The Determined Fight Against Timber Estates in Mentawai Islands

a man tending to a field
Mentawai Islands, Indonesia
The Determined Fight Against Timber Estates in Mentawai Islands

Sixty-year-old Melki Sanenek was busy dehusking coconuts to make kopra on the side of his house in Saibi Samukop village, in the Central Siberut sub-district of the Mentawai islands off the coast of the Indonesian province of West Sumatra. 

Kopra provides one of the main sources of livelihoods for the people in Siberut. The coconut he was dehusking came from his own coconut trees, he said, in addition to coconuts he had purchased from fellow villagers. 

“The price of kopra is quite good, at Rp 9,000 per kilogram. This is a source of revenue for people here,” he told Mentawaikita in June this year. 

But Melki’s coconut and clove plantations are threatened by the presence of PT.Biomass Andalan Energi (PT. BAE), a private Indonesian-owned timber company which plans to start clearing land in the area. 

This company had obtained a permit on 2 May 2017 to clear land for a timber estate from the National Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM), a government agency that implements policies and service coordination in investment, in accordance with national regulations. 

According to information Melki received from other tribe members, only coastal land up to five kilometers inland would be left for the local communities to manage.  

The affected tribes, Melki’s included, sent a formal letter of complaint to the Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya, the legislative and the head of the BKPM, demanding that the concession rights awarded to the timber estate company be revoked.  

The letter was personally handed to the Secretary General of the ministry, Bambang Hendroyono, by representatives of the Mentawai indigenous communities in Jakarta on October 25, 2017, soon after the first permit was issued by BKPM.  

A total of 52 tribes from the two sub-districts (Central and North Siberut) signed it. Only one individual from the Sageileppak tribe did not protest the concession. 

Mentawaian students studying in the provincial capital of Padang across the strait of Mentawai also actively rallied to protest and demand the revocation of the permit. But their demands fell on deaf ears too.  

On 26 December 2018, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry issued the final and binding timber estate permit to PT. BAE.  

The company was granted a concession of 19,876.59 hectares, which will be planted with calliandra trees (Calliandra calothyrsus).  

Based on the environmental impact analysis document obtained by Mentawaikita, calliandra is a hardy species that can grow on various types of soil and is typically used to produce wood pellets. 

Calliandra production is high in areas with an altitude of more than 800 meters above sea level (asl) and in areas with annual rainfall ranging from 1000-4000 milliliters. 

However, in several cases they found that the tree is also able to grow well in the lowlands with an altitude of 150 meters above sea level, like Mentawai.  

The area granted to PT. BAE for its timber estate straddles several villages across Central Siberut and North Siberut subdistricts. Data from the district office of the Central Statistics Agency for 2021 showed that the operation of the timber estate company would affect 7,196 residents of Central Siberut and 9,597 others in North Siberut.  

A few hundred hectares of land belonging to Melki’s tribe, located in  Kaleak, Boblo, Sibokbongi and Toroiji, were also included in  the company’s concession. Melki said that his tribe had never been consulted on the inclusion of these indigenous lands, and nor did they grant their approval. 

“Our ownership of those lands is clear and that has been transmitted from generation to generation. If anyone is claiming that our tribe, the Sanenek, has relinquished those lands, that would be unfounded,” said Melki.

The company’s concession rights are valid for 60 years, extendable by another 35 years. Melki is worried that decades from now, his children and their children would no longer have the right to manage their own land to produce food and income for the family. 

He aired his disappointment that the member of the district legislative council had failed to respond to the community's letter protesting the concession rights awarded to the timber estate company. 

Mentawaikita contacted Nikanor Saguruk, a former deputy of the Mentawai legislative council, who said his office never received any complaint from the community. 

Where are the women’s voices? 

While the men in Mentawai were heatedly debating the presence of the timber estate companies, the women in Mentawai appeared more composed, at least outwardly.  

Keisa Saponduruk, 45, and a housewife in Malancan village in North Siberut sub-district, pointed out that their land was very important in providing the needs of families. “If there is no land, how can we plant taro, banana, yam and rice for our daily needs?” she said.  

Despite their concerns, for the most part, decisions concerning land in Mentawai are typically taken by men without involving women.  

“We are seldom involved in the matter of the relinquishing of land. We are sometimes indeed invited [to the discussions] but we cannot have any opinion, we can only serve food and drinks when tribal deliberations are held,” said Marlianna Sageileppak, 53. 

Marlianna said that sometimes, she even felt she was not deemed part of the tribe, because transfer of land ownership in her tribe always took place without her knowledge. 

a woman dries the leaves of a palm tree
A Mentawai woman drying the leaves from the palm tree which will be used as a wrapper / Credit: Gerson M. Saleleubaja.

Economic pressures 

Murtias Sageleipak, a villager from Saibi village, was appointed by PT. BAE to liaise between the company and the local communities. 

The 60-year-old was a former member of the village consultative body which had connections with the Mentawai administration, which in turn introduced him to PT. BAE. The logging company then included him in their campaign about their activities in both in the provincial capital city, Padang, and in Mentawai Islands. 

“If there had not been the outbreak of COVID-19, they (the company) would have already immediately started their operation,” Murtias said. 

Murtias Sageileppak said his tribe owns 150 hectares of land which is included in the timber estate in Kaleak. He added that if there are villages and community plantations on the land, the company will take them out from the concession area. 

However, in his view it is unavoidable that some land belonging to the local people would be appropriated: the company needed access roads, he said, but would compensate the villagers for the crops that grew on them. 

