998611 N, 101.884167 E. This allowed me to plot the image’s location. There were several images taken from a location further south.

I’ve shaded the camera icons red so that they stand out on the map.

While attempting to locate the site on a map of Riau landholdings, I was fortunate to come across this map.

Figure 2: Land holdings and land use in Riau

I’ve loaded it as full size so readers can examine this map in detail. It has latitude and longitude clearly marked. The area in question is a little hard to discern so I’ve also clipped the relevant section of the map.

Figure 3: Segment of Land holdings and land use map

The cleared area, pictured in Figure 1, is on the border of the Giam Siak Kecil Biosphere Reserve, which is also the customary land of the Indigenous Sakai people. It appears to extend into the reserve. Such clearing opens up opportunities for illegal logging inside the reserve and leaves it prone to the danger of wildfire, particularly given the extent of forest debris visible in the image.

Also, note that the cleared area in Figure 1 is on the border of an Unregistered Plantation. Research conducted in 2014, found that occurrences of fire by land cover type, land management systems, landholders, and proximity to roads and canals showed that:

The registered companies implemented a zero-burning policy to obtain a sustainable management certification. This certificate is mandatory for all palm oil companies in Indonesia. In contrast, unregistered companies do not follow the policy” it is also evident that they are more likely to use fire to develop plantations. “Oil palm plantations by unregistered companies were more prone to fire (8.5%) than those by registered companies (3.3%) or smallholders (2.1%)

Figure 4 shows an isolated Sakai house deeper inside.

Figure 4: Sakai dwelling in the Giam Kecil Biosphere Reserve
Asia, environment, geography, indigenous, Indonesia, Oil Palm Plantations, peatlands

#Change in Riau from closed canopy forest to plantations

Slash and burn activity on the margin of a conservation area, Riau.

This morning my colleague Prayoto Tonoto sent me a diagram. It illustrated the stages in the transformation of forests from closed canopy systems to the monocultural plantations that are such a major feature of Riau’s landscape.

In an earlier blog post, I made mention of these stages

Stage 1: Selection Logging

Selective logging over a 20-year period. Logs are can be removed using push carts on portable light rail systems or slid along tree trunks.  This opens up the canopy lowering humidity and making forest prone to fires in dry periods. If selection cutting is carefully controlled such impacts can be contained but regulation is difficult.

This process is not always legal and can involve incursion into Parks, Conservation areas and Reserves.  It is also often at the expense of the land rights of Indigenous people.

Stage 2: More extensive illegal logging

This can also involve the use of small streams for log transport. Being non-selective this type of extraction can cause irreversible degrading of the forest ecosystem and loss of forest cover.

Stage 3: Slash & Burn Encroachment

Drainage of peat is essential for any agricultural crop (except for sago on the coast). In some cases, small ditches left from previous illegal logging are used to assist peatland drainage. Once an area is dry, fire is the cheapest means available for land clearing. On peatland, without rain, fires can smoulder and farmers are neither motivated nor do they have the capability to extinguish fires.  When rains don’t come, as in the El Nino year of 2015 fires can spread, raging out of control.

Stage 4: Productive Agriculture

Next, the opportunistic patchwork is gradually transformed into organized plantations of palm oil and rubber. Pioneers are bought or pushed out by larger organisations that have acquired concessional access or land titles. In these situations, the focus is on legal compliance but auditing is difficult and breaches of codes continue.

Developing the diagram

The basic diagram, in the centre, is clear enough. Since we’ve both collected many images documenting this process I decided to combine some of them. Here is the result. I think it conveys a more accurate sense of what is going on in Riau.

Deforestation & plantation development. Source: Prayoto Tonoto & Russell Darnley

This post is in collaboration with Prayoto Tonoto who has many years experience in forestry in Riau Province, Indonesia. He is now at Hiroshima University completing a Master of Engineering in Development Technology.  His principal skills and expertise lie in Conservation Biology, Agriculture, Landscape Ecology, Carbon Sequestration, Land Use Change and Wetland Ecology.

Asia, indigenous, Indonesia, Malaysia, Oil Palm Plantations, peatlands, Riau, Singapore

Destruction of Riau’s peatlands continue

Though Indonesia’s President has called for a moratorium on peatland clearing in Indonesia, the process of deforestation and clearing continues.  Despite the grave conditions that developed in 2015, fire is still the cheapest means of clearing remnant forest areas once valuable species have been removed.

Following a PM Haze volunteer visit to Riau on 23 February 2017 I began to map the relentless destruction of Riau’s forests.

The red line shows the course of a helicopter flight. The path traverses a variety of landscapes and land use. Additional photos have been added along with shaded areas showing the location of recent fires.


