#Indigenous People in Siberut are facing deforestation and major cultural disruption

Orangutan, their benign nature so apparent, have become one of the most prominent and iconic symbols in the global movement to save rainforests from destructive exploitation.

Figure 1: Mother and child

Their helplessness along with the striking appearance of Tigers, Javan and Sumatran rhinoceros calls out to those of us who love and value the natural world. In my next book, Voices of common and not so common folk, a work in progress, I have more to say about the heritage we are bestowing on future generations.

Our failing global stewardship

This post explores the consequences of failing stewardship for the first of three groups of Indigenous people, the Orang Mentawai. Subsequent posts will explore the challenges faced by the Orang Siak or Batin and finally the Orang Rimba. These are general terms and with the possible exception of the Orang Rimba, they cover a variety of different groups, just as the term Aboriginal covers many Indigenous nations in Australia.

Deep ecology

Patriarch Bartholomew has much to say about humans and their relationship with the natural world. In one instance he writes: “Our original privilege and calling as human beings lies precisely in our ability to appreciate the world as God’s gift to us. And our original sin with regard to the natural environment lies, not in any legalistic transgression, but precisely in our refusal to accept the world as a sacrament of communion with God and neighbour”.[1] 

According to the Indigenous people of Siberut’s, largest of the Mentawai islands, forests, all living things, humans, animals and plants, have a spirit. These spirits can separate from their bodies and roam freely. If harmony between the spirit and the body is not maintained, the spirit will go and cause humans, animals and plants aches and sickness. If daily activities are not in accordance with customs and beliefs this can disrupt spiritual balance and harmony in nature.

Visiting Siberut island

In 1989 I visited Siberut island for the first time. The purpose of this visit was to bring attention to the cultural uniqueness of Siberut’s Indigenous people and assist them to develop a form of ecotourism that valued their traditional cultural practices.

Figure 2: The Mentawai Islands

My travelling companions were a tourism academic, a travel agent and two Batak guides from the mainland, one of whom spoke the languages of the Sarareiket River (see Figure 3).  Collectively they had imparted little about our final destination other than the increasing pressure faced by Indigenous people as logging and ‘modernism’ encroached on their world.

Much of this first encounter is chronicled in my book Seen and unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific. My journey is also narrated in Siberut and the simple life, and now available from Interactive publications as an Ebook.

We had just come from East Kalimantan where we had been scoping out similar possibilities for developing sensitive ecotourism.

Figure 3: Drainage basins and language groups

Journeying up the Sarareiket River from Muara Siberut to Rokdok village

After an overnight stay at Muara Siberut (1°12’09” S, 99°12’09” E), we headed up the Sarareiket river bound for our first stop at Rokdok.

Accustomed as I was to the wide Mahakam River, journeying up the Sarareiket River from Muara Siberut to Rokdok village was more like travelling up a mining sluice. It was a raging turbid torrent of sediments and tree trunks fuelled by a constant downpour. Sitting in the centre of the motorised canoe, I was amazed at the debris that came tumbling past me. Beneath my broad-brimmed hat and plastic cape, I roughed out notes on the surroundings whenever the downpour eased enough for me to peek out.

At the stern was our boatman, Pak Eddie, gunned the outboard motor across pools while deftly avoiding rocks and snags at every riffle with practiced use of rudder and throttle.

It was hard to imagine struggling upstream through this riparian gateway would be so difficult. Forestry was the problem, although that was the wrong word for it. Forestry itself conjures up a sense of an orderly enterprise but nothing remotely orderly was responsible for this turbidity. In recent years, cash cropping had followed the timber cutters and there was nothing orderly about that process either. It was a systematic rape of a fragile environment and culture unrestrained by the rapacious demands of the marketplace and the corruption of Suharto’s New Order regime.

Increasing pressure on traditional culture

After an hour, we made it to Rokdok, a village with a school and amenities block in the centre and two lines of thatched single dwellings on either side. I later learned that none of these was a typical traditional Mentawai dwelling or Uma.

Figure 4: A traditional ‘Uma’ was an isolated longhouse, often located on secondary or tertiary branches of river systems

From early years of nationhood in Indonesia, a policy of ‘civilising’ local people was adopted. Before we arrived, there had been a systematic attempt to ban shamanic practices, insist that people wear modern clothing rather than loincloths made from bark, and adopt an official religion.

