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, attempts at clove cultivation had largely failed. The demand for gaharu or agarwood resin for patchouli had imperilled and there has been 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


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.

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 http://www.eyesontheforest.or.id/ 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

Asia, environment, geography, indigenous, Indonesia

Little ground for optimism for the future of forests in #Indonesia’s #Riau Province

Some would argue that the forests of Indonesia were undisturbed until recently but there can never be virgin rainforest once people are present.  Beginning as far back
40,000 years ago a process of incremental transformation unfolded along the Indonesian archipelago. This was sustainable change all but invisible yet the very languages and cultures of the archipelago’s forest people were enmeshed and entwined in this process. For the most part, given the low population densities, it left closed canopy forest undisturbed, except for swidden[1] clearings.

Swidden or shifting cultivation had minimal impact on closed canopy rainforest unlike the more recent Slash and Burn farming techniques.

Almost 30 years ago, on an extended four-month journey through East Kalimantan and Sumatra, my expectation was an encounter with myriad plants and animals, of complex ecosystems optimising life forces and climaxing in total profusion.  How wrong I was. Along East Kalimantan’s Mahakam river deforestation was extensive, rafts of logs floated down the great river, the primary rainforest was seldom seen, except on side trips along tributaries flowing through riparian swamp forest or peatlands.

The same was true in Sumatra except for the Bukit Barisan, reserves and national parks.  Valuable timbers had been felled, first replaced by rubber plantations and then oil palms.  Only in the Mentawai Islands did I begin to see what I had imagined, elsewhere exploitation of forest resources had already entered a new era though this space was also threatened.

Logging and plantation development, particularly on mineral soils was extensive.  In Sumatra after valuable timbers were extracted, large areas were developed as rubber plantations which, after the development of synthetic rubber, were replaced by oil palm plantations. In both Kalimantan and Sumatra peatlands remained as refuges for a time, as places where complex ecosystems were still to be found.

The United Nations FAO reports Indonesia’s forest cover in 1990 as 1,185,450 sq kms, by 2010 this was reduced by 20.3% to 944,320 sq kms.[2]

Just last week I had a text message from my friend Ridwan who lives in Sungai Tohor, a district on the island of Tebingtinggi, in Riau Province. Tebingtinggi is part of the Meranti Island group lying on the western side of the Malacca Strait. His community is engaged in several projects aimed at restoring and establishing sustainable forms of farming. His story will form the next in a series of blog posts.

Riau Province location

Riau is bordered on the west by the Barisan Mountains. Its total area is 8,702,400 hectare.

Four major rivers, the Rokan, Siak, Kampar, and Indragiri Rivers flow into the Malacca Strait forming hill lands that rapidly expand into extensive peatlands.

Figure 2: Riau Province

Originally most of the vegetation cover started out as closed-canopy forest. About 40% of the province, around 3,400,000 hectares, is coastal peatland.  The other 60% was equatorial forest established on mineral soils or, along the extreme coastal margins, nipa palm swamp and mangroves.

Riau’s mountain slopes still have forest cover while its hills and peatlands have been extensively cleared for plantations and farm land.  The plantations involve oil palm cultivation and areas of industrial forests, where timber companies cultivate eucalypts, acacia and teak for timber and wood pulp. There is also some and farm land.

Riau’s peatland was laid down from the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age.  On its seaward margins it forms the stabilised Holocene coastline. Here are Indonesia’s deepest peat deposits reaching over 10 meters depth and storing an estimated 16.4 gigatons of carbon, almost 25% of Indonesia’s total deposits. The province has been subjected to rapid and extensive deforestation.  From 1990 its total forest area was reduced by 65 per cent and its peat forest cover from 80 per cent in 1990 to about 36 per cent in 2010.[3]

Changes in the management of forests

Until 1998 and the fall of Indonesia’s Suharto regime there was far more control of forests from the national level. Now through changes in law and regulation there has been a greater devolution in authority. Arnold notes in his article Deforestation in Decentralised Indonesia: What’s Law Got to Do with It?’ This was addressed in my earlier post Impacts of and responses to the dense smoke haze from #Indonesia.

