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Indonesia’s plantation program on collision course with wildlife, Indigenous groups

An orangutan hanging in a tree in Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/ Mongabay.

  • Indonesia’s food estate program threatens to overlap onto habitats of key species like orangutans and tigers in Sumatra, according to a government map.
  • Environmental activists warn this could exacerbate human-wildlife conflicts, and have criticized the lack of an environmental assessment before the start of the program.
  • Also at threat are forests that Indigenous communities rely on for their livelihoods, with the government again failing to involve them in the planning process.
  • The government claims it mapped the food estate areas in a way to minimize disturbances to known wildlife habitats.

JAKARTA — The survival of critically endangered wildlife like Sumatran orangutans and tigers and the livelihoods of Indigenous communities might be in jeopardy as the Indonesian government plans to establish large-scale agricultural plantations overlapping with their forests, activists warn.

Under the so-called food estate program to boost domestic production, the government plans to establish millions of hectares of new farmland, mostly for rice and other staple crops.

Among the regions targeted by the program is North Sumatra province, home to a number of conservation areas teeming with wildlife species. This past October, President Joko Widodo launched the program in North Sumatra, with a plan to establish 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) of agricultural fields in four districts.

The official map of the food estate program shows at least four conservation areas that fall within the planned plantation sites. They are Subulussalam Forest Park, Siranggas Wildlife Sanctuary, Sikice-Kice Nature Park, and Sijaba Hutaginjang Nature Park.

The map, drawn up by the conservation department at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, identifies a number of wild animal and plant species that are found in the conservation areas, including tigers, orangutans, pangolins, honey bears, deer, hornbills, pangolins, and orchids.

According to the map, the planned food estates overlap with 39% of the region’s known Sumatran tiger habitat and 8% of Sumatran orangutan habitat.

Dana Prima Tarigan, the North Sumatra chapter head of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), singled out the Siranggas sanctuary as being particularly vulnerable. It’s home to 16 protected mammal species, including orangutans, with a population density of 0.75 individual orangutans per square kilometer.

“Even if the food estate program doesn’t encroach on the Siranggas wildlife sanctuary, there’s still wildlife there,” Dana told Mongabay. “We found animal footprints there, starting from bears, orangutans, hornbills and tigers. And they are in production forests that will be turned into food estate. So [the animals] are not just passing through, they live there.”

The area earmarked for the food estate is still standing forest, but is designated “production forest,” which means it may be cleared at any time for agriculture.

“So in the future, conflict between animals and human will be unavoidable because their habitats will be lost to the food estate program,” Dana said.

A delineation map of the food estate program overlaid with the map of key species in North Sumatra province, Indonesia.

Indigenous communities left out

The food estate program also poses a threat to Indigenous communities that have long relied on the forests for their livelihood. In the district of Humbang Hasundutan, the program will occupy 280 hectares (690 acres) of land that could potentially impact the village of Pandumaan, according to Delima Silalahi, director of a local NGO called People’s Initiative Development and Study Group (KSPPM).

“People only hear that there will be some investors that will manage the food estate,” Delima said. “But it’s unclear what their role will be, and in what portion.”

Edismar Nainggolan, the Pandumaan village chief, echoed that uncertainty: “Until now, we don’t know where in our village will become food estate. There hasn’t been anyone who communicated [the program] to us.”Delima said the food estate program could trigger conflicts with Indigenous communities if the land procurement process fails to respect the customary rights of the communities. She attributed this risk to the government’s failure to involve Indigenous communities in the planning process.

Dana said Indigenous communities in Fakfak district in West Papua province, another planned site of the food estate program, faced a similar fallout.

“Even though the status [of the area] is production forest, it’s their forest, with many timber sources that they rely upon,” he said.

Indonesian Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo with local officials ride a tractor during a visit at the site of the food estate program in Humbang Hasundutan district, North Sumatra province, Indonesia, in September 2020. Image courtesy of North Sumatra provincial government.

Assessment after the fact

Responding to these concerns, Wiratno, the environment ministry’s director-general of conservation, said the mapping of the food estate program area took into consideration the conservation areas and wildlife habitats in order to minimize the impact of the program.

“Conservation areas and animal home range have to be avoided,” he told Mongabay Indonesia.

He added that the mapping is still in the preliminary stage, with a more detailed survey planned in the future.

Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, said that the food estate program in North Sumatra didn’t overlap with any protected forest areas because it has gone through a series of environmental analyses.

“I ensure that it doesn’t cross into the border of protected forest areas or other conservation areas,” he said.

In September, members of parliament called on the environment ministry to conduct a rapid strategic environmental assessment. But Dana from Walhi said such an assessment would likely be rushed and thus not detailed enough to give a good understanding of the potential impact of the food estate program.

He added the assessment should have been done long before the government decided to establish food estate in North Sumatra.

“That’s what the government always does,” Dana said. “It is not until there’s criticism that they conduct the KLHS. Ideally it should have been done before the implementation [of the program] and should have been conducted together with the public and stakeholders to conduct mapping and to discuss.”


Banner image: An orangutan hanging in a tree in Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/ Mongabay.


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