Blogging about deforestation and smoke haze

I first began writing about this problem in September 2015 with the story Forest Burning and haze in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

12 more posts followed as my focus narrowed to Sumatra and Riau Province, in particular.

The failure of governance

There is much more to say on this issue but to sum it up in one sentence is easy. There has been a failure of the different levels of government in Indonesia to apply the law in the face of pressed from vested interests with a capacity to pay for special consideration.

At present, I’m working on a post that addresses this squarely.  In the meantime, anyone wanting an excellent overview of this issue should consult Turning down the heat in Indonesia’s oil palm industry: Good governance and sustainability incentives can provide alternatives for land conversion fires by Nabiha Shahab.  She has drawn many of the threads together

She writes, in part:

In theory, the central government has power to influence the oil palm supply chain through law and policies; district-level governments have the most jurisdiction for law enforcement and information-spreading; and village governments are closest to plantation developers, thus having the responsibility of dealing directly with them.

However, good governance for the industry is not as simple as a top-down approach. From consumers to mills, refineries and developers, players in palm oil influence governance processes in different, sometimes unexpected ways.

Read more in my next post.


Understanding the Darling River against a background of climatic realities, water mismanagement and theft – #riparian #WaterTheft #environment

Back in the 1980s I worked with the NSW Department of Education as Project Officer for the Country Areas Program (CAP). I enjoyed the work. It allowed me to deepen my knowledge of rural life and travel the state.

On my first trip to Bourke, somewhere around 1983, I remember seeing signs of windblown sand along the Mitchell Highway where geographic reason told me there should be none. I reflected on the loss of woodlands in the face of sheep, wheat and cattle. Closer to Bourke, in places irrigation water from the Darling River touched the land with a green hue.

I’d already been to the Menindee Lakes, Broken Hill and Silverton and crossed Nullabor to Perth, appreciating desert where I expected to find it.  Later I spent time travelling through South Australia where encounters with abandoned farmhouses were a testimony to the folly of agriculture on the fringes of the desert.

Educated during the 1950s and 1960s, I’m part of the generation taught that Australia rides on the sheep’s back and that our inland waterways were critical in ‘opening-up’ the interior affording an opportunity for the sheep wheat industry to thrive becoming a fundament of our wealth.

This first trip to Bourke came as a shock.  My sense of the place seemed wrong. Images used to illustrate a series of CAP readers for children compounded my disquiet as one, a tale of paddle steamers plying the river as far as Brewarrina and Walgett (see figure 1), had left me with an expectation of a healthy riparian world flush with water, at least in the wet season.

Figure 1: Paddle steamer ‘Brewarinna’ and barge ‘Coledida’ with Narrara wool on the Barwon. From the collections of the State Library of New South Wales

What I saw was a trickle and I wondered how anyone could survive on it. Yet it had once been a mighty riparian system. In 1950 Bill Wheate (see Figure 2) writing in the Walgett Spectator lamented the demise of paddle steamers.

Figure 2: The Walgett Spectator – Gone are the days of Paddle-Steamers

Taking the Darling’s Water

Since my first visit to the Menindee Lakes in 1967 then Bourke in 1983, there has been a steady and relentless extraction of water from the Darlings’ tributaries in southern Queensland and Northern NSW. Most tragically the development of massive storage ponds to support the cotton industry has been a feature of this extraction.

That we have a cotton industry on the upper reaches of the Murray Darling system strikes me as an absolute absurdity. Why on earth would the world’s driest inhabited continent attempt to cultivate and export a crop that is so water intensive? In reality, we are exporting water.

Perhaps one reason that more Australian’s are protesting about this is that they aren’t sufficiently aware of the prevailing climatic and riparian conditions. As more than 85% of us live within 50 kilometres of the coast this is understandable. So, I thought I should begin with the basics and with apologies to my geographically literate readers.

Australia’s geographic context

Australia is the world’s second-driest continent (after Antarctica), with average (mean) annual rainfall below 600 millimetres (mm) per year over 80% of the continent, and below 300mm over 50%. Year Book Australia, 2006 [1]

Annual average rainfall for Australia

Figure 3: Mean precipitation is low for several reasons [2]


Distance from maritime influences ensures greater aridity and a relative absence of the moderating effects of oceans meaning that summers tend to be hotter than coastal locations at a similar latitude and winters cooler. the distance from maritime influences;

Latitudinal position

Australia’s latitudinal extent is from 10° 41′ 21″ S  to 43° 38′ 40″ S.  The Horse Latitudes, areas around 30° north and south latitude, have a large impact on continental Australia. Latitude 30°S, runs from Woolgoolga, NSW to Leeman, WA. Significantly it passes close Bourke on the Darling River, close to the confluence of the Darling’s main tributaries the Barwon, Culgoa, Warrego, Paroo, Gwydir and Namoi.

