The Barwon–Darling river system is in north-western New South Wales. It takes in the Barwon River, from upstream of Mungindi at the confluence of the Macintyre and Weir rivers, to where the Barwon meets the Culgoa River. At this point the river channel becomes the Darling River and the Barwon–Darling system extends downstream to the Menindee Lakes.
In her article, Davies only makes brief reference to Indigenous occupance along the river system, yet this is an ancient presence. She observes, in reference to the wreck of the Wandering Jew, “Now, its rusted iron body lies for all to see in the river’s muddy waters just above the town’s iconic Aboriginal fish traps.”
Davies’ passing reference reminds me that the story of Indigenous settlement along the inland rivers is quite a remarkable one. Paul Dutton, whom I follow on twitter, also drew attention to the antiquity and success of Indigenous settlement along Australia’s inland rivers, in a recent Tweet.
People learned to live with the irregularities of the continent’s climate and didn’t only survive but prospered. The Brewarrina region of NSW is home to Ngemba, Ualarai, Murrawarri and Wailwan people. Today they are custodians of an intricate series of stone fish traps across the Barwon River.
This complex array of linked weirs and ponds extends for 500 metres along the river. There is flexibility in the design allowing people to adapt the system to varying levels of river flow. People use their extensive knowledge of different fish species and the variations in flow to ensure suitable catches.
This is just one story of sustainable environmental adaptation and management that was such a feature of Indigenous occupance.
Bill Gammage, in his book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, provides numerous examples of Indigenous settlement along the inland rivers of Australia. I won’t cite many but just draw attention to the book. I consider this work essential reading for every non-Indigenous Australian.
Rules of Indigenous management
Gammage explains that three rules directed all management of Australia before 1788:
Ensure that all life flourishes
Make plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable
Think universal, act local
The fish traps at Brewarrina are just one example of the principle that applied to the whole continent.
Brewarrina fish traps
The fish traps are known as Baiame’s Ngunnhu [pronounced By-ah-mee’s noon-oo]by the Ngemba people. These are arguably the oldest known human constructions. Apparently constructed on a large riffle, they were first described by a European in 1848 by William Colburn Mayne, the Commissioner of Crown Lands. Gammage references Mayne’s description:
In a broad but shallow part of . . . where there are numerous rocks, the Aborigines have formed several enclosures or Pens, if I may use the word, into which the fish are carried, or as it were decoyed by the current, are there retained. To form these must have been a work of no trifling labour, and no slight degree of ingenuity and skill must have been exercised in their construction, as I was informed by men who have passed several years in the vicinity, that not even the heaviest floods displace the stones forming these enclosures. The Aborigines catch immense quantities of fish in these and are also enabled to destroy great numbers of fishing Birds of various kinds that are attracted to them by their prey thus imprisoned; and from these two sources the Tribes in that locality derive a considerable portion of their subsistence.
Gammage also reports from another source which explains that in addition to the major stone traps, “Several hundred successively smaller traps caught dray loads of fish.”
Despite Aboriginal people being banished from Brewarrina, and shuffled multiple times between missions in western and far western NSW, the custodians of Baiame’s Ngunnhu stubbornly continued to tend to their fish traps, and preserve them for future generations.
This continued into the 1970s, when the NSW Government decided to dam the Barwon with a weir, to provide water for irrigation for the few dozen farmers in the region. They built it right at the head of the fish traps, creating a pool upstream that sometimes stretches, in wetter times, for over 100 kilometres.
Now a National Heritage Place.
The Baiame’s Ngunnhu are now registered as a National Heritage Place. In the citation, the Australian Government acknowledges that:
The Ngemba people of Brewarrina used their advanced knowledge of river hydrology and fish ecology to trap and catch large numbers of freshwater fish. The unusual and innovative fish traps, known as Ngunnhu, are still visible in the Darling River, and have strong social, cultural and spiritual association for Aboriginal people with connections to the area.
The National Heritage listing goes on to explain that, the Ngemba people are custodians of the fishery, but maintenance and use of the traps were shared nations in the area, including the Morowari, Paarkinji, Weilwan, Barabinja, Ualarai, and Kamilaroi.
Baiame allocated particular traps to each family group and made them responsible for their use and maintenance. Neighbouring tribes were invited to the fish traps to join corroborees, initiation ceremonies, and meetings for trade and barter.
