Indonesian Villagers and Pulp Firm Face Off Over Padang Island
Fidelis E. Satriastanti
For more than a month now, villagers from the Meranti Islands in Riau have been camped outside the House of Representatives in Jakarta to protest what they contend is the destruction of forest in their area by a pulp and paper company.
Their protest began in December, when they staged the dramatic act of sewing their lips shut. Their demand was for the government to revoke in its entirety a Forestry Ministry decree issued in 2009, titled SK 327/Menhut II/2009, that granted a total of 40,000 hectares in concessions to Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper on Padang Island in the Meranti chain.
“It’s only a small island. What happens if they keep on taking the forest away?” said Syahrudin, one of the protesters.
The protesters’ claim that the concession is unsustainably large compared to the island’s total area of 110,000 hectares is backed by Elfian Effendi, director of the environmental group Greenomics Indonesia.
“That’s almost half of the whole island, and it’s not a small island, so how can it be sustainable?” he said.
“The forestry minister has the authority to revoke the concession permit without the need for a recommendation from the district head or for forming a mediation team.”
Elfian said another point of protest was the fact that the concession encircled a peat forest that under a moratorium imposed last year may not be exploited.
RAPP, however, has hit back at the allegations, saying it has no intention of exploiting the entire 40,000-hectare concession and even plans to set aside a large area for conservation.
“Our concession is about 40,000 hectares, of which two-thirds will be used to grow acacia trees, with 800 hectares for infrastructure,” Tony Wenas, the RAPP president commissioner, said in a statement sent to the Jakarta Globe.
“The remaining 13,000 hectares will be set aside for conservation and for community-based uses. In practice, the area designated for planting within our concession accounts for 26 percent of [Padang Island’s] total land area.”
He added that the company’s presence would also deter illegal loggers from exploiting the peat forest that he said “has been subject to significant illegal logging in the past.”
“RAPP’s plantations will act as a buffer that will deter illegal loggers from accessing the sensitive peat dome in the center of the island,” Tony said.
He also called into question the motives of the protesters, saying that their use of violent actions, both in the protest and in attacks against RAPP, “to create a climate of fear and intimidation is unacceptable, particularly given that peaceful avenues for resolution of differences exist.”
“We do not believe the motives or methods of these groups are representative of what the people of Padang Island want,” he said.
“We do not doubt that there are individuals within the community of Padang Island who would prefer that development of forest resources not occur. We do dispute, however, that the protests seen recently in Jakarta are spontaneous, conducted only by actual long-term Padang Island residents or representative of their views.
“It is a matter of public record that a coalition of international and local NGOs has been working together for many months to use Padang Island as part of their broader environmental campaigning in Indonesia.”
Tony said other outside groups like the Riau Farmers Union (STR) had also been pursuing their own political interests through the ongoing protests, advocating unrest and violence.
“Violent incidents have subsequently occurred, including several arson attacks on our concession, as well as a fatal attack on a RAPP contract worker,” Tony said.