With the passing of new regional autonomy and fiscal laws in 2004, regional governors and assemblies received a greater share of power. Regions are now able to exercise extensive autonomy over specific areas of governance, including forestry, provided that their decisions maintain social welfare, public service and regional competitiveness. At a provincial final authority rests with provincial government, districts/municipalities have jurisdiction over everything that is at that level alone. This leaves space for much ambiguity as provincial, regional and district boundaries rarely accord with discrete bio-geographic regions. Many trans-boundary issues arise.

To make matters more complex, provinces can ‘delegate’ authority to districts and/or municipalities, which can I turn delegate authority to villages. Authority over forestry can be so delegated.

Some indication of the land use and tenure of Riau province can be gleaned from this map in Figure 3. This map shows the proposed change in the forest area of Riau province based on the recommendations of an integrated team study.  It forms the basis of a revised spatial plan for the province.

Figure 3a: A map projected land use map of Riau
Figure 3b: Map key showing changes in land use and forest exploitation proposed. The shaded areas show the proposed change.

The map makes plans for further exploitation of Riaus forests abundantly clear. I will say more about this in subsequent posts.

Further detail on Riau land use can be observed in the transect map I have prepared.

Figure 4: A Riau Province transect

If you intend using any of the images linked to this map, please clarify the image content with me first and also acknowledge this blog on publication.

Fires of 2015

Devolution has ushered in a confusion of powers and responsibilities so it isn’t surprising that poorly regulated fire based land clearing techniques in Riau’s peatlands led to the catastrophic fires of 2015.  This has also been covered in my earlier posts, particularly in Peatland and forest burning for palm oil production continues, but at what cost?

Legal and regulatory ambiguities afforded opportunities for poor decision making and corruption.  The added problem of rural poor wanting a secure income source facilitated low yield unsustainable slash and burn agriculture.

Transforming closed-canopy forest into agriculture land

There is no absolute sequence of steps but there is a frequent pattern in the destruction of closed canopy forest.

Figure 5: Closed canopy forest in Riau Province

Stage 1: Concession Selection Logging

Selective logging over a 20-year period. Logs are can be removed using push carts on portable light rail systems or slid along tree trunks.  This opens of the canopy, as shown in Figure 6, 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.

Figure 6 In this image there is evidence of selective logging leading to opening of the canopy

Research conducted in the Mentawai Islands demonstrated the effect of logging just 8% of trees by selective logging led to destruction of 19% of the surrounding forest, 20% of forest was badly damaged with crowns and bark stripped, 7% of trees were seriously broken and 46% remained intact.[4]

Stage 2: More extensive illegal logging

When this takes place it can 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 as shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7: In this situation permanent damage has been inflicted on a closed canopy forest

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.

Figure 8: Slash and burn encroachment in a nature reserve with oil palms planted out

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.

Figure 9: Extensive acacia plantation on Riau peatlands

Stage 5: Integrated Land Use

A growing awareness of the unsustainable practices followed in Riau has led to a growing global demand for sustainable products.  Haze free palm oil and sustainably produced paper products are in increasing demand.  As a response, some palm oil and wood pulp plantation owners have attempted to adopt more sustainable practices and begun to set areas for conservation. In this way, they aim to demonstrate commitment to a business model that extends ‘beyond compliance’. Schemes such as the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for wood origin certification have begun to provide standards for assessing compliance with sustainable practices.



[1] Swidden agriculture is sometimes called shifting cultivation and also incorrectly confused with slash-and-burn farming. Swidden is an ancient form of land use that involves the clearing of land for cropping, followed by a period in which the land is left fallow. Swidden cultivators return to the cleared plots for another cycle of cropping after an interval in which soil fertility is able to regenerate as leaf and plant litter restore forest the humus layer.

[2] https://unstats.un.org/unsd/environment/forestarea.htm

[3] Thorburn, C. & Kull, C. – Peatlands and Plantations in Sumatra, Indonesia: Complex Realities for Resource Governance, Rural Development, and Climate Change Mitigation. Centre for Geography and Environmental Science Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. Pp. 5

[4] Whitten, T, Damanik, S J – Ecology of Sumatra.  Periplus

[5] ibid

[6] Thorburn, C. – Managing peatlands in Indonesia: A case study of small islands in Riau Province, Sumatra. Monash University. MSI Report 13/19, October 2013. Pp 7

[7] ibid



Seen and Unseen – Book Review

Very appreciative of Ian Burnet’s Review of my book.


