- The government in Central Kalimantan’s West Kotawaringan Regency plans to construct a reservoir adjacent to Lake Gatal.
- Many in Rungun Village, a fishing community that relies on the lake, fear the project will leave them without a source of income.
- The project also threatens to flood fields, houses and sacred sites, community members say.
CENTRAL KALIMANTAN, Indonesian Borneo — Dense vegetation presses up to the banks of the Lamandau River, with tree branches dropping low overhead to form a natural tunnel. Occasionally, the calls of birds echo through the surrounding forest as our boat motors through.
About 45 minutes after passing a fork in the river, the landscape opens, and Lake Gatal lies wide in front of us. Fishermen in small boats head toward the lake, seeking catfish, snakeheads and other freshwater fish.
But despite the tranquil surroundings, fishers on the lake are filled with deep misgivings due to a government plan to create a reservoir by damming the river about 600 meters from the lake.
“We are afraid that access to Lake Gatal will become difficult, because we hear the river will be dammed. If it’s dammed, our boats cannot pass anymore,” said Gusti Hidayat, a fisherman from Rungun Village, located in the Kotawaringan Lama subdistrict of Central Kalimantan’s West Kotawaringin Regency.
Like many in Rungun Village, Hidayat also is concerned that his catch will be reduced if the project is completed. At 15-20 kilograms (33-44 pounds) of fish per day, he said his average haul is already far below the lake’s heyday, when catches could reach 100 kilograms per day.
“Also, if it’s dammed, and at any later time the reservoir breaks, our village will be affected,” he told Mongabay.
The local government, on the other hand, says the project will provide a reliable source of freshwater to surrounding districts during the dry season. “The government’s aim is to contain the water that is in the lake,” explained Sayuti, the project contractor, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name. “Later, it will be used to provide clean water and also for tourism. Water will not go directly into the river. We will build a floodgate.”
The project will require an estimated 10,000 cubic meters of earth to build the dam and embankment, and according to the design the dam itself will be 10 meters (33 feet) high. According to Sayuti, the budget for the project this year amounted to 12 billion rupiah (about $900,000), for building a dam and entrance channel as well as for related road construction.
The traditional leader of Rungun Village, Muhamad Baid, said he is opposed to the plan, along with most of the community. He said residents do not support the construction of a reservoir, fearing it will block access to the lake and could lead to flooding of their land and homes.
“We insist that our lake remains as it is now. Because out of the 400 families of Rungun Village, the majority are fishers in this lake. We want Lake Gatal to stay natural, as it is today,” Baid said, adding that he had organized a petition against the development that will be submitted to the regent and the local parliament.
In addition to blocking access to the lake, Baid said the reservoir would threaten the residents’ crops, particularly plots of oil palm oil owned by residents who supply oil to the PT Bumitama Gunajaya Agro palm oil company. He fears that if the lake is dammed, about four of these oil palm plots could be submerged.
Even those residents who serve as palm oil suppliers cannot completely rely on agricultural income, Baid said: “They only make 750,000 to 1 million rupiah per month (about $56-75).” This is not enough to live on, so the fish caught from Lake Gatal are the primary livelihood for the people of Rungun Village, he explained.
Community members also raise concerns about the impact the project would have on religious and cultural sites near the lake.
According to Rohadi, a local Islamic scholar, around 20 graves of ancestors and clerics that are sacred to the local people lie just beside the lake. The area also holds the remaining traces of an Islamic boarding school where the family of the Kotawaringin Sultanate — a historical dynasty — once studied, he said.
Such historical sites should not be lost to build a reservoir, Rohadi argued. “Hopefully the government can give an explanation,” he said. “As a religious scholar, my observation is that everything depends on the benefits. If you bring benefits, blessings, comfort, yes, please come. But if, for example, this project brings suffering for the people, do not.”
“We are trying to understand why there is opposition from the people, but for the time being there does not seem to be any common ground,” said Subdistrict Head Yudi Harun.
Harun said his team is currently coordinating with the new regent of West Kotawaringan.
“The regent’s response is that if there are obstacles from the community, these must be resolved first,” Harun said. However, he added, “we must complete it.”
The wave of opposition from Rungun Village is quite large, Harun confirmed. He said he has asked that the development project be reviewed and communication opened with residents about why they are against the project.
Harun also claimed never to have seen the project’s environmental impact assessment, which he said it beyond the bounds of his authority: “My access does not go this high. I do not yet have the full picture.”
A different path
Mardani, a local organizer for the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), criticized the lack of community outreach about the project. Communities should be involved from the beginning, he said, in order to ensure that such projects move forward by mutual consent and without any parties feeling aggrieved.
AMAN plans to map customary landholdings in Rungun Village, Mardani said. “This traditional community plans to map their customary territory so that they have the power of the law behind them. So far, they have not had recognition of their customary territory.”
According to Mardani, the government is obliged to protect the indigenous people of Rungun Village, including their livelihoods. Opposing the construction of a dam does not mean rejecting development, he said, but measures must be taken to ensure development programs do not damage the environment and the livelihoods of the area’s people.
Meanwhile, according to Mardani, if Lake Gatal is maintained authentically and sustainably, it has great potential to become a tourist destination. Tourists who come to Lake Gatal can not only see the beauty of nature, but also learn about the culture and customs of the surrounding community, he said.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesian team and was first published on our Indonesian site on June 11, 2017.
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