Traditionally all that the people had was from their immediate environment.

Figure 5: Siberut islanders in dugout canoe with woven rattan basket. Before 1930.

Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1980 the district administrator  (Camat) in charge of the southern half of Siberut ordered that all traditional ceremonies be stopped and that all shamans hand over their traditional religious paraphernalia.”

For more detail on the history of the Mentawai Islands see the Suku Mentawai Education Foundation.

The pressure to change

When I arrived in 1989 there was evidence of some people retreating deeper into the forest to avoid persecution from police and government officials. One old man that I met explained, “Much of our traditional life must remain hidden and unseen if we are to protect it. However, if there was some way of showing the value of our culture perhaps even selling examples of our tools, this would help us with money. At the moment, we have no money.” Later meeting a traditional Sarareiket family at Matatonan for the first time I was surprised that they all wore contemporary store-bought clothing.  It was only later as their reserve subsided and they began to don traditional attire they explained they thought at first one of our party was a government official because of the hat he was wearing.

This pressure to change came with an increasing demand for Siberut’s valuable stands for timber and the suggestion that in the future the island might be used for oil palm cultivation.  Up until this point, there had been little need for money but sadly new consumer goods were attractive so the interest in money grew.  If this wasn’t enough outsiders were able to gain the cooperation of local people by introducing them to extremely strong tobacco that led to a nicotine addiction epidemic on the island.

No one remained immune to this exposure.  Even the traditionalists expressed a desire for trade goods, wrist watches and radios being popular.

Earlier Observations

In the two years until 1978 the late Tony Whitten, and his wife Jane, visited Siberut. They followed a similar course up the Sarareiket river. Since he returned more recently I offer a few of his observations about changes he witnessed.

  • Nowadays people rarely paddle their dug-out canoes, preferring to use the long-shafted ‘pepongpong’ outboards which have reduced travelling times.
  • While some large settlements have concrete paths elsewhere only slippery, muddy paths through sago swamps are found.
  • mobile phones have made an appearance.
  • The cash crops have changed rattan, became the main source of cash income but the resource was been vastly overexploited, then attempts at clove cultivation largely failed. The demand for gaharu or agarwood resin had imperiled supplies. Finally, there was an attempt at cacao cultivation.

Attempts at maintaining Siberut’s Unique Biosphere

More than 80 percent of the Mentawai Islands are owned and managed by the state, making it difficult for Mentawai people to manage their own lands and natural resources, according to Lorelou Desjardins, Rainforest Foundation Norway’s program coordinator for Southeast Asia.

Siberut Island was declared a UNESCO “Man and the Biosphere Reserve” in 1981 because of its ecological and socio-economic uniqueness. The Siberut Biosphere Reserve (SBR) was defined as having the following boundaries:

00°55′ to 03°20’S and 98°31′ to 100°40’E.

Figure 6: Siberut land management

Such latitudinal and longitudinal boundaries include the whole of Siberut and the next island south, Sipora. (see above map)

The reserve and consisted of a:

  • Core area(s)    46,533 Ha
  • Buffer zone 314,145 including a 99,555 Ha traditional use zone and 20 Ha intensive use zone
  • Transition area 44, 392 for  a Park Village zone

The total area was listed as 405, 070 Ha

Later records show a Siberut Island Biosphere Reserve (SIBR) of 403,000 Ha consisting of a:

  • Core area (s)  190,500 ha, declared as an area with the objective of conserving biodiversity
  • Buffer zone of 128,277 ha, including the Saibi Sarabua Marine Park has a declared function of production, protection and conservation with an emphasis on sustainable resource use.
  • Transition area of 84,223 ha consisting of the APL land used for interests outside the forestry sector and private land.

In a report published in June 1992 the situation in Siberut is described as worsening. At this time there were three logging concessions on the island. Although President Suharto cancelled their concessions, this was ignored. The report states “Logging has intensified and yet more local people are under threat of dispossession and increased poverty. ” It goes on to say that “the words of the President have had little effect on the ground: indeed the oppressive treatment of the people and the destruction of the forest by logging companies has escalated. The only effect of the Presidential Declaration has been to reiterate the area supposedly protected since 1981 when the whole of Siberut Island was declared a “Man and the Biosphere Reserve” under the UNESCO scheme. UNESCO have since reneged on their commitment and, in spite of their declaration 11 years ago, have now claimed that only part of the island was made a UNESCO reserve.” Significant changes have taken place in the land management since the original declaration. In 1992, twelve tears after the Siberuts declaration as a biosphere reserve, an organisation called SOS Siberut observed that “the oppressive treatment of the people and the destruction of the forest by logging companies has escalated.”  Much of this was apparent at the time, even when I visited in 1989.