Lessons for contemporary Australia
Intensive irrigation farming, particularly cotton, is wildly out of accord with the environmental limits and with the practices adopted by Indigenous Australians. Their approaches were not merely sustainable, but they delivered certainty and abundance. We have a lot of learning to do.
I’m reminded of the line in the song, ‘The Land Where the Crow Flies Backwards’. Though the version I first heard was recorded by the late Gary Shearston, it was written by Dougie. I’m pleased I’ve found the original from Dougie Young.
The White Man took this country from me, he’s been fighting for it ever since.
Douglas Gary Young (1933-1991), was Aboriginal songwriter and singer, was born on 30 August 1933 at East Mitchell, Queensland, he was the sixth child of Queensland-born parents Frank Young, white labourer, and his wife Olive Kathleen, née McCarthy, a Gurnu woman. Read more about Dougie here in Indigenous Australia
Yesterday, I woke up and stepped out of my 19th-floor apartment, on the way to church. Passing the light well, its orientation one that scoops in sea breezes, the first thing I smelled was that familiar odour of distant fires. I realise now that it was probably blowing in from Sumatra’s Jambi Province, Desa Rimau Baku Tuo, Kecamatan Sadu, Kabupaten Tanjung Jabung Timur, to be precise. Checking the wind direction this seemed most likely.
Desa Rimau Baku Tuo. This area borders the Berbak National Park. Haphazard, clearing and the use of fire endanger national park forest margins.
Why burning now
It’s the dry season in Jambi so it’s the ideal time to burn off areas of peatland forest. Fire is used to clear land in preparation for development of palm oil or wood pulp plantations. Many corporations in the palm oil and wood pulp industries regard the forest land as unproductive and ripe for ‘development’.
Peatland clearing moratorium
In December 2016, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo introduced a blanket ban prohibiting the draining and clearing peatland. The ban also applied to concessions already licensed to plantation companies.
The initiative was widely hailed as a step forward and a practical strategy for dealing with the disastrous fires plaguing Jambi and neighbouring provinces and the massive forest loss.
The fallacy of development
This so-called development imposes high costs. Present practices lead to:
destruction of forest ecosystems;
deaths of endangered animals;
dispossession of Indigenous peoples like the Orang Rimba;
the release vast amounts of carbon from carbon-rich peatland soils;
pollution of drainage systems with pesticides; and,
peatland shrinkage on cleared land facilitating potential ingress of seawater in coastal and estuarine settings.
In 2015 such was the scale of the problem that the fires caused massive air pollution, transboundary smoke haze, disruptions to air traffic, numerous respiratory and pulmonary health issues and made a major contribution to global warming.
Any attempt to calculate the externalities involved with this so-called development is difficult, but the scale of the ecological, human and planetary costs is significant.
While a country like Indonesia benefits from the export of palm oil, voices within are also expressing concern about the way the externalities might be approached.
There is a surprising lack of freely available research findings on the questions of externalities in the palm oil industry. ‘Palm oil the hidden costs‘ by Rachel Goehring University of Nebraska – Lincoln, (firstname.lastname@example.org) makes an effort to explore some of the externalities. Clearly, more work is required.
Tragically, around 90% of the fires in Jambi are still deliberately lite and the burning of forest land is often done at night to avoid surveillance. Once started they spread quickly.
A footnote from Prayoto Tonoto
The function of peat land as the global climate regulator has been threatened by human activities through deforestation and plantation, including the peatlands in Jambi. Berbak National Park is covered by 110,000 hectares of peatlands. Most of the land changes is detected in August-October represent the temporal complexity affected by fires. Under the regulation, the farmer is allowed to use fire for land preparation under 2 hectares. However, fire utilization is prohibited for land preparation in concessionaries. The Result showed fire tend to occur in peatland every year. Land covers before fire occurrence mostly were bush and disturbed secondary forest. On average, 21% was converted into forest plantation and 27% was converted into palm oil plantation, the rest areas were community land.
Figure 1: Clearing on the margins of an unregistered plantation in the Siak Kecil area of Riau Province
When I first saw this image it saddened me. I had already travelled through the region, not precisely this spot at 0° 59′ 54.9996′ N, 101° 53′ 3.0012′ E, but further to the north and west. Travelling by helicopter afforded an excellent view of the numerous forms of natural habitat destruction that is such a feature of Riau Province.
