- Residents of the village of Talang Durian Cacar on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island are struggling to earn decent incomes from unproductive oil palm trees.
- Jakarta-based NGO Kaoem Telapak described the community’s switch to growing oil palm trees as an “ecological, social and cultural consequence of their marginalization.”
- The community, part of the Talang Mamak Indigenous group, can access its customary forest through a corridor bisecting oil palm plantations.
INDRAGIRI HILIR, Indonesia — Customary leaders Patih Majuan, Datuk Manti and Datuk Mangku approach their scared forest with hands clasped in prayer.
Other residents of the village of Talang Durian Cacar follow in tow, as the three elders reach a tennis court-sized opening here in the south of Sumatra’s Indragiri Hilir district. The four corners of the clearing are marked with tombstone-like rocks, but it’s not a cemetery. Manti sprinkles incense over a small fire.
“We ask permission to visit here,” Manti says. “Please forgive any wrongdoing.”
The customary forest here in Indragiri Hilir, the easternmost district of Indonesia’s Riau province, is known as Hutan Keramat Penyabungan, or the Sacred Forest of the Penyabungan River. For generations it has been a holy site for the Talang Mamak Indigenous group.
From the forest, the Penyabungan flows into the Ekok River nearby, which in turn is a tributary of the Batang Cenaku River. But the water quality in the river is worsening. And what remains of the Talang Mamak’s customary forest is little more than 2 hectares (5 acres).
That reflects wider changes to land use that have taken place in this low-lying district of Riau, whose northernmost community, Danai, is less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the south coast of Singapore.
From 2001 to 2022, Indragiri Hilir lost more than 50% of its old-growth primary forest cover, according to Global Forest Watch, owing to rapid expansion in oil palm and acacia plantation concessions.
Data from the statistics agency census in 2020 showed the population of the district declined by around 1% from 2010-20, even as Indonesia’s overall population increased by more than 16% in the same period.
The descendants of the Talang Mamak in Talang Durian Cacar village visit the remaining forest here every year before Eid al-Adha, an Islamic anniversary commemorating the willingness of the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham in the Judeo-Christian tradition) to sacrifice his son.
They bring an array of offerings — eggs, turmeric, seven kinds of flowers — and incense to summon spirits of their ancestors.
The rite is performed shortly before the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month in the Islamic calendar, which is the date of Eid al-Adha. After the ritual, the villagers set off to the seat of the ancient Indragiri Kingdom, which adopted Islam some time in the 15th century.
“The ritual is to ask our ancestors to watch over us as we journey to the kingdom,” said Patih Majuan, the head of Talang Durian Cacar village.
Today the Indragiri palace is painted green and gold, fenced off on the bank of a lake in the district capital, Rangat, not far from the Trans-Sumatra Highway.
There are two sacred forests in the Talang Mamak customary territory, both named after the rivers that flow through them: Penyabungan and Tunu.
Unlike the Penyabungan area, where the elders perform annual rites linked to the Islamic calendar, the Tunu forest is visited only once every three years. In the event of a great disturbance in the community, a visit to the forest for guidance is required, said Patih Majuan.
Like many forest peoples, the villagers of Talang Durian Cacar rely on their natural environment for fuel, food, shelter and medicine — where remedies range from minor complaints to more serious ailments.
Gitan and keduduk roots and kalakatai fibers, for example, are blended into a tonic for diarrhea.
“A day at the most and you’re fine,” Majuan said.
The forest is also a source of income. Rattan and the related jernang plant are just two common forest products Tarang Durian Cacar residents rely on to participate in the increasingly important cash economy. They also keep bees for honey production.
But the community in this corner of Indragiri Hilir has become endangered by changes in the environment and economy. Access to the customary forest requires traversing a corridor bisecting oil palm plantations, which encircle the scared ground from all sides.
Back in the village, Majuan brings out a map showing his community surrounded by industrial oil palm concessions held by PT Rigunas Agri Utama, PT Setia Agrindo Lestari, PT Mega DK 5, and PT Mega Nusa Inti Sawit.
The forest is also contiguous with a timber concession held by PT Bukit Betabuh Sei Indah, part of the Sinarmas conglomerate.
Mangku said the oil palm boom began with the transmigration policy, initiated by the Dutch colonial administrators and later accelerated by the independent Indonesian government. The transmigration policy resulted in millions of people being relocated from densely populated Java to hinterlands like Indragiri Hilir to spur development on other islands.
At first, many transmigrants planted and tapped rubber trees, but the economy changed as international consumer demand for palm oil, which is used in everything from soap to instant noodles, expanded.
“Compared to rubber, the price of palm oil is more profitable,” Mangku said.
The plantations have repurposed land where previous generations grew fruits and vegetables. Today, the Talang Durian Cacar villagers rely increasingly on local markets to meet basic needs, including food commodities.
Out of necessity, Talang Durian Cacar farmers have adapted to the change by planting oil palm themselves.
But like millions of Indonesia’s smallholder farmers, Talang Durian Cacar residents are at a disadvantage owing to barriers to access quality seeds and technology.
Farmers here typically purchase cheap seeds from a local market, costing around 200,000-500,000 rupiah ($13.50-$33.70) per 250 seeds. They lack the means to both pay for and access better-quality seeds, interviewees said.
In June, Mongabay, together with The Gecko Project and the BBC, published a joint investigation into oil palm companies failing to meet their obligations to smallholder farmers.
That the Talang Durian Cacar villagers lack access to improved seedlings means the fruit obtained at harvest is below average weight. That leaves them with far less than what they could be earning, inhibiting families’ ability to provide healthier, more prosperous futures for their children.
Majuan said the group had never benefited from extension services, which are designed to train small farmers in techniques necessary for higher productivity.
Remedying market access barriers is further complicated by the lack of phone or internet reception in the village. The village has no electricity, meaning families burn polluting solid fuels inside the home, a well-documented cause of harm.
The Ekok River has deteriorated since surrounding land was converted to oil palm plantations.
Until relatively recently the river could still be used as a free source of drinking water. But Talang Durian Cacar residents have been buying drinking water by the gallon since 2015, an additional cash expense to meet basic needs that used to be freely available.
The decision by Talang Durian Cacar families to switch from growing fruits and vegetables to oil palm reflects wider trends in Indonesia’s land economies, analysts said.
“The change in behavior does not occur naturally,” said Andre Barahamin, senior forest campaigner with Kaoem Telapak, a Jakarta-based NGO. “It is an ecological, social and cultural consequence of their marginalization.”
Banner image: Hutan Keramat Penyabungan, or the Sacred Forest of the Penyabungan River. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.