SOS Siberut also observed that “People continue to be forced out of their homes, to live in small regulation houses which they must build themselves in government appointed areas. The government resettlement programme is directed largely at indigenous people in Indonesia to civilise them and so integrate them into mainstream and “modern” society”. There is no obvious reason for this upheaval unless the government’s intention is to further dislocate the Mentawai people from their traditional culture”.

Figure 7: A government-appointed resettlement area in Matatonan, 1989.

Forced resettlement and diseases from the outside

Once people moved from their isolated Uma to resettlement areas like this certain diseases more common. Under Dutch colonial rule, there was an attempt to resettle people from Siberut’s interior to villages along the coast or large rivers. Such an approach was ongoing when I visited Matonan. Below the one remaining Uma, a new village set out on a grid pattern (Figure 5) had been established.  I remember the sombre tone, the somewhat depressed expression of the people, contrasting with those living in the Uma on the hill above (Figure 6).

Figure 8: People from the Uma above the government resettlement village of Matatonan

Such crowded villages lack sanitary facilities, this alone promotes the spread of disease.

Between August and November 1989, shortly after my visit, dengue hemorrhagic fever broke out at Lubaga, a government established a village in northern Siberut. Some adults and 67% of the village’s 75 children died of the disease. In the late 1970s, an epidemic of cholera wiped out the crowded Simatalu village. Outbreaks of measles have also occurred. Such events are typical of the experience faced by Indigenous peoples confronted by the expansion of economically developed societies and modernism.

Since 1989

I’ve not been back to Siberut so I must rely on others for some analysis of the present situation.

So much of the logging activity on Siberut is difficult to map precisely, it has often been unofficial and opaque.

In January 1990 company teams were surveying Siberut to map planting sites. One credible informant saw a planning map showing all of Siberut, except for a swath 12 km wide around the island’s perimeter, designated for oil palm.

So attractive were the forests of Mentawai that both official and unofficial operations were set in train. According to Green Left Weekly, in 1994 all logging concessions were withdrawn earlier that year but despite the government decision to stop all logging activities on the island, illegal logging is still going on, according to local people.

The Indonesian company Carya Pharmin Pulau Siberut (PT CPPS) continues extracting timber, and the Indonesian authorities have not become involved so far.

According to the locals, the company intends to extract some 7000 cubic metres of timber on the way back to the coast from the now closed concession.

In 2001 Gerard A. Persoon of Leiden University noted that the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry has ended the implementation of an Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded multi-million dollar project on the island of Siberut (West Sumatra) aimed at the protection of the island’s biodiversity and its unique traditional culture. At the same time, provincial officials are preparing proposals to convert a large part of the island into a palm oil plantation. 

He continues drawing on a historical summary of logging on the island from the Indonesian Department of Forestry that summarised the history of commercial logging accordingly:

Though some commercial logging on the island started already during the 1920’s the scale and impact were very limited and nothing compared to what happened since the early 1970’s.

In 1973 the entire island was granted to four logging companies. The concession maps on which their operations were based did not even mention the villages of the Mentawaians nor the locations where their fields were situated. In an official forestry document, it is stated that the pre-1973 period was: ‘the original situation: the whole of Siberut is free state forest’ (Departemen Kehutanan 1992).[2] 

When Tony Whitten returned in 2009 he observed that:

There has been formal logging on and off over the last 30 years but we hadn’t found a map of exactly where.  When we reached the basin where our study area had been, the views from the villages was of logged-over forest. The rights to log the forests had been negotiated with local clans, but in hindsight the benefits were pretty meager and short-lived.

I worried about people negotiating away their rights to the forest during my visit.  Tobacco addiction was widespread and I knew that commodities with the inelastic demand of addictive drugs can be an enormous drain on people and their families when the addict’s cravings met. Everyone seemed to be smoking.