Years earlier, Indonesian friends had insisted that Riau Province was the most corrupt province in the country. Now, this was a big claim and I took it on board as somewhat of an exaggeration but after visiting the place, I’m not so sure. Now back to the main point of this post.
Locating the image on Google Maps.
As a first step in delving deeper into this image I decided to locate it on Google Maps which meant converting the coordinates to the decimal scale 0.998611 N, 101.884167 E. This allowed me to plot the image’s location. There were several images taken from a location further south.
I’ve shaded the camera icons red so that they stand out on the map.
While attempting to locate the site on a map of Riau landholdings, I was fortunate to come across this map.
Figure 2: Land holdings and land use in Riau
I’ve loaded it as full size so readers can examine this map in detail. It has latitude and longitude clearly marked. The area in question is a little hard to discern so I’ve also clipped the relevant section of the map.
Figure 3: Segment of Land holdings and land use map
The cleared area, pictured in Figure 1, is on the border of the Giam Siak Kecil Biosphere Reserve, which is also the customary land of the Indigenous Sakai people. It appears to extend into the reserve. Such clearing opens up opportunities for illegal logging inside the reserve and leaves it prone to the danger of wildfire, particularly given the extent of forest debris visible in the image.
Also, note that the cleared area in Figure 1 is on the border of an Unregistered Plantation. Research conducted in 2014, found that occurrences of fire by land cover type, land management systems, landholders, and proximity to roads and canals showed that:
This morning my colleague Prayoto Tonoto sent me a diagram. It illustrated the stages in the transformation of forests from closed canopy systems to the monocultural plantations that are such a major feature of Riau’s landscape.
Selective logging over a 20-year period. Logs are can be removed using push carts on portable light rail systems or slid along tree trunks. This opens up the canopy lowering humidity and making forest prone to fires in dry periods. If selection cutting is carefully controlled such impacts can be contained but regulation is difficult.
This process is not always legal and can involve incursion into Parks, Conservation areas and Reserves. It is also often at the expense of the land rights of Indigenous people.
Stage 2: More extensive illegal logging
This can also involve the use of small streams for log transport. Being non-selective this type of extraction can cause irreversible degrading of the forest ecosystem and loss of forest cover.
Stage 3: Slash & Burn Encroachment
Drainage of peat is essential for any agricultural crop (except for sago on the coast). In some cases, small ditches left from previous illegal logging are used to assist peatland drainage. Once an area is dry, fire is the cheapest means available for land clearing. On peatland, without rain, fires can smoulder and farmers are neither motivated nor do they have the capability to extinguish fires. When rains don’t come, as in the El Nino year of 2015 fires can spread, raging out of control.
Stage 4: Productive Agriculture
Next, the opportunistic patchwork is gradually transformed into organized plantations of palm oil and rubber. Pioneers are bought or pushed out by larger organisations that have acquired concessional access or land titles. In these situations, the focus is on legal compliance but auditing is difficult and breaches of codes continue.
Developing the diagram
The basic diagram, in the centre, is clear enough. Since we’ve both collected many images documenting this process I decided to combine some of them. Here is the result. I think it conveys a more accurate sense of what is going on in Riau.
This post is in collaboration with Prayoto Tonoto who has many years experience in forestry in Riau Province, Indonesia. He is now at Hiroshima University completing a Master of Engineering in Development Technology. His principal skills and expertise lie in Conservation Biology, Agriculture, Landscape Ecology, Carbon Sequestration, Land Use Change and Wetland Ecology.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.” 
Subsequently, there was an idea that Indonesia’s swamplands could be developed with resettlement.
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.
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.”
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.
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.” 
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.
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,
Osawa, T. JURNAL ANTROPOLOGI: Isu-Isu Sosial Budaya. Desember 2017 Vol. 19 (2): 109-123. ISSN 1410-8356
 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
 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.
Fred Pearce writing in his book The Landgrabbers: The 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.
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.
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 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. 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.” 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” 
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.” 
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Wetlands.org 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kanō, H – Indonesian Exports, Peasant Agriculture and the World Economy, 1850-2000: Economic Structures in a Southeast Asian State. NUS Press. Singapore. 2008
 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.
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
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
 Pearce, F. The Landgrabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns The Earth. Part Four: China’s Back Yard, 15 Sumatra, Indonesia: Pluping the jungle