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.

As someone 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. One story, 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, particularly in southern Queensland and Northern NSW. The development of massive storage ponds to support the cotton industry has been the most tragic feature of this extraction.

That there is 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 more Australian’s aren’t protesting about this is that they aren’t sufficiently aware of the prevailing climatic and riparian conditions. Since more than 85% of us live within 50 kilometres from 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 because of 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 each river system has a distinct distinct 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 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

Mean annual discharge of the MDB

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, 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 rates are extremely high, it also ignores the denial of water to downstream users.


[2] ©Commonwealth of Australia 2010

[3] “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.”


[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. The fire started in the concession of NSP, a sago plantation and spread through the drained timber concession.

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.


Language death means ecosystem death

Figure 1: Kenyah Dayak grandmother from Rukun Damai, East Kalimantan 1989.

Dramatic as this heading might be, it’s not entirely my idea. It comes from the article When languages die, ecosystems often die with them, I just left out the ‘often’ for dramatic effect.

Writing this post breaks a sequence of posts I’ve been intending to create, but it caught my eye and resonated well with these words

It is this knowledge of the natural world that is so apparent even with the briefest of contact with Indigenous peoples.

So, back to the story. It was written by Max J. Rosenthal who is the Digital Editor for Public Radio International (PRI). The article contains an interview with Jonathan Loh, a Research Associate of the Zoological Society of London, who co-authored a new report from WWF, Biocultural Diversity: Threatened species, endangered languages  finds that where biological diversity is reduced, so is linguistic diversity.

Listen to Max J. Rosenthal interviewing Jonathan Loh.

Loss of access to place

Visiting both East Kalimantan and West Sumatra in 1989 Indigenous people told me about language loss and I saw the ecosystem loss firsthand. They told me that without their place, without their forest they could not educate children in their language.

The Kenyah Dayak grandmother from Rukum Damai in (Figure 1), could speak no Indonesian. I was forced to rely on a translator to communicate with her.  Even then, she was reluctant to say very much.  Children from her lamin (longhouse) were already in a state school and a satellite dish connected the community to the outside world.

Just as in the Mentawai islands, people were being forced off their land by logging companies, aided by authorities like the Department of Health, and resettled along the larger channels of the Mahakam River

Some older men were prepared to voice their concerns. I came away from this experience with a clear sense that loss of contact with traditional lands meant language loss and a process of becoming foreigners in their own land, having to learn a new language.

Impacts of the cash economy

Figure 2: Dayak farmers clearing a hillside. East Kalimantan, 1989.

Where I did see Dayak cultivation, as in Figure 2, it was on a much larger scale than I had imagined swidden cultivation to be. I left with the impression that they too were being forced into the cash economy leaving their more traditional practices behind, and having an ecological impact that was unsustainable.


#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

Asia, economics, environment, geography, indigenous, Indonesia

Competition for land in Riau Province: Pressure from Oil Palm and Wood Pulp Corporations

Fred Pearce writing in his book The LandgrabbersThe New Fight Over Who Owns The Earth makes the point that  “Until the late 1980s Riau was 80 percent jungle. Today the figure is just 30 percent. I’ve never met Fred but I have met the people of Sungai Tohor who face the consequences of a systematic destruction of peatland forest. 

In February 2017 I joined members PM.Haze on the Peoples’ Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP). Later, I wrote Tackling the smoke #haze problem with alternative sustainable #peatland production The article explored the problem facing the community of Sungai Tohor, namely the loss of rainforest cover and the drainage of peatlands face.

The people were fighting back.  Our visit led us to participate in a drainage canal blocking exercise part of an attempt to restore the water table in an area of peatland targeted for plantation development.

At the time I met Ridwan, one of many community members working to reintroduce rainforest trees but first some geographical and historical context.

To skip the historical and geographic background and read Ridwan’s story directly, go straight to Sungai Tohor Today, at the end of this post.

Ridwan, front left with a co-worker and members of the Peoples’ Expedition to Experience Peat (PEET) in the background.


Riau’s settlement

Though many of the people living on Riau’s peatlands might identify as Melayu (Malay) on the first enquiry some have ancient origins tracing themselves back to Indigenous Suku (Tribes). Over the centuries they have been variously ruled by competing Hindu, Buddhist and Malay coastal kingdoms. Competition between these kingdoms expanding into the territory now known as Riau heightened in the 7th century BCE. During the colonial era competition for territory was again heightened and has continued with renewed intensity since the late 1970s. 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.

Indigenous people were closely connected with the Rokan, Siak, Kampar, and Indragiri rivers and their tributaries.