Orographic rain in Eastern Australia

Figure 4: Rainshadow effects of the Great Dividing Range are evident with decreasing westward precipitation.



The ENSO effect (El Niño Southern Oscillation). This refers to the large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific. It causes a seasonal variability in rainfall throughout Australia, the South West Pacific and the Indonesian archipelago in particular. During an El Niño year, drought is common

The Indian Ocean Dipole

The Indian Ocean Dipole refers to the changes in the difference between sea surface temperatures in the tropical western and eastern Indian Ocean. Its positive phase has a significant impact on agricultural output in the northwestern parts of Australia as cooler water builds up along the coast increasing aridity.

Evaporation rates

These factors combined ensure that evaporation exceeds precipitation over approximately 80% of the continent as illustrated in the Australian Bureau of Meteorology maps below.

Figure 5: Annual average evaporation for Australia [3]


The Murray Darling Basin (MDB)

Figure 7: Boundary of the Murray Darling Basin (MDB)

The Murray and Darling are the principal sources of water from south-east Queensland to South Australia. While the Murray rises in the wet Southern Alps, the confluence of the Darling’s tributaries is in an area characterised by aridity and high evaporation.

Although distinct in riparian character, the two systems are still referred to as the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB). The MDB is well described by the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) which makes the following points:

  • It’s one of the flattest catchments on Earth;
  • 94%of the basin’s 530,000 GL of precipitation is lost through evapotranspiration and pan evaporation;
  • The average flow of water into the basin is 32,500 GL but Australia’s climatic variability means this can range from 7,000 GL (in 2006) to almost 118,000 GL (in 1956).
  • The Basin’s subdued topography, warm to hot semi-arid conditions in most regions, and slow-flowing nature of the creeks and rivers contribute to the high evaporation rates.
  • Rainfall is summer dominant in the north and winter dominant in the south.
  • Tributaries that rise in the Great Dividing make the largest contribute most water, despite their smaller size.
  • the upper Murray, Murrumbidgee and Goulburn–Broken rivers drain only 11% of the basin but contribute 45% of the Basin’s total annual runoff from
  • The Darling River and its tributaries cover 60% the Basin’s area but only contribute 32% of its water.
  • The Darling River covers 11% percent of the Basin’s area but contributes less than less than 0.5% of annual runoff.
  • 86% of the Basin’s waterways are ephemeral
  • Water from overbank full flows that spreads out onto floodplains evaporates quickly

One of the most telling realities about the MDB is that the Murray–Darling system is that mean annual discharge is 0.4 megalitres per second (ML/s). The Amazon is 290 ML/s and the Ganges–Brahmaputra is 38 ML/s.

The average annual flow of the Murray-Darling would pass through the Amazon River in less than a day.[6]

The entire water flowing in Australian rivers amounts to about 13% of the Amazon’s annual discharge.

The Australian Hydrological geospatial fabric data provides a more comprehensive analysis of the drainage systems of Australia.


Figure 8: Australian Hydrological Geospatial Fabric.

For a video explanation of Australian Hydrological Geospatial Fabric follow this link

Australian soils

Salinity is a significant problem in soils across Australia’s arid region.  The Australian Bureau of Statistics[7] notes that Australia’s soils are susceptible to degradation by agricultural activities.

  • One of the most significant causes of soil degradation in Australia is salinity, which poses a serious threat to native species, ecological communities and functioning ecosystems (ANZECC 2001).
  • Salinity has been caused by extensive land clearing in Australia, predominantly for agricultural purposes. European farming practices, which replaced trees or other deep-rooted native vegetation with shallow-rooted crops and pastures that use less water, has resulted in rising water tables which can cause dryland salinity.
  • Dryland salinity is more difficult to remedy than irrigation salinity which is well understood and managed.
  • In 2000, 5.7 million hectares of Australia were assessed as having a high potential to develop salinity. Predictions indicate that unless effective solutions are implemented, the area affected could increase to 17 million hectares by 2050, most of which is agricultural land (more than 11 million hectares) (NLWRA 2001). In 2002, about 20,000 farms and 2 million hectares of agricultural land showed actual signs of salinity (ABS 2002). For many farms, salinity has meant the loss of productivity and income.
  • There are also many off-farm impacts of salinity, the most significant of which appears to be the salinisation of rivers which affects drinking and irrigation

 Native Title report 2008.  Case Study 2: The Murray-Darling Basin – an ecological and human tragedy

Rivers, interception of flows and salinity

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is clear that:

  1. Salinity management is one of the most significant challenges in the Murray–Darling Basin. If it is not managed well, salinity has serious implications for water quality, plant growth, biodiversity, land productivity and the supply of water for critical human needs.
  2. Human activities such as irrigation development and land clearing often exacerbate salt mobilisation, causing it to concentrate in certain parts of the landscape and rivers.
  3. Unregulated, illegal interception of flows presents a risk for all water users in a catchment.  Not only does it mean lower levels of flow in main channels but it also has an impact on water table levels.

