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Timber plantations are the latest threat facing Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands

  • The Mentawai peoples, who live on Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands, off the western coast of Sumatra, have faced numerous attempts to develop their traditional lands.
  • In 2014, the Mentawai communities convinced local officials to stop plans for industrial palm plantations on 1,000 square kilometers (about 386 square miles) of forests and indigenous territories after years of protest.
  • Now a company called Biomas Andalan Energi is planning to create timber plantations on a total of 200 sq. km. (77 sq. miles) of primary rainforest and indigenous lands on the biggest island of the Mentawai archipelago, Siberut.

The Mentawai peoples, who live on Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands, off the western coast of Sumatra, have faced numerous attempts to develop their traditional lands.

In 2014, the Mentawai communities convinced local officials to stop plans for industrial palm plantations on 1,000 square kilometers (about 386 square miles) of forests and indigenous territories after years of protest. And last year, a government program to build new houses for the indigenous peoples actually ended up cutting off their access to the forest.

Now a company called Biomas Andalan Energi is planning to create timber plantations on a total of 200 sq. km. (77 sq. miles) of primary rainforest and indigenous lands on the biggest island of the Mentawai archipelago, Siberut, the Rainforest Foundation Norway reports. The company wants to use the timber as biomass for burning in electricity-generating plants.

Siberut, which UNESCO once called “one of Indonesia’s most unique cultural and ecological assets,” is the most forested of the Mentawai Islands. It is home to the indigenous Mentawai peoples, many of whom still live a traditional lifestyle highly dependent on the forest. A subspecies of the Pig-tailed snub-nosed langur (Simias concolor), one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates, also lives on Siberut.

But more than 80 percent of the Mentawai Islands are owned and managed by the state, making it difficult for Mentawai people to manage their own lands and natural resources, according to Lorelou Desjardins, Rainforest Foundation Norway’s program coordinator for Southeast Asia.

An indigenous Mentawai man on the island of Siberut, the largest of the Mentawai Islands. Photo by Erik B / Flickr.com.

Biomas Andalan Energi has reportedly received only a principle approval letter, not final approval to start operations. Mentawai communities and local civil society organizations are calling for a stop in the license-granting process — and are pressing the Indonesian ministry of environment and forestry to stop giving out licenses on the Mentawai Islands altogether, in the hopes of fending off the next threat to their territories before it even gets to the planning and licensing stage.

“The Indonesian government’s policy is not consistent,” Rifai Lubis, director of Yayasan Citra Mandiri Mentawai (YCMM), an organization that fights for Mentawai peoples’ rights and the protection of natural resources, said in a statement.

“On one hand it says it wants to preserve the outermost islands and that the Mentawai islands are in the national strategy for tourism. On the other, it grants licenses to companies that will exploit the natural resources of the Mentawai and deprive its people from their means to live.”

YCMM and the Mentawai communities have convinced Yudas Sabaggalet, the regent of the Mentawai Islands, to send a letter to the Indonesian Ministry of Environment asking that the letter of approval received by Biomas Andalan Energi be revoked and requesting a freeze in the permit-granting process. Sabaggalet has not received an answer to his letter.

Lubis said that in addition to revocation of the letter of approval, YCCM and the Mentawai communities are lobbying for a moratorium on all resource extraction and other exploitative activities on the Mentawai Islands.

“We want the government to stop the granting process of this 200 km2 timber plantation license,” he said. “We also want it to start seeing the Mentawai as small islands whose natural resources need to be preserved, not exploited and destroyed.”

YCMM has also joined with other organizations to help the various Mentawai tribes in mapping their territories, an attempt to claim those lands so they’re no longer part of a state-controlled forest. But resources are scarce, and even as the government keeps granting licenses, the mapping effort is falling behind, Rainforest Foundation Norway’s Desjardins told Mongabay.

A petition launched by YCCM calls on the Indonesian Minister of Environment and Forestry to reject the permits for Biomas Andalan Energi’s biomass plantations.

If the final license is granted to Biomas Andalan Energi and the timber plantations are built, “nature is not the only thing that will struggle,” according to Desjardin.

“[Timber plantations] will also have economic, social and cultural impacts for the livelihood of the Mentawai people,” she wrote in a post on the group’s website.

“Loss of food such as fruits and hunting game, loss of income of the non-timber forest products like honey that they sell on markets, loss of traditional medicine and all bases for their livelihoods. It can also create conflicts between communities, displacements on a very limited territory, and stop the Mentawai tribes in passing on their ancestral lands to future generations.”