Conservation News Update: Can REDD Save the forests of Muara Tae in East Kalimantan, Indonesia?

The Dayak Benuaq Indigenous People of Muara Tae in East Kalimantan are defending their last remaining area of forest against two palm oil companies. “This is the last remaining forests that we have and the only land we have to survive. If my forests are gone, our lives will end,” says Pak Singko, a leader of the Dayak Benuaq of Muara Tae.

The villagers of Muara Tae have lost more than half of their land and forest to mining and plantation companies. There are currently five companies with concessions in Muara Tae’s forests. The destruction started in 1971, with a logging company called PT Sumber Mas. In 1995, PT London Sumatera cleared forests for oil palm plantations. The following year, a coal mining company PT Gunung Bayan Pratama Coal started operations in the forests around Muara Tae. In January 2010, the local authorities issued concessions to two palm oil companies: Malaysian-owned PT Munte Waniq Jaya Perkasa and PT Borneo Surya Mining Jaya, a subsidiary of Sumatran logging, mining and plantation conglomerate Surya Dumai.

The plantation companies cleared the forest replacing it with oil palm monoculture. The coal mining company excavated a huge hole in the ground, destroying the forest and their rivers. “The Gunung Bayan’s mining areas got rid of many rivers,” Petrus Asuy a community leader in Muara Tae told Indonesian NGO Telapak.

“The Nayan River had Jebor, Tae, Telonyok, Telaga, Tengeliwai as its tributaries, so many of these rivers are completely closed. Quite sad if we look back to the times before the mining company came we had a peaceful life. The forest was vast, we found plenty of animals and fish to catch and the river was still all it was.”

Last year, Telapak produced a video about the villagers of Muara Tae and their struggle to protect their forests:

Telapak is working with the local community. In a November 2011 article that broke the story about Muara Tae, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) explained that according to Telapak, PT Munte Waniq Jaya Perkasa does not yet have a Commercial Usage Right permit issued by the National Land Agency (Badan Pertanahan Nasional, or BPN). Telapak “is seeking to work with the BPN to accommodate the community’s land claims in any final permit,” EIA wrote.

In theory at least, recognising the community’s land rights should be straightforward. In July 2011, at an international conference in Lombok, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of both the Indonesian President’s Special Delivery Unit (UKP4) and the REDD+ Task Force, announced the Government’s intention to “recognise, respect and protect Adat [customary] rights”. He added that “Indonesia is committed to longer-term forest and land tenure reform.”

In an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this month, Hadi Daryanto, Secretary General at the Ministry of Forestry, explained that,

“If the provincial government has recognised this forest as an ancestral forest it means the government can take ownership on behalf of the community so nobody is allowed to sell these trees anymore, the government can intervene and tell the companies to stop working.”
Al Jazeera reported that the villagers “have applied for the special status, but the bulldozers are moving fast”.

The concessions in Muara Tae were awarded before Norway and Indonesia signed the Letter of Intent that established the US$1 billion REDD deal. The May 2011, two-year moratorium on new forest concessions cannot do anything about existing concessions (although the lack of a Commercial Usage Right permit must surely give some wiggle room for including at least one of the concessions in the moratorium).

Unfortunately, this is another example of Norway’s two-faced approach to forest protection. Norway actually stands to profit from PT Munte Waniq Jaya Perkasa’s forest destroying operations. EIA reports that as of December 2010, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG) had US$6.7 million invested in TSH Resources, a palm oil and timber-focused holdings group in Malaysia, which since 31 October 2011 has owned 90% of PT Munte Waniq Jaya Perkasa.

EIA notes in its article from November 2011 that,

During the past year, EIA has been pressing Norway to address the serious conflicts of interest generated by GPFG’s financial investments. Muara Tae is a stark case in point, with GPFG having ethically compromising investments in the activities of the very firm carrying out deforestation.
In October 2011, EIA and Rainforest Foundation Norway wrote to Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s prime minister, requesting that Norway takes action to address the issue of GPFG investing in rainforest destroying companies. Action is long overdue.

Meanwhile, the destruction of the forests in Muara Tae raises many issues of importance in the REDD debate in Indonesia, particularly the issue of land rights. While land rights is a complex issue, Muara Tae would be as good a place as any to implement the following clause in the Letter of Intent: “Take appropriate measures to address land tenure conflicts and compensation claims.”

Faith Doherty, EIA Forests Team Leader sums up the situation:

“The rhetoric from the President of Indonesia on curbing emissions by reducing deforestation is strong but on the front line, where indigenous communities are putting their lives at risk to protect forests, action is sorely missing.

Giving these communities, such as the Dayak Benuaq, the rights they deserve is a vital step to reduce catastrophic levels of deforestation in Indonesia.”

Courtesy of: Chris Lang 1/26/12

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