Russell Darnley seeks to cover an extensive time span in his book Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific.

Darnley Cover Image

I have read it as a memoir written as 29 stories, beginning when he was a boy growing up in Coogee in Sydney, Australia. Here, his stories begin with him exploring the headlands and rock pools around this beachside suburb with his grandfather.  They delve into the early years of the 20th century and then on to descriptions of his childhood, family and friends.

He tells stories of his student days at Sydney University and of his first travels through South East Asia in the 1970’s. I can identify with this period as we would have travelled around the same time to Singapore, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. A period when many young Australian backpackers were on the road discovering South East Asia.

Years later…

View original post 322 more words


10 December 1948 was an important date but #HumanRights have a longer history

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. […] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world. — Eleanor Roosevelt

While I missed posting about this in my own time zone I’ve been conscious that 10 December is International Human Rights Day. As an Australian I’m deeply appreciative of my own country’s contribution to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It was while our former Foreign Minister Dr. Herbert Vere Evatt was President of the third regular session of the General Assembly that the UDHR was adopted by the United Nations



Maria Dimitrakarakou’s Blog Post

Today I was pleased to receive a Tweet from my friend Maria Dimitrakarakou (@dimitrakarakou) drawing my attention to her latest blog post. 

I first met Maria in 2015, since then we’ve often shared ideas about a mutual interest, the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.  I’ve also come to learn of Maria’s deep commitment to human rights.

I guess, had I not received the Tweet from Maria, I might have overlooked the day. Well, not exactly overlooked it, but perhaps not given it the prominence it deserves.  As it is I’m scrambling to post this while it is still 10 December at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Maria’s approach to the global issue is consistent with that of Eleanor Roosevelt’s. I believe that she recognises the fundamental reality that human rights begin in small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.

A fundamental statement on human rights

There is no doubt that 10 December remains a most important date, though human rights do have a longer history.  Every time I read these words I’m reminded that protecting human rights is not a new idea.

Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ Matthew 25:45






What is the health of cricketers worth?

Sri Lanka players and physio wait during the hold up on Day 2 of the 3rd Test at the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium in New Delhi on Sunday. Photograph: BCCI

Play was stopped three times during the India v Sri Lanka cricket match on Sunday 3 November. The Sri Lankan team wore anti-pollution masks, complaining of breathing problems at the Feroz Shah Kotla ground in New Delhi. Air pollution in New Delhi has been a serious problem for sometime. The Guardian and Agence France Press reports that:

The extremely poor air in the city is the result of a combination of road dust, open fires, vehicle exhaust fumes, industrial emissions and the burning of crop residues in neighbouring states. Indian weather agencies also blame dust storms that originate in the Gulf. New Delhi has a paucity of public transport.

The Data

The World Air Quality Index promotes Air Pollution awareness and provides transparent Air Quality information for more than 70 countries, covering over than 9000 stations in 600 major cities. This information is available through two websites: aqicn.org and waqi.info.

Using AQICN data it is possible to look at the present situation in New Delhi.

These were the conditions at the time of writing.

Air quality in New Delhi on 5 December, 2017
Air Quality Index scale based on PM2.5

The AQI shown, PM2.5, is a measure of the occurrence of particles or droplets in the air with a size of 2.5 microns (2.5 μm) or less per cubic metre. PM refers to Particulate Matter. A micron is a unit of measurement for distance. There are about 25,000 microns2.5 cms approximately an inch. They are very small particles that can be inhaled deeply into the lungs causing harmful effects.


Of great concern is the impact on those who are forced to work in the pollution and this week it has included these elite sportsmen.

The Times of India reported that Pollution stopped play on Sunday in the third Test between India and Sri Lanka. Australia’s ABC reported extensively on the problem as well.

The insistence from game organisers that play continue raises important questions. To what extent are players expendable contributors to the software that is telecast through the world on cable and satellite services?

Delhi’s air quality remains in the Very Unhealthy and Hazardous categories.

Perhaps one positive aspect is that it might draw greater world attention to the problem of air pollution.