With its rich volcanic soils, Java attracted most of the Dutch colonial interest. Under Dutch control, large areas were devoted to sugar and tobacco cultivation. Later, as industrialisation created a growing global demand for rubber, plantation agriculture became a viable economic activity on the less densely settled island of Sumatra.

Prior to World War II, the Dutch had begun the development of large-scale rubber plantations in eastern Sumatra. In Riau, plantations were smaller since the province’s extensive peatlands were not ideal for rubber cultivation.

A rubber plantation on Sumatra in 1935

A little less than 6% of Sumatra’s rubber was grown in Riau.

Japanese invasion led to dispossession and interment of Dutch plantation owners. At war’s end, the agricultural lands developed by the Dutch were invaded by three-quarters of a million squatters. Foremost among these migrants were the Toba-Batak.[2] This was followed by the settlement of migrants from several other parts of the archipelago principally Javanese, Banjar, Bugis and West Sumatran people attracted by the apparent availability of farmland where smallholders could cultivate rubber, cacao, coconut, and rice.

The opening of the Caltex oil well at Rumbai, at Minas and Duri also operated as a pull factor attracting settlers seeking opportunities created by the petroleum industry. In 1958 Caltex built a floating bridge over the Siak River and by 1962 Caltex had built an oil port and company town at the fishing port of Dumai connecting it Duri by road.

Beyond this growing cultural complexity and increasing density of settlement Indigenous people remained pressed into the upper regions of river systems and areas of closed canopy forest in hilly areas and peatlands. These impacts on Indigenous peoples will form the focus of my next blog post.

Settlement of Riau since the 1970s

Government and private companies were the dominant force in plantation development, particularly when synthetic rubbers began to displace natural rubber and plantations gradually converted to oil palm cultivation. Palm oil plantations require greater investment in planting, fertilizing crops, harvesting and oil processing and this favours larger organisations with an ability to raise the necessary capital. Building palm oil mills for extracting oil is a far more capital-intensive activity than rubber tapping, gathering cacao beans or harvesting coconuts.

During  Sukarno’s Presidency .  “. . . the government resettled transmigrants in Riau . . . for security reasons, due to political tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia. Transmigrants were sent to the border regions that were considered by the central government to be underpopulated, in order to bolster territorial defense in the ‘confrontation’ against Malaysia.”[3] It was not until 1975, during Suharto’s New Order period, that Riau was formally designated as a transmigration area under Presidential Decree no. 29. Only small numbers were involved.

Border regions were invariably peatland areas. This process continued under President Suharto but with an emphasis on development for agriculture, specifically, rice cultivation.

“In Riau, the first transmigration settlement in the tidal swamp area was in Teluk Kiambang, Tempuling sub-district, in the District of Indragiri Hilir, where 150 families (735 persons) were resettled, followed by another 150 families (732 persons) in 1973/74” [4]

This is peatland and estuarine swamp.

Tirtosudarmo observes that “The government decision to use tidal swamp was partly because the best lands in the upland areas were already under cultivation by local residents. In many areas customary (adat) law gave land management rights to contiguously spaced local units known as marga or clans. In many areas where these rights had been exercised, particularly by shifting cultivators, the problem of alienating sufficient land for transmigration was more serious. Thus, in general, the upland areas of Sumatra presented difficult land rights situations for new settlements.” [5]

The Suharto government established a rural development program called Nucleus Estates and Smallholders (NES) in 1978. Settlers known as Plasma Settlers were given two-hectare plots for the cultivation of cash crops such as rubber or oil palms. These were inside company plantations, usually government. At first, they were required to devote a further one hectare to food cropping but in 1997 they were extended the right to cultivate oil palm, exclusively.

NES has brought large changes to the rural economy and landscape in Riau as it was here that oil palm cultivation by smallholders has been greatest.[6]

Impact of increasing global demand for vegetable oils

An increasing global demand for vegetable oils led to an expansion of the land under oil palm cultivation in Indonesia. According to the World Bank (WB) Malaysia and Indonesia (notably Sumatra and Kalimantan) account for about 85 percent of global output. Since 2006 Indonesia has been the larger of the two producers.

The WB reports that Some 70 percent (4.2 million ha) of Indonesia’s oil palm plantations are on land that was previously forested; more than 56 percent of the expansion between 1990 and 2005 occurred at the expense of natural forest cover. It also notes that the process of land acquisition for large-scale oil palm development can generate negative impacts on the livelihoods of communities including small farmers and Indigenous Peoples. This is particularly true when land titles are unclear or unrecognized and companies or the government, as a result of inadequate legal protections or poor enforcement, failure to consult adequately with existing customary users or provide appropriate compensation.