By reducing flows there is increased risk downstream to:

  • crop yields
  • pastures
  • drinking water in rural and urban communities.
  • the ecological health of streams and estuaries.

For these reasons, riparian flows in Australia, particularly in the Murray-Darling basin require careful management as a means of avoiding increasing salinity.

Overuse of water and water theft

It’s hard for an outsider to know much about these issues in detail. Looking at the state of the Darling and the Menindee Lakes is enough to show that there is gross mismanagement of the entire system.  While large water exporters like the cotton industry enjoy a privileged and profitable position, it is at the expense of all downstream water users.

Reading Helen Vivian’s  Cry me a river: Mismanagement and corruption have left the Darling dry, reminds us that:

The lower Darling River is in so much trouble that a 270-kilometre pipeline is being built to supply Murray River water to Broken Hill, which used to supplement its water supply from the Darling River via the Menindee Lakes.

Expecting taxpayers to fund the construction of a water pipeline from the Murray to Broken Hill confers an outrageous subsidy on upstream water mismanagers. It also masks increasing water theft

There is little point in me engaging in further commentary on the since Cry me a river does it so thoroughly. The large irrigator’s threadbare arguments that their interceptions of water and storage in deeper ponds reduce evaporation and that the Menindee Lakes are inefficient because they are shallow and have high evaporation rates, is a selfish position that ignores numerous inefficient practices where evaporation rated are extremely high.

[1] http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/Abs%40.Nsf/46d1bc47ac9d0c7bca256c470025ff87/BBD307D0202CA25BCA2570DE00032610?opendocument=

[2]http://www.bom.gov.au/jsp/ncc/climate_averages/rainfall/index.jsp ©Commonwealth of Australia 2010

[3]http://www.bom.gov.au/jsp/ncc/climate_averages/evaporation/index.jsp “Evaporation is the amount of water which evaporates from an open pan called a Class A evaporation pan. The rate of evaporation depends on factors such as cloudiness, air temperature and wind speed. Measurements are made by the addition or subtraction of a known amount of water, which then tells us how much water has evaporated from the pan.” http://www.bom.gov.au/watl/evaporation/


[5] W J Young (ed), 2001, Rivers as Ecological Systems: The Murray-Darling Basin, Murray-Darling Basin Commission Canberra, p3.


Asia, environment, geography, Indonesia, peatlands

#Indonesia’s #peatland is burning: the peatland burning #moratorium is failing in Riau Province, Sumatra

Indonesia’s moratorium on peatland burning is failing. Focusing on Riau province, the region with the most extensive of peatlands, in the period 1 to 8 March, 2018, there have been 99 fire alerts in the following areas:

  • Siak 35
  • Pelalawan 30
  • Kepulauan Riau Kepulauan 29
Hotspots in Riau 1 January to 6 March, 2018. Source: Global Forest Watch Fires

Between 2 – 3 March seven hotspots were detected in Riau Province, two of them in Meranti Islands, with Kampar, Rokan Hulu, Dumai, Indragiri Hulu and Pelalawan, each one hot spot. Of course, hotspots don’t immediately mean a fire is burning but images from the ground tell the story.

At the time of writing Riau still had forest and peatland fires in several districts. At Lukun Village in the Meranti Islands, 1,224 hectares of peat forest was burned in 16 days.

Estimates are based on drone observations at altitudes of 100 metres and supplements by satellite image analysis.

Drone footage of fire damage at Desa Lukun in Meranti Regency, Riau. Peat is still smouldering. (See Google map for more locational detail)

Mapping Riau’s Fires

The embedded map shows the approximate location of some of the larger fires burning in Riau in during February and the first week of March 2018.  I must acknowledge the assistance of Prayoto in sharing much of the data for this map. Working between maps he generated using GloVis, and Google maps that are easier for me to disseminate to educational networks has been challenging if only because GloVis uses complete statements of latitude and longitude in degrees, minutes and seconds and Google uses a decimal system.  In the end, I abandoned precision for speed. Consequently, some of the fire areas I’ve shown are approximate. The map will be updated as more data comes to hand.

