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In eastern Indonesia, a forest tribe pushes back against miners and loggers

  • The Forest Tobelo, an indigenous tribe in Indonesia’s North Maluku province, faces constant threat from illegal loggers and the expansion of mining leases.
  • More than one third of the province’s total area has been allocated for mining leases.
  • The community has chosen to fight back by drawing up its own maps of the land to which it has long laid claim, and by reporting illegal incursions into its forests.

HALMAHERA, Indonesia — Deep in the lush rainforests of Halmahera Island, in the far-flung eastern reaches of Indonesia, lives an indigenous tribe whose way of life is so intricately tied to the environment that it calls itself simply O’Hangana Manyawa — the people who live in the forest.

Known to outsiders as the Forest Tobelo people, the tribe believes the forests are home to its ancestors, and must therefore never be destroyed. This is reflected in their semi-nomadic lifestyle, in which they follow the seasons and the animals, hunting and gathering in one area before moving on.

They live in an area that measures just 265 square kilometers (102 square miles), according to the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), the main advocacy group for Indonesia’s indigenous tribes, but that area is fast dwindling. In the 1980s, parts of their forest were earmarked for the government’s transmigration program, under which people from densely populated islands, particularly Java, were moved to less populous areas of the country, including North Maluku province, of which Halmahera is a part.

“Our community forests are being cut down for the transmigration program,” says Madiki, the leader of the Forest Tobelo. “When the government wanted to launch the transmigration program here, they never consulted with us.”

The Forest Tobelo were displaced from their areas, and with no legal recognition of their claims to the land, those who remained have had to face various threats, including illegal logging in their ancestral forest areas.

In one particular area, outsiders enter the forest and cut down the trees there, selling them for at least 1 million rupiah per cubic meter, or about $2 per cubic foot.

“If we estimate that there are 10 cubic meters, in three to four days around 10 million to 15 million rupiah [$727 to $1,090] is taken from the indigenous land,” Albert Ngingi, an activist from AMAN, said in 2015. “This has been going on for nearly one year. The timber trees that the community plants in their fields are logged.”

A bigger threat comes from industrial expansion. At least two mining companies, PT Roda Nusantara and PT Indo Bumi Nikel, operate in the Forest Tobelo’s ancestral land, according to Munadi Kilkoda from the North Maluku chapter of AMAN. PT Roda Nusantara occupies 695 hectares (1,717 acres) of the Forest Tobelo’s area, while PT Indo Bumi Nikel’s concession overlaps with 11 hectares (27 acres) of the ancestral forest.

“Maybe right now the destruction of forests and environmental degradation can’t be seen yet,” Munadi says. “But in the future, it’s a guarantee that the rivers that are still clean now and used by the Forest Tobelo people will be contaminated by mining activity.”

The threat of industrial expansion extends beyond the Forest Tobelo’s territory. More than a third of North Maluku’s total area of nearly 32,000 square kilometers (12,350 square miles) has been allocated for mining leases. In Halmahera alone, there are 335 mining leases, as well as four oil palm leases and hundreds of timber concessions.

“The threat is real,” Munadi says. “Many areas are degraded from the extractive activities of mining companies through government-issued licenses.”

And deforestation is picking up in North Maluku. A recent report by environmental watchdog Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) shows that the province lost 520 square kilometers (200 square miles) of forests per year between 2013 and 2016, double the annual rate from 2009 to 2013.

Previously neglected regions of eastern Indonesia, such as North Maluku with its relatively large tracts of intact rainforest, are increasingly prone to deforestation as developers look beyond the fast-depleting landscapes of Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo, according to FWI campaigner Agung Ady Setyawan.

“This is a warning for us because intact rainforests in east Indonesia are under threat, seeing how there’s a significant increase in the deforestation rate and investment permits that are being issued in areas with large rainforests,” he said in a press statement.

A member of the Forest Tobelo indigenous group in North Maluku, Indonesia. Photo by Muhammad Ector Prasetyo/Flickr.

In a bid to stake its claim to the forest, the community is fighting back through participatory mapping, a process that acknowledges most indigenous groups’ lack of formal title to the land.

When developers submit proposals for a piece of land, they come prepared with maps, something that local communities typically don’t have even if their presence there pre-dates the establishment of the Indonesian republic. To address this, groups like the Forest Tobelo are meticulously researching their history, carrying out surveys and sketching out, in a participatory process, what they believe to be the boundaries of their land. These maps are then submitted for collective approval by the community.

AMAN has also developed a monitoring system through which the Forest Tobelo can send text messages to report any illegal activities that threaten them.

“We hope that this reporting system will allow the community to directly pass on information about those involved in and supporting these activities, and the type of illegal activities occurring,” Albert said.

Armed with the participatory maps and the monitoring system, the Forest Tobelo hope they can defend their right to live in the forests they have called their own for generations.

“I will protect the trees and land, because these are our parents’ heritage,” says a member of the Forest Tobelo. “If the land and forest are gone, what else will I have? My children and grandchildren will suffer. I must protect them.”


This article is a narrative recap from a video made by the “If Not Us then Who?” project.


Banner image: Screenshot of community members featured in the video by Indonesia Nature Film Society/Youtube.

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