A study of the Indonesian palm oil industry carried out as part of a global study under the coordination of the Australian National University, concluded that palm oil developments have had a positive impact on the incomes and living standards of all involved.

Such statements don’t adequately account for environmental costs and other externalities. They must be viewed against the reality of the largescale operations undertaken by plantation companies. These operations have had a serious impact on the natural environment and traditional rural livelihoods. Apart from forest clearing, the most noticeable impact has been smoke haze. The outer islands of Indonesia, particularly Sumatra and Kalimantan, have been greatly affected by the recent haze problems caused by the use of fire in forest clearing. More than 100,000 premature deaths in the region have been attributed to transboundary haze pollution in the El Nino year, 2015. Areas like Pekanbaru in Riau and Palangka Raya in Central Kalimantan were seriously affected. Moreover,  plantation companies are powerful enough to exploit legal vagaries, pressure various levels of government, particularly regional and local officials and to take community and Indigenous lands. At the same time the number of smallholders is increasing and their economic position, in monetary terms, is improving. So, the situation is complex. Serious tensions and conflicts sometimes arise.[7]

Forest clearing and the development of drainage canals, along with the use of fire for land clearing, are well-documented problems associated with palm oil plantation development on peatlands.  Dispossession of Indigenous people is less well documented and will be covered in my next post.

Wood pulp and paper production

Since the 1990s Riau peatlands have also been cleared for plantations of eucalyptus and acacia sources of wood pulp in paper manufacture

Another major impact on peatlands is the development of the wood pulp industry. Two companies, Sinar Mas Group and Royal Golden Eagle Group have dominated this exploitation of Riau’s forests since the mid-1990s.

Sinar Mas is a vertically integrated corporation that owns Asia Pulp & Paper, PT Aria Abadi, Golden Agri Resources, PT SMART, etc. Royal Golden Eagle has Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL), Riau Andalan Pulp, PT Asian Agri Agro, etc

Under the New Order regime of President Suharto, forests were declared ‘state forest’. “They were to be deployed in the name of national development, part of the ‘new order’ initially thrust on him by a group of US-trained Indonesian economists known as the ‘Berkeley mafia’. In practice, in his hands, it meant they would be handed out to anyone with the cash and the connections.”[8]

RAPP Pulp Mill, Kerinci

Both companies built pulp mills a mere 40 kilometres apart near the service town of Pangkalan Kerinci. It would be difficult to find any other part of the earth’s surface where there is such a concentrated demand for wood. Sumatra and Indonesia Borneo have experienced the most rapid deforestation in human history. After forested peatlands had been cleared the companies planted out eucalyptus and acacia to maintain production. Where these plantings were on peatland, large area were drained to promote growth

In  2013 APP announced that in future the company would obtain the informed consent of local communities before preparing new plantations, they also announced, a moratorium on all natural forest clearance. This meant that it would no longer accept Natural Forest Wood (NFW) form its suppliers as part of its Forest Conservation Policy (FCP).  It qualified this by adding “ensuring our forest clearance moratorium is properly implemented is a very complex task. While we believe we have made considerable progress, there have been some challenges. That’s why we developed a procedure to address any grievance that our stakeholders might raise, in relation to the implementation of the FCP.” It was not until June 2014 that the use of NFW.

Despite this commitment, the complexity of the task involved the simple reality that The ownership of 25 of the 27 suppliers is exercised through layers of shareholding companies that are almost always based in Sinarmas offices and in most cases have Sinarmas employees, ranging from top executives to humble IT workers and accountants, as their directors and commissioners.

Associated Press found that logging of NFW continued in Indonesian Borneo. In Riau province Sinarmas is pressing ahead with plans to turn 66,000 hectares (163,000 acres) of state land in the Bangka Belitung island chain off Sumatra into industrial forestry plantations despite substantial opposition from locals. The move puts the company on a collision course with villages that farm on the land and which some 100,000 people call home.


Drainage canals cut through peatland on an APP acacia plantation in Riau Province at 1°19’68” N, 101°56’12″W on the mainland north west of Tebing Tinggi reports that In South Sumatra APP has started operating its OKI pulp mill with $2.5 billion in loans from China’s state-owned banks. The mill’s pulp production capacity is 2.0 million tons/yr. but an OKI director advises APP will increase the mill’s capacity to 2.8 million tons/yr, though its plant can be upgraded to produce 3.2 million tons/yr. At present, it seems there are insufficient plantation acacia and eucalyptus to support the mill and its South Sumatra concessions are at least 59,000 hectares short of the planted areas needed to produce the volumes OKI will consume.