Murtias claimed that the compensation for the crops had been discussed with the heads of the affected hamlets, villages and sub-districts as well as local public figures. He said that a good clove tree would be valued at Rp 2 million, a fruit-bearing coconut tree at Rp 1.5 million and bamboo groves would be valued at Rp 500,000 each.  

The 150 hectares owned by the Sageileppak community could fetch Rp 60 million for the tribe, he said, adding that the payment would only be made once; in addition to the one-time compensation they would receive for trees and crops on those lands. 

As for himself, Murtias said he accepted the terms of the timber company due to economic pressure. He had no source of revenue and the company had promised to pay Rp 20 million for every 50 hectares of indigenous land relinquished to them. For tribal land that were less than 50 hectares, the compensation money would of course be less, he said.  

At the time of publishing, no payments have been made.  

Contrary to Murtias’ recollections, Binsar Saririkka, the head of Saibi village, said that no discussions regarding compensation and the valuation of their crops or trees had been broached so far. He said he was also unclear about which lands were now said to be part of the timber estate concession.  

According to Saririkka, PT.BAE had only briefly conducted a “socialization” to introduce their project to community members in Saibi at the end of 2018, where a lot of questions remained unanswered. They had said that their concession in Kaleak would begin five kilometers inland from the coast and that they would plant calliandra trees.  

The meeting was attended by just a few individuals who represented themselves, village officials, and company representatives. 

“We have never held serious discussion but the essence is that if the community accepts it, then we should accept it, but if the community rejects it, then let us all reject it together too,” said Saririkka. 

Hasan Sageileppak, a 60-year-old elder of Murtia’s tribe, agreed. 

“There has been no talk about handing over of land with our tribe, as far as I know there has never been any meeting and suddenly our land in Kaleak had become part of the timber estate area,” said Hasan.

Hasan has been among the staunchest protestors against the company’s appropriation of tribal lands. 

He said that along with representatives of other tribes, he attended a meeting convened by PT BAE in Saibi Samukop village in October 2019, held to appoint a head representative of the tribes who would interface with the company. However, they failed to agree on one.  

Tarida Hernawati, an anthropologist studying the culture of Mentawai, pointed out that in the Mentawaian tradition, the election of a head of tribe known as Sikebbukat Uma, can only be carried out through a deliberation among members only, without involvement from external parties. 

“The head of the tribe plays the role of a spokesperson, he only voices decisions taken through deliberation involving all members of the tribe. If the appointment involves outsiders, that would be a violation of the customary laws,” Trida said. 

According to Hasan, the company did not begin any discussions about the area of land that they  intended to claim, and nor did they seek any clarification on the location of local people’s fields. 

Timber companies have been exploiting the natural riches of the Mentawai islands since the 1970s but Mentawaians have not received anything in return, said Deputy District Chief Kortanius Sabeleake quoting a book written by YCM Mentawai, a non-governmental organization that has focused on the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Mentawai since 1995.  

“The [companies’] contribution is only to rise to unrest and conflict between members of communities. They are trying to pit us against each other,” he said. 

Kortanius said that the district administration only received Rp 2 billion, allocated from the central government's Reforestation Fund, in return for the exploitation of the forests in Mentawai. 

These funds are typically used to finance development and other expenditure in the region; neither the forests, nor the Indigenous communities on the Islands benefit directly from it.  

“We are on the losing end here. Our timber is gone and we are the ones facing the impacts, such as floods. We do not even receive any compensation from the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) fund,” Kortanius said. 

Hasan, for his part, dismissed the compensation money offered by the company, saying that a single payment was useless for the tribes. The Indigenous Peoples of Mentawai live and thrive off their land – giving up their land would leave them with no means to sustain themselves in the future.  

a woman working in a field
A Mentawai woman is growing sweet potatoes which are staple food in Kaleak, Siberut Island. Her land is part of the area that will be used as a timber estate run by PT Biomass Andalan Energi / Credit: Gerson M. Saleleubaja.

The way forward  

Like Melki and Hasan and many other community members, Absalom Sakailoat, a 70-year-old elder of the Sakailoat tribe, is also staunchly against the concession. The fact that the lands of his tribe had been unilaterally taken away from them was unacceptable, he said. 

Indigenous communities in Mentawai should continue to be educated and empowered to use the PPUMA district regulation, and assert their legal rights against any entity, corporations or government that threatens to strip them of their land, said Rifai Lubis, Director of YCM Mentawai, a non-governmental organization that advocates for the rights of the Mentawai Indigenous Peoples. 

“When tribes that own lands within concessions get recognized, they will have a legal basis to reject these concessions, if they feel many aspects of their livelihood will be impacted. But if they feel these timber concessions present opportunities, then they will be able to negotiate their interests,” said Rifai. 

The Indigenous communities are no strangers to such struggles. “Our ancestors have long been fighting to the death to defend our land,” said Absalom. “It will not be easy to solve land disputes in Mentawai. As long as [the company] does not have permission from us as owners of the land, they cannot enter (the area).” 

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.  It was originally published in Bahasa Indonesia on 1 October 2021 in MentawaiKita and in English on 3 October in Ekuatorial. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Hasan Sageileppak, a resident of Saibi Samukop, Central Siberut District, Mentawai Islands, is clearing land for food crops in Kaleak. His land is part of an area which will be used as a timber estate owned by PT Biomass Andalan Energi / Credit: Gerson M. Salelebeuja.

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