Figure 9: Smoking mother in Ugai village on the Sarareiket River

Tony Whitten continued, The trees the loggers sought were the large and magnificent Shorea, and with these now gone it is getting harder for people to make their dugout canoes. Also, we were struck by the contrast of the timber quality of the longhouses we visited in areas without logging against the timber quality of the small government-sponsored modern houses with corrugated iron roofs. The timber available now seems to start looking decayed as soon as it is nailed into place.

There is one active logging company on Siberut now, although their permit was revoked a number of times after a series of letters and class action suits, accomplished through cooperation between the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, the government conservation office, UNESCO Jakarta, Conservation International-Indonesia and local NGOs. There is a recent proposal from a company to take on a former logging concession on Siberut as a ‘restoration concession.’

Logging of forests is through the use of two governmental permits, the Right of Forest Use (Hak Pengusahan Hutan or HPH) and the Wood Utilization Permits (Izin Pemcmfaatan Kayu or IPK). Under the HPH system concession holders are required to use the Indonesian selective cutting and planting technique (Terbang Pilih dan Tanaman Indonesia or TPTI). By contrast, IPK permits allow logging companies to harvest all standing timber from a forested area so that the land is converted to another use altogether. The Ministry of Forestry holds full authority to issue IPK permits.  Both these instruments have been central to deforestation in Siberut.

In April 2013 the Jakarta Post carried a story by Syofiardi Bachyul Jb, NGO says deforestation worsens Siberut flooding.  Flooding has worsened in riverside resettlement areas like Rokdok since the issuing of HPH and IPK concessions in the headwaters of the Sarareiket River. Deforestation brings with it a loss of food plants, loss of medicinal plants and loss of language.

In an article titled, Timber plantations are the latest threat facing Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands  posted by Mongabay in June 2016,   reports that

In 2014, the Mentawai communities convinced local officials to stop plans for industrial palm plantations on 1,000 square kilometers (about 386 square miles) of forests and indigenous territories after years of protest. And last year, a government program to build new houses for the indigenous peoples actually ended up cutting off their access to the forest.

He goes on to report that a company called Biomas Andalan Energi (BAE) is now planning to create timber plantations on a total of 200 sq. km . . . of primary rainforest and indigenous lands on . . . Siberut, citing the Rainforest Foundation Norway as saying the company wants to use the timber as biomass for burning in electricity-generating plants.

Over the years there have been several attempts at preserving this unique biosphere. impacts of the $1 million of grants which had focused on Siberut under the Phase 1 of the World Bank-implemented Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. These grants had followed on from an Asian Development Bank loan project (pdf) from 1992-2000 which was not a resounding success for a variety of reasons. This had itself followed on from WWF projects.

Threats Continue

In 2015 the regent (Bupait) of Siberut Island Yudas Sabaggalet wrote to BAE and the Ministry of Forestry calling for BAE’s permit to be revoked. A reply was not forthcoming. Subsequently, BAE failed to meet the deadline for submitting its environmental impact analysis, yet by November 2017 BAE still had active plans for an Industrial Plantation Forest that would permit land clearing, planting of specific species,  harvesting, processing and marketing.The net effect is depletion of biodiversity, disturbance of established ecosystems and tradional land holders.

The present situation in Siberut is well covered by WALHI who cite comments from Zenzi Suhadi, Head of their Research Department, Legal Advocacy and Environment when he says:

“Forest exploitation in the Mentawai Islands for industry is a reckless and dangerous idea. If you observe the position of access and connectivity within it is very limited. The ecological functions of the island arc of west coast of Sumatra should receive maximum protection. It had good forest cover before large-scale forestry licences were issued indicating that the adaptations and management awareness of the indigenous peoples were of a high standard in the protecting of their livelihoods.

In addition to stopping the process and not issuing forest plant permits, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry must also immediately cancel the reservation of 1 million hectares of forest for plantations. The burden of damage by HTI in peat ecosystems has exceeded the government’s control, so do not increase the catastrophe in the forest ecosystem”



[1] Chryssavgis, J. (editor) Cosmic Grace Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew. William Berdman Publishing CompanyGrand Rapids Michigan/Cambridge UKISBN 978-0-8028-6261-7. 2009 pp.284

[2]Persoon, Gerard A. The Management of Wild and Domesticated Forest Resources on Siberut, West Sumatra. Antropologi Indonesia 64, 2001 pp.76.  This Paper provides a comprehensive coverage of the various stages in extraction of forest products from the Mentawai Islands

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