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Forest clearing proceeds for dam in Sumatra despite locals’ land claims

  • Road construction for a state-backed dam project has cleared forest in northern Sumatra, Indonesia.
  • The Indonesian government says the dam will benefit locals by providing water and electricity.
  • But many communities are disputing the land acquisition process as they are trying to get a certificate of ownership from the government.
  • A fisherman and a construction worker drowned last month after being swept into the dam by flash floods, and a second worker is missing and feared dead.

DELI SERDANG, Indonesia —  A forest in Indonesia’s Sumatra Island is being cleared to build access roads for a state-funded dam project that has been bogged down by disputes over land acquisition.

The Lau Simeme dam project made headlines recently following the drowning there of a local fisherman and a construction worker during a flash flood. The incident, which occurred April 14 in Deli Serdang district, North Sumatra province, also left a second construction worker missing and feared dead.

“They fell into the dam during the flash flood,” said Hisar Turnip, a spokesman for the search and rescue department in Medan, the provincial capital.

A search and rescue team prepares to look for a missing victim of a drowning incident in the Lau Simeme dam. Image by Barita News Lumbanbatu.

The project kicked off in 2017 after the public works ministry had obtained a lease, known by its Indonesian acronym IPPKH, to develop the area, which is designated as a production forest by the government. It is one of the 65 dam projects to be developed by the government throughout Indonesia. Another one in North Sumatra is the controversial Batang Toru hydropower dam, located in the only known habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan.

At least 22 kilometers (14 miles) of roads to support the dam have been constructed by clearing trees in the forest. Once completed, the dam and hydropower plant will occupy 420 hectares (1,040 acres) of land. Activists say the project will affect at least 250 households in five villages, many of whom have lived in the region for decades and refuse to leave.

The dispute centers around the status of the area, which was only recently designated as a production forest, putting it under state control. However, many locals have lived there since long before that designation came into effect, and don’t recognize the state’s claim to the land. To stake their claim to the land, they are trying to obtain legal title from the government under the agrarian reform program called TORA.

A hillside cleared of forest to make way for an access road for the Lau Simeme dam project. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Public Works and Housing.

Activists have criticized the government for pushing ahead with the project despite the land disputes still being unresolved. One of the main demands by locals is fair financial compensation for giving up their lands for the dam.

“The main issue with developing the dam is land acquisition,” said Suhardi, an official with the local office of the public works ministry.

The national government says the 740 billion rupiah ($49 million) Lau Simeme project will benefit residents of Deli Serdang district and Medan, providing electricity for households and water for irrigation and consumption. The reservoir is also expected to host aquaculture farms and tourism activities, and help mitigate flooding from heavy rainfall. The dam is scheduled to be completed in 2023.

Plans to build the dam go back to the early 1990s following an assessment by engineers from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB). But it was only in 2003 that engineers from North Sumatra University (USU) decided to carry out an environmental impact assessment.

Heavy equipment is used to clear the land for the Lau Simeme dam project. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Public Works and Housing.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on April 29, 2020.

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