The other big wood pulp operation in Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), the operational unit of Singapore-based pulpwood company Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL), committed to a FCP policy in 2015. Through 2017 it was in dispute with Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF) directives. The ministry had accused the company of failing to comply with new peatland protection laws, which aim to prevent choking annual haze and encourage plantation firms to move their operations to non-peatlands through land swap deals.

RAPP has a similar history to that of APP and is responsible for large areas of deforestation and peatland drainage.

The story of Sungai Tohor and Sago

Sungai Tohor is a district on the peatland island of Tebing Tinggi which is part of the Meranti Islands Regency. In 1904 it was settled by Malay people and has become an area of sago cultivation. Sago thrives in the wet conditions and benefits from interplanting with forest trees that help to draw moisture closer to the sago palm’s shallow root system.  Sago existed in the area before the permanent settling of Sungai Tohor and is not indigenous to the Meranti Islands.


Trade in sago dates back hundreds of years. It is believed to have been introduced by Bugis trading fleets or other ancient seafarers.  This is consistent with a report in the Singapore Chronicle, 15 February 1827 titled On the Cultivation of Sago in the East. 

Indigenous people such as the Akit and Orang Laut were the first to harvest sago in the region.  ‘Siak sago’, as it was called, has been long regarded as the best quality. Siak was a generic term for the Indigenous people of the peatlands who seem to have spoken Austronesian languages that acquired loan words from Malay and became a distinct dialect. Sago was harvested first by these Indigenous people.

Sungai Tohor’s community stepped up sago production after experiments with rice cultivation failed. In the 1980s they were encouraged by the provision of small government funded sago mills.  See Managing Peatlands in Indonesia: A case study of small islands in Riau. Monash University Sustainability Institute. October 2013.

For more background on the origins and cultivation of sago on the north coast of Sumatra download the pdf from Oriental Herald Vol 14. On the Cultivation of Sago in the East – Singapore Chronicle, 15 February 1827.

Sungai Tohor’s community stepped up sago production after experiments with rice cultivation failed. In the 1980s they were encouraged by the provision of small government-funded sago mills.  See Managing Peatlands in Indonesia: A case study of small islands in Riau. Monash University Sustainability Institute. October 2013.

Sago cultivation does not leave peatland forest undisturbed but the ecological disruption it causes is small compared with the deforestation that comes with, extensive oil palm plantations or pulpwood extraction followed by development of eucalypt and acacia plantations.

The PT Lestari Unggul Makmur (LUM) concession on Tebing Tinggi island

In May 2007 the Minister of Forestry issued a Pulpwood plantation permit PT Lestari Unggul Makmur (LUM), a company associated with RAPP. The concession was 10,390 hectare total.

In 2009, LUM obtained natural forest clearing permit of 2,832 hectares. Its production target was 262,837 cubic meters. As a first step, according to Eyes of the Forest, Indonesia, LUM cut 10 kilometers of 12 metre wide drainage canals to a depths of 5 metres. These reduced the water table level in its peatland concession. The concession overlapped the Sungai Tohor’s community lands in an area where peat depths ranged from 2 to 4 metres.

This map shows the PT Lestari Unggul Makmur concession and peat depths. Source Source Eyes on the Forest


Map showing boundaries of the PT LUM concession in red with a key showing the recommended land uses and forest exploitation proposed. The shaded areas show areas of proposed change. This map shows the extent of production forest proposed in the PT LUM concession as of 2012. Source: Forestry Ministry Rupublic of Indonesia.


Community resistance to PT LUM

The canal project damaged the peatlands forest ecosystem and lowered water levels where sago palms were under cultivation provoking a response from the wider community of Tebing Tinggi. They rejected the LUM pulpwood plantation development insisting that as well as the negative ecological impact of the canals and planned natural forest clearing, the development would destroy the sago industry, cause subsidence and weaken the areas protection from ingress of salt water. They also stressed the negative social impacts for their community as it relied on a local economy based on coconuts, sago and areca palm (Dypsis lutescens).

Indonesian Government Regulation number 26/2008, the peat areas inside the National Protected Area including peat forest with a depth of 3 metres or more in a river catchment or swamp should be protected. The community argued that LUM PT LUM had breached the law.

A strong local campaign began building around the issues of:

  • the ecological destruction caused by deforestation bringing about flora and fauna extinction;
  • the potential for declining sago production because of drainage which could also lead to forest fires given peatlands flammability;
  • the damaging impact of the acacia of pulpwood plantation that would inevitably follow forest clearance not only on the supply of water but also because they acted as a host for beetles that attacked sago and coconut palms; and,
  • intrusion from seawater that will threaten sago palm plantation.
Sign 1: We the community of Sungai Tohor and district reject the presence of HIT PT LUM Sign 2:Let us fight to protect the natural forest and plantations of the Sungai Tohor community and surrounding villages. Source: Eyes of the Forest http://www.eyesonthefore


By 2011 sago production started to decline because canalisation had lowered water table.

