When forest guardians fight back

By Ilang-Ilang Quijano

For several generations now, the forests of Tanjung Benuang in Indonesia are home to the Koto Sepuluh indigenous peoples. Nestled between two hills that contain rich and fertile forests, Tanjung Benuang is a village in Merangin District, Jambi Province located in the east coast of Central Sumatra. Indigenous traditions have served to protect and care for these forests as the peoples' ultimate source of life and livelihood.

Customary laws

Under a set of customary laws called "Pantang Larangan," forest land that has been cleared serves as an indigenous family's rotary garden. They plant mostly traditional varieties of rice, coffee, vegetables, and fruit trees such as banana, durian, and rambutan.

For the Koto Sepuluh peoples, it is forbidden to sell land to others, nor to own land that is beyond a family's capacity to cultivate. Land that is not planted on for a certain period of time becomes communal property.

To protect the forests and the environment, certain practices, such as clearing forest land near rivers sources and using poison to catch fish, are prohibited. Combined with village administration, customary laws have for years effectively managed natural resources for the benefit of future generations. The Koto Sepuluh peoples see themselves as forest guardians.

However, the entry of timber concessionaires in the mid-90s, and now, of large-scale plantations, have been threatening the Koto Sepuluh peoples' existence. Landgrabbing not just in Tanjung Benuang, but the whole of Jambi Province, has led to increased hunger and food insecurity. But it has also created pockets of resistance among the affected peoples.

'Illegal' in their own lands

It was in 1988 when the Indonesian government first gave timber concession rights (HPH) to the company PT Sarestra II, covering 96,000 hectares of forest in the Merangin District. This was followed by the granting of another HPH to the company PT Nusalease TC in 1991, covering 61,200 hectares and encroaching on the forests cared for by the Koto Sepuluh peoples. As a result, they were prevented from planting crops. These timber concessions significantly decreased the size of Tanjung Benuang village from 1,700 hectares to 437.5 hectares or by 75 per cent.

PT Sarestra II and PT Nusalease TC abandoned the area when their concessions expired. But instead of giving back the lands to the indigenous peoples, Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry placed 49,956 hectares in the Merangin District under Limited Production Forest (HPT) and 136,275 hectares under Production Forest (HP). Under the country's Foresty Law, "selective" logging and "restricted" forest clearing is allowed in HPT and HP areas.

PT Duta Alam Makmur (DAM) was then granted a permit for Industrial Plantation Forest in an area that includes Tanjung Benuang. PT Dam is a subsidiary of the Sinar Mas Group (SMG), one of Indonesia's largest conglomerates that is involved in pulp and paper, real estate, agribusiness, telecommunications, and mining. PT Dam started planting palm oil, rubber trees, and eucalyptus, replacing much of the traditional crops grown in the area. The area was extensively logged and forest land was cleared to give way for agribusiness production.

The entry of PT Dam forced even more indigenous peoples to leave or limit their farming lands, as they have been declared as "illegal" settlers by their country's own law. Families now found it more difficult to survive. With less land, their income from farming also drastically decreased. As a result, some had to look for irregular work elsewhere, destroying Tanjung Benuang's once proud sense of community and self-sufficiency.

Genuine agrarian reform

This situation, however, also taught the Koto Sepuluh peoples to organise themselves and resist. Led by peasant groups and NGOs, they mobilised and petitioned the government to recognise their land rights and respect their customary laws.

"The peoples of Koto Sepuluh already existed and lived in their ancestral lands long before the existence of the Indonesian Republic. They already have their own land laws, which prevent the monopoly of land and govern the forests and nature for sustainability. Therefore, it is reasonable for the government to respect these laws and immediately stop companies like Sinar Mas from encroaching on indigenous territory," said Rahmat Ajiguna, secretary general of AGRA (Aliansi Gerakan Reforma Agraria), an organisation of peasants fighting for genuine agrarian reform in Indonesia.

The SMG, through its subsidiaries and joint ventures, already owns an overwhelming 884,180 hectares in Jambi Province, from which it sources pulp and paper, as well as palm oil, eucalyptus, rubber, and other agricultural commodities.

After several years, the local resistance in Tanjung Benuang paid off. With the strong support of other farmer organisations and civil society organisations (CSOs), large mobilisations and intense lobbying efforts forced the Minister of Forestry to revoke the permit of PT DAM on 21 August 2009.

However, AGRA said that because the village is still covered by the government's production agreements, the indigenous peoples continue to be deprived of their land rights and could be displaced anytime. "Several companies are already eyeing the forests of Tanjung Benuang for palm oil plantations," said Ajiguna.

In Batanghari District of Jambi, nine villages have already been encroached upon by palm oil plantations. On October 16, dubbed by people's organisations and CSOs as 'World Foodless Day,' AGRA plans to lead an occupation by farmers of former ricelands that have been grabbed. Simultaneous events, such as mobilisations and forums, to oppose landgrabbing will also be held across the country and the region by Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP) and its partner organisations.


According to Ajiguna, "Landgrabbing and lack of genuine agrarian reform is one of the main reasons why Indonesian peasants remain poor and grow increasingly hungry. Take away our productive resources, and we have nothing. Through bold and collective actions, we are just taking back what belongs to us."

He added, "For us, land does not just produce food to just feed our stomachs. Land is life. If someone steals or forces us to leave our land, we will die. But we don't want to die. We will fight back. This is our land, this is our life." ###


This article is part of a series of feature stories on land grabbing in selected countries in Asia, as part of an awareness-raising campaign on how land grabs worsen hunger, in commemoration of 'World Foodless Day' on October 16 by PAN AP and its partner organisations. (http://www.panap.net/wfd)

    Posted by: Arnold Padilla
  •   PAN AP
  • 08 October 2012
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