In Sumatra, an indigenous plea to stop a coal road carving up a forest


JAMBI, Indonesia — “If the forest is gone, where else can we live?”

Teguh Santika is an indigenous woman from the Batin Sembilan community. Her home is in the Harapan forest in central Sumatra, one of the last remaining spans of lowland tropical rainforest left on the island, and a refuge for some of the most endangered creatures on Earth, including the Sumatran tiger.

But the forest is under threat. It’s being eaten away at the fringes by oil palm farms and thinned out by illegal logging. But perhaps the biggest threat is a road being proposed by a coal company, PT Marga Bara Jaya (MBJ), to truck coal from its mining site in South Sumatra province’s Musi Rawas district to power plants in Musi Banyuasin district. A third of the 88-kilometer (55-mile) road would slice through the forest.

Local authorities support the plan, making it increasingly likely that it will be approved by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. The ministry reportedly discussed the project’s environmental impact assessment in November 2018 and February 2019.

For Teguh, the road will make it easier for illegal loggers, farmers, poachers and others to encroach deeper into the forest.

“Obviously it will bring profit to the state, but think also about the little people who live in this forest,” she says. “Even without a big road, people have been encroaching in like ants.”

The Harapan forest stretches 769 square kilometers (300 square miles) across the provinces of South Sumatra and Jambi. It was previously a logging concession, before being designated in 2008 as Indonesia’s first ecosystem restoration concession (ERC). These are former concessions that private companies can license for restoration. The goal is to prevent these degraded areas from being permanently converted to oil palm plantations or smallholder farmland, by restoring them to their previous forested state.

Since then, the restoration has come a long way, thanks to funding from the Danish government and a management approach that involves the indigenous communities in patrols and conservation efforts. But the problems of encroachment into the area for hunting, logging and oil palm cultivation have persisted. And at the end of 2018, the Danish government ceased its funding, raising concerns about how much longer the Harapan forest can hold out against the onslaught of illegal logging and farming.

That same year, 120 hectares (300 acres) of the forest was cleared for oil palm farms, amid a reported plan by plantation company PT Perkebunan Sriwijaya to raze a total of 12,360 hectares (30,540 acres) for oil palms.

Teguh says she believes the forest can still be restored. But that depends on the road not being built, which would exacerbate the encroachment problem.

“We can restore this forest — as long as the encroachers are gone,” she says.

MBJ wasn’t the first company to try to build a road here. In 2013, PT Musi Mitra Jaya, an obscure Indonesian company, proposed a similar project, but was turned down by the forestry ministry.

Teguh, an elder in her community, says she hopes this new proposal is also rejected by the environment ministry.

“I went to Jakarta to complain — to a minister or a presidential staffer, I’m not sure — but please,” she says, “don’t give an approval for this coal road.”, 8 April 2020