Eyes of the Forest strongly supported the community stating, in summary PT Lum should:
1. curtail all plans to clear natural forest and canal drainage in
in its concession since its permit appears to be illegal and will cause social conflict, damage to the local economy, threaten high conservation forest and cause a negative effect on global climate;
2. dismantle all newly established canal infrastructure causing deterioration of the peat ecosystem and increased CO2 emissions; and,
3. leave all concession areas for conservation and limited utilization for boosting community’s economy, by considering that its management is implemented under a fair scheme of mutual benefit for the community.

Resistance to PT LUM’s concession spread rapidly to the 7 other villages of Tebing Tinggi. Community resolve was strengthened when in February 2014, fires broke out on Tebing Tinggi. Dry conditions made fire-fighting difficult.

With the support of WALHI, The Indonesian Forum for Environment, part of the Friends of the Earth International, leaders of Sungai Tohor posted an online petition asking Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) to come to Sungai Tohor and see the damage.

The community of Sungai Tohor also began a project to dam the canals cut by PT. LUM aimed at raising water tables in the area.

In June of 2014 PMHaze sent a team to Riau as part of a hotspot investigation project. They visited three areas Mumugo/Rantau Bais; Pelintung; and Sungai Tohor. Reacting to the February fire Sungai Tohor’s village head and WAHLI-Riau attributed the fire to drying of the peat because of canals dug by PT. LUM and PT. National Sago Prima (PT. NSP). PMHaze reported that new canals were still being dug during their site visit observing that on PT. NSP’s concession, which has formerly been a timber concession with canals dug as far back as 1995 canal blocking had been undertaken in 2013 and 2014.

In November 2015, the President Jokowi visited the area and agreed plantation permits had to be reviewed if they were indeed destroying the ecosystem and would have to be terminated. “‘We must not allow our tropical rainforests to disappear because of monoculture plantations like oil palm,’ he said.” He went on to highlight the need for:

1. enforcement of the law related to the Compliance Audit findings on 17 corporate transgressors in the peatland of Riau;
2. total protection of the peatland;
3. strengthening and extension of the moratorium on permits; and,
4. acceleration of the implementation of the one map policy that will force a consensus on territorial issues.

Sungai Tohor Today

Since my visit to Sungai Tohor on the PEET Expedition and have kept up contact with Ridwan.

At the time of my visit he explained that apart from canal blocking to rewet the peatlands, he and other members of his community were attempting to plant indigenous forest tres in amongst community sago palms and extending the plantings to areas already damaged by clearing and burning.  This is a difficult task.  Just before Christmas he explained that his project was in desperate need of funds to buy small pots for seed stock and shade cloth.

I couldn’t help, the small amounts of money I could send him were going to be eaten up by transfer charges, so I decided the best way forward was to present a visual  coverage of the work Ridwan and his team are doing in the hope that others might like to help him.

What follows is a collection of both my images and others that Ridwan has sent me.

I was unable to translated all the Malay names of the species being cultivated by the community. Some of the names might have been dialect, I’m not sure.


Seeds and seedlings are gathered in from areas from around the time of the equinox, in September.


Seeds and seedlings are transferred to plastic tubes and shaded. Plastic might be replaced by degradable material in future but money is the key.
Seedlings ready for planting out


[1]Kanō, H –   Indonesian Exports, Peasant Agriculture and the World Economy, 1850-2000: Economic Structures in a Southeast Asian State. NUS Press. Singapore. 2008

[2] The Postwar Migration of the Toba-Bataks to East Sumatra. CLARK E. CUNNINGHAM. (Cultural Report Series.) New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1958. xii, 189 pp.

[3]Tirtosudarmo, R – Transmigration and its Centre-Regional Context: The Case of Riau and South Kalimantan Provinces/Indonesia. A thesis submitted for Doctorate of Philosophy, ANU, 1990 pp.190

[4]op.cit pp.192

[5]op.cit pp.192-193

[6]Kano – op.cit pp.3

[7]Koizumi, Yusuke – Migration and Its Impact in Riau Province, Indonesia: An Analysis of Population Census Data and Topographical Maps. Journal of Asian Network for GIS-based Historical Studies Vol. 4 (Dec. 2016) pp. 3-10

[8] Pearce, F. The Landgrabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns The Earth. Part Four: China’s Back Yard, 15 Sumatra, Indonesia: Pluping the jungle