Tue, 11 Mar 2003

Deforestation threatens Riau tribespeople

Like many other provinces, Riau has been fast losing its forests due to illegal logging and land clearing to make way for plantation projects. The activity has not only destroyed the forest and its rich biodiversity but also endangered the survival of the minor Talang Mamak and Suku Rimba tribespeople, whose lives depend on the jungle. The Jakarta Post's reporter Haidir Anwar Tanjung in Pekanbaru , Riau's capital, looks into the issue.

The fate of the Talang Mamak tribespeople gives rise to increasing concern not only due to the devastation of their habitat by illegal logging now rampant in the resource-rich region. The jungle tribespeople with their strong animistic belief are even losing the "Gods" they believe coexist with them in trees and sacred places in the forest.

To date, around 6,400 Talang Mamak people living in the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park's buffer zone in the Riau-Jambi provincial border area continue to perform rituals under large trees they consider sacred. Now with much of the forest being illegally denuded, particularly in the Indragiri Hulu regency, 350 kilometers from Pekanbaru, it is difficult for them to find huge trees for their worship.

"Since the majority of the Talang-Mamak people embrace animism with the practice of making offerings to what they believe are sacred trees, the timber looting amounts to losing their God," Dr. Tabrani Rab, a Riau cultural expert, told The Jakarta Post.

The tribe can be found only around the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park (TNBT), which is between Riau and Jambi. In Riau, the park is located in Indragiri Hulu and Indragiri Hilir regencies, and in Jambi it is in Tanjung Jabung and Bungo Tebo regencies.

TNBT and its surrounding forests play an important role in maintaining the hydrological function of the area, with many water springs forming river streams. The park also serves as a major catchment area for the Indragiri river in Riau and Batanghari river in Jambi, with six lesser rivers, Gangsal, Cinaku, Reteh, Keritang, Pengabuan and Sumai.

The catchment areas enhance the hydrological function of TNBT's eastern part because the peat layers along the eastern coasts of Sumatra are highly dependent on the rivers in TNBT's upstream areas. Any hydrological imbalance in the east will reduce the rate of flow of clean water, and in the case of dryness the peat land will shrink and pose a fire danger.

These pristine forests have 82 vegetation species, including rare mushrooms, while the Talang Mamak utilize 110 herbal plants to cure 56 diseases. There are also 42 mammalian species, some face extinction like beavers, Sumatran tigers, elephants and tapirs. Of the 192 bird species found in the park, 18 are endangered.

"Illegal logging has threatened the local flora and fauna, with the tribesmen being increasingly cornered," said Nazier Fuad, director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Indonesia.

According to Nazier, Bukit Tigapuluh was declared a national park in 1995. However, of the 250,000 hectares proposed, only 127,698 hectares were finally approved pursuant to a decree of the forestry minister.

"It was owing to pressure from forest concessionaires with high-level political access, which also enabled them to become the main contractors involving a million hectares of land in Kalimantan," he said.

The concession holders operating in TNBT border areas are PT IFA (Barito Pacific Timber Group), PT Dalek Hutani Esa and PT Inhutani V, the first two being joint ventures with state owned Inhutani V. Nazier indicated that such concessionaires failed to abide by the logging regulations in force and tended to exploit the TNBT buffer zone on a large scale.

This situation is worsened by the presence of plantation and timber estate (HTI) companies obtaining forest conversion permits, so that the areas that must meet protection criteria have turned into monocultural forests providing no habitat for protected wildlife.

"Various rare plants with medicinal properties have even been indiscriminately cut down," said Nazier.

Based on a WWF investigation, with the introduction of Government Regulation No. 6/1999, which opens the opportunity for local communities to utilize forest products through groups or cooperatives, logging in the buffer zone has been on the rise particularly following the monetary crisis that began in 1997. The local people need cash and concessionaires support such cooperatives.

"Consequently, logging has gone beyond control and the firms are seen as saviors while the locals only serve as cheap labor," Nazier pointed out, adding that the devastation of forests around the park was also supported by at least 31 sawmills in the area, ready to process the loot.

Despite the highly endangered state of TNBT, the Riau administration still plans to reopen the 18,783-hectare timber estate area west of the buffer zone to PT Surya Dumai Industri. Furthermore, some 38,950 hectares of pristine land in the zone's Indragiri upstream area in Indragiri Hulu regency, will be converted into a timber estate in 2003.

Regent Raja Thamsir Rachman issued conversion licenses to local firms, PT Bukit Batabuh, PT Sei Indah and PT Citra Sumber Sejahtera in April, 2002.

"If the forests are converted into timber estates, Talang Mamak people will inevitably lose their Gods. They have never received proper attention from the government and are now even being driven out of their own dwelling places," Tabrani said.