Mongabay highlights problems of fire and finance

Mongabay Indonesia has provided excellent coverage of the present problem, that would seem to indicate a failure of the peatland burning moratorium. It is important to acknowledge that only one fore, in the period covered, was on a RSPO classified oil palm concession. moratorium As of 26 February the Regional Disaster Management Agency (BPBD) in Riau, identified 731.5 hectares of fires while the Riau University Research Facility assisting the Peat Restoration Agency (BRG) identified 1,224 hectares of forest fires.

According to Haris Gunawan, Deputy 4, at BRG suggests illegal logging activities, canalisation and fuel availability  as possible causes of the fire near Lukun village

Illegal logging

Presumably, he is suggesting that the logging activities might employ fire for clearing or that illegal loggers were using fire for other purposes. Their presence was clear because of the wood-lined paths, for forest timber extraction, were found along with a forest hut and no doubt other evidence;


The construction of five kilometres of peatland drainage canal, up six metres wide and four meters deep, that cause drying and increased flammability of peatlands during the dry periods

Fuel availability

Fire on peatlands could be due to abundant fuel availability. He mentions dried peat, sago bark and shrubs and litter. Observing that, “Dried litter and this stem makes fire jump when burning biomass. Even jumping over canals and roads. “

No fire around the BRG project

He also observed that BRG has a peat restoration project in Lukun and there was no fire around the project.

Serious fires occur within a few kilometres of the restoration site and have not intervened BRG programs. Haris Gunawan stresses that restoration activities cannot be stand-alone initiatives, that concession holders must also make an effort. This is a sound principle as restoration activities can be undermined if drainage canals continue to be cut in other parts of the same peat dome.  In essence, if restoration strategies are to be effective they must be must holistic and involve whole peat dome management

Penyengat Village, Siak, also has an active fire but the remote forest location is making it difficult to extinguish. He estimates, it has burned about 80 hectares in the last 10 days

Firefighting budget trimmed

Adding to the problem the provincial budget for forest firefighting has been cut from Rp29.3 billion to Rp6.6 billion, a 77% reduction. Tarmizi, Head of Research and Advocacy of Budget Transparency Forum (Fitra) Riau, said

“I do not know why this year the budget is so drastically reduced. Even though the authority of forestry management is Provincial Government and no longer in the district. A big responsibility, minimal budget allocations, this is also a problem” he told Mongabay , last weekend.

He explained that the funds are spread across agencies, the Office of Environment and Forestry, the Regional Disaster Management Agency and the Plantation Crops Department. All of which have programs for forest and land fire prevention.

He considered, the budget of fire handling every year at least Rp30 billion, the same as the previous year. The funds, he said, should contain a peat recovery program.

BRG itself allocated Rp49 billion. The amount is outside of the donor agency. Such a budget is for rewetting programs, revegetation and revitalization of living resources in six areas of hydrological unity.

BRG targets 140,000 hectares of peat recovered this year. For five years to 2020, about 900,000 hectares of damaged peatland in Riau will be recovered.

“Peat in Riau 5 million hectares. It hurts 20 years. (Target restoration) 900,000 hectares work five years, let’s see five years later. The areas that are now burning are not in the intervention areas (BRG), “said Haris, in front of a number of agencies in Riau firefighting unit, last week.

Dealing with peatlands holistically

Haris Gunawan explained that BRG, is “not tackling forest fires, but restoring healthy peat to reduce burning vulnerability”. Others have criticised BRG for being less a than effective in applying a holistic approach to peatland restoration. In the Desa Lukun area, for example, the damage to peatland caused by two big companies PT.LUM and PT NSP has resulted in drying and increased flammability. So, fire has been a persistent problem in this area notably in 2014 and now again in 2018. Lukun highlights the problem that dealing with peatland restoration must be comprehensive. Peat domes are part of a system and their restoration requires cooperation between all stakeholders throughout the drainage system, from headwaters to the coastline.

Asia, economics, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Indonesia

Encountering the #Indigenous people of #Riau proved cause for wider reflection

My interest in the rights of Indigenous people dates back many years. As an Australian, of European descent, I acknowledge the prior ownership and customary land rights of Australia’s Indigenous nations. This is an interest that I’ve revealed elsewhere on this blog and one that was well expressed by our former Prime Minister, Paul Keating.

I’ve included this as a reflection on the Australian context, part of the wider reflection that writing this post has prompted.  If your interest is principally Riau, read on and watch this later.

European Parliament Resolution

On 9 March 2017, the European Union passed a motion on palm oil and deforestation of rainforests.

