Tue, 19 Dec 2000

Kutai national park puts high hopes on youngsters

By Mikael Onny Setiawan

BALIKPAPAN, East Kalimantan (JP): A group of youngsters from Sangatta junior high school walked along the slippery, muddy road heading to Kaba Bay in Kutai National Park.

"Look, there are some maize plants on your right," 12-year-old Rudi shouted to the rest of the group. "I see some banana trees over there," responded a girl wearing a raincoat. "But where are the deer?" asked 13-year-old Nita.

Upon reaching Kaba Bay ranger post, Samsudin, a teacher acting as one of the guides to the group said, "Here we go, guys. It's Kaba Bay of Kutai National Park (TNK) ... "

"A few years ago when I visited this place with another group, there were a lot of trees and deer. We could study what we saw and even fed some deer, here around the post," he added in a gloomy tone. "But we can still see the mangrove trees along a boardwalk."

Kaba Bay is located within the Kutai National Park and the only way to reach it is via the only paved road connecting Sanggata and Bontang within the national park, and then following a dirt road some 6 kilometers to the bay.

The main road is now accessible to almost any means of transportation: trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles and even bicycles. "People are no longer worried of making a trip along the tropical rain forest, even at night," said Achmad (not his real name), a Kutai National Park ranger.

When the area was declared a national park in 1982 during the 3rd National Park World Congress in Bali, based on Minister of Agriculture Decree No. 736/Mentan/X/1982, it covered some 200,000 hectares.

Later, the area was cut by some 1,300 hectares to enlarge the administrative town of Bontang and fertilizer company Pupuk Kaltim facilities. Then, as stipulated in Minister of Forestry's decree No. 997/Menhut/VII/197 in 1997, the area was again reduced by some 25 hectares to expand Bontang town. Now, the national park covers around 198,604 hectares.

The development in Sanggata, Bengalon and Sangkulirang (some 60 to 150 kms to the north of Bontang) might be slower without improving the condition of the road. But the road brought some other impact, such as illegal logging and illegal land deals.

Previously, there were only small settlements like Teluk Pandan and Sangkimah villages, some 30 km south of Sanggata.

However, the regency officials' intention to legalize the status of the villages and residents living within the national park boundary, boosted speculative land deals and brought a rush of new inhabitants occupying both sides of the road.

For instance, only five to nine houses could be seen from Sanggata to Teluk Pandan until the end of 1999. Now, there are houses every two kilometers. And the "new residents" divided the park into various sizes of plots with the intention of selling the land to the rich or speculative buyers from the area.

A resident of Swarga Bara in Sanggata, Anton, was offered a plot of land. "Once, I stopped in the area and some men asked me if I'd like to buy land, saying they can provide it to me ...," he recalled.

The land is not cheap. Each plot is sold to prospective buyers from one to fifteen millions of rupiahs. And it will not be easy to prove the transaction took place because there are no documents.

A source from the national park who did not want to be identified, said that until February this year, the illegal activities involved about 13,000 hectares of parkland.

Law and order

"It is not easy to talk about law to illegal loggers and land grabbers. Some come from other parts of Indonesia. Some are local Kutai people," said Rachman, not his real name, a ranger at the park's Pinang post next to the Sangatta River bridge.

The rangers, he said, have tried to inform the newcomers that their actions were illegal. But the warnings have not worked.

When the rangers talked to those people individually, most of them knew what they did was illegal, he added. But then, they all said without any hesitation: "We need the wood and land for food."

When the rangers talked to them in a group, they would become violent, easily getting upset and even threatening the rangers with long knives and machetes.

The situation has been made worse by rich people who hire others to clear land for investment purposes.

"Please do not cut trees, buy land, or build huts in the area as it is against the law," said a ranger. "The area is rich with timber and other resources, but when it's finished, who will suffer then?" he asked.

To counter this difficult situation, the national park management has begun persuasive action by educating children through books, available in a library set up in cooperation with the Friends of Kutai National Park at the Teluk Pandan ranger post.

"It takes time (to improve the awareness to preserve the national park), I know that," said head of the national park Tonny Soehartono. "But I'm not afraid to spend three or even five years of my time to see some changes in people's behavior.