The motion, “Calls on the Commission to adopt binding regulations on agricultural commodity importers’ supply chains, in order to ensure a fully sustainable palm oil supply chain by 2020”, citing many areas of concern rendering palm oil without RSPO certification unsustainable. It notes that:

  • the deforestation of rainforests is destroying the natural habitats of more than half of the world’s animal species and more than two-thirds of its plant species and endangering their survival;
  • multiple investigations reveal widespread abuses of basic human rights during the establishment and operation of palm oil plantations in many countries, including forced evictions, armed violence, child labour, debt bondage or discrimination against indigenous communities;
  • a substantial part of global palm oil production is in breach of fundamental human rights and adequate social standards,
  • child labour is frequently being exploited, and
  • there are many land conflicts between local and indigenous communities and palm oil concession holders;

What stood out for me was “forced evictions, armed violence, child labour, debt bondage or discrimination against indigenous communities” and “conflicts between local and indigenous communities and palm oil concession holders”. It stood out because I knew so little about the specifics. Apart from the Dayak peoples and the forest dwellers of the Mentawai Islands, I hadn’t realised that there were many indigenous people in Sumatra. It’s ironic because from where I live, Sumatra is clearly visible.

Investigation the status of Indigenous people

When I began investigating this subject I soon discovered that, like Australia where many Indigenous people were labelled with the one label Aboriginal, in Riau the generic term was Siak. Writing in the Jurnal Antropologi: Isu-Isu Sosial Budaya in Desember 2017, Takamasa Osawa observes that “The eastern coasts of Sumatra, Indonesia, are low and marshy lands, which are divided by numerous brackish rivers, and covered by vast mangrove forests. This region was a largely unpopulated area where some orang asli (‘indigenous’) groups and a few Malay people lived before the colonial era.”[1]

Figure 1: Sumatran peatlands

While there is some nipa palm swamp and mangrove on the margins, most of these low and marshy lands are swampy peatlands that originally supported closed canopy rainforests. They also stabilised the Pleistocene coastline of East Sumatra.

Osawa continues observing that “The Suku Asli are Austronesian speakers living on the coasts of eastern Sumatra in Riau province, who were recorded as the Utan (Orang Utan; forest people) in past records.

As this name implies, they were semi-nomadic (coastal) forest dwellers who engaged in hunting, gathering and fishing in the forest, distant from the political centre of the state. Before the nineteenth century, this region was characterised by low population density, such that the Suku Asli moved freely from place to place in this low and marshy region using canoes, and lived on the banks along channels and brackish rivers that run complexly between and within the islands. Therefore, their settlements have been scattered over the islands and coasts of a vast area around the estuary of the Siak and Kampar Rivers until the present.”[2]

Encountering Riau’s Orang Asli

On my first visit to Sungai Tohor, on Tebing Tinggi island in the Meranti group. I remember my friend Yi Han explaining the dangers of fire on peatlands. We stood along a rough track cut through land that had been burned two years before by a palm oil company.

Suddenly the sound of a motorbike reminded us we were on what passed as a local road. Moments later our small group was forced to part, opening the way as a solitary man on a step-through Honda moved between us. I wrote about this earlier. It was a common event in many parts of Indonesia, but the man rode with a small sway-back pig trussed and draped in front of him.

“Strange that he’s carrying a pig. Isn’t everyone here Muslim,” I asked the young man standing beside me.

“He’s from the forest.  His people don’t have a religion,” he replied.

“None, at all?”

“No, they believe in forest spirits.”

“Where is he going?”

“Into the forest. His people live there.”

This simple encounter prompted my interest.

When I began discussing this with my friend Prayoto he was quick to supply me with leads.  Soon I had some key documents on the history and culture of Riau’s Indigenous people.  Since he is cartographically skilled he produced the map in Figure 1. showing the distribution of Riau’s Indigenous groups.

Our encounter with the man on the step-through Honda was in the yellow shaded area.

These classifications are based on generalised Ethnonyms applied to the respective Indigenous groups, first by the Dutch and then assumed by the Republic of Indonesia (RI). They are not the terms used by the people themselves. The process and the misnomers that arise are similar to what has taken place in Australia.  Generally speaking, the names assumed by the people themselves related to the specific biogeographic niches they occupied.  In the riparian systems so dominant in Riau, these names often reflected the particular part of the system they inhabited.

Figure 3: Peatland during the wet season along the Siak Kecil river. The Indigenous people of this system were called Siak by outsiders. (1°.08749, 101°.66885)

The Dutch and then the RI used the simple names as a way of distinguishing between the Indigenous peoples and Malay settlers.

The myth of emptiness

Understanding Indonesia as a country with a densely settled core, Java, Madura and perhaps Bali, and empty spaces beyond that were ripe for resettlement, was an idea that took hold during the period of Dutch colonialism.  While some socialists in Holland advocated a future for Indonesia based on an industrialising centre, a view also adopted by the first Vice President Hatta, what prevailed was an approach to development based on resettlement of these ’empty spaces’. This doctrine of empty spaces was akin to the principle of Terra Nulius adopted by Australia’s European colonisers. Both concepts are based on myths and a failure to recognise prior customary rights to land. A map of Indigenous groups in Australia provides a clear sense of the pre-colonial diversity.

Transmigrasi (Transmigration)

From the end of the 19th century, the Dutch began to implement what was called the ‘Ethical Policy’. It rested on the ideas of ‘irrigation, emigration and education’. Rather than attempting to promote population controls in Java, they saw value in promoting emigration to the ’empty’ periphery.  This also sat conveniently with the chance to exploit the resources of the outer islands.

After Indonesian independence, the doctrine developed as the policy of  Transmigrasi (Transmigration).  Now families were relocated from the ‘overpopulated’ core and sent to the ’empty’ margins on a much larger scale. The approach received an added stimulus with the increased military power following the 1965 coup, which caused great disruption, Irian Jaya now West Papua being a particularly prominent example.

Transmigration is discussed in detail in by Riwanto Tirtosudarmo in his PhD thesis Transmigration and its centre-regional context; the case of Riau and South Kalimantan Provinces, Indonesia (See Google search). He quotes from, Tjondronegoro, S. M. P. 1972 ‘Land Reform or Land Settlement: Shifts in Indonesia’s Land Policy, 1960-1970‘, Land Tenure Centre Paper, No. 81, Madison, University of Wisconsin.

Figure 4: Population distribution by province: Indonesia 2014. Ministry of Internal Affairs

Relocating transmigrants

Commenting on the period 1965 to 1985  Mariel Otten wrote: “Initially, in order to avoid the more populated regions, transmigrant families were predominantly relocated in cleared forest areas. Indonesia has about 140 million has. of tropical forests, constituting 60 % of the total land area. In 1979, however, the clearance of these forests for transmigration purposes was banned by General Suharto who immediately cancelled six proposed projects. At the time, clearing of rainforests was considered to be ecologically unwise and attention shifted to swamp reclamation in the coastal regions of southern Kalimantan and eastern Sumatra and to non-irrigated rainfed land in other provinces of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.” [3]

Subsequently, there was an idea that Indonesia’s swamplands could be developed with resettlement.

I’ve covered much of this in my blog post Competition for land in Riau Province: Pressure from Oil Pal and Wood Pulp Corporations. In that post, I traced the focus brought to bear on swampland, principally peatlands.

The World Bank’s Role

Otten observes that in 1987 the World Bank claimed “A recent survey indicates that Indonesia has some 40 million hectares of coastal lowland or tidal swamps of which some 3.3 million hectares are already occupied. More significantly it is estimated that a further 5.6 million hectares are suitable for agricultural development. This is larger than the total irrigated rice area in Indonesia today. Furthermore, this area has a greater agricultural potential per hectare than most of the remaining upland rain fed areas. If managed properly, lowland swamps can support a wide variety of food and non-food crops and yield a higher income per hectare than can normally be expected under upland food crop conditions. There are substantial technical, managerial and institutional problems to be overcome in tapping this potential, such as defining suitable land and water management practices for peat areas and areas with adverse soil conditions caused by oxidation of acid sulphate soils, applying of appropriate drainage criteria in the light of more diversified agriculture, and ensuring integrated single.”  Such land stretches from West Papua to Aceh.[4]

While the World Bank made this claim it does not seem to have valued or understood the complexity, diversity and interdependence supported by peatland ecosystems, much less their role as carbon sinks and stabilisers of coastlines. This was despite the already published claims by experts such as Tjondronegoro, already claiming that “swamp reclamation will, in the end, be more expensive than settlement on other sites, because of declining soil fertility.”[6]

the World Bank inspired settlements went ahead on the basis that there was a future for swamp reclamation and settlement on tidal areas.

The role of the Five Year Plans (Repelita)

In Repelita IV, Indonesia’s fourth five-year plan (1984/85 – 1988/89), despite projected shortages of trained ‘manpower’ within plantation agriculture priority was given to rubber, oil palm and coconut planting. The Government aimed to plant about 1.4 million ha of these crops on public estates and smallholder schemes, a 150% increase. Tree crop programs were seen to offer substantial benefits offer substantial benefits as export earners, sources of employment and regional development, and therefore deserve priority in the allocation of investible resources. The government envisaged that in the case of oil palms development should be concentrated on new block-planting in areas where new Settlement is warranted. In the plan, new irrigation development on the Outer Islands, including swamp reclamation for transmigration sites were emphasised.

Transmigration continued in subsequent five-year plans. It brought new settlers that were culturally different to the existing Indigenous communities.  When it was associated with new plantation industries this encroached onto the land of Indigenous communities.  Other issues arose over access to resources when Transmigrants had access to health and education while the traditional landholders didn’t.

Riau’s settlement

Most transmigration in Sumatera was focused on Lampung and although Transmigration settlements were established in Ria, there was also significant spontaneous migration, particularly Christian Batak, with the completion of the Trans Sumatra Highway.

In a previous post on Riau, I offered some background on the Indigenous people (Orang Asli) of Riau. Orang Asli were closely connected with the Rokan, Siak, Kampar, and Indragiri rivers and their tributaries. The pressure of settlement and competition for land, driven both by formal and informal population movements, has had adverse consequences on the health of the biophysical environment and for the survival of Riau’s remaining Indigenous people.

While people of the Siak river system were referred to as Orang Sakai, they preferred the term Orang Batin, meaning the followers of batin or the Pebatin system (see below).

Sakai, Batin or Orang Asli settlement

Prayoto offered this insight: The Orang Sakai are a Malay-dialect-speaking forest-dwelling people. They traditionally practise shifting cultivation of cassava as well as trapping, hunting, and gathering food from the forest and nearby rivers. Many Sakai families today cultivate dry rice. They also collected, and still collect, forest products. Although today most Sakai are Muslim, they are recent converts to the faith. Their Sakai forebears were non-Muslim people living on the margins of the Siak kingdom (Kerajaan Siak). Then as now, they lived in the upstream Mandau (Sungai Mandau Hulu), and its branching minor rivers (Sungai Samsam, Sungai Beringin). The Mandau River is a tributary of the Siak River, which flows by the town of Siak Sri Indrapura, the old kingdom’s political centre, connecting the hinterland with the Melaka Straits

Prior to the establishment of the Dutch East Indes, the Malay Siak Sultanate administered the region.

Pebatin was an ancient pre-Islamic Malay system of administration, imposed by the Siak Sultanate that ruled modern-day Riau from 1723 to 1946 CE before becoming part of the Republic of Indonesia in 1945.Pebatin applied to the non-Islamic forest peoples living on the margins of its territory. There were other Indigenous forest dwellers as well, see Figure 2. “The pebatin system of administration was based on a group of people living in a certain area following a headman whose position was ratified by the Malay sultan of the kingdom of Siak (East-Coast Sumatra). Each batin headman served as the representative of the forest-dwelling people to the kingdom. Election to the batin post followed matrilineal principles, and a successor was usually the previous batin’s sister’s son.” [7]

Traditionally the Batin lived in swidden-clearings (ladang) and in wooded secondary forest areas (bu’luka’). Their houses were set on poles usually consisting of one main room. Walls were usually made of bark and the roof from kopau palm-leaf thatch.

Clusters of related family dwellings were constructed within walking distance to each other. Beyond the houses were swidden fields and areas of regrowth. Beyond these settlements, closed canopy forest remained. Houses were sometimes built on river banks because of the ease of travel using dugout canoes.

Figure 5: Likely a contemporary Sakai/Batin house set by the Siak Kecil river, during the wet season.

The pebatinan (plural for pebatin) named themselves using the nearest rivers so there were: Pebatin Paoh of river Paoh, Pebatin Penaso of the river Penaso and so forth.

Several observers, including Porath, note that in recent years the Batin have reluctantly accepted the term Sakai though also use the term Orang Asli, to describe themselves.

The other groups

  • The other Indigenous groups. At this stage, I can only rely on Prayoto’s map. He has identified seven Indigenous groups in Riau:
    Kuala Petalangan Sakai; and,
    Talang Mamak.
Figure 6: The people of Penyengat Island, Riau are Orang Akit


[1] Osawa, T. JURNAL ANTROPOLOGI: Isu-Isu Sosial Budaya. Desember 2017 Vol. 19 (2): 109-123. ISSN 1410-8356

[2] Op cit.

[3] Otten, M. Transmigrasi: Indonesian Resettlement Policy, 1965 – 1985. IWGXA DOCUMENT ISSN 0105-4503. pp.80

[4] Op cit pp81

[5] ibid

[6] Porath, N. The Healer’s Madness and the Forces of Social Change, in Behera, M.C. ‘Interventions, Familiarity and Continuity: Dynamics in tribal Communities. COMMONWEALTH PUBLISHERS PTY. LTD. 2016. ISBN 978-81-311-0573-3

[7] Porath, N. The Healer’s Madness and the Forces of Social Change, in Behera, M.C. ‘Interventions, Familiarity and Continuity: Dynamics in tribal Communities. COMMONWEALTH PUBLISHERS PTY. LTD. 2016. ISBN 978-81-311-0573-3

I’ve had much highly professional assistance with this blog post from Prayoto, I’ve included his CV in recognition. He is a man of principle. Working with him is a privilege.